Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Considering Old Habits With New Eyes

It always amazes me how quickly we develop habitual routines. In some ways, it makes sense. Day to day life is filled with a plethora of executive decisions: what to eat; what to wear; what to read, listen to, or watch; how to spend our time, money and energy, prioritizing tasks at work or at home. Routines can free us up to focus on bigger or deeper questions. And, once we’ve found something that works for us- whether it's a daily meditation or nap (and I admit one sometimes leads to the other)- a routine helps us establish and maintain these practices.

Of course, the strength of routines is also a weakness: habits aren’t decided from present-moment awareness. This of course, side-steps the but-I-don’t-feel-like. . . . (exercising, writing, meditating, eating vegetables etc.) pitfall of resisting what we know generally supports our body, mind, and spirit. But it also side-steps considerations of how things may have changed and what our or others' present-moment needs really are. And, of course, the ease of perpetuating habits is as true of those that are not good for us as it is for those that are beneficial.

Which is why I'd decided not to write the usual blog (or post regularly on Facebook) this week. I’m taking a bit of a break. Breaks in our routine offer an opportunity to re-establish our commitment to practices that work for us or create and commit to new routines that better serve our values and current needs. They also help us recognize how some habits are just not serving our deepest soul desires.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions but I do think of this time between the Winter Solstice and the New Year as a good time to consider what new or modified practices I want to set up for myself given my personal priorities, the needs of those around me, and my desire to contribute- to be of use- to my community and the world. Oh, I’m not really anticipating Big Changes, but I am planning on finishing my two partially-written books (one fiction, one non-fiction) in 2013.

Sometimes taking a break from our usual routine is a great way to bring fresh eyes to whether or not how we are living- individually and collectively- reflects and cultivates what is most important to us. So let's use this time before-the-beginning to contemplate whether or not our daily routines and practices are really serving our priorities and purpose, to shake things up a little, to break with habitual ways of seeing and being so we can move mindfully into the new year.

(And yes, I am aware that I just wrote and posted a blog about why I am not blogging or posting on-line this week. I did so by just following the impulse of the moment- so I guess weekly blogging and posting on Facebook are going to be part of 2013 :-) )

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How We Make Real Change

So here are just two of the many questions I’ve been sitting with since last Friday’s tragedy in Newtown, CT: What creates change- real change, the kind of change that helps us individually and collectively see what needs to be done differently and act on this knowing? What cultivates a change of heart that gives us the compassion, will and stamina to participate fully in conversations and actions that create a difference in how we live our lives and shape our communities?

Here’s what I know: hearts are changed when they are touched, opened, offered a way of connecting to another. And that happens when stories rooted in personal experience are told, when someone feels heard, when we are willing to listen deeply.

And so in this week’s blog, for the first time, I am offering a link to someone else’s story (below)- because it is a story directly related to one of the central questions that last week’s tragedy raises: How can we provide effective support, services and care for those struggling with mental illness in themselves or their families? The story doesn't answer the question, but it invites us to explore the possibilities aware of the complexity of the problem and the human suffering at stake.

Over thirty-five years ago, I went to university to study social work, focusing on psychology. I thought I was there because I wanted to help make the world a better place. This was certainly part of my motivation, but it took years for me to realize that I'd had a much more personal and primary, albeit unconscious, motive: I was there to try to make sense of my mother’s mental illness that had coloured and shaped my childhood even as it remained unacknowledged, denied and un-named.

This is the first time I have publically named this. I do so to say mental illness is not something that affects "other people." Whether it is a family member, a co-worker, a teacher or student, a friend or neighbour or us, because we are inter-dependent, we are all affected by mental illness.

There are no easy answers, and there is much we do not know. But we can start by being willing to listen to the stories of those most directly impacted, so we can imagine, build and advocate for the kinds of services and research that these stories tell us are needed. This does not preclude working on other fronts- for gun control so fewer weapons are easily available; dismantling a culture of violence in our thoughts, language, actions, communities and popular mythologies. There are infinite ways to contribute to what needs to be done- and we each need to find ways that ignite our passion for life and enliven us, because those are the ways that will be sustainable for each of us, and the road home is long.

So I ask you to listen to this story told honestly and openly by a mother trying to care for and contain a son who, at times, threatens physical violence as he struggles with a mental illness. May this and other stories open our hearts. Together, may we co-create ways to alleviate this suffering.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

An Apology To Caring Men

Relationships between men and women can be. . . . complicated. Once in awhile, there’s an opening, a new way of seeing and being seen, of understanding and being understood. The catch (you knew there’d be one, didn’t you?) is that even when we are offered what we have been asking and hoping for, we have to be able to receive.

Many years ago, a men's group asked me to meet with them to talk about the differences between life for women and life for men in our culture- obviously from the perspective of a woman. I was happy to do it. I’d done my best to raise two sons with some awareness of this difference, particularly around personal safety, asking them to be aware of women on the street- particularly at night if a woman was walking alone- and to cross to the other side of the street if they were behind her, to slow down and let her increase the distance between them. I'd reminded them that although they would never do the woman harm, she would have no way of knowing that, and might be going through incredible anxiety about the intent of the stranger behind her.

The men’s group and I had a great evening. We laughed and cried together. I told them about being raped as a young woman, about the fear that women often feel in situations where safety would be less of a concern for men. They were warm and receptive, concerned for the women in their lives, eager to be supportive, to be aware of how they might be unconsciously adding to the stress of situations that arise. Some of the men had also experience threats to their personal safety- and those stories were also shared. Because most men are generally larger and stronger than most women and our ideas of masculinity often emphasize being fearless, it can be even harder for them to admit to being frightened for their safety. The discussion was honest and heart-opening for all.

As I went to leave, several of the men offered to walk me to my car. It was eleven o'clock at night and my car was a couple of blocks down the street in a residential area. They had heard what I’d said, had taken it to heart, wanted to be supportive and protective, wanted to lower the stress of walking down a dark street alone.

Without thinking, I gave my automatic response. I said, “Oh no, that’s okay. I’m fine.”

The men hesitated, confused. And who could blame them? They didn’t want to insist, didn't want to take away my right to decide how I walked down the street or suggest that I was not capable of taking care of myself. I had asked them to understand how life for me, as a woman, was sometimes more dangerous or stressful in situations like walking to my car in the dark- than it often was for them. 

And they got it.

But I wasn’t able to receive the care they offered. The inability to have something different happen that night was mine, not theirs.

In a dominator culture, needing help, accepting assistance – particularly assistance offered because of your gender- has often had too high a price, can be used as an excuse to limit our choices. In an effort to avoid the limitations sometimes imposed on a woman seen as weak or unable to take care of herself, I had wedded myself to an independence that precluded receiving care, that made being accompanied or protected feel as dangerous as taking my chances.

Don't get me wrong: I advocate that women know how to take care of themselves, that they be trained in self-defense and know they can sense and avoid dangerous situations or protect themselves and those they love if the need should arise. In fact, when we are confident that we can protect ourselves, we are less likely to have to prove it to ourselves or others, more able to simply receive what another offers and say thank you, welcoming the break from needing to be vigilant on our way home or during our walk to the car late at night.

So, to my dear brothers- I apologize. In this instance so many years ago (and no doubt in others since) you were there with your hearts open, offering what I had just told you was needed. I was not yet secure enough in myself to be able to receive from you (as I now would be more able to do.)

May we know who we are, offer what we can, and be free to receive with gratitude.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Soft Soul Kisses in The Dark

Sometimes, even when we've remembered why we are here and what we love. . . . we wake up to find we've been holding back, have become inadvertently timid about diving into our own lives.

When I was fourteen years old I heard Leonard Cohen singing “Suzanne” on the radio. Late at night, in between sounds of the house cracking and the hydro wires humming from the forty below zero temperatures, I’d tune my transistor radio to stations in Toronto and Chicago, hundreds of miles away. Beneath my bed covers, long after my mother thought I’d gone to sleep, I’d lay in the dark and listen to music that was never played on the local radio station in our small community in Northern Ontario. It was 1968.

I loved Leonard's deep gravelly voice, but it was his way with words that made me want more. Words that open something inside have always been my first love. “Suzanne” was the piece that made me want to write poetry.

Last night I sat in the darkness of a huge stadium and once again listened to Leonard Cohen singing “Suzanne.” He also sang “Halleluiah" and many of his other songs over the course of a three and a half hour concert. He was. . . . shimmering with the heat of presence, and the heart of humility- companioned on stage by fellow master musicians and singers.

But the piece that unexpectedly broke me open was “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” Maybe it was because he didn’t sing it, but simply recited it with a violin offering soft sustained notes beneath his resonant voice. Maybe it was the miracle of sitting in the dark with thirty thousand other people who were listening in rapt silence to a Canadian poet recite a poem, reminding me of the power of words. He held the microphone close and became the words:

“The ponies run, the girls are young,
The odds are there to beat.
You win a while, and then it’s done –
Your little winning streak.
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat,
You live your life as if it’s real,
A Thousand Kisses Deep. . . . ”

Suddenly, my face was wet with tears.

Because it’s so easy not to live “a thousand kisses deep.” So easy to skim the surface, to write about things instead of letting the words hold the rawness of our particular joys and our sorrows.

And I thought of a lover who had been in my life years ago. When we got together he knew he was going to move to Los Angeles in a few months, and I knew my place was here in Toronto. We knew we weren’t forever, but we experienced a deep and healing intimacy in the time we had. The love-making was a fire that burned away all that was dross in our lives and our selves, a healing born of hearts that did not hold back- perhaps, in part, because we knew we were never going to deal with the challenges and weariness that sometimes visit when sharing daily logistics with another.

One day, as he drew me close, making my back arch in desire and awakening a sweet ache in my limbs, I made the only request I would ever make of him: “Promise me that you’ll never pretend this did not happen, that it wasn’t real and full and enough. Promise me you won’t pretend it was ordinary so you can do what you know you need to do, go where you know you need to go.”

He made the promise. But he couldn't keep it. Since then I've become a little wary of others or those aspectes of self who answer requests that require courage with the casual words, "Of course."

Because it’s hard to live a thousand kisses deep, to face the smallness of our lives and the largeness of our loves; because it requires courage to live with the knowledge of our "invincible defeat" in both the small daily things that undo our resolve, and the knowledge of our mortality. Because it’s a little crazy, when asked about your financial plan, to talk about the book you're writing without consideration for what is “marketable,” for what can be “leveraged for other products and spin-offs.” Because living in a secular culture with a passion for the sacred and an awareness of the very real magic that runs throughout life can make you feel a little out of step with the world around you.

But for the soul there is no other way to live, and all the fears, all the holding back, all the attempts to be measured and reasonable, to not pour the messy details of the past, the wild dreams of the future, and the full sensual experience of the present onto the page just won’t cut it.

Because not living our particular life, as Leonard says, "as if it’s real" leaves the soul hungry and sad. And life is too precious and too short not live to the edges and the depths, not to live “A Thousand Kisses Deep.”

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why Today Is Different

What carries us when the day is different, harder than it has ever been before?

Making the trip to see my father is often tiring. He has advanced Alzheimer’s and is living at a facility for folks with dementia who have become too aggressive to be cared for safely elsewhere. The staff are highly skilled, patient and caring, often light-heartedly making the residents smile. Still, the six hours of driving and the ache of seeing how the disease is affecting him usually leave me a little weary at the end of the day.

Not today. Today the trip is exhausting.

Often Dad doesn't know who I am. And that’s okay. I don’t need him to know who I am. I want him to be free from suffering, and I cling to the hope that his forgetfulness allows for present-moment-contentment, or at least some freedom from feeling frustrated about something none of us can stop or reverse. When he doesn’t know who I am, I hope and imagine that a moment of walking arm in arm with another or drifting off to sleep with someone holding his hand gives him some pleasure.

Not today. Today when I touch his arm and say, “Dad,” he turns and looks at me. His whole face lights up, and he says, “Oh!” with real recognition.

He’d been shuffling around the room in navy sweat pants and a grey t-shirt, white socks gliding along the tile floor. Always in motion, more agile than most, several inches shorter than I am, shrinking but still wiry strong. He never could sit still for long, always needed to be doing, moving, working.

I touch his hair, white and sparse but well trimmed, stroke his cleanly shaven cheek. As he ages his face seems to collapse like a balloon that is slowly losing air. He must be feeling generally calmer- the staff do not push haircuts or shaving on anyone if they are irritated or resistant. I stroke his arm, take his hand and tell him I love him. Usually he is content to let me walk or sit with him.

Not today.

Today there is something he wants to tell me, something he needs me to understand. “Real. . . . everyone was. . . . where. . . . ladder. . . I don’t. . . ” His tone is urgent. Mini-strokes robbed him of words even when comprehension was better. Sometimes I can tell by his intonation and gestures that he is trying to make small talk, asking about the drive or the weather.

Not today. Today, he struggles with the words, his eyes filling with tears.

I have only seen my father cry once- fifty years ago, when I was eight. On that day, Lassie, the collie who had been his only companion growing up in an impoverished and brutal household, had been hit and killed by a truck on the highway. My father wept at the side of the road. He was thirty. I remember feeling frightened and protective at the same time. 

I feel the same now. I tell him it’s okay. I keep my tone calm. Usually, he is quickly distracted, his attention drawn to exploring some sound or movement in the room.

Not today.

Today there is something he has to tell me, a window of recognition and a need to communicate thrashing against the barrier of a brain that will not give him the words. I move closer and rub his shoulders. I keep looking into his eyes- blue-grey like mine, transformed to green when either of us wear that colour, his favourite. He watches me. “I don’t. . . .” I wait and will my heart to understand what he wants to tell me. It has been months since he has said a complete sentence.

Not today.

Today, he backs up a little and tears spill from his eyes following the lines on his weathered face. Leaning forward he speaks, wrestling each word into being in an impossible act of will. His voice rises, the words becoming a wail of terror and anguish: “I don’t know who I am!”

I step closer. He leans into me, trembling, sobbing. I hold him. Somehow I speak, squeezing words past the sharp rock that has formed in my throat, making myself breathe, keeping my voice steady. I don't know if he understands me or even hears me- he will no longer tolerate wearing his hearing aids- but I pour my heart into my words. “You’re my father. You are Don House, and you’re my father. It’s okay Dad.” My throat closes.

My father has always had the greatest respect for and faith in my social work training and my work with groups and individuals. I can feel how recognizing me has ignited both his anguish and his hope. He is asking me for help, is hoping I will know something that will help him make sense of what is happening to him. And I would give anything to be able to do so.

Not today.

Today I worry that recognizing me has actually made it harder on him, although the nurse tells me he regularly goes through a wide range of emotions pretty quickly. Even today, in between moments of tears and hugs, he wanders away and is happily preoccupied with movement at the end of the hall, or a sound from the dining room.

People who know about my Dad regularly tell me with great conviction that Alzheimer’s patients are working through past life karma, are souls who have chosen the disease to learn something, are truly content in a reality closer to the divine. I understand the need to make sense of something so horrible, the desire to seek or offer comfort by claiming as true things we simply cannot know.

Not today.

Today, my father's plaintive wail pulls me to stay with what I can know. Today, I am with him in his anguish, and later, on the drive home I will remind myself that I do not know whether he will remember or re-experience this heart ache and confusion three minutes after I am gone, whether he has felt it before or will ever feel it again. Today I accept this sliver of comfort from the vastness of what I cannot know.

Today, driving home, I let the tears quietly stream down my face, and I offer a prayer fueled by the ache in my chest: "Help him. Please. Help him."

Today I ask Love to carry us both, because there is simply nothing else I can do.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Blessings of Things Gone "Wrong"

This isn’t the post I had written for today. But yesterday my internet service went down, and after an hour on the phone with a lovely (but increasingly frustrated) man in Bangalore, I was informed that the all service in my area had been disrupted and would be restored in one to three days. So, I am sending this from the public library.

Just before I noticed that my internet service wasn’t working, I’d been wrestling with how to continue my work on a novel I’ve been writing off and on for well over a year. Buried in partial chapters, stacks of notes, and pages of contradictory outlines I’d been all too aware that I was using Facebook and email check-ins as a way to avoid the seemingly impossible task of finding the heart, soul and true direction of the story. I’d been intermittently at it for weeks without much progress. Even as I, once again, moved toward the often lovely but always distracting exchanges on line, I wondered how I would ever get this novel written working on a computer that had internet access.

And then- like a not-particularly-appreciated answer from the universe- my computer no longer had internet access. Even as I started going through the problem-solving steps advised by the service provider’s telephone help line, I was aware that the situation might fall under the be-careful-what-you-ask-for warning.

Tomorrow is the American Thanksgiving. We celebrate Thanksgiving here in Canada in October (and before I am deluged with the annual queries that come in response to this news- no, my dear American friends, we did not have “The Pilgrims,” but we do celebrate Thanksgiving as a time of gratitude for the harvest in all areas of our lives.)

I like to think we can’t have too many Thanksgivings- so even if you don’t live in the United States, why not take advantage of the holiday there to offer thanks for our lives? And by this I don’t mean offering thanks for those things we think we “should” be thankful for- but dipping into the places where, when we give ourselves a few moments of quiet, a chance to take a deep inhale and full exhale and sink down into our bodysoul selves, gratitude naturally arises like a spring of fresh water bubbling to the surface.

Today’s internetlessness prompts me to consider where gratitude might be present for things that on the surface, appear to be difficulties, small snaffoos, things that interrupt our carefully laid plans or our habitual behaviour. Because sometimes, real and unexpected blessings come from things not being as we want them to be. Oh, I’m not talking about major heart-aches or painful challenges- although even as I write this I can’t help but think about all I have learned from the almost thirty years of having a sometimes incapacitating chronic illness- the patience, the ability to receive assistance from friends and family, an appreciation for pain-free moments that make simply being sweeter than I could have imagined.

Still, let’s start small. Let’s start with a loss of internet connection that interrupts my self-distraction from the task that feeds my soul: writing. Last night, before bed, I read and wrote and thrashed around with my novel notes and excerpts for six uninterrupted hours. And when I awoke this morning, I had it- I knew where I had gone off track, what needed to be done to restore the flow, where I was headed next. I lay in bed overwhelmed with gratitude, whispering to the pre-dawn darkness, "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Oh, I’m not saying the universe or the god of struggling writers took out the internet service for all the folks in my area just to get me back on track with my writing. But. . . . I’ll receive this blessings with deep gratitude seasoned with genuine humility.

Happy Thanksgiving to my friends to the south. May we each receive what is offered, and allow the gratitude to bubble up and make us smile.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Back-Firing Boundary Boosters

Sometimes, in an effort to say “No,” where it is uncomfortable, or in an attempt to say “Yes,” to something needed by body and soul (but strangely unjustifiable according to some learned and not-so-effective-standard-of-self-care,) we can inadvertently create a hard-to-change identification with limiting conditions that may not be as solid as they seem.

Last week, a friend prepared a gluten-free dinner for me knowing I’d eliminated gluten from my diet since my twenty-five day migraine almost a year ago. When asked how the headaches were going, I told the truth: I’ve had very few in the last year and almost no multi-day migraines. I also confessed that I occasionally missed them and so have to be mindful not to go unconsciousness and nibble a cookie or two.

Why would anyone miss the pain of a migraine or semi-consciously flirt with the idea of inducing one? Because migraine days were days off, days when I could move more slowly, sit in front of the computer less, say no to invitations or postpone obligations I did not really want to accept or keep.

My friend knew exactly what I meant. Having spent some time years ago struggling with depression, she found she sometimes missed the day-in-bed-reading that she’d granted herself as a coping strategy. We both marvelled at how the alleviation of the pain and suffering we had managed in the past meant we had to struggle with our propensity not to give ourselves those valuable days of rest and renewal when we were feeling well and pain-free.

Please do not misunderstand me: I did not get migraines so I could get a day off, and my friend was not feigning depression to justify a day of reading in bed. But, when other causal factors were found and remedied, we became aware of how we needed to cultivate awareness of our right (and responsibility) to make choices and set boundaries- to take a day off, to read for pleasure, to turn down invitations or not make obligations that were simply not a fit for us.

Sounds simple but watch yourself the next time you say “No,” to something. Do you use some other condition as an excuse when it’s simply not the way you want to spend your time or energy?

Years ago, raising my sons on very little income, I realized one day how easy it had become to use our financial status as justification for not doing things that I didn’t really value. But I didn’t want to wed myself to poverty, to develop within myself a solid-seeming identity based on not having enough. Of course I had limited resources but I started saying, when it was true- “That’s just not where I want to put my resources right now,” instead of saying- to myself or others- that I “couldn’t” for financial reasons.

Sometimes we can’t do something we value. I’ve missed many occasions I wanted to attend because of physical illness. This isn’t about going into denial. If we can’t do something that has value for us because of a real physical, financial, or emotional limitation, it’s a good idea to acknowledge this particularly to ourselves so we remain rooted in the real.

And let’s sidestep any naive magical thinking- not using illness or poverty as a reason for not doing what we don’t really want to do, or as a justification for what we really do want to do, will not cure illnesses or bring us riches. But it does help us become more aware of where we might be self-sabotaging our efforts to be well and solvent.

Words have power. Hearing ourselves say, “That’s just not something I am drawn to do right now,” or “No, that’s not a commitment I can make,” (when these things are true) or declaring a “day off” simply because it is what we need to do for our well-being has a huge impact on our psyche. It cultivates a sense of our right to be and our responsibility to live a life that is truly sustainable so we can contribute to the co-creation of our shared life. And it helps us honour others when they express that right and fulfill that responsibility in their lives.

So, I’m practicing saying “Yes,” or “No,” without unnecessary explanations or justifications. Because using limiting conditions of the moment to boost a wobbly sense of the right to set boundaries and make choices might just back-fire by wedding us to conditions that often can and do change.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Fighting For My Life

When I was a young woman I was raped. I've probably been thinking about this because there have been fourteen sexual assaults in the neighbourhood where I live in Toronto. (Police now have a suspect in custody.) In response, many of the local community groups are offering women's self defense courses. I had taken self defense before I was raped, but I hadn't really been able to use it. Years later I did some training at a martial arts and shamanic retreat on the Mohave Desert in the US. One of the things I learned was that to protect ourselves, we have to have a bone-deep sense of our own worthiness. We have to know we have a right to be. 

Sounds simple, doesn't it? But for some of us, that right to be was not established in our early years, and so we must learn to use our strength- physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual- to tend and preserve our own lives. Even after this more extensive training, it was only in being tested that I learned to defeat the inner enemy of believing that it didn't matter what happened to me. Here is the story of that testing and my inner battle.

"At the end of an intensive two week course the women who had been trained were tested by being attacked three times one-on-one by men committed to helping women empower themselves to walk safely in the world. The men wore protective gear, the women did not. We were told that the attacks would be no-holes-barred and would continue until the instructor, Dawn, a petite woman who worked as a bodyguard in Los Angeles, called out, “Cut!” We had to deliver one or two blows to the man attacking us that would have incapacitated him long enough for us to get away if he had not been wearing protective gear.

As we began the women who wanted to be tested stood along the edge of a large matted area. One at a time the men wandered around within the circle watching the women and seeking to attack someone when she least expected it. Shortly after we began one of the women broke her leg struggling with a man who’d grabbed her. We all heard it snap beneath her as she went down heavily. It shook us, but most of us stayed to be tested. Many of us had been raped or beaten. We needed to know we could defend ourselves.
The first time I was attacked I made a slow but steady response, finally delivering a blow to the man’s protected eyes that would have given me time to get away if this had been a real attack. But the second time, the man who attacked me had been wandering around the circle joking. I was laughing, unprepared, my guard down. When he grabbed me and threw me I arched through the air and landed flat on my back in a way that closely resembled how I had been thrown when I was raped. The man participating in the testing didn't know this, but the women on the circle did. Earlier in the week we had re-enacted the rape scenes experienced by women in the group, looking for possible ways each woman could have protected herself if she had had the skills and knowledge she was now being given. The man attacking me heard the sharp intake of breath amongst many of the women around the circle when I hit the ground. He could see I’d had the wind knocked out of me and was badly shaken, but his instructions were to go for it until the instructor told him to stop. So he continued to come at me.
I struggled to fight, but I didn’t want to. I felt as if I had landed in a large tub of warm bath water. Suddenly I didn’t care what happened. It felt like it just didn’t matter. I heard Dawn calling to me as if from very far away. “Don’t do that Oriah,” she yelled. “You’ve been here before. Don’t check out! Fight! Fight for yourself!”
Hearing her voice I struggled to come out of my lethargy as the man landed on top of me. It was like moving through molasses, but slowly and steadily I began to fight and finally, after five minutes of constant struggle, I managed to deliver one of the blows that we had been taught to incapacitate an attacker. 

Shaken at how I’d responded to the attack I hesitated to be tested again but I put myself back at the edge of the testing area. The third time a man grabbed me I flew into action without hesitation, landing repeated take-out blows almost immediately. Dawn had to yell, “Cut!” four times before I heard her."*

I had found a willingness to fight for my own life. I had broken through the lie I'd been taught that it did not matter what happened to me. I felt in my body and  my heart, my right to be. 

Oriah (c) 2012

* This story was presented in book, The Call, by Oriah (c) 2003. Published by HarperONE, San Francisco.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Finding New Life in Dreams of Death

When I was a child and I was having a difficult time going to sleep- usually because my parents were arguing and I was frightened, sure I was at fault and trying to figure out a way to “fix” it- I would imagine myself held in the giant hand of the Sunday School God I had been taught was always watching over and caring for me. 

Years later, the image of a bearded, grey-haired old man sitting in the clouds lost any real meaning for me. I was more interested in living deeply than ascending into cloud cover, and the idea that the divine was just like us but Bigger and More (and male) didn’t make much sense to me. I was aware of a Presence within and around me, but for many years the term “God” felt, as Martin Buber wrote, like an “over-burdened word." As I expanded my ways of thinking and speaking about the Presence I experienced, I used terms like the Great Mystery, the Sacred Wholeness, Awareness, and the divine. Gradually the term “God” became more neutral for me, a word that could point to all of this and to that which is simply beyond our ability to articulate.

I offer this as context for a dream I recently had. I had awoken in the middle of the night and was having a hard time getting back to sleep, so I had started to say the prayers I use as my daily practice- a set of twenty-two names for the ineffable that is both transcendent and immanent. In the midst of these prayers, as I started to slowly move across the threshold of dreams, I heard a voice say “Rest,” in a way that made my whole body gently vibrate as if every cell was a small bell picking up and resonating with the tone and meaning of the word, releasing me into a deep sleep.

As I felt myself fall into a warm, comforting darkness, I thought, “This is what dying will be like- like effortlessly letting go and falling into God’s hand.”

Of course, I don’t know what death will be like and honestly, I’ve never been too concerned about it. I’ve heard Buddhist teachers talk about practicing for our death by being mindful in our daily lives so we will not miss the transformation available at the time of our death. My infinite curiosity about life and spirit mean I'd love to be as conscious as is humanly possible just to see what happens in that moment of transition when it comes. But more importantly, I am drawn to practices that help me deepen my awareness of and participation in the life I have here and now.

So, I like the idea of practicing to be awake for that moment of transition by relaxing into the embrace of the divine on a daily basis, by doing what I can and letting go of the rest so I can live with my heart open and my spirit renewed.

And I like the idea of keeping one part of my attention on my breath to cultivate awareness as I tumble gently into the hand of God at the end of each day.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Giving Up On Once-And-For-All

I’ve been reading through old journals, finding the ends of threads for the book I am writing.  It’s a humbling experience. Repeatedly- sometimes only days apart- I have written in celebration and gratitude about realizing an insight or perspective that seems to clear all confusion and offer new possibilities for health and happiness. The humbling part is that the content of these insights are often very similar, if not identical to each other.  

Reading, I groan and think, “Oh good grief! When am I going to get this once and for all?”

My friend, Peter Marmorek, teaches an online writing course. One of the warm-ups he uses is- “What is the lesson you keep learning over and over throughout your life?” The question assumes that forgetting and re-discovering things we feel are significant is a universal experience, and so perhaps not the personal failure we sometimes fear it is.

We spiritual types are fond of phrases like, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” So why are we so frustrated with relearning a core truth, with “not getting anywhere?” Haven’t we already said there isn’t anywhere to go, that it’s about being here, now?
I think our frustration is harboured in a secret, semi-conscious, and very human hope that there is a. . . . place (inner or outer) on the other side of some critical spiritual or psychological experience or insight where we will be. . . .different than we are, transformed into someone who consistently embodies the spiritual values we hold dear- like love and compassion.

Is there no truth to this? Are we doomed to repeat patterns of misery, misunderstanding and the co-creation of suffering? 

Makes you want to just open a bag of Hersey Kisses  (dark chocolate of course) and lay down on the floor for a few moments. . . . or a week.

It’s a tricky business- leaving room for possibilities without grasping for signs of progress.

I often hear from people who’ve had experiences they feel are awakenings- experiences of knowing at a bone-deep level the beauty of life and their place in it. Often they are concerned, if not downright frantic, that they're not going to be able to hang on to the feeling or perspective their experiences have offered. They tell me, “I am afraid I am going to forget.”

Sometimes I reply, “You will never forget.” Other times I write, “You will forget, because that’s what humans being do- we forget and remember, wake up and go back to sleep over and over again.” Both things are true. We do forget and remember- but on some level we never go back to sleep quite as deeply as we once were, after we've had a moment of being truly awake. This is how we learn and grow, in an ever-spiralling meander. I suspect that most of the time we are too close, our noses pressed up against the details of managing daily life, to see the bigger pattern clearly.

In The Awakened Heart, author Gerald May calls our moments of insight and awakening “remembering love” and “homecomings.” He reminds us, “. . . . it is one of the most precious experiences of living: to have been kidnapped by some worry or striving and then suddenly to gracefully returned home to the present moment, reminded of love.”  He lays aside wanting once-and-for- all learning, writing: “If the one great homecoming were to happen too soon, I would so miss all the many little ones.”

I go back to my journals and begin to see the blessing of repeated homecomings- no two truly identical, each one slightly nuanced but always buoying me up and pointing me back to remembering and reconnecting with Life and Love.  

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Betraying The Feminine

I wrote this piece twenty years ago. Some might wonder if the tone is self-condemning but honestly I felt then, as I do now- that there is liberation in recognizing the ways in which we unconsciously collude with that which dulls or buries awareness of our inherent beauty and power. What I call here “the Goddess” is also known as the divine Feminine that lives within us all- men and women. There is no self-blame here, only a sense of what we must unlearn if we are to embody the sacred marriage of the Feminine and the Masculine in ourselves and in our communities.

For me, the line that breaks my heart open is the one I have highlighted. it reminds me that what I was taught- what sadly many young men and women are still taught- is a lie. For surely, what is done to each one, does matter. 

A culture based on a principle of power-over does not encourage men or women to know the deep power and beauty of what we are. We are all, beginning again and again, the long walk home together.

I am Oriah and I have betrayed the Goddess.

Each time I have given away my power
reshaping myself to please another
taking care not to speak the unspeakable
not to move too fast, too wildly, too wisely, or too strongly

I have betrayed the Goddess.
Each time I have sacrificed myself to please the Father
each time I have opened my body to another
as my heart remained closed to myself
each time I have been quiet 
when I wanted to scream NO to the violation
each time I have been quiet 
when I wanted to shout YES to the moon and life
I have betrayed the Goddess.

I have been raped and I have been beaten.
And each time I have gotten up, like all the women before me
moving slower than before
to take a bath and wash from my body
what could not be removed from my heart and soul,
to bandage my own head and heart where they are torn
to soak my muscles as bruises rise
an ache to the bone.

I have betrayed the Goddess each time I thought:
It doesn't matter
It doesn't matter what you do to me.

I have betrayed the Goddess in my forgetfulness of her name.
And now I turn to walk to her
unsure of the journey
unsure of my welcome
Can you forgive me?
Can I learn to forgive myself?

I walk, and I am encouraged by the faces,
however scared, however unsure and nervous
of sisters also on the road home
I know the journey will be hard,
and it will be a healing
not just for me and my sisters
but for my sons
and the other children, and for this tiny green planet.

But I also know- for the first time- 
that I cannot walk this road to save this Earth
or even for my children
as much as I love each of these.

I must learn to walk the path home to the Great Mother, 
first, for myself.

Grandmothers, help me.
I need your song to keep me from slipping into forgetfulness,
as I begin, again.

Oriah © 2012 (This prose poem first appeared in Confessions of A Spiritual Thrillseeker: Medicine Teachings from the Grandmothers by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, © 1991)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Responding to Resistance

Resistance. It may have been futile against The Borg (okay- geeky Star Trek reference) but it certainly can cause havoc with the creative process. I am working on a new book, The Choice, and some days the writing is like being in labour. It's a good metaphor to use when dealing with resistance of any kind (where a deep soul-serving aspect of self wants to proceed and the smaller self is being dragged kicking, screaming and sabotaging wherever she can.)

What does someone giving birth need? (And I draw here on the experience of two home births- one to a 12lb, 10 oz baby.) Support- firm gentle support; constant reminders to stay in the moment, to breathe through this contraction, not to get caught in anticipating the future.  A voice that says with the authority of experience, "You can do this, stay here, just this breath, this contraction. . . . this line, this sentence, this story. . . ."

Can't help but think how, with my first son in particular, I wanted to say mid-labour, "I've changed my mind. I want to adopt!" But I can no more say "I quit" to this book than I could to having those babies mid-labour. Ironically, (given the book's title) when we've really chosen life fully, we can't just back out of that choice when it requires us to do something difficult, without doing real damage to ourselves.

When I think of stopping, or trying to back up out of writing the truth that’s hard to live with and acknowledge, of deciding I want to give it all up to become a lawyer or a cat groomer I have an image of the spikes they put at some parking garage exits. They puncture your tires if you try to back up. You can only drive forward.

So resistance really is futile. But it can cause anguish. We have to touch it gently like a screaming baby, make comforting noises, whisper, "Shhhhh. . . you're okay. . . just breathe. . . . .just keep writing. . . . all will be well . . . .”

So, I keep on writing- through moments of exquisite ecstasy (usually when the first draft of a story is complete and sometimes when the words come in a steady effortless stream) and moments of excruciating resistance (most often when I am trying to get started on a story I know is going to take me down into the depths.) 

It’s all just what is- the resistance, the agony, the ecstasy and the learning- all just life passing through us, holding us, tossing us about like a small boat in weather that is constantly changing.

Birthing, driving out of the parking garage, tending a screaming child, sailing through varied weather: pick the metaphor that helps you keep moving ahead where there is resistance. Me, I like my metaphors mixed.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Freeing The Inner Hostage

When did I get to be so timid, so cautious, so afraid to stand up and say something raw and real, something that might make others uncomfortable?  

With awareness comes choice. I am overwhelmingly grateful for the book sales that allow me to write. But I've recently discovered that I've been holding myself hostage to this unexpected boon. Because the truth is, with the book sales and the “fame” (albeit a one on the one-to-ten scale of this kind of ephemeral “known-ness” that brings both blessings and strangeness) I’ve become. . .  cautious. 

When something you offer goes beyond the local circle that knows you personally, it invites projection because. . . . well, because that’s what we human beings do: we project the best and the worst of ourselves- onto others. It’s such a consistent thing in the human family that I have to assume it’s a feature, not a bug. It lets us see qualities that we are not ready to own (or aren’t even aware of) in ourselves, helps us see our reaction to and work out our relationship to these qualities.

We've all experienced the difficulties with  projections- the confusion and hurt of realizing that the other has not seen us for who we are or doesn’t like what they see when our humanness emerges; the anguish when our projection onto another drops and we see the human being before us and are less than thrilled with what we see (and with whom we may have intertwined some aspect of our life.) 

My default survival strategy as a child was to take responsibility. For everyone. And everything. All the time. Yes, as crazy as it sounds (and is) I decided (although that sounds far more conscious than I could have been) that the only response to my existence being an on-going disappointment to my mother, was to work hard with every breath to make everything alright for everyone. Impossible, but it kept me moving, trying, working, striving for more than a few decades. Until my body collapsed. And then, with a lot of help, I learned (and am still learning) about self-love and care, about the limits to my ability to respond, about what is and is not mine to “fix” or “save," about how we co-create what is -together.

It’s an on-going healing, and one I have come to appreciate for the consciousness it requires and cultivates. But the old default strategy is wired into my limbic brain. Most of the time I can see it, catch it, sit with it. But one of the things that sometimes triggers unconscious terror in me is feeling or anticipating others' disappointment.

And nothing breeds disappointment like projection.

So, the reason I get all antsy and ambivalent about doing public speaking or teaching (aside from my soul-deep need to spend my time writing) is 1) I know (and hope) some folks will come because they have read my books; 2) not knowing me personally they will project all kinds of wonderful qualities they have onto me; and 3) as they see me and get to know me they will be disappointed. It's inevitable, although probably not as consistent or ubiquitous as I imagine in my worst moments. And as much as I dread seeing or feeling others' disappointment, what really scares me is what I have done and might unconsciously do again to avoid it-  censoring myself, hedging on the truth as I know it, or taking on impossible responsibilities that are simply not mine. 

Oh, it's not all about self-preservation. When I have an opportunity to offer something I want to ensure that (to the best of my ability) I do no harm, that I offer something that encourages us to be compassionate and kind. But compassion and kindness has to include room for our human frailty and  shadow- those qualities we might want to deny even in our own minds.

Because I am every bit as human- as contradictory and inconsistent and messy in my thoughts, feelings and actions- as anyone else. Sometimes, at the end of a long day in the midst of a week of conscientious self-care, I eat six popsicles. Yep, six! Don’t ask me why. Some days, within minutes, I swing from feeling genuine compassion for people who are clearly having a hard day, to wanting to verbally lop off a few heads for bad behaviour. Some days I wish the best for my ex, and some days I hope he is tortured by living in the house I bought and furnished with things I'd either carefully purchased after saving for years, or inherited from my grandmother. 

I try not to feed or act on the popsicle-craving, head-lopping, vengeful aspects of self. And some days I succeed. But that doesn’t mean those aspects aren’t there and won't at times, be all too apparent. That's just what it is to be a human being. And when (not if, but when) my humanness disappoints another, well. . . that's also just what is. Another’s disappointment may feel momentarily life-threatening, but that’s an echo of an old reality that has passed. 

And even this- this failure to consistently maintain (or pretend to maintain) the awareness that others’ reactions are theirs and are not about me- well it’s yet another part of the messy magnificence of me.

So, look out. There's no telling what might come out of me now that I am no longer being held hostage to the unconscious desire to avoid disappointing people- both those I know and those I don't. 

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Girls' (Imaginations) Gone Wild

Is there anything better than having an out-of-control belly laugh with a friend, laughing so hard that tears pour down your face and you’re gasping for breath?  I hesitate to tell this story as there is a detail that might shock some- but I can’t resist the urge to share the laughter.

Last week I was on the phone with my dear friend, Linda, who lives in British Columbia. As usual our conversation launched heart-first into catching up with each others’ lives and discussing the meaning of life in both the big picture and in the small choices we make daily.

All of a sudden, I heard a strange noise. “Wait just a minute,” I said to Linda. “There’s a very odd noise coming from my bedroom.” As I walked into the bedroom the noise got louder- sort of a buzzing, mechanical noise like a drill or some other kind of power tool.

The apartment building I live in is concrete with hot water heating, so airborne noises (like voices or music) do not travel between units. However, if someone drops a penny on the hardwood floor above me, I hear it loud and clear. I figured someone next door was drilling into the concrete wall, except. . . . except the sound seemed to be in my bedroom.

“What is that?” Clearly Linda could hear it too.

I moved slowly toward the area from which the sound seemed to be emanating, right next to my bed. I’d recently made the seven by nine foot room feel larger by getting rid of the two dressers, and replacing the bedside table with a low wooden cabinet with one file drawer below a smaller shallow drawer.

“I don’t know.” I could hear the trepidation in my own voice. “It sounds like it’s coming from this room.” I crept up on the cabinet. The sound got louder. I held out my hand and touched the innocuous looking piece of furniture. “Ooo!” I pulled my hand back as if I’d touched a hot burner. “It’s coming from inside the filing cabinet!” 

“Don’t hang up the phone!” Linda shouted, responding to the fear in my voice. “What do you want me to do?”

Do? What could she do? She was three thousand miles away! Call Toronto 911 if the phone suddenly went dead?

“Do you think it’s the mouse?” Linda asked. I’ve been having an on-again-off-again relationship/argument with a small brown mouse who is trying to make my home his.

“What, the mouse went out and bought a power tool to try to intimidate me into letting him stay?”

“Well, what is it then?”

“I don’t know. . . .” My voice involuntarily slid up a half an octave. “. . . but it’s definitely coming from the filing cabinet.” I moved my hand slowly toward the top of the low cabinet, and laughed nervously. “It’s like the filing cabinet is . . . . possessed . . . I can’t even think of what it could be. It’s filled with . . . . files!”  I took a breath. “Okay, I’m going to open the top drawer.”

I jerked the drawer open, jumping back. I don’t know what I expected. A drill-wielding mouse? Some kind of angry file-drawer-ghost? 

And then I collapsed onto the floor laughing. “Oh no!”

“What it is?”

I was laughing so hard I could hardly speak. “It’s . . . . the vibrator. . . . that’s in the top drawer. Somehow it turned itself on!”

(That’s right folks- deal with it: Oriah Mountain Dreamer has a vibrator in her bedside table. And clearly it’s something she uses so infrequently she can’t remember it’s there so the batteries are bursting with unused energy!)

Linda was laughing now too. “Oh, that’s too funny.”

“Good grief. I was actually scared of the filing cabinet!” I sputtered back.

And we just kept laughing, our giggles egging each other on. My sides ached, tears streamed, and I had to gulp for air. 

“Attack of the pent up vibrator!”

“Ghost of vibrators past!”

Is there anything more able to dissolve tension held in the body than belly laughter, more able to make you feel like you are nine years old again than laughing over something completely silly with a dear friend? After awhile we wiped our eyes and calmed down- but what a treat shared silliness is, what a blessing and a release to laugh about our own active imaginations and something so harmless and fun. 

That’s what I wish for you- for us- for the world this week: belly laughter that shakes out all the stored tension, that reminds us of how silly our fears sometimes are, that lets us feel that the gift of being human is about more than meaningful co-creations, as wonderful and necessary as those are, but also includes our capacity to laugh together.

Oriah (c) 2012