Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Taking A Leap

Okay, play with me for a moment or two. Today is an “extra” day. It’s a leap year so today is February 29th, and we get three hundred and sixty-six days this year. Of course, we don’t really experience today as extra- it’s still the day after Tuesday and the day before Thursday, and all of our usual Wednesday appointments, tasks or deadlines still apply.

But. . . . what if. . . . you could have an extra day, a holiday that didn’t even count as a holiday, an extra day that was unexpected (no plans made) and open? What if you went to bed on Tuesday the 27th, woke up to and had your extra day and then, after a good night’s sleep, went on with plans and commitments for Wednesday the 28th?

What would you do with that “extra” day? How would you spend it? Where would you go? Who would you be with, or would you take some time alone?

Now, let’s expand this a little. What would you do with an extra week or month or year? What if you were given an extra year that didn’t cost you anything- you wouldn’t get noticeably older, your bank account would stay where it is (no miraculous windfall, but no spiralling into debt just because you weren’t doing the usual things you do to keep life and limb together.)

What would you do with a year of life that was truly open? When I first started to play with this idea I imagined I might go somewhere- Arizona or the south of France. But I realized that my fantasies of going somewhere else are usually fuelled by the hope of getting clear of daily responsibilities so I can write. If it was truly an extra year without those responsibilities, I might be more at home. . . . well, staying at home. (Although I wouldn’t rule out a mid-January trip to somewhere warmer.)

I decided to just sit with this and see what came, mostly for fun, but partly because I know that when we invite our imagination to participate in possibilities . . . . well, we learn something about our deeper desires and our inner longing, and we discover unconscious assumptions that are shaping at least some of how we live.

And here’s what came: If I had an "extra" day or year I’d sit still and follow the impulse to move when it came, following it and moving only as far and as fast as I could while keeping my connection to this impulse rooted in body, heart, and soul. I'd eat what I was hungry for when I was hungry stopping as soon as I no longer felt the impulse to put something in my mouth. I would sleep when I was tired, for as long as I needed, without consideration for the time of day or night. I would be still for as long as it took for the impulse to move to find me- reading, writing, walking, talking- only as fast as and for as long as I felt the impulse to continue. And then I’d stop- mid-bite, mid-stride, mid- sentence- and staying with the stillness, wait for the impulse to find me again.

I would go to the lake when I felt the impulse to be by the water; drive out of town without notice if drawn to, taking only what felt essential, not worrying about plans, letting the day unfold. I would buy the ingredients for a meal when I felt like cooking, perhaps packing it up and taking it to my sons’ or a friend’s to share if the impulse to do so arose. I would sink down into the centre of my being whether alone or with loved ones and wait for the impulse to speak, listening deeply within and to the other.

I have lived this way both on community meditation retreats and when I have set aside solo retreat time both in the wilderness and right here in the city. I have done walking meditations in the midst of rush hour foot traffic at Yonge and Bloor, a busy downtown intersection in Toronto. What I remember most about these times is how spacious they felt, how I leaned into trusting that what needed to be done would get done- and it did! I also remember how continuous connection with the still centre came effortlessly on some daya and on others, had to be consciously sought and found over and over.

And I cannot help but think that I have a choice right now about whether or not I live this way. Oh yes, I need to finish the book I am working on in order to pay my rent- but the best writing comes out of following the soul’s impulses, and I have some savings to carry me through the next year.

What fascinates me is how, even with some freedom and flexibility, I tend to set up internal structures, routines and obligations that make spontaneous living difficult even where it is possible. I dutifully post each day on Facebook and write my weekly blog. I enjoy it, but what if I wrote only and as often as I felt like it instead? I might write more. I might write less. Some days I am drawn to go for a walk but I go to yoga instead because I have paid my membership and need to justify the fee. So silly really. What I've learned when I've set aside retreat time is that if I am really slowing down and following the impulse from deep within I will get the amount and type of exercise, food and rest my body needs, I will find ways to release tension or be with anxiety if it arises, time to express joy and appreciate beauty, ways to lend a hand, be with others, and truly be with myself.

What my imagination shows me is the essence of how I want to live: in the service of soul, of life as I know it intimately within myself and the world, letting go of efficiency for love of the moment, the day, my life. Maybe it’s not about getting a magical “extra” day or year, but learning to move at a soul’s pace- our soul's pace- no matter what is happening around us. Who knows what magic that might make?

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Just One of The (Many) Things I Don't Know

Some people don’t like it when I say I don’t know what happens after death. Every time I post something on Facebook about being okay with not knowing what happens next, I get a flood of emails expressing everything from sympathy to outrage. How can I be a “spiritual” person and not espouse a belief about what happens after death?

The “how” of this is really pretty simple: I really don’t know what happens next. I concede that all of the posited scenarios are possible: perhaps I will become a being-without-a-body in some other world or dimension; maybe what happens next is very much shaped and determined by what I do here now; it is possible that some essential and non-material aspect of myself will be (and has been) reborn in other lives. In fact, in my early shamanic training I did some “past life regressions.” What interested me most wasn’t whether what I experienced was evidence of past lives, (perhaps I was drawing on my own or the collective unconscious) but why those particular stories came and what insights they offered about living my life now.

I have great respect for others’ beliefs, and I can see how having a belief about what happens after death could, for some, make bearing the challenges of this life easier. If I had experienced the excruciating pain of losing a child or a beloved spouse to death, a belief in an afterlife where a future reunion was possible might be the only way to continue and bear the sorrow of such a loss.

But right now, this is what I’ve got:

I experience a Presence within and around me that is both what I essentially am and yet larger than myself. And my experience of this Presence is always one of Love. Because of this, because that Presence I was taught as a child to call God (and now sometimes call the Great Mystery, the Sacred Wholeness, the Divine, or Awareness) holds me with tenderness and mercy, I am not afraid of what happens next. Whatever it is, I have faith that it’ll be okay.

When I’ve viewed the body of a loved one after they’ve died, it has seemed to me that something- something essential to who they were- was “gone.” We could call it soul or spirit. It is certainly energy. And because we know that energy is not “lost” but simply changes form I assume that whatever is “gone” is now somewhere else, in some other form (although terms like “somewhere” and “form” may be completely irrelevant for what actually happens.)

To be human is, by definition, to be an embodied soul. What and where then is disembodied soul when the body is no more? Perhaps, when we die, some or all of the animating energy that makes us who and what we are as humans, merges with a vast, undifferentiated field of energy when the embodied aspect of being dies and disintegrates, returning to the earth. Or perhaps energy/soul/spirit flows into the forms- the trees and earth and people- in the immediate vicinity and beyond. Some form of these two scenarios make as much sense to me as heaven or multiple lives.

Here’s the problem: we tend to be understandably attached to the idea that some identifiable experience of an individuated self survives death. And maybe it does. But we can posit other possibilities that involve no such retention of personal identity. The energy that I identify as “me” will “go” somewhere- but whether or not it will retain any experience or awareness that feels like “me”. . . well, I don’t know. But. . . . I suspect if it doesn’t. . . . it will truly be okay.

On the other hand, all I have been and done, given and received has energetically made some impression or contribution to the field of energy that exists. So, perhaps, in that sense something of a particular life does remain and echo infinitely into the field of consciousness. This would be consistent with my own wonderful experience of communicating with what seemed to me to be my deceased grandfather.

Of course, if you consider the size of the universe and our relatively miniscule and brief existence as individual humans. . . . well, it puts that potential effect into perspective. Still, we do know that it is at least mathematically possible that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the globe can set up a wind pattern that results in a hurricane on the other side of the world- so perhaps we should not underestimate the impact one life may have on the total field of being into eternity.

My best guess is that anything we come up with from our current limited and necessarily at least somewhat attached perspective is. . . . well, just our best guess. I don’t know. And I am okay with not knowing. I am also okay with other folks believing deeply in a particular scenario, although I wince a little when those beliefs are offered as “knowledge” presumed to be shared by all “spiritual” people.

I’m okay with differing beliefs if those beliefs do not foster a lack of compassion for or actual hostility toward those who do not share them. Because that’s where the spiritual rubber hits the road for me: How does what you believe- about what happens after death or anything else- help you live a more compassionate life that contributes to the alleviation of suffering- for yourself, for others and in the world?

For me, choosing to stay with not knowing helps me be more compassionate with the losses we experience in our human lives.

So I’m okay with not knowing.

~ Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Living The Truth That Finds Us

I’m a writer. It’s what I do. It’s not all I am or all I do, but it is a consistent and essential aspect of how I live my life. I’ve written since I was twelve. If I miss a day or two. . . well, it’s a sign that something is terribly “off” with me. I love words- their sound, their meanings, the way they can stitch together a wholeness out of fragments, can give solace and bear witness and reveal things I did not know before I sat down to write.

But every once in while I feel like writing is not “real” enough and find myself wishing I’d developed a skill that could more effectively and concretely make a contribution to the world: like brain surgery, or organic farming; like designing technology for sustainable energy or building houses.

Sometimes, it seems as if our world is on fire, and writing is. . . . a luxury we cannot afford.

And then, I read the recent news story about Chinese poet Zhu Yufu who has been sentence to seven years in prison for writing this poem:

“It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
The Square belongs to everyone.
With your own two feet
It’s time to head to the Square and make your choice.

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
A song belongs to everyone.
From your own throat
It’s time to voice the song in your heart.

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
China belongs to everyone.
Of your own will
It’s time to choose what China shall be.”

Clearly the government in China thinks that writing is real and powerful, even dangerous.

And I think about the stories Azar Nafis (author of Reading Lolita in Tehran) tells about students in Iran covertly passing photocopies of books like Huckleberry Finn around, knowing they will be imprisoned if caught.

And I remember reading about Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. When her son, Lev, was accused of counter-revolutionary activity and imprisoned with many others by Stalin, she joined other women lining up outside the prison daily to deliver food & plead for their loved ones' release.

One day another woman in the crowd recognized Akhmatova & asked her in a whisper, "Can you describe this?"

Anna replied, "I can."

Later, Anna recalled the woman's reaction to her response, saying that "something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face." Anna continued to write about life under the repressive regime despite the risk.

Isak Dinesin (author of Out of Africa) wrote: "All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story."

As I remember these and many other writers who document and create life-sustaining meaning out of the stories of their own and others' lives, the question I wrestle with is not whether or not writing is “real” enough to make a contribution. I know the power of story, the impact of a line of poetry that can run through the mind and the heart enabling us to find the inner resources to do what needs to be done.

The question for me is, always, do I have the courage to tell the truth, to spend my life completely on finding the words, on allowing the words to find me, when telling the truth is dangerous? I’m blessed to live in a time and place where I do not face the risk of imprisonment for writing. Would I have the courage to write or keep & pass along prohibited books if there was the threat of imprisonment? I don’t know.

But, truth-telling- in art or music, in writing or speech, or in simply how we live our lives, inhabit our world, and bring our awareness to the moment- always holds inherent dangers. Truth-telling, whatever its form, exposes half-truths and inconsistencies, points to irresolvable paradoxes and the things we have not faced about ourselves and life.

Writing this piece I see why I have not made much progress on the book I am writing. To express the truth we have to risk old identities and cherished reputations, dissolve old ways of seeing and being seen, release old- and often comfortable ways- of coping with life’s challenges. For me- in part because I love the transformative power of the creative process- I cannot write if anything is being held back to avoid some anticipated disapproval or maintain an old identity. It doesn’t work.

So, I bow to the courage of Zhu Yufu and the students in Iran, to the spirit of Anna Akhmatova and the wisdom of Isak Dinesen. And I offer a prayer of gratitude that the demons I face are inner, not outer. And I begin. . . . again, as we each do every day- to find a way to write and live from the deepest level of truth that finds us- holding nothing back, without consideration for how my writing or my life will be perceived or received.

Because I am a writer. It’s what I do. It’s what I love and what I offer. And what we each love and offer and who we are, is enough.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Getting to the Heart of My Matter

Last week I had an echocardiogram. The technician pressed a wand (coated with very cold gel) between my ribs to get a picture of my heart. I could see the images on the monitor. I felt some of the same awe and wonder that I’d experienced when I was pregnant and had had ultrasounds and seen each of my sons so tiny, floating there inside of me.

This time it was my own heart. Beating continuously. Relentlessly. Faithfully. For decades, without my thinking about it, without my will making it happen, whether or not I was awake or asleep, worried or carefree, whether or not I was having a moment of enlightened equanimity or being driven by some unconscious need. Always beating. Keeping me alive.

I was going to share here some of the fascinating information I’ve picked up over the years about our hearts. But. . . .none of that information was what came to mind when I was watching my beating heart. The truth is, watching that small organ steadily beating made my eyes fill with tears. I wanted to. . . . . to say thank you, to apologize, to promise that I would be more careful in the future.

I was there for cardio tests because my heart had been doing some unusual and disturbing things. Some of the symptoms (the arrhythmia and tachycardia) have been been around for years, but they'd become worse over the last eighteen months. I have a wonderful cardiologist and naturopathic doctor so am feeling confident that the medical side is covered.

As I arrived home after the test, a friend who has had similar heart problems called unexpectedly. When I mentioned what had been going on, he replied without hesitation, “Oh, it’s about the end of your marriage. It broke your heart.”

He’s right of course. Recently, I’d had a dream about a collective healing ceremony for 9/11. My Jungian analyst asked me,“What was your personal 9/11, the event that devastated you?” Without thinking, I replied, “The ending of this marriage.” And when she asked what aspect was most devastating it wasn't the lies or the betrayal that came to mind- it was the awareness that I was not indestructible, that I could be hit so hard that I felt like I might never get up again.

Of course, no one is indestructible on the level of our body-selves, and our emotional hearts and physical hearts are intimately connected. The danger in holding an unconscious belief in my own ability to withstand anything, is that I may not (and did not) recognize and withdraw from a situation that was, on some level, life-threatening. That’s why I wanted to apologize to my heart, to promise to pay more attention in the future, to be more careful.

But the heart just keeps on beating. Sometimes steadily, sometime irregularly. Sometimes quietly, sometimes like a herd of wild caribou in my chest. It keeps on beating to the best of its ability. Without judgement about my choices. Without remorse or regret. Without chastising me. Humans are heart-centred beings, so that’s what we do: we continue to love; sometimes we are loved in return; sometimes we are devastated. Often we love, are loved and are devastated all in the same place.

I am not indestructible. But, like that small heart I saw on the monitor, I will continue- to love, to learn, to heal, to make mistakes, to experience ecstasy and agony- until I don’t, until my heart stops and I cease to be the human being known as Oriah. This is my commitment: I will live- deeply- until I die; I will be here- fully- until I am gone.

In the meantime, being “careful” isn’t about refusing to love or be loved. It’s about being full-of-care for my heart and other hearts, remembering how tender human hearts are and how they can be deeply hurt. It's about holding wounded hearts- our own and others'- with compassion and mercy so that healing can happen, a sustainable rhythm can be restored, and gentle strength can be recovered.

Oriah (c) 2012

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Getting Unhooked

“I feel,” I said to a friend as we started the new year, “like I can’t quite get my feet on the ground. Every time I think I'm on solid ground, it disappears out from beneath me.”

It’s understandable. It’d been a busy eighteen months: my marriage had ended unexpectedly and I'd lost my home and most of my possessions; my mother had been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s; my father’s advanced Alzheimer’s had spiralled down into unpredictable violence and delusions necessitating specialized care. Perhaps not surprisingly my own health had deteriorated, culminating in a recent cardiac incident and on-going migraines.

With the support of my sons and some very good friends, my spirits were (and are) good. But I felt like I was having a hard time finding the energy and uninterrupted time that would let me pursue my writing or any other consistent work. I simply could get my feet on solid ground.

About a week ago, on day twenty-two of a migraine, looking for a little guidance amongst the books on my shelves, I pulled out Pema Chrodron’s, When Things Fall Apart. Randomly opening the book I read:

“We want to have some reliable, comfortable ground under our feet, but we’ve tried a thousand ways to hide and a thousand ways to tie up all the loose ends, and the ground just keeps moving under us. Trying to get lasting security teaches us a lot, because if we never try to do it, we never notice that it can’t be done. Turning our minds toward the dharma speeds up the process of discover. At every turn we realize once again that it’s completely hopeless- we can’t get any ground under our feet.”

“It’s completely hopeless.” It’s hard to describe the sense of relief that flooded through my body as I read these words. It was as if hooks planted throughout my body were released, unhooked. Of course, I’d read this before. But the idea of adapting to uncertainty and difficulty when things are going more or less as we’d anticipated is an interesting idea, not a life raft that makes continuing possible.

My relief wasn’t about giving up on doing what had to be done, or neglecting to care for myself and others to the best of my ability. It was about giving up any hope of finding or creating solid- as in unchanging and predictable- ground; giving up trying to move away from the discomfort of not-knowing; giving up the illusion that tomorrow I may wake up as a “better” me, someone more “on top of it,” more able to direct or control the uncontrollable. It’s about relaxing into life as it is, relaxing into the hopelessness of controlling impermanence even as we do our best to meet and respond to the conditions of the moment.

I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but Pema’s encouragement to “relax into hopelessness” gave me just the break I needed. Since then, I’ve been thinking of moving through life as less about finding solid ground and more about learning to walk across the deck of a small boat on the open seas. Sometimes the waters are rough, sometimes they’re calm. Sometimes you keep your balance. Sometimes you fall overboard, and hopefully a fellow seafarer is there to throw you a line, as you will throw one to them when the time comes.

Hoping and trying to control the weather or the sea is a futile waste of energy that can wear us out. Learning to walk and rest, dance and dream on a rolling deck is a far more useful skill.