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