Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What if We Don't. . .

I want to invite you to play with an idea, a question offered by the Grandmothers in my dreams that has challenged me deeply. What if I don’t take a position? What if- for the next five minutes, or just this day, just on one particular issue that feels important to me, in one particular conversation- I just. . . . don’t argue (even inwardly) for what I'm sure is right, don’t review all the dire consequences of what someone else is advocating, don’t dig my heels in? What if, just for this moment, I don’t take a position?

I am not advocating disengagement from our conversations about our shared life (on the private, community or global levels.) I have very strong feelings and opinions about a number of personal and social issues. I'm guessing that if I didn't the Grandmother's never would have suggested the question in the first place. I didn't take it as a criticism but, rather, a gentle challenge to an habituated response.

What’s interesting is to watch my reaction to the question. My mind sputters in indignation at the idea of letting go of taking a position for even a moment. Why? Surely I don’t believe that what others think, the choices they make or the policies enacted are relying on me holding a position in every moment of every day on every issue. Surely I could put down my inner placard for a moment. And if I did, how might it affect how I read, listen to, or see those who take a position that is different than my own? Would I be freer to listen with real curiosity about why they hold their position, why they see the world as they do? Would creative solutions that have a hard time getting through the bulwark of my position suggest themselves?

Here’s the thing: it takes a lot of energy to take and hold a position. We become defended even when no one is attacking. And it’s hard to listen or choose words that really connect with another human being when we are building or maintaining defenses.

But. . . but. . . but. . . what about the people on the other side- the ones who take a position that is different, in opposition to mine? They’re not going to let go of their position, even for a moment!

I want to be clear- I am not advocating failing to take action that will have an impact, when and where we can. And I am not talking about remaining silent or letting others abuse us in any way. But I can take action- can simply walk away from an abusive conversation- without taking a position. I can lend a hand, brainstorm ideas, listen deeply and open my heart without taking a position.

I am talking about not always being in fight mode- with ourselves (on what we “should” be doing, not-doing etc.) or others. I’m not talking about becoming less involved or engaged in life. I am talking about not taking a position for five minutes, five breaths. Maybe just while we're alone in our room, considering an issue, contemplating our life or the world. Don’t worry, I’m sure we can take turns so that the important positions are being held by someone, somewhere, all the time.

Mostly, I’m suggesting that we just consider not taking a position and see what happens – what thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations arise. It’s about just watching ourselves to see if we have real choice about where and when to take a position and where and when to lay it down, to open ourselves to possibilities we have not yet considered.

As I said- it can be a challenging idea. But that’s all it is- an idea to approach with curiosity; an idea that might help us listen and reply in a different way, a way that might be more easily heard, a way that does not slide easily into dividing our home, our community, our world into "us" and "them."  Because it's all us, and most of us are usually pretty busy taking and defending our positions. Maybe we could consider trying something else for just a minute or two. 

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Choices That Shape The Journey

What if life is not (as it sometimes feels it might be) like a maze- a confusing journey of dead ends, back-tracking and frightening minotaurs? What if it’s more like a labyrinth- a long and meandering path that has no traps or no hidden monsters, a journey that is destined to take us to the centre of it all?

Human beings are meaning-making creatures, and the language of soul is symbol. I know this, and yet I am always surprised when a well-placed metaphor works on my awareness, opens doors to new ways of seeing.

The metaphor of the maze and the labyrinth is one I recently read in an interview with Jungian analyst, Marion Woodman (in Spring 2009 edition of The Psychology of Violence journal,) Marion used it to explain the inner transformation that occurred when she received a diagnosis of cancer. Even after years of inner work, Marion realized that she had been treating her life as though it were a maze, the wounded part of her always on the alert for traps and minotaurs.

I’ve been playing with this metaphor every since, been noticing where I am behaving and thinking as if life is a maze- a problem or a puzzle to be solved. This approach creates a hyper-vigilance, anticipates a level of on-going threat, and is generally pretty exhausting. In contrast, I think of my experience of walking different labyrinths.

The first labyrinth I ever walked was at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I was there for my first book tour and woke before dawn- a result of the time change and my nervousness about upcoming events. I felt sure no one would show up at the bookstores and, if by some miracle a few folks were there, couldn’t see why they’d want ME to sign a book, even if I had written it.

I dithered for awhile in my hotel room, but as the sun came up, I decided to go for a walk. According to my hotel guidebook, the cathedral was just up the street. The church wasn't yet open, but I discovered an outdoor labyrinth tucked behind a hedge on the church grounds. I’d done walking meditations before, so started to walk mindfully watching the movement of breath and muscle and bone, the feel of the ground beneath my feet, following the labyrinth’s markings.

The thing I remember most was the automatic expectation that arose the first time the path took me close to the center of the labyrinth: I thought I was near completion. But, of course the path meandered back to the outer edge over and over, and gradually I gave up guessing when the end would come, when the centre would be found and just focused on taking one step at a time. When I did reach the centre, I was walking and breathing slowly, basking in the early morning sun, and smiling from ear to ear. As I stood in the centre, listening to the sounds of the city waking up, gratitude for being there filled me to the tips of my fingers and toes.

I’ve walked many labyrinths since that day. Each walk is different and yet, always leads to the centre, always slows me down and brings me fully into the present moment. Life is indeed like a labyrinth- each of us taking a path that cannot always be seen in its entirety but will surely take us to the centre if we simply keep walking and opening. The quality of the journey is dependent upon the awareness we bring to each step, each turn in the road and whether or not we have faith- have not fallen into the illusion of fear that continually anticipates a tricky maze.

Herein lies a choice: to see life as maze or labyrinth, to cultivate fear or faith. Choosing the image of a labyrinth deepens my faith in Life, in the unfolding that takes us to the centre of being.  

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Enlisting Resistance

I doubt if I’ll ever find myself automatically or casually fully aware in my body. Experiences in my early life planted seeds of ambivalence about being in my body. It wasn't always a safe place to be. My survival adaptability included being able to separate my awareness from my body, to effortlessly travel to other seen and unseen aspects of reality. Handy skill for a shamanic practitioner, particularly after doing the psychological work to heal the initial wounding so the shift in perspective is voluntary- a chosen opening instead of an involuntary escape.

The yoga I do, cultivates my body-awareness. In class, the instructor encourages participants to drop into the body-self, to give full authority to our own body-wisdom allowing it to shape our movements no matter what  postures are suggested. It is always a delicious home-coming.

Hence the mystery: over the holidays I’d wandered away from my regular yoga practice. The studio had been closed, and I found myself more and more reluctant to do my own practice. And, when the studio reopened, it seemed hard to get there.

Lying on the floor at the end of the first class back, filled with a sweet feeling of returning home, I considered the missed classes and thought, “This is how I abandon myself.” And I wondered why- why would I hesitate for a minute to bring myself back into full awareness of being an embodied soul, an in-souled body? The experience always opens my heart to myself, others and the world. Even when tightness or tension is discovered, there is always some unfurling, some arrival I did not know I ached for until it was fulfilled.

I suspect that the practices we resist- particularly the ones we enjoy when we're doing them and benefit from immediately- are the ones we need the most, because they take us past “the edge” of old survival strategies. To the amygdala, that part of the brain that sends out reflexive fight, flight, freeze or collapse responses based on past experience, that “edge” can feel like the perimeter of an abyss. It’s not rational or true, but it can be a powerful and largely unconscious determiner of our choices.

So, when we feel a puzzling resistance to doing what we have learned over and over is truly good for our mind-body-heart-soul wholeness, we can choose to gently but firmly take ourselves to those experiences. Each time we do so- each time I do this yoga even though my mind is offering a dozen reasons why today is not convenient- we go home. And going home, truly being with all aspects of ourselves with tenderness and mercy, including the aspect that resists, replenishes our ability to be with each other and the world. It also makes us more truly available to awareness of that which is larger than ourselves, to the Sacred Wholeness, the Great Mystery.

So, I’ve stopped trying to get rid of my resistance. Instead, I’m letting it confirm the way I go home, acknowledging it as an indicator that I am gently pushing my edge past old fears and conditioned responses. I greet my resistance with gratitude and keep walking toward the practice it is trying to avoid, knowing that deeper access to Life is opening before and within me.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Avoiding Sweets- Finding Sweetness

Lately- okay, for the last few years- I find myself wanting to eat sweet things in the evening. There are lots of reasons why this is not a great idea: sugar burdens the immune system, creates swings in blood sugar, and does nothing good for the waist line. I assume the craving mirrors a need for more non-food sweetness in my life. So, I'm on a bit of a mission to discover what other experiences provide sweetness in my life. I'm not interested in sentimentality- a kind of saccharine for the soul- but the things that are truly worth savoring slowly, experiences offering a taste of life that gives me a whole-body smile.

At first it seemed my list of known and easily available sweetness wasn't very long. Oh I knew that lying on sun-warmed granite in Northern Ontario, or floating in a canoe on a quiet lake watching the stars in silence were moments of sweetness, but I live in a large city where these experiences are not available daily. Also, I live alone (and notice I crave sweets most after I've been working all day in solitude,) so although there are moments of great sweetness with friends and family I wanted to discover where I might find and savor sweetness when I am not with others.

Just starting the inquiry helped me slow down and receive the life-giving nectar that ordinary moments can bring. I'll share a few of those moments here, but I'm really writing this blog to invite your input. Because I know I'm not the only one nibbling cookies or chocolate after the sun goes down, and because. . . . well, life can be challenging at times, so it makes sense to be aware of and make sure we are accessing and truly receiving the sweetness that helps us sustain our awareness of life as a gift.

So here are a few of the experiences I've come to recognize as feeding the need for sweetness in my life:

Music- particularly chest-expanding cello and violin music listened to on my headphones, or the clear sweet sounds of a fine soprano or tenor voice (think Charlotte Church, Josh Groban);

Feeling warm in my bed beneath my duvet in a room make cold by an open window on a dark winter night;

Waking up to watch the sunrise before the alarm goes off; watching the sky go from black to grey to pale blue streaked with pink;

The scent of lavender that releases tension from my shoulders one cell at a time;

A hot water bottle or heating pad applied to a muscle that I didn't even know was tight until the heat penetrated and started to unfurl the tension held there;

Poetry- reading a poem I love aloud and sitting in a sustained silence when the last word is spoken, following my breath, letting the words and the silence wash over and through me; discovering a new poem that splits me open with its honesty, with the way it places a precise finger on a feeling, or sensation, or insight I had not been able to describe- living with it, putting a copy up on the kitchen cupboard until I know it by heart and it lives in me;

Pausing to listen to the sound of children playing in the park next to my balcony- following the squeals and laughter like lines on a map to joy;

Playing with gravity no matter where I am- turning my attention to the places where my body is being supported, in contact with the ground or floor, a chair or seat on the bus- and allowing myself to give in a little more to the way Grandmother Earth pulls me to her and lends me the energy to ground and move;

Walking anywhere with full awareness, taking in the world around me, letting my body set the pace, feeling the movement that comes so effortlessly. 

There are more, and I invite you to add yours here. What I noticed as my list lengthens is that sweetness recognized and received prompts me to slow down and be present. And perhaps that is the purpose of life's sweetness: to encourage us to be fully here, to savor the moment and receive from it what we need. 

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Loving The Questions

I've decided to focus on the questions this year. The "answers" (which often get shaped into New Year's Resolutions) – as useful as they sometimes can be- are often too general to be helpful in daily decision-making or too specific for application to continually changing conditions within and around us.

Moving toward questions comes in part from reading my journals from this time last year. I see there what I feel now: the desire and resolve to write, to complete both a novel and a non-fiction book I've partially written. Oh, it’s not that no progress has been made, but they are both far from finished and, despite my genuine desire to write daily, I often find myself doing other things.

So, the first questions I sit with are: Do I really want to write? Is it something I feel called to do? Am I prompted by a deep inner impetus, or is it something I think I “should” do?

What pops up most of the time when I sit with these questions is a soul-resounding desire to write.

And that leads me to new questions: How can I structure my days to provide the best possible opportunity to do this writing? What supports this desire and what undermines and distracts from acting in alignment with this desire? How can I know if I am being distracted from writing or simply taking care of other things that truly need my attention?

The way I answer those questions today will probably change in a few weeks or months, given the things that can unpredictably change- my health, family needs, economic responsibilities etc.

None of the questions I've chosen are "Why?" questions. It’s not that I never reflect on "Why?"- as in "Why am I not writing as much as I want to?" or "Why did I agree to this event even though I know it will leave me too tired to write?" Contemplating "Why?" has lead to some insights into old patterns and beliefs that undermine acting on my soul desire to write. But, questions that begin with "How. . ." are generally more useful for determining real present-moment choices.

So, in my daily practice this year, one of the questions I will ask is: How can I do some of the writing that calls to me, today? As other things arise that need tending, my question becomes: How can I take care of this in a way that still allows time and energy for the writing I need to do? When options I value are available- for recreation, socializing, participation in my community culturally or politically- the question becomes: Does this serve the writing I desire to do? (Because some forms of "play" and participation definitely deepen and inspire creative work, but others. . . . not so much!)

German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” 

May we each come to know and love our own indivdual and collective questions for this year, letting them lead us gently into a deeper level of being and creating, alone and together.

Oriah (c) 2013