Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wrestling With Gratitude

When I was a child gratitude was used as a "should" to counter any desire or discontent. When my brother or I expressed wanting to have or do something, we were told we should be grateful for the things and opportunities we had. When I did not want to eat one more mouthful of soggy, overcooked, pale green canned peas, I was told to think of the children in the world who did not have enough to eat, and eat my peas with gratitude. And later, as a teenager, if I shared my hopes for changes I wanted to see in our community (eg- equal rights for women and people of colour etc.) I was told I should be grateful I lived in Canada.

Oddly, I don't remember gratitude being mentioned much at all except when it was being used in prayers recited by rote or as a way to silence the expression of preferences, desires and dreams.

This is no doubt why I've always been a little leery of gratitude practices, although I express gratitude where it arises spontaneously (and it does so often.) I suppose this early conditioning suggested to me that I could not simultaneously be grateful for what is and still have hopes and dreams for myself and the world. I did try to deliberately counter this with my sons when they were young by having us do a practice of sharing three prayers before their bedtime: one for something in our day for which we were grateful; one for someone else in our thoughts and hearts; and one request for something with which we needed help.

But the early years of having gratitude used to squash expressions of desire have taken their toll, and I can still get a little testy when someone starts talking about how we "should" be grateful. 

Still, one practice intrigues- the idea of writing down something each day for which you are grateful (not something you "should" be grateful for, but simply noticing somewhere you are grateful) that you have never been grateful for before.

It's the last part that intrigues me because it makes me pay attention to the constant stream of the small (and often unexpected) things that bring me joy each day. So, how about it? Will you share one thing from the past week for which you are grateful, that you have not been consciously grateful for before? They don't have to be Big Things. In fact, unlike the things for which we are regularly grateful (friends, family, work, home etc.) they are likely to be smaller, unique moments (which is why they are stirring new gratitude.)

I'll start (and two come to mind):

- I am grateful to the person who put a container of organic lavendar handcream in the yoga studio bathroom. I've thought of doing so often (the winter weather continues and my skin is like sandpaper after washing my hands) but kept forgetting.

- I am grateful for the new doctor I met. Young (honestly she looked barely 30) she was truly like a breath of fresh air: present, talking with (not at) me, clear and so sane about potential risks and benefits of treatment choices, and the fact that it was me who would ultimately make choices about my health care. Knowledgeable, she gave me all the latest information and talked about options with a clear understanding that medicine is as much art as science and as unpredictable as anything else in life.

The thing about this practice is that it dove-tails with last week's blog re: looking with fresh eyes. Noticing where gratitude arises in new places encourages us to bring fresh eyes to what is happening and stirs our dreams for all that is possible.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Looking With Fresh Eyes

Today is the equinox, the day when periods of light and darkness are equal. Here in the northern hemisphere it is the first day of spring, so I’ve been meditating on what spring in our inner world might look like or mean. I’ve played with the idea of places within that are stuck or frozen, wondering how I might bring a warm breeze/breath to these spots and find a new flow. At one point while meditating the phrase came: “Look with fresh eyes.”

This sounds like a good idea. We all get into habitual ways of seeing our lives and the world. Dropping our preconceived notions and having a fresh look, seeing what we might be missing sounds good. But, what does it really mean to look with fresh eyes, and how do we do it?

Lately, I’ve been following an impossible-to-explain impulse to return to painting, creating images on the page that arise in consciousness. I’m using Zero Point Painting by Michelle Cassou as my guide- a method that focuses on process instead of product. It’s the painting that’s teaching me about looking with fresh eyes.

Earlier in the week I painted a life-sized hand reaching for something. Then I sat with it to see what other images might come, and one did: an image of the talons of a large bird reaching down for the hand. I didn’t have time to continue painting right then and didn’t get back to the canvas until the next day. I was feeling eager to continue because I knew I had a starting point, knew I wasn’t going to sit with the tension of whether or not an image (or an image I “liked” or thought I could paint) would come.

But something unexpected happen: as I sketched in the bird’s talons I lost all energy for or interest in the painting. I didn’t want to paint at all. The image of the bird talons from the day before belonged to the day before, to where I had been internally with the painting then. It no longer held any juice for me. I felt like I was simply recording something I already knew, as if I was copying out a text or spewing out remembered information on an exam.

Frustrated, I stopped. I let go of the image of the bird, sat with myself and the incomplete painting until a new image that wanted to be painted now came and carried me back into moving with colour on the page.

Contemplating this later I realized that this desire to see with the fresh eyes of the present moment is central to being in and feeling the creative flow of life within and around us. It’s why I’ve never given the same talk or facilitated the same workshop twice. I thought (with some judgement) that perhaps it was because I’m easily bored, but I now I consider that it is more about my hunger for full engagement and for exploring beyond the edge of what is known.

What happens each spring follows certain patterns and natural laws, but what grows, what unfurls in that impossible shade of green is always new, always a world that, in its details, has never been seen before. And there are risks- the shoot of a plant may poke up where someone walks and be crushed, or may appear as a passing rabbit wants a nibble so it will never fully flower.

To be in the present moment sounds good but it necessitates real risk and fresh eyes, requires a willingness to repeatedly let go of the predictable, the anticipated, and the planned to follow what arises in the moment.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking- what about my job, the kids, the things that have to be done. But the freshness of the moment does not necessarily dismantle all of what is needed to sustain life. Letting go of the known image and waiting for what was alive in the moment was done within the structure of painting in my apartment, of keeping other time commitments and making meals to sustain myself. Letting go of how we think we or others will be with any task and allowing what is to arise, seeing it with the fresh eyes of the present moment brings us more fully into a moment where we may just going through the motions.

Yes, there is risk: something new may happen and we cannot tell where that will take us. It takes courage to look with fresh eyes.

May we each find our inner spring, our way to bring fresh eyes to the present moment no matter what it holds, stepping into the renewal of life that is continually available to us.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Being "Too Much"

Last week an interviewer asked me, "How do the people in your life deal with your intensity?"

I was a little taken aback by his use of "deal with." It seemed to imply that the "intensity" he was pointing to was some kind of burden or flaw, something to be managed or tolerated.

But what puzzled me most was the fact that I could be surprised by the question, could somehow (repeatedly) have amnesia about the fact that others have often found me too "intense"- too focused on (if not obsessive about) certain subjects and activities (creativity, spirituality, psychology, the inner life, writing etc.,) and relentlessly curious about how to live fully and deeply who and what we are.

Pausing for a moment, I considered his question. My ex-husband came to mind.

When Jeff and I married over a decade ago, we each wrote our own vows, and heard the other's for the first time during the ceremony. Jeff included in his vows a modified line from my poem, "The Invitation," vowing to, "Stand in the centre of the fire with you and not shrink back."

Ten years later as our marriage was ending, driven by the mistaken belief that understanding might ease my pain, I asked him (not for the first time) to tell me why he'd lied throughout the relationship. He had already conceded that there had been many more lies- about things that mattered and things that didn't- than the ones I’d stumbled across (and we’d agreed that I didn’t need to hear about all of them now.) What I did want was to understand why he had lied so consistently, why he had- in my mind- made and broken a vow to be truthful.

I reminded him about this part of his wedding vow. "You said you'd stand in the fire with me, but there has never been a time- even on our wedding day- when you weren't lying about something."

He looked genuinely shocked. "Standing in the fire with you had nothing to do with telling the truth."

I honestly could not imagine what else it could have meant (which I suppose is the down-side of using something your partner wrote in your vows- she's bound to have a very particular idea about what the line means, since she wrote it!)

Baffled I asked, "Well, if it wasn't about telling the truth, what was it about?"

Without hesitation he replied, "It was about tolerating your intensity! It was a vow to stick it out, to endure despite the fact that you're always too intense about everything!"

Of course, it was easier to hear that an interviewer I didn't know was implying that my intensity might be less than wonderful than it had been to realize that my then-husband had seen this quality in me as something difficult to be endured and tolerated, as (in his techno-speak) a bug and not a feature.

When I tried to respond to the interviewer last week, all I could do was laugh. It started out as a chuckle of recognition that someone else’s assumptions about my so-called “intensity” had nothing to do with me, but it rippled quickly into a real giggle as I realized that the accusation of intensity simply no longer has any power over me. I was delighted to discover how deeply I now accept that who I am is someone some others will sometimes see as too intense.

We all want to be seen and appreciated for who we are. And yes, even I can see how my intensity does at times wear me out, cause social awkwardness and ask a great deal from those who want to meet on mutual ground. It also makes me deeply passionate and enthused about living life fully.

The truth is, our ability to live fully and enjoy the life we have been given is dependent, not upon how others see us, but upon self-acceptance. Deep self-acceptance can turn chuckles and giggles into deep belly laughs that might leave some others truly baffled. And that really is okay with me.

Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Feeling What We're Avoiding

I know people like to talk about "rising above," but more often I find we can't move ahead until we drop down.

Sitting down to write this week's blog I hit an invisble wall. There are nothing but false starts, ideas that fizzle on the page, observations that lay there like dead fish, the cursor flashing on the screen, taunting me, daring me to continue, (I swear, even though I know better, it feels personal,) the blank page a testament to a blank mind and mysteriously missing connection to what is going on at a feeling level.

Now, I’ve been at this writing thing long enough to know that when this happens- when I’ve not written in my own journal for four days in a row- some part of me is working very hard to bury or outrun something that feels too painful to face and/or too daunting to try to express (even to myself!)

So, I start with a writing prompt which, in moments like this, I can honestly say I’m not eager to use. I begin with the phrase, I don’t want to write about. . . . .

I don’t want to write about. . . . the decision I made last week to let go of someone in my life, to stop having contact, to not pick up the phone when she calls, to not dial her number or send her a note, to say a single prayer for her daily but stop all attempts at communication.

I don’t want to write about the years I have spent working to see, accept, and love this person for who she is, trying to let go of all expectations for our interactions or any desire to ever be seen and accepted in turn, only to find that the interaction continued to be draining and toxic for me.

I don’t want to write about my own hubris- my certainty that I could find a way for us to actively relate to each other (if only in a limited way) and not be drained and ill afterwards. The containment and healthy boundaries, the deepening of acceptance, the positive visioning and wishful thinking, the healing from past wounds and prayers for guidance – none of it has changed the reality of the effect our contact has on me.

I don`t want to write about how hard it is to accept this, how part of me rails on within, sure that even after all these years, there must be something I can do, something I have not tried. 

I don`t want to write about how I have been lying to myself about not being hooked into wanting anything from this relationship. Expectation is too strong a word for what I'd been carrying, but clearly there was hope. The grief I have been outrunning is for the loss of hope inherent in fully accepting what is.

That’s it: the molecular structure of the invisible wall I keep hitting each time I try to write around this event in my life, is composed of grief and loss. And, as author Ann Lamott writes, the only way through grief is by grieving.

And in writing just this. . .  something brittle and sharp in my chest softens and is released. The tears flow and I can feel my body here in this moment- supported by the chair and the floor beneath the chair and the earth beneath the floor. . . and I give into the gravity of what is, feel it pull me inexorably toward the centre of myself and life. 

Sometimes we just have to stop and feel the heartbreak so there's room to feel our own life again. In simply allowing the sadness we open to the possibility of joy once again.

This is what it is to be human: to learn again and again how to be with loss; to trust the very way we are made and the sacred stuff of which we are made, knowing that joy is in the fullness of life- nothing left out, nothing avoided or buried, all aspects greeted and made bearable with tenderness and mercy.
 Oriah (c) 2013