Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dismissing The Critics

Awoke a couple of mornings ago with the last two lines of this wonderful poem calling me up out of dreams. Written by the Mirabai, who lived in the sixteenth century this version is translated by Robert Bly. I once saw Robert recite this poem, and was deeply moved by the way he embodied the voice of the feminine claiming her own life. As he read the final two lines his hand moved in a slow and graceful circle as he embodied Mirabai's dismissal of her critics. 

Conflicting stories of Mirabai abound, She was from Rajasthan, one of the most significant figures of the Sant tradition of the Vaishnava bhakti movement. Unhappy in the marriage her family had arranged for her, she did the unthinkable- she left. Not only that, she left to wander the countryside with few possessions as a mystic, a poet, a singer and devotee of Lord Krishna. One of the stories is that her aristocratic family, mortified by Mirabai's behaviour, hired men to bring her back home. When she refused, they hired assasins who tried to kill her.

Bly presented this poem as Mirabai's answer to those who said she must submit to the role her family and culture assigned to her. "The Dark One" referred to in the poem is Krishna, often pictured with dark blue skin. I love the passionate commitment to her own direct experience of the divine expressed here, her indifference to others' approval or disapproval.

May we each allow our lives to be penetrated by the direct experience of the sacred, the divine as it appears to us. May we all find that which is, for us, "the sway of the elephant's shoulders."

Why Mira Can't Come Back to Her Old House

The colors of the Dark One have penetrated Mira's body;
    all the other colors washed out.
Making love with the Dark One and eating little-
    those are my pearls and my carnelians.
Meditation beads and the forehead streak-
    those are my scarves and my rings.
That's enough feminine wiles for me.
    My teacher taught me this.

Approve me or disapprove me;
    I praise the Mountain Energy night and day.
I take the path that ecstatic human beings
    have taken for centuries.
I don't steal money, nor hit anyone;
    what will you charge me with?

I have felt the swaying of the elephant's shoulders. . . .
    and now you want me to climb on a jackass?
Try to be serious!

~ Mirabai [Translated by Robert Bly]

From News of the Universe: poems of twofold consciousness, chosen and edited by Robert Bly Published by Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1980.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How To Be Here Today

I am late, stuck in rush hour traffic. I take a deep breath and am suddenly overwhelmed by the beauty of the roses blooming in front of the brick duplexes and modest homes along the street. There are low bushes and high hedges filled with blossoms- pink and blood red, white and pale yellow- wild and unruly, bowing and swaying on slender stems in the light breeze. I can feel my whole body smiling at their offering, at this abundance so freely given. 

This kind of unexpected inhaling of beauty that lifts me has been happening more frequently as I work on a new book, tentatively titled, "The Choice." 

Writing, for me is an exploration. I write myself into the questions that matter to me. Working on a new book I live into the question, How can I be here fully? And then, one night in a dream I hear a voice whisper words I recognize from the writing of the nineteenth century Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore: “We live in the world when we love it.” The words pull me up out of sleep and I know Tagore is right- we cannot be fully with that which we do not love.

The next morning I get up and open a new book of poetry that someone has sent me. The slender volume, Mary Oliver’s Thirst, sits on my bedside table- a promise of poetry that is as brave as I would like to be. Oliver's first line in the book’s first poem, “Messenger,” declares, “My work is loving the world.”

My throat and my chest suddenly fill with sweet tears. When we hear a truth we need the heart breaks open. I get it: To be fully here, we must each find our way of loving the world.

So, the question shifts, becomes, “How do I love the world?” I ask it when I awaken at four am with a searing migraine, and when I am with my father as he wanders in his Alzheimer’s haze. I hold it close when my mother’s Alzheimer’s advances and she rages against losing her driver’s license and then her home. I ask it when illness flares and lands me in bed for weeks. I keep it with me when I listen to news of war in Syria and wildfires in California.

The question does not provide easy answers, but to my surprise it shifts my attention away from trying to survive what is hard, to opening to the possibility of letting the inquiry itself guide me. It opens my eyes to seeing and receiving the beauty that is in each situation- the sweetness of watching the pre-dawn darkness give way to the light, the kindness of strangers providing care for my parents, the courage and generosity of those providing help in war-torn and weather-beaten areas of the world.

The Grandmothers in my dreams counsel me in how to love the world: “When you open your eyes, your heart opens. When you truly see and receive what is around and within you, you cannot help but love yourself and the world.”

And so it is, more and more each day. Oh, I don't want to imply that I have turned into some all-loving, always-centred, enlightened being. Ha! I still snarl at pain before I relax around it and notice the dawn, still worry about my parents before I surround them with love and prayers in my morning practise, still ache to hear of the suffering of others. But something has changed. I have found a willingness to return again and again to feeling my way into loving the world under all conditions. It may require action or stillness, work or play, speaking up or remaining silent. But always, as the Grandmothers remind me, it asks that I open my eyes and my heart.

And so, I continue to write, exploring how I might make the choice to be here by loving myself, others and the world, deeply grateful to consistently find that what is needed to keep my heart open is provided when I am willing to see and receive.

Oriah (c) 2013 

(This blog is part of the June 2013 newsletter. You can view the complete newsletter . If you would like to go on the mailing list for future newsletters please send your email address to


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Why Death Makes Me Grouchy

I know that death is part of life. It’s the way things are in a physical world where impermanence is universal. It is quite possibly a feature and not a bug- meaning something from which we learn a great deal that lends incredible value to our unpredictable and precious time here.

On Sunday night the husband of a woman I know died suddenly. Steve was healthy and robust. He died of an aneurysm. Needless to say his wife and family are in shock and deep grief. Theirs is a large, close family- there will be much mutual support and love in the coming months.

What I noticed on the day after Steve’s death is something I’ve noticed before: death or serious tragedy, particularly when it happens to someone I know, makes me grouchy. I was reminded me of how easily irritated I became for almost a year after my friend Catherine had a brain aneurysm. Catherine survived, but has lived in assisted living since, unable to work or resume the life she loved. Of course, my first reaction is always deep sadness and concern for those directly impacted. And then I get testy, unnecessarily blunt, grouchy.

I noticed my impatience while going through emails and updating Facebook, and I wondered why. And then I got it: reminders of just how unpredictable and short life can be lower my tolerance for the ways I waste time and energy, ways I let myself get derailed from the writing I want and need to do, ways I am not present and get embroiled in or reactive to things that simply do not matter to me.

In the shamanic tradition in which I was trained we talk about death as an ally, a reminder of our mortality that can offer us insight into whether or not we are living fully the time we have.

Because the truth is I'm not interested in providing an endorsement for someone’s book about discovering your pet’s past lives. I don’t care about the past lives of pets, which doesn’t make it something unreal or unimportant to someone else. It just means I don’t want to read about or even respond to requests to read about it.

And the truth is I do not want to engage in academic conversations disconnected from the heart or real life experience debating semantics or abstract spiritual principles or ideals. I value compassion and kindness, integrity and intimacy, but I want any explorations of how to live these values where I participate to be rooted in the realities of our lives and our communities.

And the truth is I don’t want to read a stranger’s critique of my life or my writing and his unsolicited advice about what I should or should not do.

The problem, of course, is not the email request, or the Facebook thread, or a stranger's critique- it’s the impulse that borders on a compulsion I sometimes feel to read and respond to everyone and everything. It's the way I can get hooked into conversations that don’t matter to me, using precious time and energy I need for other things that are close to my soul.

Oh, I understand how and when these impluses and hooks were planted in my psyche. But when awareness of the inevitability of loss in all our lives touches my heart, the unexpected irritation with myself that arises prompts me not to explore that understanding but to simply drop that which is not working, to walk away mid-sentence from communication that does not matter to me or serve life. Feeling grouchy is about thwarted soul desires that whisper, "If not now, when?"

Years after Catherine's brain aneurysm we talked about why she thought it had happend. She said, "We can't know why, Oriah. Just make it count."

We honour the pain of loss and make it count by letting it remind us of how short and unpredictable life is, by paying attention to the places that feeling grouchy point to- the places where we are not living in alignment with our deepest soul desires.

So feeling grouchy is okay. Feeling grouchy is something for which I am grateful. 

 Oriah (c) 2013

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Your, Mine & Not Always Ours

Projection: the ability we all have to ascribe some of our own qualities, preferences or even circumstances to others. It can be a defence against owning aspects of ourselves or our lives that we find difficult. It can also be a more innocent result of reaching for or feeling a connection with others and assuming that we have more in common than we might.

I’m discovering that of all the areas where we seem to consistently (and often unconsciously) project our own circumstances and feelings onto others is around birth family mythologies, realities, stories and values. This actually makes some sense. After all, the conditions and dynamics of our birth families weren’t just a reality, they were Reality as we first encountered it in our lives. As small children we took our families to be The Way Things Are, like the sun and the earth and the air we breathe. We may have encountered variety later in our lives, but when emotional issues of family are front and center (arrival of a new baby, care of aging parents, marriage, divorce, family losses or celebrations etc.) it’s easy to forget that our family is not identical to others.

Recently, while taking a course with the Alzheimer’s Society one of the other women in the group was advised by the facilitator to include her mother in exploring all possible residences. The woman replied, “Well, actually, my mother really trusts me to know what matters to her and to narrow down the choices.”

I was mesmerized by the phrase, “my mother really trusts me.” I could not imagine ever thinking, let alone saying those words in my lifetime. It’s not quite as personal as it sounds (or felt for many years.) My mother doesn’t really trust anyone. But still, I sat in awe for a few moments, reminded that all families are not identical. Knowing this I remember that what works for one will not work for others, so comparative judgements or one-size-fits-all solutions are not helpful.

I remember the first moment in my life when I entertained the idea that all families were not the same. I was seven. My six year old brother, Doug, had brought his friend Tommy home to play after school. As we sat on the front porch Tommy suggested that we watch a television show. Doug and I hesitated. We wanted to watch the show but, as we explained, we would have to ask my mother if we could turn on the television. Tommy shrugged reasonably and told us to go ask her. We froze.

Doug shook his head emphatically and said, “I’m not asking her.”

I said, “Well, I’m not doing it!”

Tommy looked puzzled. “What’s the big deal?” he said. “All she can do is say no.”

Even as I stared at him in disbelief, I felt an opening, the whisper of awareness that something important was being revealed. Was it possible that some mothers said yes or no to requests without getting angry because you’d asked? And, if that was so, what else might not be ordained as The Way Things Are? I couldn’t see any particular immediate use for this insight but the audacity of just considering the possibilityopened a door to the notion of choice in areas I had considered as immutable as gravity.

Families are different- as are marriages and jobs, individual beliefs and health and circumstances. I’ve done it myself: assumed that another’s situation is more similar to my own than it is, projected my sorrow or my joy, my well meaning but possibly mis-directed support or less-well-meaning and not-as-hidden-as-I-would-like judgement onto someone else.

We do share a great deal. Often I can see how the other is another myself, a mirror of my humanness. But each other is also wholly other, with their own history, experience, and perspective, a Mystery to me. If I can hold both of these truths, I can give and receive love while allowing and claiming the breathing space for each of us to be ourselves, to find our own way forward, to live our own lives fully.

Oriah (c) 2013