The Mosaic of Life

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We recently had our third practicum for the UCLA Certificate in Mindfulness Facilitation program I’ve been taking—and diversity was on the list of topics we covered. We were asked to write a paper about the topic in preparation for the practicum, and I noticed an immediate sense of dread when I sat down to write it—followed by some major resistance.

It’s a sticky subject.

When I think about diversity, I flash to my “sheltered” childhood—which was utterly devoid of it. I grew up in a predominantly-Caucasian, upper middle class, quaint, rural town in New Hampshire. Monochromatic white saltbox Colonials lined the center of town, offset by swaths of apple orchards and strawberry fields.

Every harvest season, a line of rickety, lime-green painted school buses would roll into town. And I remember staring at those buses, feeling this weird fascination with their “otherness” back then. I later found out they were packed with Jamaican migrant workers hired to work the orchards and fields.

Reflecting back on this now, I feel a sharp knot in my left side, just below my ribs. My breathing is shallow. My brow furrowed. I feel ashamed. Sad.

And now, opening deeper to these feelings, I’m hearing my father’s voice echoing in my mind. I don’t remember him ever commenting on the migrant workers—he always just drove passed them in silence (without even a nod of recognition). But, occasionally, we’d get out of our small town bubble and take a family drive into Boston—the “big” city. The environmental palette shifted with each passing mile, gradually diversifying the further we drove from town—from the color of the landscape to the color of the people.

And the color of Dad’s behavior always shifted along with it.

“Lock your door,” he’d demand in a firm (yet slightly panicked tone) the minute it was clear we’d entered the city. His grip on the steering wheel would tighten. His face, redden. Every other minute, he’d grumble “Massachusetts driver!” when he got cut off or couldn’t pull into a lane he needed to be in.

And every time he saw an African American male driving a nice car, he’d point and announce, “drug dealer.”

Ignoring my father’s slurs, I never thought about how they might have affected me. But now that I’m deliberately looking… I see the residue is there. His words ingrained in my cells—impossible to expunge.

I want to pretend like I haven’t been affected by my father’s view of the world. But I have. Even though I reject it, I still feel it in the most subtle ways. To this day, I still hear him saying “drug dealer” in my mind when I’m driving. The thought appears. His voice ringing in my ears. I recognize it as not my own.

But it still breaks my heart.

Contemplating all this now, there’s a quote from Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities that comes to mind:

“I want to walk my Dharma talk and sit the way I live: trusting in the interdependence of ALL things (including all cultures and beings) and knowing that the wholeness we seek comes from including all the pieces of the beautiful mosaic of life.”

The deeper I dive into my mindfulness practice, the more I see (and feel) the wholeness of our collective existence—and how accepting “otherness” and diversity is key to seeing the complete picture of ourselves. Perhaps some people don’t want to see themselves completely.

But I do.

Moving Forward From Retreat

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I recently returned from a 7-day silent meditation retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Ranch in the (stunning) mountains of northern New Mexico. And I wish I could report that it’s been all bliss and rainbows ever since returning back to life in Los Angeles.

But that would be a lie.

The truth is, as I’m writing this, I’m teetering on the edge of falling back into the depression I was mired in before I left. I can sense it right there in front of me. A poem by Portia Nelson comes to mind:

Autobiography in Five Chapters

1. I walk down the street

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in. I am lost… I am hopeless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

 

2. I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I’m in the same place, but it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

 

3. I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in…it’s a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

 

4. I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

 

5. I walk down another street.

 

Perhaps you recognize these patterns in your own life?… I’m smack-dab in the middle of stanza #3, and I feel like it’s finally time to make the quantum leap to #4.

But I’m encountering some serious resistance.

This past retreat unearthed some deep insights for me—things I’ve “known” on a certain level, but haven’t wanted to face… I’ve survived just fine by sweeping these things under the rug all these years—by looking the other direction…But it’s time to “level up.”

The funny/annoying/amazing thing about my mindfulness practice is that the things I’ve swept under the rug all my life have, in due time, started making themselves known. And, another funny/annoying/amazing thing is, once I’ve unearthed an issue and start seeing it in plain sight—it’s nearly impossible for me to try and “un-see” or ignore it again.

Before I left for this latest retreat, I mentioned a lot of Shit got kicked up from the body work I’ve been doing to heal my chronic physical pain issue. I wasn’t clear exactly what was causing the emotional pain. The malaise felt general—like a heap of Crap all tangled in a giant steaming pile in the middle of my metaphorical living room floor. But, while sitting in silence during the retreat, the individual issues began to sort themselves out—making themselves more and more clear.

And now I sit here just staring at it all. Separate piles of previously ignored issues splayed out in front of me. And I feel paralyzed. Despite seeing the individual issues for what they are—every fiber of my being wants to sweep them all back under the rug and pretend like I don’t see a thing.

The brink of depression I’m feeling now feels like the sadness of not being able to ignore the mess any longer. There’s a huge part of me that’s wanting to throw a tantrum at the thought of how much effort it’s going to take to change my behavior and face (let alone heal) these wounded parts of myself. There’s also a big part of me that’s feeling relieved that they’re all finally out in the open. Such is the life of a spiritual warrior.

So right now I’m just doing my best to BE with myself. To get used to seeing these issues and not trying to sweep them under the carpet anymore.

This, of course, is where the “real” work begins… 

 

Under Deconstruction

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I’ve been feeling blue for the past few weeks. Going through yet another big shift in my life—working with a body worker to heal severe chronic neck and upper back pain that was caused by a sexual trauma 15 years ago. 

And while the physical pain has significantly subsided since I started this work—my emotional pain has skyrocketed.

The correlation is no coincidence, I’m sure.

Up until this evening, every time I’ve sat down to blog about this journey, I’ve felt blocked—an endless parade of stops and starts. Beginnings with no clear endings. Start overs.

Delete.

Repeat.

And then earlier tonight, I finally found enough clarity to finish the entire post. I felt sufficiently “good” about what I’d written, and I was ready to hit “publish.” But when I clicked “save draft,” WordPress decided to do just the opposite. The post evaporated into cyber space.

And I was left with nothing.

Of course, part of me wants to stay up all night to try and painstakingly reproduce every word. But the other part of me is telling me it’s all quite poetic, given the current state of things. This part is also telling me the compassionate thing to do for myself is to allow myself to feel the frustration/anger/sadness and then to let it go. And go to bed.

So, that’s what I’m going to do.

As is the nature of everything, I know that whatever emotional pain I’m experiencing (on all levels) will change. I don’t have “this too shall pass” tattooed on my wrist for nothing. ;)  I’m also blessed to have the world’s most compassionate and nurturing partner by my side to comfort me during this ride (seriously, she’s THE. BEST).

And I’m sure when I get back from my upcoming 7-day silent meditation retreat later this month, I’ll have loads to share. In the meantime—if the theme of pain resonates in any way, you might be interested in checking out what I wrote about my last silent meditation retreat

Onward and upward (and inward)….

BE Well,

jennifer

A Bug’s Life

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As a secular mindfulness student at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), I often attend their Tuesday evening “community practice” facilitated by MARC’s Director of Mindfulness Education, Diana Winston. The gatherings consist of 30 minutes of group meditation, and then Diana gives a short talk and facilitates a discussion about the week’s topic. It’s a relaxing and accepting atmosphere, and I always leave feeling rejuvenated and connected with both myself—and the like-minded souls in our community.

Last week, Diana began a series on “The Five Mindfulness Ethical Trainings” or “The METs” as she calls them—and she prefaced the talk by saying the trainings are based on the five Buddhist Precepts that have been adapted in a secular context. She also made it clear that her intention for sharing these trainings was not to say that we need to follow them—but to suggest we contemplate them and see where our individual edges lie for each.

The Five Mindfulness Ethical Trainings (METs) are:

1. Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the commitment to protect life.

2. Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the commitment to only take what is offered to me. 

3. Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the commitment to protect relationships and be wise with my sexuality.

4. Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the commitment to speak wisely.

5. Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I undertake the commitment to protect the clarity of my mind by being wise in what I consume and how I use intoxicants. 

Diana’s first talk focussed on MET #1: Protecting Life. And I found the topic serendipitous because just the night before, I’d gone to great lengths to safely capture and release a behemoth house fly that’d been buzzing around my face while I was cooking dinner that evening. But prior to sitting there listening to Diana’s talk, I hadn’t given the fact that I didn’t just automatically swat the fly much thought. Despite feeling severely annoyed by its’ presence, it just never occurred to me to try and kill it. Instead, I remember my mind reeling for ways to quickly catch and escort it safely outside before the cat got to it first—which, btw, I miraculously managed to do via a nearby mason jar.

Further contemplating the topic, I’ve also noticed that I take definite care not to step on bugs when I spot them these days (both inside and outside the house). I even let spiders “just be.” But this hasn’t always been the case. Before my mindfulness practice, I had little to no respect for insects. I never thought twice about swatting, stepping on or smooshing them when I saw one. It’s just what I did.

But as my practice has deepened over the years, my reactivity to bugs has lessened. I don’t automatically squeel or jump when I see one anymore, nor do I automatically reach out to slap ‘em with the nearest shoe. Within the spaciousness of nonreactivity, I’ve been able to observe bugs as they are—tiny little creatures who are just trying to get by doing what they do. But despite the compassion I’ve come to show bugs, I still eat meat. And, under certain circumstances, I also believe in abortion and euthanasia—so there’s that, too…

So, where does this leave my relationship with MET #1? I guess, for me, “preserving life” isn’t such a black and white issue… And, as I’m finding with most things these days—finding a middle way seems to be the answer (it’s not always easy, though).

This week, join me in contemplating MET #1. What are your thoughts on undertaking the commitment to preserving life?

Finding Faith In-Between

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I recently finished reading a memoir that struck a pretty big chord. It’s about an early 40-something year old woman who’s filled with questions about life and is searching for a sense of faith amidst them all. Perhaps you can relate to this, too?

The memoir I’m referring to is titled, Devotion, and it’s written by Dani Shapiro. Here’s a particularly resonant paragraph:

“My various rituals—the yoga, meditation, thinking, reading, Torah study—these were disciplines. They had become, to some degree, habit. But it was in the space around these rituals that Faith resided. It was in the emptiness, the pause between actions, the stillness when one thing was finished but the next had not yet begun. Paradoxically, this is where effort came in, because it was so hard to be empty. To pause. To be still—not leaning forward, not falling back. Steady in the present—not even waiting. Just being. Could I just drive the car? Just cook dinner? Just walk the dogs in the front meadow and take in the rustling trees, the chirping critters in the distance? Why was it so difficult? So scary? Why does something that should be effortless require so much effort?”

That last line really sums it up for me… And it might seem like an oxymoron, but doing nothing is one of the hardest things for me to “do.” The pauses between actions often seem interminable. Relaxing in the lulls—a gargantuan feat. My mind always wants me to be doing doing doing. And it’s exhausting.

Contemplating this, I can see how it’s hard for me to trust that things are going to work out the way I intend them to work out without constantly doing something to try and ensure that they do. But I’ve come to realize that there’s no real way I can ensure every outcome of my efforts—no matter how much I do to try (which is related to the post I wrote last month about “stirring the pot“). And I’m guessing this is where “faith” comes in…

Because learning how to relax in the lulls involves having faith that things will unfold the way I intend—and (more importantly) it also means having faith in myself that I’ll be able to handle it if (or when) they don’t.

Tranquility du Jour!

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I recently had the pleasure of being a guest on Kimberly Wilson’s “Tranquility du Jour” podcast, where we chatted about mindfulness, meditation, retreat experiences—and of course, tranquility! Click on the image above for a link to the podcast online. Enjoy! :)

The Courage to be Gentle

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I was flipping through some old “draft” blog entries I’d written a few months ago that I half-wrote and never published—just keeping them for a day like today when I didn’t feel like starting a new blog post from scratch… And I came across an entry I’d saved back in March entitled “The Courage to be Gentle” that contained the poem below. I have absolutely no idea who wrote the poem (I’m fairly certain it wasn’t me)—but I think it’s beautiful, so I’m sharing it here with you today.

THE COURAGE TO BE GENTLE

It takes a lot of courage to be gentle in the face of things I find challenging…

Embarrassing…

Humiliating…

I want to harden

When I’ve made a mistake…

All I want to do is ROAR…

It takes a lot of courage to be gentle.

To admit my shortcomings.

Now I soften.

I can certainly identify with wanting to harden when life feels difficult, or when I’ve made a mistake or feel embarrassed in some way…. My body automatically tenses in these situations—and so do my emotions.

Hardening feels like my body’s way of creating a protective shell—or armor, if you will. And, I can see how, in some circumstances, it can be beneficial (setting boundaries to protect myself from toxic people, for instance). But, for the most part, I’ve come to understand that hardening in order to protect my ego from getting hurt just cuts me off from receiving the love and acceptance I usually need (from both myself and others) in order to truly learn and/or heal from the situation.

Softening, instead of hardening, might feel counterintuitive (and uncomfortable) when our egos get bruised. But doing so is an act of courage that just might benefit both ourselves—and those around us—in the long run.

(Re)defining Success

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I mentioned a few weeks ago how things seem to be flowing for me these days. It feels like I’m heading in a positive direction with my mindfulness efforts, and I’m doing my best to be as present and grateful for what’s unfolding as I can without allowing myself to get too attached to any future outcome.

But this hasn’t been easy.

I’ve been witnessing my mind getting swept up in—and wanting to attach to—the “successes” that I’ve been experiencing.

Case in point—when I ran my free ebook promotion on Amazon earlier this month, I assumed I would give away a few hundred ebooks, and that would be that. But then, quite unexpectedly, the ebook started flying off the virtual shelves. And, sure—this is thrilling news. It’s perfectly “normal” to be excited when something you’ve put a great deal of energy into does well. But, this “excitement” felt different…. Almost immediately, I watched my mind diverting away from my initial intention of casually being engaged in monitoring the promotion—to reactively (and compulsively) obsessing over how many thousands of books I could giveaway before the promo ended.

And it didn’t stop there… When I saw that I’d entered Amazon’s Top 100 free ebooks list, I started obsessing over getting to #1 in my book’s category. And then, once I reached #1—I started obsessing about staying there.

Hour-by-hour (and sometimes minute-by-minute), I watched myself hitting the refresh button on my browser while I held my breath and waited to see how many more books I’d given away—and if my book’s ranking was holding at #1. My body felt anxious, excited, speedy. My mind and heart racing…. Thinking about it now as I write this, I see the image of a woman perched on the edge of her seat, compulsively feeding quarters into a slot machine in Vegas—and holding her breath as she waits to see if she’s hit the jackpot. This image, of course, was me during the promo. I was, essentially, riding an adrenaline rush—driven by my ambition to hit the jackpot of “success.”

But as exciting as it all felt, getting so caught up in trying to achieve—and maintain—”success” felt unhealthy (and downright icky). It took a good solid day before I was able to fully step back and see how entangled I’d become in the whole game.

And that’s when I recognized that I’d lost track of why it was so exciting that I was giving away so many books…. I’d been so busy tying my feelings of self-worth to the promotion’s “success”—that I’d lost touch with the whole reason I decided to do the promo in the first place: to share something of value with others.

On a related note…

Shortly after the promo ended, I happened to catch the documentary, “Decoding Deepak” on netflix, and I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. If you haven’t seen the flick, Deepak Chopra’s son follows Deepak around with a video camera as he flies around the world promoting his new book.

And guess what happens?….

(SPOILER ALERT) Deepak spends most of the movie obsessively checking his blackberry and talking about being on The New York Times Best Sellers List.

Ah, “success….”

Spreading the Words

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As I mentioned, last week, it’s been a fun (and productive) few weeks. I’ll be writing more about what I’ve learned from a mindfulness perspective in posts to come here on this blog—I’m sure. But today, I’m pleased to be sharing a couple of posts of mine that were recently published on other blogs:

The Huffington Post, “20 Tips to Help You Survive Your First Silent Meditation Retreat”

Elephant Journal, “The Moment I Chose Mindfulness”

Happy reading—and please help pass these posts along to other folks who might be interested!

Thanks so much and BE well….

jennifer

Stirring the Pot

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It’s been an interesting couple of weeks since I finished my mindful eating exploration. I’m more conscious of the foods I’m consuming now (and where they’re coming from)—I’ve even eliminated a few from my diet altogether (like white rice and red meat). And, I’m not sure if this is a direct correlation to my having just cleansed my body or not—but I’m feeling more focussed and aligned with my purpose than I think I ever have….

In the past week, I’ve managed to give away more than 3,200 free The Mindfulness Diaries: How I Survived My First Nine-Day Silent Meditation Retreat ebooks; the ebook made Amazon’s top 100 free ebooks list and landed #1 on both the free Memoir and the free Meditation ebooks list; I found out that two major internet publications will be publishing my writing about mindfulness (one actually just ran here); and I’ve started facilitating.

I’ve been contemplating everything that’s been happening lately—and as much as my ego would love to believe “I” was the “one” who MADE all these things happen, there’s a deeper part of me that knows it wasn’t about me somehow willing these results into existence. A constellation of circumstances, people, and occurrences contributed to all the positive outcomes mentioned above. And sure, I can take credit for bringing the elements together, but each element played its own significant part in the process—and the outcomes were never in my control.

In keeping within the recent food-related themes I’ve been writing about lately, it feels like I’m in the midst of “cooking” something new in my life—the circumstances, people and occurrences I mentioned above, acting like ingredients in a new recipe of sorts.

And contemplating this, it occurs to me that a cook doesn’t actually make the food she cooks. She collects all the elements needed to make a dish—the pots/pans, the individual ingredients, the stove, the utensils, the seasoning; she places them together in an orchestrated and (at least somewhat) deliberate dance—and then she steps back to let the magic happen. The chemical reactions that occur during the process of cooking actually create the dish. They’re a direct result of the cook’s actions to set them up. But the cook doesn’t actually make the chemical reactions happen by willing them to react.

When I cook a new dish, I tend to read a bunch of different recipes and then put the cookbooks away—borrowing what speaks to me from each separate recipe, maybe adding a few of my own touches into the mix—and then stepping aside and letting the magic happen. As long as I’m mindful about the process, adjusting the heat and adding a dash of this or a pinch of that as needed—I usually end up with something satisfying. And what’s happening in my life right now feels like a similar process.

One of the beautiful things about mindfulness, beyond helping me become more focussed, is that it’s helping me build an overall appreciation for (and feeling of satisfaction from) the process of life—and my place within that process. So, right now, I’m just doing my best to only add the ingredients that I’m clear I want in my life, to keep a watchful eye on everything—and then to step aside and let the magic happen.

And so far, it’s looking like the recipe I’m in the midst of concocting is going to churn out a satisfying meal (or at least a tasty side dish). But, even if it doesn’t—that’s ok, too. My life feels like a grand experiment these days. And I’m finally accepting that not everything I “cook” is going to be Michelin star worthy. Sometimes it might even end up being a recipe for disaster…But I’m cool with that—because there’s always something to be learned along the way (especially from the disasters).

I’m not exactly sure how this new “dish” of mine is going to turn out just yet. But I can tell you this much—something smells good….