Archive | compassion

Year to Live — Day 318 — My Grandma

This morning, I looked in the mirror, and out of it my maternal grandmother stared back at me. The same hair style, eyes, shape of face, the same expression, the same slightly dour down-turned mouth, the same wrinkles. A tear came into my eye. I miss my grandma. I love my grandma, and I know, from my memories of years ago, that my grandma loved me back.

My Grandmother, Safta Chaya, passed away twenty years ago in June of 1996. She had one of those cancers that can’t quite be pinpointed. I’m not sure anyone knew where or what kind exactly the cancer was. She just got sick, and then sicker, and then she died. I was so far away, here in the U.S. while she was in Israel, and I didn’t really manage to understand what it was she had. Even now, the entire progression of the disease and my grandmother’s eventual death are unclear to me. At age 24, I did not quite realize how much her death hit me, how much I cared, and how much I deserved to grieve.

Judaism has a wonderful custom for grieving: the Shiva. For seven days after the passing away of the person, the family congregates at the deceased’s house. Everyone comes: relatives and friends. In the more religious households, prayers are conducted at specific intervals. In other houses, the guests sit and tell or listen to stories. Often (and perhaps surprisingly), the atmosphere is not necessarily heavy with sorrow and tragedy (though those may be present). Rather, in most of the Shivas I attended, people seem to be suffused with gratitude for the community and the love and support that it presents, and with gratitude for the life of the person who has passed away.

I did not fly back to Israel to attend my grandmother’s Shiva, and so I cannot tell you what kind of Shiva my family held for her. Knowing my family from the maternal side, I suspect it might have been (and please don’t faint at my use of this next word) fun and full of humor and love. But thinking about my grandmother’s life, I begin to doubt. My grandmother Chaya (at least in the 24 years I knew her) led a lonely and sad life. A complicated life. Had there been guilt in the family’s mind about not making Safta Chaya’s life easier and happier? About not being there enough for her? I hope not. I hope that during the Shiva, the family were able to celebrate Safta Chaya’s life, and not just to pity or grieve it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandma lately, about how much I loved her and why I loved her, and about how I loved her despite the fact that she was not an easy woman to love. I remember the whole-wheat bread she used to bake from scratch (her father was a real baker with the horse and cart and everything, selling bread he’d baked through town) and some of the other food she’d serve me when I visited her. She used to heat the food in the toaster oven (which my dad probably got for her): vegetables which she cooked before slowly on the stovetop, rice, and sometimes sautéed mushrooms too. Once the food was warm, she’d mix each element with a little bit of oil to give it a freshness, a pizzaz. She would cut salad for us without using a cutting board, calmly and carefully slicing the veggies over the bowl into neat triangles. When we ate, sitting together in her little kitchen, the door to the small kitchen balcony right next to us, I would feel cherished and loved. I could tell it was all for me. I could tell she wanted me there, that she appreciated every moment of the visit. There was a tranquility in that kitchen which I experienced nowhere else in my life.

After lunch, my grandma would play the piano for me — she begun to play the piano when she was perhaps 60 or so years old. She did not play accurately or with a smooth flow, and it was sometimes difficult to listen to her — especially since I played the piano myself and knew what the music was supposed to sound like. But today… today I wish I had listened more. I wish I had asked more questions and heard more stories. I wish I had spent more time with her, this woman who I loved but who was a mystery to me. And I wish those things because I see so many lines of similarities between us. I sense the lines of ancestry that connect us. I recognize those facial lines that proclaim to the world that I am her granddaughter. But most of all, I know that my heart is somehow linked to hers.

I can see the cyclicality of life in my grandma, my mother, and myself. In my daughter. I can see each of us enacting roles that family, culture, history assigned to us. I can see the similarities with which we play these roles even as each of us struggles to find her own place and individuality within our inter-relationships. I am not my mother or my grandmother, and yet I am tied irrevocably to both, just as they are tied to me and my daughter to all of us. A hereditary line of mothers and daughters, passing along love and wisdom and hardship from one to the other.

From the mirror, this morning, my grandma’s eyes looked out at me, and as I realized how much I love her, I also realized how much more love and compassion there is room for me to give to me. My memories of my grandma remain locked up in the glass case of memories, like the one that held her special China set and her little glass figurines, clean of dust but somehow hazy. A faint smell of mothballs, paintings of my aunt from when she was a young woman, the yellow sofa which used to be orange when it stood in the living room, and the shutters, always slanted, shadowing the room against the hot Israeli sun.

My grandmother’s life lives on in us, her female descendants: soft and hard, easy and difficult, clear and confused, but always full of love. My mother and her sisters. Myself, my sister and our cousins. All of our daughters, the fourth generation already born. And beyond us, beyond the barrier of death, all of the grandmothers and mothers and daughters before my grandma, whose life influenced her own and through her ours. I can see them, each trying her best. I’m not sure what it means, all this interconnectedness, but I can see it, feel it in myself. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is here to remind me — and you — that we are ever loved, that we deserve to be loved, and that we are never alone.

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A Year to Live — Day 350

Getting Things Done

My daughter had the day off on Friday, and this meant I had a little more time in my usually-hurried-and-stressed-out morning. Most weekdays, but especially on Tuesday when both kids need lunches, I often feel  as though I am juggling pans, lunch boxes, chickens, dogs and my own needs under Jupiter-gravity conditions. On Friday, however, I leisurely set the alarm for a 45-minute meditation. I could have found, all too easily, other chores in the house that needed attention, but I forcibly subdued the urge to get one more thing off my list. Don’t Just Do Something, Sit there, is the humorous title of one of Sylvia Boorstein’s meditation-instruction books. I made the conscious choice to just sit there and not do.

When I came back to the kitchen 45 minutes later, however, my eyes fell on the to-do list, the one that’s been sitting on the counter for the past week. My heart sunk. That list’s been haunting me, remonstrating and reminding me I have not yet began to do several of the items on it. “When will you start?” It harangued me. “When will you finish?” And in an irritable tone: “You should have folded the laundry instead of sitting like some kind of bum.”
todo list
Perhaps the meditation had worked it’s magic and my mind was clear enough to see this, but as I breathed in and out, the realization struck me like lightning: No matter how much I work on my to-do list, it will never be completely done. There will always be more items that can be added to it. Whether it is small daily tasks like walking the dogs, cleaning the chicken coop, and unloading the dishwasher, or larger one-time tasks like coordinating the 7th grade bake sale or finishing my Bridge to Emergency Medical Responder class, the to-do list will never, ever stand on zero items. Never.

So why do I expect myself to get it all done?

When people die, I often hear relatives speak about the unfinished business the deceased had left behind. Some times it’s a messy house which the children need to clean up, pack up and dispose of. Some times it’s the details of the burial or the inheritance. I too, if I died today, will have died before signing my new will, which I’d been postponing for about a year now (though it is ready and waiting for me to sign). I wonder, though: does anyone ever die with all their business done, all the bills paid off, all documents settled, all chores completed, every single loose end tied?

This past week felt very stressful to me. Hassled and harassed, no matter how much I did, there was always more to be done. Like a clown trying to keep all the juggling balls in the air, I strove to extend my arms so I could reach all the chores at once. There may be times, I suppose, when it really is necessary to juggle more than one task at a time. Often, however, I wonder what is making me feel this desperate-and-all-encompassing need to “get things done.” What will happen if some balls/tasks were never picked up? What would happen if I picked some up and then dropped them? What would happen if someone else picked up a ball that I dropped? Will these be the big disasters I expect?

The clues to my struggle with the doing/non-doing are rooted deep in my cultural heritage. My maternal great-grandparents arrived in Israel with the reactionary immigration wave known as the Second Aliyah. These immigrants arrived steeped in socialist-zionist ideology, and many of their ways of seeing the world have lasted to the 21st century, creating the cultural environment, moral values and religious ethics with which I grew up. The Second Aliyah Jews believed in becoming a new kind of Jew whose spirituality was tied up with working the land. This belief, expounded by A. D. Gordon in the early part of the 20th century, eventually came to be called “the religion of labor.”

Labor as a religion. Get it?

If getting things done is akin to religious dogma, small wonder that I struggle so much with how much I get done. If I believe in the absolute truth of Doing, then even my just sitting there in meditation must show concrete results and consequences. Rest is dangerous. A nap is mortal sin. Letting someone else do my job is opening the door to the devil and all his brood.

And after all these words that I’ve just piled, I realize only three matter in the end: compassion and non-judgement. These words offer not a solution, but a truce of sorts: Can I be with the pain of the conflict between how I’ve been raised and how I choose to live my life without judging myself? Can I look on with compassion at all the tasks still gobbling up the space on the to-do list? And when I cannot take better care of myself in the midst of all these judgements and tasks, can I at least be compassionate for and not judge that?

….to be continued.

whitetara

White Tara, the goddess of compassion.

This exploration of my relationship to Doing is inspired by the class “A Year to Live” which I am taking at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in SF.

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My Television Dukkha (Suffering)

Sometimes I look at my children, and it seems to me they lead very strange lives. They go to school for most of every weekday, leaving home at 7:30am and returning only around 4pm — almost the equivalent of a full-time adult job. Once at home, they need to manage their time between after-school activities, such as basketball and football practice or gymnastics, and their homework, which could take as much as an hour-and-a-half every day. After the homework is complete, oftentimes the kids elect to sit in front of the television, the xBox or their iPads, staring at the screens for hours at a time.

Here’s what my and my sister’s life at their age looked like:

We had school from 8am to 2pm at the longest, often coming home at noon. We had homework, and I sure read a lot, but I spent a lot of time outside, in our garden or the street, playing. I also played the piano. My sister went to jazz and aerobics classes and took karate lessons. But we often played with friends. There was only one channel on television in Israel. For some two hours each afternoon the programming was only in Arabic, and in the evening, it was more for adults. And so, though we watched some television, our life was not focused on it, except perhaps somewhat during summer vacations, when there was more programming oriented to our age. But even then we spent most of the day playing with friends outside, reading (me), or going to the beach and the pool. We did not have a computer till I was in my teens, and even then, games were limited and the internet not invented yet. Our lives were focused on friends and on being outside, and, for me, on books.

When I look at my kids, I wonder what this indoor, screen-oriented life would look like when they’re adults. I worry that they are self-numbing. That they don’t really know what to do with their time other than this digital easy choice. The fear that as a parent I ought to control this better seizes me, and I feel desperate and hopeless at the same time. Somehow, whenever I talk to other parents, they don’t have this problem at all. “We hardly watch television,” one mother told me the other day. “She’s too busy with soccer practice,” said another.

Once school is done for the day, most kids around here head to sports practices, music lessons, horseback riding lessons, and many other after-school activities. Their time is so tightly scheduled that it is impossible to make plans for playdates during the week, and even the weekend is often tough. While admittedly riding horses or playing soccer does sound much better in every way (healthier, more educational, morally more correct perhaps) than watching television, I wonder sometimes if all these activities are simply another symptom of our non-stop society that is so afraid to pause for a moment and get bored.

This morning, I went to meditation practice at Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. I was tired, and my head kept whip-lashing as I fell asleep and woke up sitting on the pillow. I had looked forward to coming, eager for a half hour of uninterrupted quiet, a half hour of not needing to talk, not needing to do anything, a half hour of simply being in the moment, even if that moment was full of sleepiness. After the meditation, Robert Cusick spoke about the Eightfold Path and how to end suffering (dukkha in Pali). As he spoke, my listlessness transformed itself into a panic about this television issue. I was ruining the kids’ lives. I was not doing my duty by them. What kind of a parent was I? The image of my daughter staring at the television last night came to my mind, and my chest filled with such tightness, such desperation, such helplessness, that I wanted to jump out of my seat, to do anything except experience that.

In my mind, action was paramount. I was going to go back home and sit the kids down for a talk. No more television. Ever. Not on weekdays at least. I was going to talk to Dar about not getting Uri the Playstation he wanted for his birthday. That’s it. No more. I was done with screen time. I was going to be better this time. I’ll make them check-in their iPads in the kitchen. I would be on top of making sure the TV was always turned off. No computer for me either. Possibly not even for Dar. I will let them be bored. It’s better than this digitalization of our life. We’ll go to the pool instead, or I could schedule them some music lessons again. We will be a screen-free home. In my frenzy, I was no longer at the meditation hall. Instead, I was fighting the kids, fighting, in a way, against this awful sin it seemed to me that I was committing against their life.

Fortunately, Robert Cusick’s words interrupted my self-torture, bringing me back to the hall. He was telling a story about something that happened in a class he taught the other day. The class began, he said, with a guided meditation. As everyone was sitting, and he was already guiding them in the meditation, late-comers trickled in. The door opened and closed. Chairs creaked and scraped. Bags thumped down on the floor. Sound was happening, but he noticed some of the meditators were opening their eyes, glancing back. In our heads, he explained, a simple noise transforms into stories: who is coming? why are they late? don’t they know the class started already? don’t they know they’re interrupting the meditation? But it was just sound that was happening. Only sound. Nothing else. The rest were stories that were going on in people’s heads.

As Robert Cusick spoke, I suddenly understood. What was happening for me, thinking about the digital usage at home, was fear — fear that I am not a good enough mother. The rest was just stories that I was telling myself that I thought could happen in a future that hasn’t even happened yet. The need I felt to act, like the need the meditators felt to see who was coming, was a reaction to the fear, but there was no real, urgent need for me to act. If I acted now, I’d be acting from that fear and ignorance, from a place of heaviness and helplessness and despair. Instead, I can do what I’ve heard people talk about countless times in meditation: I can simply be with this fear. I can hold this fear and myself with compassion. I can experience it and see that it is just a fear, even if it does seem to me such a terrible, scary fear. And let go of the need to react.

Perhaps, once I’ve learned to hold my fear (this fear of not being a good enough mother) with compassion, I will be more capable of acting wisely with regards to the television/ipad/xbox situation at home. Right now, I realize I cannot. Right now, any action I take will not really be an action, but a REaction, and as such will probably go the way my resolutions regarding the TV had gone before: to guilt and more helplessness and fear. I have a long way to go in learning to hold this fear. It’s a big one for me. And so, for today at least, I’m not going to do anything except be kind to myself about it as much as I can. I’m going to trust that the sense of urgency I feel is a passing sensation. That this situation (which is largely in my imagination anyways) is not critical. That I cannot build or destroy anything in one day, and that the kids, god willing, will not be quite as irretrievably ruined as I fear by another digital day.

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Failure and Success

The other day I saw a flyer promoting a seminar by a local inspirational coach. In the flyer, a picture of a fork in the road proclaimed a choice: success this way; failure, the other. A choice, or a judgement about the road chosen? I thought when I saw the picture.
fork in the road

Paolo Coelho says in his book, The Alchemist: “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” Could it be that a path labeled “failure” lead to the achievement of dreams? And, faced, with such a fork as in the flyer’s picture, would any have the courage to follow a road that promises failure? “I have not failed,” said Thomas Edison in describing his many attempts to create an economical, safe lightbulb. “I’ve just found ten thousand ways that don’t work.” Edison followed a trial-and-error method that led to an objective result, the invention of a lightbulb, and he apparently cared not which sign, success or failure, would label his choice whenever he reached a fork in his experimental road.

Interestingly, the two paths in the picture on the flyer were completely identical, mirror images. We could switch the “failure” and “success” signs and none would be wiser. Could it be, I wondered, that both paths lead to the same place? Could it be that it is the signs that differentiate between the roads, that the roads themselves are the same? Are we confusing the judgement that we pass on the enjoyment or suffering that we experience on the road with the road itself? I was reminded of a favorite quote from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love:

“You have been to hell, Ketut?” He smiled. Of course he’s been there.
“What’s it like in hell?”
“Same like in heaven,” he said. He saw my confusion and tried to explain. “Universe is a circle, Liss.” He said. “To up, to down — all same, at end.”
I remembered an old Christian mystic notion: As above, so below. I asked, “Then how can you tell the difference between heaven and hell?”
“Because how you go. Heaven, you go up, through seven happy places. Hell, you go down, through seven sad places. This is why it better for you to go up, Liss.” He laughed. “Same-same,” he said. “Same in end, so better to be happy in journey.”
I said, “So, if heaven is love, then hell is…?”
“Love, too,” he said.
Ketut laughed again. “Always so difficult for young people to understand this!”

There is so much judgement about failure and success, about the right and wrong way to go, about the choices we make. But our destination, where we end up, is not so different, no matter which road we take. Whether through suffering or joy, all roads lead to the same place: to self growth. Like the choice recommended by Elizabeth Gilbert’s teacher, the only real choice I’d like to follow is to walk in the road that brings me the most happiness. In James Baraz’s book, Awakening Happiness, one of the steps to happiness is practicing compassion. And what better way could I choose than to be compassionate with myself in all of my various endeavors, whether any would want to dub them success or failure, in all of the various choices of road?

Finally, another of my favorite quotes. This time from Abraham: “I am where I am, and it’s ok.” I am where I am, and it’s ok. I wish to make my own mistakes and feel compassion for my own suffering when I err. I wish to recognize my own gratitude and joy. And I wish for you, and for that inspirational coach, and of course for myself, the ability to let go of judgement, of signs and labels of failure or success. Just walk the path, enjoy the road. It is beautiful out there. The grass is green. The birds are singing. It’s the best path there is: the one to self growth.

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For Today Only, Be Compassionate

whitetaraWhenever I feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or sad, I go to my meditation corner and sit for a while. I set up my meditation corner with a green, satiny pillow on a yoga mat, facing the White Tara tapestry my parents brought back from one of their trips to India or Tibet or Nepal. The room where I sit also serves as our storage space, and my pillow thus faces, in addition to White Tara, four bicycles (from small to large), a car bike rack, some deflated balls in a box, and a towering filing cabinet. But the clutter does not seem to matter. The meditation pillow has become my haven of peace and quiet, a place where I can rest my thoughts, or at least slow to a halt my physical body if my thoughts persist in slipping in and out of my mind.

White Tara, the goddess in my tapestry, is a Buddhist deity who represents the motherly aspect of compassion as well as truth, purity and wisdom. She has seven eyes to show her vigilance and ability to see all the suffering in the world. The tapestry had been hanging in that corner of the room for years now, and while I always loved the way White Tara looked, I did not think to invite her to participate in my spiritual practice till a few months ago.

If anything, rather than compassion, I was ever accompanied by the judging voice of a Critic. This voice has been especially disruptive in my writing. So many times I’ve given up on what I had written, thinking it was awful, only to come back to it months later and discover that it was not bad at all. Through therapy and after reading Tara Brach’s life-changing book, Radical Acceptance, I slowly became aware of this Critic and his dictatorial rule over me. Fortunately, knowing the problem is half the solution. Rather than reject the Critic, I decided to invite him in closer. Yes, it was difficult to listen to this voice, but the fact was, I knew the Critic was a part of me. I wanted to accept this part, but how? Criticism does not equal feedback and rarely serves as encouragement. Perhaps, I realized, the Critic and I could learn to be a little gentler with my other, more sensitive, creative parts if we treated ourselves and each other with compassion.

I’ve been practicing in the room next to the tapestry for a while, longing for peace and quiet and not always finding it, before I figured it out. I wanted to be more compassionate to myself, and here was White Tara, goddess of compassion, watching me! What if I asked her to bless my practice with compassion, to help me be more compassionate to myself? And so I asked. And she had answered.

These days, whenever I feel frustrated, sad or overwhelmed, I go sit in the warmth of White Tara’s compassion. I’m pretty sure that her compassion and love are beginning to rub on me. Certainly, her presence has become my haven, my retreat. Where before meditation seemed a duty, something I was repeatedly encouraged to do but preferred to avoid, now I wait for the moment I can go and sit. From a woman who rarely slowed down,here I am, enjoying a daily pause.

Here are my tips for building your own compassion-filled meditation space and practice:

1. Your meditation corner doesn’t need to be perfect! Any old space could do, as long as you bring compassion into it. My corner is cluttered and hardly private, but when I close my eyes and feel compassion for myself for not having a better space, it becomes sacred and just enough perfect.
2. Invite White Tara, Kwan Yin, or any other deity who brings compassion and love with her (or him) to help. Meditating requires so much self compassion! Jack Kornfield compares meditation to training a puppy. You tell the puppy to sit, and the puppy wanders off and pees in the corner. You tell the puppy to sit again, and it goes off to bark up a tree. Have compassion for your poor mind, your puppy. It’s interested in many things. Bring your attention back to your breath or the belly, pat your mind a little to let it know you love it, and let the cycle of quieting the thoughts start again.
3. Even if thoughts persist in sucking you in, having the body be still for a while is worth the meditation. Pausing physically is as important as pausing the mind. Our bodies deserve to rest too, you know.
4. Expect your meditation to be different each time you sit. Sometimes I sit, and twenty minutes or half an hour pass by in a second. Other times I find myself peeking at the clock every two minutes, hardly believing that only two minutes have passed. Sometimes my mind is quiet and clear like a High Sierra lake, and at other times it is muddy and stormy and restless. Whatever it is, the best way is to accept it with — guess what? — compassion!

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The Reiki-Chihuahua Five Precepts

Over 43 million dogs live in homes around the United States. I personally own three of those. Kathleen Prasad, Reiki master and owner of Animal Reiki Source, calls pets our animal teachers, but I had my doubts. My less-than-impressive chihuahuas did not seem likely candidates for imparting wisdom. Then, one day, I found myself explaining the five Reiki precepts to a friend by using Chaim, Nati and Percy as an example. Turns out, they have a lot to teach, and I have a lot to learn.

1. For Today Only, Do Not Anger
I never get really angry, or rather, I should say I rarely realize that I am angry. I fear anger, and so I often bury it deep beneath the surface where, unrecognized and mishandled, it turns into hopelessness and despair.

During our walks, the puppies get mad at every passing dog. They  turn into a raging whirlwind of blood-thirsty canine storm. I drag them forward, ashamed of my inability to control them, and just like that, with the other dog left behind, they are little angels again. They never hold a grudge. They never stay angry for more than a second.  They are experts at living in the moment and letting go.

2. For Today Only, Do Not Worry
Worry lines crease my forehead permanently now. I constantly worry about the children’s well being. I worry about the future, and I worry about the past. Even telling myself, “Just for today, do not worry,” does not quite do the job.

The puppies get worried too. You should see Chaim’s little face whenever he sees me pack a bag. He knows that I am about to go away, and his eyes follow me as I move about the room, seeming to ask: “Must you go?” Sometimes he stays sad for a little bit after I leave, but he is a cheerful little creature, like the other two, and he soon lets go his worries in his other responsibilities as a dog: keeping the house safe from passers-by and UPS deliverymen.

3. For Today Only, Be Humble
Every time I dread meeting someone or am afraid of what my performance will be like, I can feel my ego stretching to take control. Perhaps I ought to retreat back into my turtle shell, it suggests. But I remind myself: Be Humble. Be ever ready to embarrass myself.

For the puppies, humility comdogs sunninges naturally. They beg for food. They lie on their backs, exposing their bellies in hopes of a petting. They do not imagine that they are a lion (except when they meet a bigger dog) or that they can defeat the world. They have no ego about success or failure. They simply know they are who they are, and it’s ok.

4. For Today Only, Be Honest in Your Work
Every morning I groan with the thought of the chores awaiting me. I need to put away the dishes, clean the chicken coop, make dinner. If only I had a Mary Poppins magical umbrella, or better yet, a wand! Sometimes I finish everything that needs to be done, and sometimes I’m just too tired, lazy or distracted, and those chores are left for another day.

The puppies, in contrast, are always honest in their work. You will never hear them say, “I already got up twice today to bark at people walking down the street. Now it’s your turn.” They are never too tired or busy to come to the door when I arrive. Chaim jumps up and down, Nati dances the hula on his back legs, and Percy runs around in circles. Every. Single. Time.

5. For Today Only, Be Compassionate to Yourself and Others
I love this precept. I’ve engraved it on my heart and try to live by it. But being compassionate, especially to myself, does not come naturally to me. At first reaction, I am often critical, judgmental, or simply not in the mood to be understanding, and sometimes even after I remind myself to be compassionate, I just cannot.

Compassion truly defines what it means to be a dog. Unlike us humans, dogs are always compassionate to themselves. They live by their needs and inner motivators: “I need, therefore I am.” They are ever compassionate to us too. Even when I least like myself, my dogs still love me. They love me happy, and they love me sad. They even love me when I’m mad at them. They simply are a compassionate body, mind and heart.

A children’s poem titled “Loyalty,” by an unknown poet, reads:

You can’t buy loyalty, they say,
I bought it, though, the other day.
You can’t buy friendships, tried and true,
Well just the same, I bought that too.
I made my bid and on the spot
Bought love and faith and a whole job lot
Of happiness, so all in all
The purchase price was pretty small.
I bought a single trusting heart,
that gave devotion from the start.
If you think these things are not for sale,
Buy a brown-eyed puppy with a wagging tail.

I did not buy my puppies. All three are rescues. The loyalty, friendship and love came built-in their little bodies. Usui Mikao called the Reiki ideals the secret to health and happiness, and I have my three canine teachers to show me the way.

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In Favor of Belly Liberation

In the MBA program I attended in Israel, I had a brilliant, funny, and really hot Strategic Games professor. One day in class he asked us the following questions:

“How many of you suck in your stomachs while wearing a bathing suit?”
The response: Lots of titters, red faces, one hesitant hand (not mine, of course).

“How many of you suck in your stomach while wearing shorts?”
A few nodding heads, some hands (not mine, of course).

“Do any of you suck in your stomach while wearing a coat?”
Full-out laughter. Most everyone shaking their heads.

“Does anyone suck in his or her stomach all the time?”
Lots of uncomfortable shifting in the chairs.

Our world is a flat, six-pack-stomached world. In our dreams, of course. It is a world in which tanned, six-feet tall women with concave bellies weigh a mere one-hundred-and-twenty pounds and jog on the beach in skimpy bikinis, hand in hand with even more tanned, six-pack-stomached, six-foot-seven tall men. On television commercials, at least. If we want to fit in with this make-believe world, we need — a diet? or, quite plain and simple, to suck in our tummies.

For one moment, close your eyes and imagine a world of people sucking in their tummies. Imagine the constriction, the pressure, as we refuse to let those bellies have some air. Imagine the mark left by button on skin made by wearing too-tight jeans. Ask yourself, just for this moment, what would happen if we allowed ourselves to breathe into our bellies, to expand them and make room for all our fabulous inner organs? The belly is the very center of our being. What would happen if we let it just be the way it was born to be?

Frans and Bronwen Stiene, authors of The Japanearch bellyse Art of Reiki, often mention a point three inches below the navel. This point is called Hara in Japanese and literally means belly. The Stienes refer to it as the Earth Center. This is what the Stienes write about the Hara in one of the articles on their website: “Energy is stored at this point from where it expands throughout the whole body. This is the energy you are born with, the energy that is the essence of your life and gives you your life’s purpose and stamina. It is not just the energy that you receive from your parents when you are conceived but most importantly it is the energetic connection between you and universal energy.” Yet most of us constrict that energy all day long by sucking in our bellies.

I am self conscious about my belly. I’ve written about it before. I wish I had that concave belly without stretch marks. But this is the belly I was born with, the belly that shows the marks of my children’s births as well. It is my belly, and I do so wish I could be proud of it, that I could breathe into it to my heart’s content without thinking how many months pregnant it makes me look. I wish that instead of worrying about fitting in with absurd social norms, I would only breathe in and out with the energy of the world.

There are so many wonderful round things in our world: the sun, the earth, an orange, a pregnant belly, a bowling ball. Perhaps it is time for the round revolution, from concave to convex. A belly liberation. The freedom to inhabit our bodies in every shape and form.

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Gift of Love

In elementary school, I was a social outcast. I was not alone, of course. I was the bespectacled, nose-dripping outcast, but there were also the fat outcast, the too-tall outcast, the too-short outcast, and a boy and a girl who were outcasts apparently only because of their race. My class was extremely hierarchical, with three class queens and three kings, and we stayed the same group for five years, with the same kings and queens and the same outcasts.

A few days ago I was listening to Tara Brach’s True Refuge. The author was telling the story of Amy, who had a difficult childhood with a mother who neglected and rejected her. In her sessions with Tara, Amy managed to experience the anger which she had kept in check for years and to express the fears beneath: of never finding love, of not being worthy of love, of being alone in the world. Tara called it experiencing soul sadness.

In that moment, for a split second, I saw myself as a bleeding, mucusy, open wound, a whole-body sore. And I realized: This is how I walk around. This is what I am hiding. In my mind’s eye, I instantly knew when it started. Elementary school.

We switched seats that day, and the teacher partnered me with Matat, one of the class queens. In front of the class, Matat said: “I don’t want to sit next to her.”  But the teacher insisted, and as Matat slid into the seat next to mine, she whispered: “Stop sneezing and wiping your nose like that.”

Other than that split-second knowledge that I was a trembling, bleeding, mucusy, open wound, I had not been able to feel any emotion about this event. It was as though I had no feelings about it at all. I knew I needed to heal the wounded body and clear the hurt from my heart by forgiving Matat, but I could feel no real hurt and no compassion for her, and without any emotions, I didn’t know if it was possible to forgive at all.

I decided to try a forgiveness meditation (also from Tara Brach’s book). I settled myself into my cushion and slipped into my body thirty years ago: thick glasses covering half of my face, light brown hair twisted into two long but messy braids, a drippy, red nose, and a skinny body. And there was Matat, refusing to sit next to me, and a heaviness choked my throat.

All I wanted was to be loved, to be appreciated. Scooting down in the chair, I held the sneezes back and tried hard not to wipe my nose before absolutely necessary. There was no room for me to exist. I could feel the weight on my back (ah, said a voice in my grown-up head, that’s when you became a turtle), in my throat, in my heart.

Holding that little girl with compassion, sending her love, I began to murmur a lovingkindness meditation. May you be happy, may you be well, may you be filled with lovingkindness and joy. Then, realizing turtlethat she is me, I started anew: may I be happy, may I be well; may I be filled with compassion for myself and others.

Matat means gift in Hebrew. As I went through the meditation, I realized that by forgiving her, I am giving myself a gift. A gift of love.

I hug to my heart the wounded little girl I was thirty years ago and begin to let go of rejection and shame. As space clears in my heart, and I allow myself to expand into it, healing all hurt. I hold myself as a child and whisper: I am here; I love you; I appreciate your wisdom and originality, your quirky sense of humor, the doodles on your notebook, and the used tissues thrown about everywhere.

Then, I am ready:

I feel the harm that has been caused, Matat, and to the extent that I am able, I forgive you.

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The Egotistic, Egomanic, Egophobic Ego

Lately, I’ve been contemplating my relationship with my ego. “You must work to minimize your ego,” one of my teachers told me. I interpreted his words to mean that I think too much of how I look to others. My overlarge, overactive ego was preventing me from doing anything that might make me look ridiculous or foolish. I realized that the size of my ego was keeping me from trying new things and having fun. I saw myself like a huge hot air balloon that must pop in order for me to become who I really am.

I watched other people, who were able to be ridiculous, tell jokes, make faces, fool around, and decided they did not have an ego. How freeing, not to have an ego! How I wished I could get rid of mine.

I tried to pay attention to when my ego was speaking to me, to recognize its evil, hampering voice. But the more I pushed my ego away, the more present it became. I pushed, and it pushed back at me.

Here is something I learned in the last few years: Pushing does not work. Resistance is futile. The only force strong enough to wreak change is love. But could this be true? Could the only way to minimize the ego turn out to be love? And if I love my ego, would I still want it to go away?
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Tara Brach, in her book True Refuge, tells a story about the metamorphosing power of love: The Buddha’s disciples once went on retreat to a forest that was haunted with tree spirits. The tree spirits, angry that their home was invaded, taunted the monks with terrifying visions and finally scared them away. The monks returned to the Buddha, but to their surprise, he told them they must return to the forest. Before sending them back, he gave them a powerful tool for their protection: a lovingkindness meditation. The monks returned to the forest, armed with goodwill and love, and soon their love penetrated every nook and cranny of the forest, turning the angry spirits into kind and loving ones.

But how do I give love to the egotistic, egomanic ego? I started to notice the wonderful things the ego does for me. Not only is it always on guard, protecting me from looking like an idiot, but it also has, of everyone around me, the highest opinion of my self worth. My ego, quite literally, adores me!

Perhaps not surprisingly, googling “How to love my ego” brings about 43 million results. I guess I’m not the only one with this question. Some are titled “Kill Your Ego,” or, “Don’t Let Your Ego Interfere With Your Relationship.” But others speak about accepting all aspects of ourselves, whether we like them or not, or about how loving our ego teaches us to love our whole being. They remind us that fearing the ego — the egophobic ego — comes from the ego itself.

I wonder if we could change our perspective of this vulnerable, child-like aspect of ourselves. Instead of saying selfishness, we could say: Self Worth. Instead of saying self centeredness, say: Self Care. Instead of squashing the ego, we could love it. We don’t have to follow its advice, but listening to it is free, freeing and fulfilling, allowing for a surer step on our path.

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The Shoemaker’s Shoes

shoesWe have a saying in Israel: “The shoemaker goes barefoot.” As a child, I found this saying curious. Why, I wondered, does the shoemaker go barefoot? Does he (let’s assume for a moment he is a man) have no time to make himself shoes? Or perhaps not enough materials? Or is he so poor that he cannot afford to have even the barest pair of shoes? I imagined the shoemaker in his dark den, bent over chicken-skin shoes with cardboard soles, his feet bare and curled beneath him. He could never leave his den — I knew this with certainty — because where would he go without shoes?

The shoeless shoemaker comes to remind us to use our expertise on ourselves, to care for ourselves. Think, for example, how easy it is to see solutions for our friends’ problems, but not so easy when those problems are our own! How much easier to point out their faults and the way they could fix them, but not so easy when it is we who have to do the fixing.

When I was divorced eight years ago, a friend told me that I needed to spend an hour each day doing something for myself. A joke, surely. With a two-year old and a five-year old, no mother in the world has time to do something for herself for five minutes! The seed, however, was received into the fertile earth of my mind. I began to notice how much I was neglecting myself. I was a barefoot shoemaker giving a lot of love to the children and none to myself.

I realized, over time, not only that my energy reserves were gone, but that I had no tools for refilling them. Slowly I began to build a plan for making myself shoes — fur-lined (faux, of course) and with a sturdy sole that would mold to my foot. Here are some of my favorite shoemaking tools:

  1. Giving myself a hug. It might feel weird at the beginning, but hey, the kids love my hugs, so why could not I enjoy my hug abundance as well?
  2. Waking up early in the morning, before the kids get up, and making myself a sumptuous breakfast and eating it while reading a romance.
  3. Giving myself Reiki and the self-care Maya abdominal massage.
  4. Taking fifteen minutes in the middle of the day to nap or to lie on the sofa and read.
  5. Watering my plants outside (my mother always says that watering the plants is a great way to cheer yourself up).
  6. Taking a bath (I like to put epsom salts in it and bring along my book and a glass of water).
  7. Cleaning the chickens coop (watching those peaceful being as they peck calmly around their pen just makes me happy).
  8. Getting a manicure-pedicure — how fun is that! Or a massage.
  9. Having a cup of tea, especially with milk (I take almond milk, but still).
  10.  Getting together with a friend. Even lone wolves like me need some social time.

Mostly, I try to notice when I make myself shoes or are given shoes by others. Sometimes those are flip-flops, like a peck on the cheek from my daughter before she disappears in her room, or the excitement of the dogs when I come home. Sometimes those are excellent, sturdy, long-lasting shoes, as when I go on vacation to Hawaii or Yosemite or backpacking in the woods. I use that love, those shoes, to fill up my reserves. To love and to cherish, we say in the wedding ceremony, and I think perhaps cherishing the love is what “a shoemaker with shoes” really means.

What tools do you use to give yourself love?

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109