Whimsy Within Blog

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Power in the Pause

I wake today to a gray sky that mirrors the shadow in my own heart. The fingertips of softly falling rain reach indoors to tap me on the shoulder, reminding me to pause. I have things planned, the to-do list, but the weather suggests my plans can wait. Today, I will be still, be present, be at home, and I will snuggle in. It’s that kind of day.

I browse through my collection of cookbooks for a coffee cake recipe. I find three in “A Taste of Georgia.” The female bakers sign their names, “Mrs. John Smith (Betty),” “Mrs. Dale Brown (Irma),” Mrs. Bill Mason (Barbara),” their first names follow in parenthesis as if a mere afterthought. I’m not quite satisfied with just one recipe, so I create my own, combining the best aspects of each. I want to give Betty, Irma, and Barbara primary credit, so I call my version “BIB’s Coffee Cake.”

The house is quiet but for the gentle stream of ambient music flowing from a meditation channel in Pandora. The music alone makes me pause. I gather my utensils and assemble selected ingredients from the three recipes. I am a chemist with a beaker and a Bunsen burner. My lab coat is a softly worn kitchen smock, patterned with large, lacy white roses on a dusty gray background with four snaps down the front. It belonged to my Aunt Gloria. When I remove it from the drawer I pause to think of her. I lay the smock out on the kitchen island, lean over, and rest my torso on top of it. I sprinkle it with a few of my tears, put it on, and get to work.

cosmos seedsWhile the cake is baking I sort through a mess of flower seeds scattered on the shelf below my cookbooks. I sort them by annual or perennial and place them in individually labeled envelopes. I find a package of cosmos and wildflowers along with a letter from a very special friend, gone now five years. It begins with “Hi Sweetie, Love ya!” That makes me smile. I pause to remember my dear friend and caress the paper over my heart while I whisper with longing, “Hello, Snookie. I sure miss you.”

When I am positioned at my desk to write, “The Pocket Pema Chodron” book is waiting for me. Filled with some of her most memorable and pithy teachings, it rests to the right of my keyboard, another reminder to pause. I flip randomly and land at page 88. It’s teaching #53, “When things fall apart.” It reads:

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and they fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

It is during the pause that I create the room for things to just be. It is during the pause that I tenderly contemplate the experiences of others. It is during the pause where the scent of cinnamon baking in the oven becomes not just a passing familiarity, but a deep connection to the earth that grips you with a sense of holy gratitude. It is during the pause that I pay homage to the profound worth of those dearest to me, both here and gone. It is during the pause that I open the door to my heart and allow it to heal. It is during the pause that I welcome and see a vast canvas of emotion filling me with gifts unbounded. It is during the pause that life truly happens.

What makes you pause?

cake and coffee

 

 

 

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Equanimity or Indifference

Equanimity is one the most magnificent qualities one can cultivate according to several spiritual and religious practices. It is not the outcome of a passing mood or sentimental experience. Mature equanimity is not ruled by the changing seas of emotions, but it is an unshakable balance of mind and heart that grows naturally from years of adhering to disciplined training practices. In Yogic or Buddhist traditions, the character of equanimity can be met and strengthened with the additional practices of pranayama (breathing exercises) and asana (yoga postures).

Bhikkhu Bodhi, a Theravadin monk, and scholar defines equanimity as, “…a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset… [It] is freedom from all points of self-reference, indifferent to the demands of the ego-self with its craving for pleasure and position.”

Some people mistakenly believe that equanimity means being aloof or neutral, when in fact, mature equanimity blossoms with radiance and warmth. It protects us from the tumultuous winds of ever-changing emotion and circumstance. If we are too caught up in our successes we can become arrogant. If we believe we are failures, we cause ourselves pain. If we compare ourselves to others, which happens all too often in this small, global world in which every minute detail of our lives is visible to others (she has more ‘likes’ than me, he has more ‘friends’ than me, they do more things than we do, their house is nicer, her hair is prettier), our investment in seeking praises will manifest conceit and inflate the ego to such a circumference that the afflicted wails out with self-righteous preaching about their egos ability to keep their ego under control. It’s a ridiculous battle not won without the presence of equanimity. 

zen pebblesLife continually moves us through contrasting emotions and experiences. Whether success and failure, happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain, hope and fear, disappointment and satisfaction, praise and blame, these tides of emotion scatter us all over the coastline like fragmented and fragile seashells. We finally pull ourselves together only to watch as a new wave approaches in the distance to once again steal our balance. It is clearly difficult to maintain a steadfast mental and emotional posture but imperative that we find the way to sail our vessel in fair winds and following seas. 

The demon to equanimity is indifference. We may think we appear serene when we cast off disturbances—“I’m done with him,” or “I could care less about that”—and we may even fool ourselves into believing that we are at peace with such callous dismissals and therefore released of any uncomfortable energy. But such indifferences are based on fear and cover our inner light with a thick dullness. It is easy to accept the beautiful things of this world and terrifying to accept the rest. We must examine our roles. Are we really always the victim? Or can we perhaps own a sense of responsibility?  Equanimity is vital to spiritual growth, and spiritual growth works with the obstacles, not against them. True equanimity is a balanced engagement with all of it. It embraces the plethora of tumultuous waves by allowing us to be fully present and in harmony with the motion. 

So how do we go about cultivating these qualities of equanimity—mental calmness, evenness of temper, composure? How do we nurture psychological stability in difficult situations?

  • Maintain a regular practice of meditation. A well-developed mind supports our mental stability just as a physical workout lends strength to the body.
  • Live with integrity. Be confident with our words and actions. 
  • Pay attention to our reactive habits. Observe the things that make us want to lash out or judge, and become mindful of how we respond.
  • Understand the nature of impermanence. Things change so quickly in our lives it is most often not worth clinging to what will soon no longer be. 
  • Practice self-care. It is appropriate to enhance our sense of well-being, and it can be done in the smallest of ways. Stop. Look. Breathe. Or drink tea, nothing else. Just. Drink. Tea.
  • Give up excessive thoughts of ego-centered self. Release the preaching dialog of “I believe this, I do that, I am this way, I will always.” First of all, no one probably cares how highly we think of ourselves, and furthermore, the world doesn’t revolve around us individually. It will only survive through our collective spirits.
  • Settle into wisdom. Understand that people’s actions (our own included) do not always define them. Genuinely accept differences of opinion. If we don’t take things so personally, we are more likely to sustain an even temper.  Who among us has not engaged in confidential dialog with a perceived enemy in our mind only to later realize that the demon battled was illusory?
  • And finally, be honest. Being honestly aware of what makes us imbalanced will bring us a greater freedom to develop a vigilant and loving presence of mind.

It takes nothing less than a courageous heart to look deep beneath the surface of our own limited and often disfigured ideologies. Equanimity is the crown jewel that will pay tribute to the sovereign peace that reigns in each of us.

colorful yogi med

“May all circumstances serve to awaken our hearts and minds,

especially those circumstances we deem to be challenging,

and may our lives be of benefit to all beings.”

~ Buddhist prayer


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A New Heart

largeAnd so it ends, this tumultuous year of 2017. Do I dare to breathe a sigh of relief only to inhale deeper while buckling up with uncertainty into yet another orbit of the earth around the sun? I want to be cheerful, gay, frivolous, the life of the party, and all those standard traditional things we are supposed to share at the dawning of a new year whether we mean it or not. But, I can’t. Honestly, I am so tired, and I feel so miserably sad that I can’t even pretend to feel hopeful. I am spent. 

I am sickened by the ignorance and lack of compassion, the stubborn stupidity of party line thinking, the lies, the closed minds that continue blindly through their privileged lives with blatant disregard for the well-being of others, and the dark revealing of a swath of people who mistakenly think our country is only about them. I believe I have lost three-quarters of my stomach since the onset of 2017. I fear my heart is soon to follow.

A few days ago, I was taken to the ER via ambulance.  A pain in the center of my upper chest and stomach, where the ribs meet, actually propelled me to the living room floor, face-down in agony. It radiated into my back. It literally took my breath away. I didn’t know if I would die from the pain or from not being able to breathe. The image that came to mind was the creepy snake-like creature from the movie Alien that burst through the guy’s chest. That’s how painful it was. I kid you not. I had this same experience about three years ago. This time was worse by far.

After two doses of morphine in the ambulance, two more in the hospital, and one dose of Toradol, I was able to stop thrashing around on the hospital gurney long enough for the medical team to run all the standard tests. Everything came back normal. It always does. I’m as healthy and fit as I have ever been. Physically, there is nothing wrong with me. That directs me to what I know now and knew then, was my biggest ailment.

images (2)It is said that stress is a killer. Plain and simple. I believe it. I won’t blame it all on the year 2017, for there are several factors that have contributed to my stress and anxiety throughout current, as well as years past. Many are things we all deal with on a daily basis. Many are personal to me and will, for now, remain so. After my recent hospital scare, I’ve been thinking long and hard about upping my efforts at meditation, self-care, and self-compassion. I must apologize to my heart and take better care. I had the epiphany that I am the only person able to unconditionally count on to make my life work. I am responsible to work out my own salvation without depending upon others. People let you down. Strangers. Acquaintances. Friends. Family. That said, I have spent the past three days living mindfully, determined to incorporate this precious quality of life-enhancing practice into my life. I have eaten well (although lightly), drank tons of herbal teas, slept often, listened to guided meditations and motivational podcasts, marveled at the beautiful white fallen snow, collected bird data for Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab from watching the flutter of activity at my backyard feeders, put on new warm slippers, snuggled into my fuzziest and softest sweater, read all sorts of books and painted my first watercolor piece.

I know I must proceed with caution for it has been my experience more times than I care to remember where I have been on a dangerous precipice of not knowing what to share and with whom to share it. It’s risky business, this sharing. Writers are courageous, and it makes them vulnerable. Vultures are waiting to swallow you when a moment of human weakness takes hold. “Kiss my ass,” I say. Haters and bullies get cheap thrills by targeting your beliefs – “That’s not very zen,” they sneer. Again, I say “kiss my ass.” And I mean it.

downloadI teach yoga, study spiritual texts, meditate, eat healthily, drink green tea, use aromatherapy diffusers, burn incense, attend silent retreats, care for the environment, volunteer for those in need. I’m not supposed to say things like “kiss my ass.” I’m not supposed to get rattled or angry. I don’t know who made that boxed-in rigid rule, but let’s just purge that baby right here and now. I know a few such smug yogis (or Christians, or Jews, or atheists or assholes) like this. I also know they’re full of shit. Oops, there I go again.

I do not live in a Hallmark movie. I live in a buried treasure chest of diversity – filled with jewels, gold trinkets, broken and tarnished pieces of everything imaginable, some rusting to corrosion and some golden gleaming. I have good days, bright moments, exceptional experiences, dark shadows, and several secrets.

My heart instantly breaks into shards of glass for those who are hurting, and yet it amazes me that I have the concealed potential to use those same sentimental shards to harm those who I deem hurtful. I lose my breath at the simplistic beauty of a silhouetted tree in the midst of a field at dusk or wonder about the sullen stories hidden in power lines sagging from the eaves of dirty shingled row houses along small-town Main Streets. I succumb to miserable weakness in questioning my own character and integrity, knowing there are hungry wolves out there, just waiting, salivating at the mouth, to ferociously pounce upon any personal flaw I may reveal. But I have guts when it comes to fiercely defending the character, rights, and integrity of others.

I am mouthy, loud, gutsy, glorious, soft, brutally honest, fragile, colorful, mindful, grateful, strong, compassionate, opinionated, flawed, awesome. I am a wonder. I will be nothing less. My power lies in being the complete authentic me, every single step of the way, every single day that I figure it out, wishing 2018 will bring a new direction and the very longed-for hope back into my life.

download (2)As I await its arrival, I will add extra color to the palette. I’ll try to give up striving for perfection. I will no longer make excuses for other people’s bad and abusive behavior. I will no longer cover up for other people’s lack of responsibility, or worse, take the blame for it. I will not allow others to manipulate and gaslight me into thinking my behavior and feelings are irrational or too sensitive or “not very zen.” I will guard my vulnerabilities a little more against the cruel and dangerous people who tuck them away to use against me at a later time. I will no longer doubt myself but instead will trust my gut instinct. I will always reclaim my reality when someone tries to muddle it with a need for control. I will stand up for my beliefs and the beliefs of others. I will not cower behind them. I will not roll over into submission so someone can rub my belly and say “good doggie.” I will speak my truth. I will share my truth. And so help me God, before all is said and done, I will bare my truth.

And I will continue to tend to my heart, my precious, gentle, fragile heart as I delicately define the lines, curves, and grooves of my most authentic sculpted self.

The Four Limitless Prayer
May all living beings have happiness
and the cause of happiness;
May all be free from sorrow
and the cause of sorrow;
May all never be separated
from the Bliss that is sorrowless;
May all live in equanimity,
free from attachment and aversion.

How do you heal your heart?

(Some thoughts previously shared in a blog post from January 2017)


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Luxury

oxygenMy friend needs a ride to the hairdresser. She has to sit frequently. She gasps for breath and coughs from the 30+ years of being a smoker. She doesn’t like the way her new tank ‘pulses’ intermittently instead of releasing a steady stream of oxygen. But the tank with the steady stream empties quickly. It costs too much money to keep refilling it so often. She can’t afford it, this luxury of comfortable breath.

b8

Cool

I think of the days when I was a smoker. A cool, hip teenager. Years ago. The corners of my mouth turn down in disgust at the thought of smoking again and polluting the new healthy version of my temple body. A shiver of disappointment in my past unwise choices rattles down my spine. My breathing exercises during yoga classes would be labored if I were still a smoker. But now, I breathe deeply, completely. I fill my lungs and fully exhale through a series of pranayama breath practices. Each breath a precious gift. I am grateful for my desire and the accompanying discipline to quit all those years ago. I am grateful for the luxury of my comfortable breath.       

But I wonder as I sit in the waiting area at the hair salon inhaling toxic chemical fumes, will those days of lung abuse eventually show up for revenge? Will I have to carry around a tank full of pulses of air everywhere I go? Have I sold my lungs for a fleeting moment of delusional, youthful cool?

I hear my friend tell her stylist the story about her new oxygen tank that ‘pulses.’

The stylist says, “Oh, that’s not good.”

My friend says, “No, it’s not.” Cough. Cough.

smoker1

Not cool

They talk about eucharistic ministers and choir members from a church they both attend. They are excited about the music they will hear during their Christmas service. My friend says she misses singing. She says she wants to sing so badly, to “feel the music in her throat”, but her lungs “get all locked up” when she tries.

 

I can hear my friend drag her walker to her chair. She rolls into the waiting area. I can hear the pulse, like a slow, drawn-out heartbeat magnified on a machine in the hospital, raspy like the hissing voice of Darth Vader. Her haircut looks good. She is lighter. Refreshed. She coughs as she pays the receptionist. We walk slowly to the car. We make one more stop for her blood test. I carry the extra oxygen tank that we always keep in the trunk in and out of each building we visit. “‘Cause you never know,” she says.

I help her out of her coat and back into her chair just in time for Wheel of Fortune. The oxygen pulses as a contestant spins the wheel. The pulse is a normal sound now, a resigned acceptance of the interruption to the rhythm of our conversations. We say our goodbyes until next time.

I think of my friend in her chair, watching television, struggling for breath and coughing. I wish I could fix it for her. I fill my lungs with air, appreciating a taken-for-granted life-giving gift. I turn on the radio and sing softly as I drive home. “Cause you never know.

singa

 

 

 


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Master of None

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I think that’s the most stupid question I’ve ever heard.  I always lied when someone asked me. I had plenty of practice from years of making up sins in the Catholic confessional, because sinning was a requirement as a child. Lying made it all the easier the following week when confessing to the priest that I had lied. Vicious cycle. Anyway, the answers I provided were always ones I thought the inquirer wanted to hear. But in my gut, I hadn’t a clue. How would I know? I still had to be reminded to brush my teeth and yet these well-intentioned, although misguided people, expected me to have a future plan. What in the world were they thinking? For some kids it may have been simple to wistfully dream of a future. Other kids hadn’t the luxury of such folly. Surviving one day at a time and meeting the basics in life had much more priority than butcher, baker or candlestick maker. I’m still not quite sure how to respond to this question.

I remember friends wanting to be nurses when they grew up, and they admirably are. And friends wanting to be mothers and wives when they grew up, and they respectfully are. Or friends wanting to be teachers when they grew up, and they honorably are. I never saw myself as a paper doll on a cardboard tripod stand. Fold over the tabs and dress me in the world’s corresponding outfit that will serve as my name tag – nurse, teacher, mother, wife. Relax, they are all important professions, and I am most grateful for each one. It’s a shame I even have to offer that disclaimer, but the times we live in, well,…. here I am, offering a disclaimer. Back to the question – I may have answered with an expected response, rewarded with a glowing smile of approval from the adult, but I didn’t mean a word of it. Me, I left my options open.

jack“To be” is a verb. It imples action, actually doing something. For me, there is no “to be, just “be.” I already am, so there’s no one else I need to be other than me. Why do I even have to want to be anything? And does being something have to mean we change who we are? Does the “me” change when I become an adult, or am I still “me?” And do I have to be just one thing? Just one? Oh dear. Say it isn’t so. Please don’t make me stop at one. The world is full of spices, and I intend to sample as many as I can. Throughout my life I have been bank teller, retail clerk, janitor, restaurant manager, executive assistant, floral designer, horticultural specialist, catering director, activity director, volunteer, music store associate, business proprietor, church secretary, certified yoga teacher, paraprofessional, author, home health aide, and I’m certain there’s something I’ve omitted. If I knew then what I know now, when asked “what do you want to be when you grow up,?” I would have answered “jack of all trades.”

And furthermore, who determines that exact moment when one is considered “grown up?” Is it the day you move in to your very own apartment and have to pay the security deposit and rent with your own money? Unless you’re one of those who let Mom and Dad pay it for you? If so, does that still qualify as being grown up? Is it the first time you do your own laundry? Is it the first time you have sexual intercourse? Or maybe it’s the day your last parent ceases to breathe and you now realize how freaking, painfully alone life can feel. When is one actually a grown up?

I think we should stop expecting children to have the answer. It’s a worthless question. It’s in close running with the nauseating interview interrogation “where do you see yourself in five years from now?” I’m still working on an answer for that one, too.

I say, just be you. And love that.

e3