Category Archives: Buddhism

The Yoga of Self-Expression

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” -Martha Graham, as quoted in The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991) by Agnes de Mille

When I was a little kid, I loved to draw. I could draw lots of kind of funny-looking things: people, flowers, animals. Often there was a joy in the simple expression of putting pencil to paper. As I grew older, however, and began to compare my artistic attempts to others’, I would get frustrated. I could see that what I was doing wasn’t the same, but I didn’t know how to make it “right.”

One particularly upsetting day, I was struggling to draw a person. I tried again and again to draw a nose that made sense- that looked like what I thought a drawing of a nose on a face should look like- but it just wasn’t happening. I was overwhelmed with frustration and maybe even the beginning of a sense of grief that I wasn’t able to live up to what I thought I should be able to do. This is when my mother intervened with a little bit of absolutely brilliant parenting.

She opened one of the many magazines that we had around the house and flipped to a cartoon of some little kids that was part of a frequent column. “Look,” she said. I looked: the children had been drawn with no noses at all. And yet they were still clearly children. They were a different expression of an idea of children, but they were people, and the nose was assumed, or it wasn’t, but it didn’t matter, because suddenly it became clear to me that there were many different ways to draw, to visualize, to convey the idea of something.

My lovely mom in that moment, took on the role of a teacher. Teachers can cultivate our individuality  or (perhaps with the best of intentions) impose someone else’s idea on us. My mother had given me a gift that is still carrying me 30 years later: the knowledge that self-expression is individual, unique, and not better or worse than anyone else’s expression.

Perhaps you can remember a time when you felt stifled by a teacher. Last week, for some reason, I recalled with stunning clarity a picture of a potato that I drew in high school. Well, let me be clear– I had started drawing this potato in my art class, but it wasn’t going very well. My attempts to capture the essence of potato in colored pencil form were failing pretty spectacularly. Our art teacher was a demanding and troubled guy, and the best you could sort of hope for in that class was to be left alone. Sadly, his eye fell on me and the potato art that day. He sat down beside me, took the drawing, and completed it for me. It was a masterpiece. Subtle shading, deep-set eyes and utterly potato-like curves. It could have been promo material for the Idaho Potato Board.

I remember watching him draw my potato, explaining where I’d gone wrong; I remember taking it home and somehow it even ended up framed over my dresser for a time! But every time I looked at it, I felt sad, a little shamed- it wasn’t really mine, and in fact it was a reminder of how I had failed as an artist according to the teacher’s standards.

This memory came to me during a class I was teaching last week, actually. I was watching a group of my students in Warrior 1. Each of them looked different. Their feet were in different places, their knees were more or less bent, their arms were doing slightly different things, and their hips were in varying degrees of proverbial Warrior 1 “square”-ness. And I thought of how, in previous years, I would ask them to place their feet in particular ways, and move their hips into a certain position, and place their arms just so, in an attempt to “get them into the pose.” I’ve attended classes recently that asked the same thing of me. And knowing now what I do about my body, and my students’ bodies, I wouldn’t confine them to exacting specifications. The cues I give to the class at large are much broader and likely to ask them to explore their own range of motion and comfort. My assists or adjustments are becoming more rare- while I love the idea of communicating through touch, I’m more cognizant now of how I may be inadvertently indicating “wrongness” on their part- that I might be sort of metaphorically taking their pen and drawing their potato.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe that we are always trying to do the best we can as teachers. I certainly was. It’s simply that with time, I’ve gotten more information- injuries in my body, observation of my students, research from teachers that I respect, and communication with my students.  While I have no interest in taking on the role of a guru, there is an element of power inherent in the word teacher. I believe that entails moral responsibility. For me, it means that I want to empower my students to recognize their own power, grace, and strength within their yoga practice. I want them to learn the value of their own unique expression of creativity in their body.

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How could I do better than to emulate the instinctive wisdom of a mother? To demonstrate to my students that however their creativity presents itself- as artists, as yogis, as human beings- is not only okay, it’s an expression of their luminous, radiant nature and an opportunity to celebrate their singular essential goodness. To me, if a yoga practice is making me feel like I am wrong in any way, I’m happy to hand the pencil back to the teacher and move on.

(Gratitude and love to my wonderful mother, whose love of me and celebration of my life is so complete that she would be proud of me if I lived in a cardboard box down by the river). 

 

 

Presence in Yoga, Presence in Love

I love to teach yoga to newbies. There’s an almost palpable sense of coming alive in those first few classes. As students learn to move in new ways, it’s not unlike a toddler explore her range of motion- testing out a foot here, or the gaze here, or marveling at what her body can do and how it feels to be in different shapes. Finally, when savasana comes and a group full of workaholic adults lies down to rest and breathe together, I love to watch as their faces soften and their bodies relax into their mats. I think most teachers would agree: it’s pretty magical to watch and work with the someone waking up through the practice of yoga.

There’s also quite a visual distinction between the novice and the experienced student, of course. As a new student moves into a standing pose, you might observe a sort of “floppy” quality to his arms and legs. He’s watching the teacher, following the verbal instructions, and simply moving himself into what seems like it might be the correct position. You might observe that the hands and feet seem disconnected, even lifeless; an afterthought, or a forgotten accessory.

A more senior student, on the other hand, is keenly aware of the sensations in her fingers and toes; the lines of energy lifting and expanding from uddiyana and mula bandha; the subtle changes in the breath and the micro-shifts of flesh, bone and breath within the external shape.

So we see, then, that there’s a distinct difference between simply bringing one’s body into a shape, and bringing the feeling of the shape into the body. The beginner student moves (or, in many cases, forces) the body-pieces into an approximate puzzle-shape and then stands lifelessly in place. The senior student moves her body into her variation on the asana and then begins to occupy it actively, breathing and moving within the pose in a way that feels completely embodied and alive- full of presence.

Tara Brach’s latest book, True Refuge, defines this quality of presence beautifully:

Presence is not some exotic state that we need to search for or manufacture. In the simplest terms, it is the felt sense of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience.

I remember very well what it felt like to “wake up” through this process- suddenly I was in my body, and breathing with it, and truly, there is such a sweetness and tenderness to being completely with yourself, aware, awake, alive. It was quite poignant and almost, in a way, heartbreaking, when I realized how I’d neglected myself in this way.

As is so often the case, the on-the-mat experience provides a fantastic metaphor for our lives off the mat. Recently, I’ve been examining my relationships with others- current and historical- in light of this quality of presence.

I believe that it is not enough to simply move ourselves into position with another person- that is, to say, I’m your lover, I’m your friend- and then occupy that space lifelessly. True love- romantic or otherwise- is only, I think, alive and breathing when it is infused with this wakefulness, openness, tenderness.

Maybe it’s inevitable that this will happen with certain relationships, at certain times in our lives. Perhaps we are so occupied with our own challenges that we can’t embody love in this way. Maybe we’ve never learned how. In my own case, I can see quite easily that while I might have called myself a wife, or a girlfriend, and truly felt that I was living in that role, there was an inauthenticity, an incompleteness, to my actions. At the time, I didn’t know how to fully be present with that person- to love him fully, actively- because I was so unhappy with myself. It’s also clear that we were poorly matched, in many ways- so that to be fully present would have meant to acknowledge a painful truth.

In another case, I can recall asking myself why I felt so terribly lonely when I was with someone who said that he loved me deeply. I knew that it was true- and yet I believe at the time he simply wasn’t capable of completely embodying love. He was in the pose, so to speak, but the presence, the attention, the wakeful, open and tender quality was not there- and so our relationship could not flourish.

“If you do not give right attention to the one you love, it is a kind of killing. When you are in the car together, if you are lost in your thoughts, assuming you know everything about her, she will slowly die. But with mindfulness, you attention will water the wilting flower. “I know you are here, beside me, anti makes me very happy.” With attention, you will be able to discover many new and wonderful things- her joys, her hidden talents, her deepest aspirations. If you do not practice appropriate attention, how can you say that you love her?” -Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings

As part of the spiritual path, bringing mindful presence to our relationships is far more challenging than the work we do on our mats, at least in my experience. While I can do hours of asana practice or meditation with some degree of awareness and presence,  I’m challenged deeply by the daily work of embodied love. My concern with my own self-image, my need to protect myself in some way, often stands between me and full presence with others in my life. Like most people I know, I’m struggling to somehow look good and feel in control. There’s a vulnerability in setting that aside in service of this quality of presence. With practice, this grows easier, I’m finding, and the feeling of really, really giving your full loving attention to someone is its own reward.

Some yoga students never make it past their first class. It’s not easy to work with ourselves in different ways. Sometimes the pain of waking up may feel like too much. And yet- that tenderness, that feeling of being fully present- oh, that’s worth it. We deserve our own kind attention in this way, and we find that because we are kind to ourselves, we’re more able to give that same kind attention to others. And, waking up, we become open and receptive to embodied, active presence from those who are also learning to love fully and completely.

 

 

Who the heck do I think I am, anyway?

Dear Whomever,

The other night I dreamt of an orchestra. It was an odd dream (aren’t they all?)- it had nothing to 10857830_10153961465707729_1143988602728086179_ndo with how the music sounded. Instead it was sort of a broad overview of an orchestra as a unit. I saw my dream-orchestra clearly as a collection of people, musicians with instruments, a conductor, the players who created the whole. I noted how, over time, individuals joined, lived out their careers, retired, and were replaced by new individuals. In my dream, I thought, ‘The orchestra changes over time as people come and go. It’s made up of many different fluid parts, and yet we refer to it as one solid unit- a thing- as though it were permanent, individual, and unchanging. That’s how you see yourself, too. But it’s not true.’

This thought woke me, and I opened my eyes in the dark to look toward the ceiling. I felt myself breathing and absorbed this thought. This wasn’t a new concept to me- my teacher, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and many other Buddhist writers speak of this frequently. But I felt I wanted to share this with you, to try to explain how it’s unfolding for me.

“A river flows with fresh water, always changing, and we still call it a river. If we visit that place a year later, we think it is the same river. But how is it the same? If we isolate one aspect or characteristic, this sameness falls apart. The water is different… ‘Appearance’ is quite an unstable basis for ‘truth.'” –Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, What Makes You Not A Buddhist

In my experience, it has taken some time, coupled with meditation and contemplation to begin to have a felt sense for how this might be true. After all, isn’t there some continuity to our experience? Aren’t I the same person I was when I was a baby, a child, a teen? Upon examination, the facts don’t really support this assertion: cells in our bodies die and are replaced. Studies show that through meditation we can alter the structure and function of our brain.  And I certainly don’t look the way I did 10, 20, or 30 years ago. We can accept that some things will change. In another part of the same passage listed above,  Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche notes,”of course, we say that some things change. A bud blooms into a flower, and we still think of it as a truly existing flower as it changes. That growth and change is part of our fixed idea about the nature of the flower. We would be much more surprised if it became permanent.” Still, I think, it feels more comfortable and familiar to feel that we are essentially the same person, with a quality of identity, self, or me-ness that we reinforce through habits and labels.

Initially, I experienced some discomfort with the idea of not being the same me. I began to unravel some of the stories that reinforced my idea of a continuous, ongoing, more-or-less-unchanging Laura experience, and found that I had some nostalgia, an attachment, to those labels- even when they were negative. I remember seriously asking myself- “Who am I if I’m not depressed?”- Yuck! There was a sense of fear, emptiness, and an immediate need to fill that gap with a new label. “I’m a yogi- or a recovering depressed person- or something-!”

Returning gently to this inquiry again and again- who am I?- or, even better, letting go of the “I” and asking, “‘Who is it that is experiencing this/breathing/eating this piece of chocolate cake*”- I began to feel that I could loosen up and relax into the ambiguity of moment-to-moment experience.

“In a book I read recently, the author talked about humans as transitional beings- beings who are neither fully caught nor fully free but are in the process of awakening. I’m in the process of becoming, in the process of evolving. I’m neither doomed nor completely free, but I’m creating my future with every word, every action, every thought. I find myself in a very dynamic situation with unimaginable potential. I have all the support I need to simply relax and be with the transitional, in-process quality of my life.” -Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change

What does it feel like to ‘relax’ with this quality? Like most humans I know, there are things I’ve said and done that have caused others and myself great pain or even harm. You know: moments that used to make me cringe; things I’d tucked away into dark corners of my memory as too painful to recall. The time I threw a plate at my ex-boyfriend. The hurtful, mean things I said to a friend. The way I ran out on friendships or relationships rather than dealing honestly with the challenges. If I experience myself as a fluid, changing, “transitional being,” I am able review these past actions with a quality of genuine kindness and understanding while still feeling remorse. Because I can now look honestly and critically at these events, I’m able to resolve to handle myself differently in the future.

Yet habits are strong, and the more we repeat them, the stronger they grow (remember this blog entry?). So, in many cases, I’ve found myself repeating many of the same “mistakes.” I forget that I am fluid, in-process. Sometimes I even feel trapped, as though I have to do something simply because I’ve done it so frequently before!

A few months ago, I experienced this when I visited a friend for a weekend. He’s an incredibly kind person, and when he asked me how I was, I crumpled like a Kleenex- I was sad about the end of a relationship and his warmth just triggered my tears. After I pulled myself together, I felt the pull of my past habits. “Now,” I thought to myself, “I’ll be depressed for the next two days. I’ll skulk around and avoid everyone because they saw me cry and be sad.” (Hey, I’m not saying this makes any sense, I’m just saying this is how I had handled this in the past. Maybe you have your own neurotic tendencies. I bet you do.)

So here’s the “aha” moment- I felt an almost physical shift-lightness- in my body as I realized- “I don’t need to do that at all. In fact, that would be really kind of silly, and a huge waste of time.” I remembered this passage from Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living (yes, i do have it memorized):

“At any given moment, you can choose to follow the chain of thoughts, emotions and sensations that reinforce a perception of yourself as vulnerable and limited, or to remember that your true nature is pure, unconditioned, and incapable of being harmed… If you’re determined to think of yourself as limited, fearful, vulnerable, or scarred by past experience, know only that you have chosen to do so, and that the opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.”

That’s it, guys- the opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available. You’re not the same person you were yesterday. You’ll be different tomorrow. The orchestra seems like a continuous, solid entity- and for convenience, we refer to it that way- but it’s constantly changing, and so are you. So is your partner, your best friend, the guy in front of you at the grocery store who’s maybe a little bit smelly or rude or whatever offends us.

Again, I am speaking here to my experience- for me, one of the dangerous things about the earliest steps on the spiritual path has been my tendency to feel like “I’ve got it!” So, in reading a piece like this, for example, someone may be feeling like, “Yeah yeah, I’ve got this, I’m changing, I’ve changed, I quit smoking, I do yoga, things are great now! High-five, soul sister!” One of my meditation instructors- a compassionate, kind, brilliant man- frequently says, “Every insight is a false summit.” I return to this again and again. Every time I think I know something- every time I think I understand a concept or really “get” impermanence, for example, I find that I really don’t know anything at all. It’s humbling: the more I learn, the less I know. So right now in my life, I’m asking myself, again and again, Who Am I? Who Is This?- and hoping that maybe I’m continuing to loosen up. Flow on, fluid friends. You’re not trapped. You’re not stuck. You’re in process. And that’s really good news.

Love,

Laura

 

*This is Pema Chodron’s idea- in fact, I believe she says she might ask herself, “Who is eating this third piece of chocolate cake?” More reasons to love her!

Creating New Karmic Patterns, & Some Crazy Good Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies

In last week’s post, I talked about the self-sustaining karmic energy of recurring habitual patterns. I mentioned that meditation has been helpful in creating the space to identify the pattern and then to create a new pattern.

How exactly, though, does the new pattern get created? In the past year, I was lucky* enough to find myself facing similar situations again and again. In fact, sometimes it was really almost the identically same situation, with the identically same person. Thanks to my meditation practice, I was able to see this happening (okay, after a while. Not so much right away) and I gained some time between stimulus and response.

Then I’d ask myself: 1) How did I handle this last time? 2) Was I happy with that outcome? and 3) If not, what had I not yet tried that might have a different, better outcome?

This was a pretty painful process at times. It caused me to look back at the many previous times I’d been in the same situation, and how my actions had caused suffering to others, as well as to myself. There were days where I felt like a total scumbag and thought it might be best to stop interacting with other people. But seeing how I’d hurt others was powerful enough to enact change where the fear of simply hurting myself wasn’t enough. As I mentioned in last week’s post- I just had to try something different.

No doubt I’m still wreaking havoc with my life, but I’m certainly trying to do better. Being able to ask myself those three questions feels a bit like standing at the entrance to a labyrinth- which way to go?- knowing that even if I screw up, I’m still moving forward. In Richard Buckminster’s words, after all, “there is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”

In the spirit of trying something totally different, I offer you this delicious recipe for vegan ginger chocolate chip cookies. If you’re a fan of soft molasses ginger cookies, and love a dark chocolate fix, I think you’ll enjoy this mash-up. This recipe started with this delicious recipe from Oh She Glows. Thanks, Angela!

(Oh, and to illustrate my point? The next time I think, “I’d like a cookie, why don’t I bake two dozen,” I’ll stop and ask myself those three questions. Because really, I don’t need to be unsupervised with two dozen cookies. 🙂 )

Try Something Different: Vegan Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup molasses (I like sorghum)
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp ground chia seeds (I ground them in my coffee grinder, but you could leave them whole if you had to. They add crunch that way)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • a sprinkle of cardamom, or get creative with any spices you like!
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup dark (vegan) chocolate chips (if you leave these out, it’s still a fantastic recipe)

Making It Happen: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine coconut oil, sugar, molasses, vanilla, and chia seeds until well-mixed (I throw it in my Kitchen-Aid and let it run while I mix the dry stuff). Separately, mix the dry ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to the wet until combined, but don’t over-mix. Add chocolate chips. Wet hands lightly, and roll into small balls. Flatten lightly with your hand and bake 10-12 minutes or until done. Rest on baking sheet for a few minutes before moving to cooling rack. Enjoy! photo

 

*Not being facetious. Until I was challenged in this way, I was likely to keep creating the same karma again and again. I was forced into growth!  

Staccato is a Rhythm- Confessions of a Color-Coded Calendar

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“I used to be so consistent with my (yoga practice, meditation, eating plan), and then (my job changed, the kids were off school for the summer, I broke my toe)…”

“I can’t seem to get into the swing of things.”

“I wish I could just get into a good rhythm.” 

“I lost my groove.”

Does this sound familiar? I know I’m not alone in the feeling that things are easier when there’s a sense of consistency, or rhythm, in our lives. Habits of meditation, yoga, communication, self-care are easier to plug into a schedule when we have an actual schedule. Maybe we even feel that we can’t move forward, make important life decisions until we’ve arrived at a more consistent stage in our lives.

Physiologically speaking, I’m guessing that this is sort of hard-wired in. We need to eat every few hours, sleep once a day, rest after we’ve been working- and we feel safest and at our most secure when our lives are predictable.

When I became self-employed a few years ago, I sorely missed the comfort of my 9-5 schedule. When would I get it all done? How many hours should I work? How would it all get done? Would I burn myself out? Was I crazy to think I could make any money at this*? In an attempt to alleviate my anxiety, I created elaborate systems of scheduling using my Google Calendar. It was a thing of beauty, color-coded so that at a glance I could see exactly how much time I would spend doing each type of  activity. Green was free time, yellow was for classes I taught… sometimes, if I were feeling unsettled, I would open it up and look at the time slots to reassure myself that there was some kind of order in my life. I liked to show other people. “Look at this! See, there’s PLENTY of time for rest!”

You can guess how well that worked out, people. Somehow, my life neglected to fall into its appointed color-coded time slots, and at the end of the week, I still had to-do list and somehow I felt that I hadn’t found time to actually really live. I had that nagging feeling that if I could just find the right rhythm, somehow it would all fall into place; that there was some formula I was missing that would bring it all together for me. Stuff getting done, but I really missed the imagined comfort of a simpler schedule in which, I thought, there would be an ease of fitting things in.

Sometime later, I had a fantastic revelation that shifted my mindset. I was walking the dogs (While texting. I was still working on not multi-tasking) when a (musician, and yogi) friend of mine texted me: “I can’t seem to get back into my yoga routine. I was practicing every day, but now it’s like I’ve lost the rhythm and can’t seem to find it.” “I know what you mean,” I wrote back. “I feel like my life is too staccato to even try any more.”

“Yeah… but even staccato is a rhythm,” he responded.

This was a beautiful moment of revelation for me. I’m sure the heavens parted and a shaft of sunlight fell upon my little iPhone. Staccato is a rhythm. 

Life does have its own rhythm, I thought. It appears chaotic, but the chaos is its consistency. The tune is so big we can’t even see the rhythm. Maybe there are notes we don’t hear.

While we all may long for the security of a life that offers certain predictability- like a melody or rhythm that you know by heart- well, that’s not even an option.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. -Helen Keller

Accepting this was a big relief. I began to release the illusion of my color-coded security blanket  to fall into this chaotic, mysterious, deeper rhythm.

Practically speaking, how do I work with uncertainty, fear, and a “schedule” that is likely to fall apart at any moment? Well, meditation, mostly. Basically, I practice being uncomfortable and living through it. This can start in your yoga practice on the mat, where many of us first encounter this principle. As we enter an asana that we don’t like, we are confronted with all of our habitual reactions. If we can truly witness these (with kindness, allowing ourselves to see them without criticizing) we will have the first glimmers of understanding of how we react to discomfort off our mat.

In meditation, I can observe my need to try to control my life. I don’t have time to sit today, I might think. Okay, I know I need to sit, but I really need to write down these five things I just thought of so I don’t forget to do them. If I continue to sit, to be massively uncomfortable (ARGH, I am going to forget to do those five things!), I am practicing for those moments in my life where life’s rhythm is out of my control**. This isn’t to say that there aren’t times where I feel crazed about making everything happen, but overall, I can look at my schedule (no longer color-coded, but a general collection of things that I’d like to get done and places I need to be) and feel like I’m effectively functioning as a balanced human being.

I can also see that in years past, I’ve used life’s unpredictability as an excuse to avoid some activities- even those that would have been really beneficial. I’m also learning to be attentive to the gripping energy of things that seem like they MUST get done and to ask myself if that’s real or not. Sometimes “urgent” tasks are really just me trying to control something. Yep, old habits die hard.

I’ve found so far that the truth is that everything always gets done, and if it doesn’t, then somehow everything’s still okay. I’m learning to listen to the own tidal rhythm of my body and feel that it needs a nap, or a massage, or exercise- and somehow I can find time to fit it in to the staccato beat of life’s unpredictability.

I guess I could say I’m in the groove now. Forgive me if my dancing is awkward- I think I’ll be learning this rhythm for the rest of my life.

*Yes, kind of. 

**Wait, that’s all of life. 

My Big Brother: On the Gift of Compassion and Love

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In the back of my closet, under a mountain of dust bunnies, there’s a packet of letters. Not, as you might imagine, letters from an old lover, or anything so romantic. These are letters that I wrote over 20 years ago to my older brother. I was in middle school, or high school, and he was at college (before the Internet was available to us, can you imagine?).

The thought of this package makes me cry, not so much because of the heartbreaking content- and it’s pretty wrenching for me- but because of the great kindness and love that it created.

I wrote these letters to my brother during one of the first great bad times of my life. I had always been a depressed and anxious kid, but adolescence was really pretty awful. I woke up every day sick and miserable at the thought of having to go to school, where I felt that I never fit in- that I was too ugly, too fat, too literate, too just not cool. I had some friends, of course, and there were always those who were worse-off than me, but I took my share of bullying* and there was no escape- nobody to tell. My friends all knew and their lives weren’t much better. What could I say to my parents- I’m miserable because nobody likes me? Who’s going to admit they’re a total loser? Of course I wouldn’t disappoint and hurt them like that. Instead, I cultivated a sort of evil mantra for myself that sticks with me still, two decades later, in moments of great darkness- I wish I were dead. 

Seth, seven years older, had escaped to Pittsburgh for college, and wrote me faithfully. I don’t know why, but he found time in his life to think of his little sister, who had always idolized him and generally been an irritant- but there was some good karma here, and he wrote asking how I was. I found that I was able, in writing, to share the pain I felt. Don’t tell Mom and Dad, I said. I’m so unhappy. I don’t know how I am going to make it. I just want to die. 

Rural central Pennsylvania is not a place to be different in any way, as my brother had found out 7 years earlier. He’d grown his hair long, and I’m sure he was called names, as I was when I shaved my head a few years later (Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” always makes me think with pride of us both: “Most times you can’t hear ’em talk, other times you can/ All the same old cliches: is it a woman or a man?”). He was a becoming a vegetarian and an animal-rights activist in a time when that could have been a recipe for someone kicking your ass. Like his little sister after him- like so many people in small towns, and everywhere- he was just trying to be himself in a culture that valued conformity deeply. In a bigger city (our town had one red light and two gas stations), neither of us would have been anything out of the ordinary.

But here is the great gift he gave me: having “survived,” so to speak, he remembered the difficulty he experienced, and instead of turning away from it, he let it open his heart. He felt such compassion for me that he continued to send me letters encouraging me. You will make it. I promise it gets better. I know it seems like it won’t, but it all gets better after high school. I love you. I understand. I’m sorry you’re going through this. He told me I was smart and beautiful and interesting and cool, when nobody else** believed it, including myself.

Over the years, Seth has become closer to me than a friend or family ever has to be. In typical Seth & Laura fashion, he sometimes has felt very self-critical of his treatment of me. I’m sorry I wasn’t more there for you. I’m sorry I was mean to you. This too, makes me feel quite bittersweet sad- because I understand regret and shame, but there’s just no need for it anymore. I can’t overemphasize for you the depth of the gratitude and love I feel for him when I think of the  depth of his unconditional love.  In times of distress, I have always been able to call him and, like a gentler reflection, been shown the situation from his perspective. He understands- he does not judge- and he says, this will end. I understand, I love you, I’m sorry you’re going through this. He reminds me that things will change, as they always do, and that I can get through whatever it is.

I’m fortunate to have had this close relationship with someone who has understood me so fundamentally that he can be a light in the darkness- not only because of the help that it’s given me in my own life, but because it has shown me that I can be a light for others. I can be a well of unconditional understanding, compassion, and love for those who are broken-hearted, suicidal, don’t fit in, think the pain will never end. I can listen, and, instead of saying, I wish I were dead, say I understand. I love you. I’m sorry you’re going through this. 

For many of us, there are times where we’re not strong enough to endure our own lives without this kind of support.  I’ve spent the last five years learning to believe what Seth has always said. I am smart. I’m cool. I’m beautiful. Everything does end, and I can be kind and support myself with love and understanding. As a result, my way of handling pain has shifted a bit. Now, in times of great personal misery (and those will still come, I believe, as long as we’re suffering through this human life), I allow myself to feel the pain, and I ask: May this open my heart. May this pain be of service to others.

So, you might wonder- how did the letters come to be in my closet, if they were the ones I mailed to Seth in Pittsburgh? About seven years ago, Seth called me. He was moving out of state, and cleaning out his own closet. If you could have heard the emotion in his voice, you would know what it is to love someone fully. “I found these letters,” he said. “They’re so, so sad- I can’t just throw them away-” We agreed that he would mail them to me, and I would keep them in my own closet. I’ve never opened them- I don’t need to- but oh, what a reminder they are.

In recounting this story to you, I’ve cried quite a bit. Please understand that it’s not my own pain, grief or sorrow I’m feeling- it’s deeper, broader than that. It’s a thank you, to my brother- to the misery we both suffered- for giving me this love I have for those who need it. I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience.

Happy Birthday, big brother.

 

*Speaking of compassion- the girls that picked on me- well, looking back, their home lives were much worse than mine. No “forgiveness” needed; they were doing the best they could to manage their own unhappiness.

**Mom, I know you and Dad always did. The fault was mine for not telling you how unhappy I was. You’re wonderful and I love you.

Indulging & Impermanence

 

Photo on 5-3-13 at 6.42 PM

A self-inulgent sorrow selfie. Embarrassing but true*

I used to wrap myself up in nostalgia. Not happy nostalgia, like “Remember when we all wore acid-washed jeans,” but more like… hm, deep grey clouds of melancholy nostalgia. I was secretly proud of my ability to nurse a bittersweet memory. I made regret an art form, sculpting what-ifs in my head into castles of fantasy lives I’d never get to live.

These days, I’m able to see a little more clearly that things pass, and that nothing lasts, and that this is mostly okay. As Buddha suggested, I suffer less as a result.

I was recently listening to a Dharma teaching on this concept of impermanence and was struck by a particular line: “The emotions of the past are gone,” said my teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche.

When I say struck, I mean it felt like I was physically struck- spontaneous tears actually welled up. The emotions, gone? But, but… I LIKED those emotions. Even the sad, sorry-for-myself ones.  I’d spent so much time nursing them, cultivating my garden of self-pity. In an instant I saw clearly that I had been attempting to carry these emotions with me into the present, but that they had already changed. New emotions were there, and some of them might be similar, but nothing was quite the same.

I recently ended a relationship (this is the VERY short version, friends), and at the same time, I reconnected with someone that I loved and lost many years ago. So I’ve had the opportunity to look back and consider, compare, and contrast the similarities and differences between these two loves.

There are many patterns to observe, but one that I see clearly is a tendency to fondly romanticize both the high points and the low points of the relationships. To dwell in them, to turn them over in my memory until I can’t be sure how much  is truth and how much an idealized emotion- one that changed long ago, despite my insistence on dragging it with me like an old battered bag full of crap.

A little indulgence in memory, in past emotion, in lost love, can feel awfully good. But it doesn’t always serve me well. I’m working to turn transform this indulgence into inquiry instead- yes, I think it’s good to appreciate and remember, but I’m also finding that some space around the emotion/memory/whatever can help me to see (and, I hope, release) the patterns that have caused suffering.

The following poem- The Lost Garden by Dana Gioia- speaks to this very phenomena in a much more beautiful way. Enjoy.

The Lost Garden

by Dana Gioia

If ever we see those gardens again,

The summer will be gone—at least our summer.

Some other mockingbird will concertize

Among the mulberries, and other vines

Will climb the high brick wall to disappear.

 

How many footpaths crossed the old estate—

The gracious acreage of a grander age—

So many trees to kiss or argue under,

And greenery enough for any mood.

What pleasure to be sad in such surroundings.

 

At least in retrospect. For even sorrow

Seems bearable when studied at a distance,

And if we speak of private suffering,

The pain becomes part of a well-turned tale

Describing someone else who shares our name.

 

Still, thinking of you, I sometimes play a game.

What if we had walked a different path one day,

Would some small incident have nudged us elsewhere

The way a pebble tossed into a brook

Might change the course a hundred miles downstream?

 

The trick is making memory a blessing,

To learn by loss the cool subtraction of desire,

Of wanting nothing more than what has been,

To know the past forever lost, yet seeing

Behind the wall a garden still in blossom.

*Please don’t worry, guys. I’m really quite okay, and was even when this photo was taken. 🙂 It was a moment of nostalgic, self-indulgent mental “weather.” It passed and all is well.