A month into 2019 and those resolutions, intentions and visions we set have lost some of their luster. Today I’m sharing a couple of tools I’m using to help me live more intentionally and aligned with that New Year optimism all year long. Whether you’re on track with your goals or fell off the wagon a few miles back, these two are worth a look.Read More
So I’ve been wrestling with the question of whether or not my husband and I—empty nested after our 15-year-old left for boarding school this past fall—needed to get ourselves back to church. Not whether we “should” (because I’m done shoulding on myself), but whether sitting in a pew on Sunday would strengthen or hamper our connection to the divine and, not insignificantly, to each other.
I’ve been asking and listening, while still proceeding as if the task of finding the answer was mine alone . I do this a lot. I ask for divine guidance, and then I grab the reins and gallop away, my hair streaming behind me, God’s answer floating, barely audible, on the wind whipping around me.
But sometimes, the wind dies down, making space for the whisper and for mystical moments—by which I simply mean direct, unmediated encounters with God. To clarify, these are never orchestrated by me. They usually happen in spite of me and always involve God showing up when I least expect it. All I do is notice and acquiesce.
That is the space I found myself in this past weekend. My plan? Attend a meeting of a group I belong to that was being held at the church we’ve attended for a decade but which we haven’t been to with any regularity in several years. The meeting was not related to church or religion, and, as it turns out, it was actually scheduled for the following weekend. Yep. I had my dates wrong, so I showed up, wandering the familiar halls, looking at my kids’ confirmation group photos near the youth area, wondering why the janitor and I seemed to be the only two people in the entire building on this Sunday afternoon.
Once I realized my error, I meandered back toward the exit. But before I reached it, I saw a flickering out of the corner of my eye. In the deserted chapel—the small, cozy worship space I had always favored over the cavernous sanctuary—one candle was burning in a bank of tea lights at the front near the altar. And I knew—just knew—that it was burning for me.
Feeling a bit like a trespasser, but too intrigued to stop myself, I cracked open the door and ducked inside. Kicking off my slides and creeping toward the altar, I entertained a brief reverie about how, exactly, this one candle came to be lit hours after the last service ended. And whether I should blow it out in the name of fire safety.
This kind of practical thinking, friends, is what causes us to miss the mystical moments that come our way.
Fire codes be damned, I approached the bank of candles and brazenly lit the tea light next to the one already burning. In that act, I linked my intention to the greater mystery. I ceased wondering how and why simply joined my light with the divine one burning for no good reason.
Except maybe the good reason was me.
That was the point of this whole detour. And the point of me retelling it to you. Sometimes God diverts us for the express purpose of helping us remember that there is more to this world than the practical, the material and the logical.
Sometimes the answers to the questions we ask of God come wrapped up in these detours. Don’t miss them because they weren’t in your roadmap for the day.
Also, God’s answers are sometimes more of a knowing than an actual directive. After spending a half an hour contemplating my candles, I sensed that there was actually no right or wrong answer to the question I’d been asking. God doesn’t have a preference as to what pew I sit in or which church it’s located within. Just that I sit and listen regularly.
Amen. Namaste. Shalom. Salam.
I didn't make any resolutions, exactly. Or pick one perfect word to sum up my 2018. But I did listen for guidance, and my mandate became clear in that way that is too synchronistic and flowing to just be my own awesome planning. This year, I am supposed find my core, my essence, and stay close to it.
In practical terms that looks like adding a daily 20-minute home yoga practice focused on building a fierce core (with breath and body). It looks like a weekly class with a new teacher I stumbled upon who teaches Viniyoga, a practice that uses postures and breath to find balance between sthira (steady and alert) and sukha (comfortable and light). It means keeping up my Wednesday Forrest Yoga inspired class with my wise teacher Ann Hyde. It means saying no to people, opportunities and even objects that pull me away from my core (so much decluttering coming!) It means constructing a support system of writers to help me make this novel of mine a reality.
All of this focusing and centering, however, will be for naught if my worldview is shaped by archetypes that don't want me to find my center—to find what's most life-giving to me. If you are reading this from any Western country, like it or not, you have likely adopted Adam and Eve as your internal representation of inherent masculinity and femininity. You may not believe their story or accept their gender modeling in an intellectual capacity, but their DNA is deeply embedded in our cultural understanding of what it means to be male and female.
So, if Eve is my starting point, as much as I may want to live in alignment with my core truth, I have been programmed to live in alignment with others' core truths. Eve was not created to know herself. She was created to help another know himself. With this as my paradigm, I am doomed to failure. I am unable to carry out that divinely orchestrated call to stay closely tethered to my essential self.
The way out of this quandary is quite simple (not easy, but simple). We need new ideas about women's divine origins. We need a new first woman. Lucky for us, there is one waiting in the wings. Her name is Lilith and she models for us the lost art of speaking our truth and doing the hard things. Born of ancient lore and legend, she exists in the annals of Judeo-Christian Christian history as a predecessor of Eve. I blogged for Lilith Magazine this past week about how this reliance on Eve and dismissal of Lilith created fertile ground for the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault that's exploded into the #MeToo movement. If you want a more in-depth discussion of Lilith and Eve, you can listen in on my interview that just went live today as part of the Feminine Archetype Summit. And, because apparently this is message is very central to my purpose in 2018, I am also speaking about Lilith & Eve (with a dash of Sophia) at a women's retreat outside of Houston next weekend. Join me if you can!
As you work on cultivating those habits that help you live in greater alignment this year, don't forget to look at the foundational beliefs that might be making things difficult for you. Find a feminine archetype that speaks to you and make her your own. Read about her. Find imagery that gives you a tangible representation of her. Embrace what she can teach you.
Whatever you're celebrating this month, I encourage you to look around in awe at the many ways we connect with something bigger than ourselves. There is beauty in all of it. In embracing the dark of the solstice and the darkness in us. In rededicating ourselves to a sacred path through eight candlelit nights. In celebrating the light of the world being born in the most unexpected place.
I have found expanding my spiritual city particularly helpful when dealing with feelings of grief which seem to surface during the holidays, even if your loss is several years old. In the past two weeks I have borrowed practices from Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity to bolster myself.
Perhaps it sounds scrooge-like to you to talk of needing to buttress ourselves for merriment. Today I think of it as acknowledging reality. Most of us carry a sadness of some sort with us into this season. Most of us don't always feel joyful and triumphant during December. That doesn't make us Grinches. It just makes us human.
So how do we help our hearts grow two sizes bigger when they still feel broken? We get still and we listen. We drop the things that make us crazy. Actually, I've found I can keep doing the things if I drop my unrealistic expectations about them.
Set some boundaries for yourself and guard them closely.
Christmas cards have always made me crazy—from picking the "perfect" picture to managing to get them in the mail on time (never happens). This year I gave myself one hour. One hour to cull through my photos from the past year, pick a few that had each of us in them, and email them out to my kids for approval (teenagers, if you don't know, are very picky about the photos parents share). I thought there was approximately a 10% chance that they would both give my draft a thumbs up. Lo and behold, they both loved it. I hit send on the order with 10 minutes to spare. I mailed them all out earlier this week and realized I still had a few people on my list. Without sweating the horror of my mistake (I.e, my humanity), I reordered a few extras, on which I will write "Happy New Year" and send them out after Christmas. I am not at all stressed about this turn of events.
My other crazy maker? Gifts. Well, not the gifts per se, but my pursuit of perfect presents. Again, I set a boundary for myself (inspired by Glennon Melton who did the same). I decided I would be done with all shopping by the end of the first week of December. I visited a couple of my favorite local shops (Pondicheri and Body Mind & Soul) then started ordering online with abandon. As in, my husband sent me a text asking if my credit card had been stolen. I did not let myself obsess over the possibility of the items going on sale tomorrow. I did not hold out for free shipping. I did not second guess myself. I make a list, and I didn't waste time checking it twice. Like the snafu with the card quantity, I didn't do it perfectly. I realized I had forgotten a couple of folks and joyfully (and quickly) took care of theirs this week. No sweat.
And the spiritual practices I mentioned earlier?
Two weeks before Christmas, I visited the Houston Ayurveda Center for an abyhanga (hot oil massage) and steam to help myself embody the serenity I hoped to bring to the season. While not exactly Hindu, Ayurveda—yoga's sister science—was born in the deep spiritual soil of India. Each treatment begins with a Sanskrit invocation, bringing a sense of sacred to the experience.
A week later, I was blessed to attend The Service of the Longest Night at my home church, Chapelwood UMC. Coinciding roughly with the Winter solstice, this annual gathering reminds us that there is hope in the midst of grief. I have attended every year since my sister Angie died almost three years ago, and it's become a spiritual touchstone of the Christmas season for me.
Finally, a poem from the Jewish prayerbook Gates of Prayer made its way to me via my grief support group. An unlikely companion for holiday inspiration, the words remind me of the constancy of grief. But in the simple repetition of "We remember them," I felt the bonds of grief loosening their grip on me. In remembering (rather than suppressing or denying) those we've lost, we can become freer to celebrate with those loved ones still with us. For those of you also struggling with loss this season, I'm including the poem here.
Wherever this season finds you, whatever loss that is heavy on your heart, there is still much to celebrate. Notice the celebrations around you, both the familiar and the foreign, for they are all reflections of God.
Namaste. Shalom. Merry Christmas.
It's been several weeks since Hurricane Harvey dumped 50 inches of rain on Houston. The kids are finally back in school. Mostly the roads are open. We are still afloat, and, yes, we are #HoustonStrong. We are all the things you hear about on the news—courageous, compassionate, heroic. But we are also exhausted, discombobulated and untethered. Even those of us who still have homes are awash in the environmental trauma. We, understandably, feel like we must do something. We must help those in desperate need—friends, neighbors and strangers alike.
And we are not alone, those in Irma's path are following right behind us, still in the early stages of disaster recovery. I spent a month of my summer on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, the idyllic place I chose for this blog. This is what it looks like now.
What we really don’t want to acknowledge are our own needs. It feels frivolous, in the face of such devastation, to admit that we need to collect ourselves. To sit and just be. To re-anchor our souls that have been disconnected from that still, quiet voice for too long. But reconnect, we must, for if we don’t, all our good deeds and fine intentions will simply add to the frenetic energy of this wounded city.
It is this re-centering of our soul that imbues our actions with love rather than fear. This formula holds true not only in natural disasters, but in the traumas—big and small—that make their way into each of our lives. So whether you find yourself struggling in the floodwaters of the Texas/Louisiana coast or South Asia, sweltering in the California heat wave, breathing in ash of the Oregon wildfires, recovering from Irma’s landfall on the East coast, surrounded by earthquake rubble in Mexico City, or just plain stuck between a rock and a hard place, pulling inward before stepping out to help is essential, as counterintuitive as it might feel. Truly, you can only give what you have cultivated within.
In times of crisis, it is hard to create a self-care plan if we don’t already have one. There is not a one-size-fits-all way to re-center, but there are practices that have worked for others, some of which will work for you. Since Harvey's departure from Houston, I’ve pulled out all my tried and true practices and am sharing them with you. Please adopt whatever resonates to create your own self-care plan. It will not only benefit you, but will create peaceful energy that will reverberate outward to all around you. It is important to include all the senses in your approach, so I’m categorizing them by sense—and I added spirit because that is perhaps the most crucial one in this work.
Healing Music… Gifted singers and songwriters often put to words those things lingering unexpressed in our hearts. My dear friend Shellee Coley wrote a song during the flooding of Hurricane Harvey that does just that. The song’s video can be found here.
Singing Bowl… If you have one or can get your hands on one, the vibration you can create and absorb with this simple instrument can be very therapeutic. Originating in Nepal, this bowls are used in meditation and healing because of the fundamental frequency they emit. Playing one is a meditation unto itself. Dana Shamas of Bayou Bliss Yoga , who led a free crystal bowl meditation session this week in Houston’s Rothko Chapel to aid the community’s recovery, describes the trauma experienced by all who live in devastated areas as “ambient chaos.” Whether directly affected or living among those who were, we all feel the communal trauma in our bodies.
Chanting… Don’t worry about picking the “right” mantra. Just make a joyful noise! This could be a traditional chant like “Om,” considered the primordial sound of the universe which—when sung or chanted—can bring us into balance with ourself and our surroundings. It can also be simply articulating an intention you set for yourself. For example, repeating “peace” or “serenity” out loud as you sit comfortably and receptively. Saying it 108 times is considered auspicious for many faiths. It can even be singing a favorite song or hymn from a religious tradition.
Essential oils… If you regularly use essential oils, smell each one and diffuse the one that draws you to it. If you are new to essential oils, choose a lavender for relaxation or a citrus (lemon or orange) to lighten your mood and lift the heaviness of trauma. A diffuser (widely available) allows you to enjoy the benefits for hours, but if you can’t get your hands on one, dab a few drops on your wrists or temples and inhale deeply.
Candlelight… The most gentle way to view the world is by candlelight. The primal glow softens the hard edges of everything in our sight and works its way inward. Light a candle and, literally, change the way you see the world.
Bath… Slip into a warm bath. For centering trifecta, add a few drops of essential oil and some candles to your bath experience.
Labyrinth… If you live near a labyrinth, go walk it. This ancient meditative movement takes you from the outer to the inner, both physically and spiritually. I always doubt the power of this simple practice when I start, but I inevitably receive an important message or experience a needed release by the time I reach the center. Not sure where to find one? Search this labyrinth locator. I found 30 within a 25 mile radius of me, including the one I walked this morning.
Yoga… If you have a home practice, choose some simple grounding poses—mountain pose (tadasana), down dog (adho mukha svanasana), warrior pose (virabhadrasana) and easy seated pose (sukhasasna). Listen to your body, and move through or hold poses in ways that feel nourishing to you. An extended corpse pose (savasana) just might be your whole practice today.
Tea… Make tea a morning or evening ritual, choosing a blend with calming properties and preparing it as old school as possible. Avoid microwaving your water and opt for a whistling tea kettle instead. Create an unplugged zone around your tea and sip it slowly. You can read something spiritual and inspiration, but don’t read the newspaper or escape into a novel.
Soup… Are you sensing a theme here? Like tea, soup is warm and grounding and can be sipped and savored. Choose a soup that’s flavorful but not overly spicy. It’s hard to frantically eat soup. Let the slow pace of your spooning seep into the rest of your day.
Prayer… This is not about saying the right words. It is, in fact, not about words at all. The prayer we need in times of chaos is one of our heart reaching out to something greater than ourselves. In stillness and with a receptively devoid of expectation. Look inside yourself for what needs to be expressed. For what is weighing you down with fear or anxiety. Give what you find to God.
Meditation… If prayer is releasing our hearts to God, meditation is what happens after in the silence. There is no magic formula to meditation. Our only job is to hold the space in stillness. Not waiting for the outcome to legitimize our practice, but knowing that just be showing up we have entered into meditation.
Take a practice or two from this list that speaks to you. Don’t try to do them all at once or you’ll increase your stress level rather than lowering it. Instead, tuck them away and pull them out when you need them. Be gentle with yourself as you build your practice, especially during a time of crisis. If you’re a journaler, make notes on your experiences that will help you build a practice that will anchor you when life’s storms—literal and metaphorical—come your way.
Note: I wrote this (but forgot to post) a day before Harvey hit, when many of us thought this would be just another hurricane scare with a little extra rain to contend with. When our biggest concern was getting the kids back to school and leaving summer behind. Things have changed more than I could have imagined in a week and half. As our city emerges from the wreckage and lives up to its hashtag #HoustonStrong, I decided to post this anyway, because in this space, more than ever, we need reminders to connect our body and our breath and to absorb the lessons learned when we do.
The open-endedness of summer is glorious, no doubt, but the predicability of fall brings its own pleasures. As we approach Labor Day and bid adieu to lazy days, I urge you to sink into its rhythm. If you are sending kids back to school—whether pre-K or college—you have likely spent the last few weeks totally focused on launching your offspring into their new worlds. Upon returning from my summer travels, I dove straight into uniform orders, dorm room shopping and a never-ending parade of school forms. I shopped for supplies and calendared school events. I arrived back in Houston physically two weeks ago, but not until I hit my yoga mat yesterday was I really home.
As soon as I started synching my breath to my body, I realized how out-of-synch I'd been. I'd been operating completely in the head space of getting things done. In Ayurvedic terms, my Vata was leading the way, keeping me operating in the intellectual ether, completely ungrounded and untethered to the wisdom of the body.
My yoga practice always returns me to this balance, but how easily I forget, swimming in thought for way too long before I reach for it!
Happily for me, yesterday's practice involved some linguistic learning that fed my word nerd side. I firmly believe in the power of words to transform us. My teacher, Ann Hyde, unpacked some common terms and illuminated how easily they are misinterpreted, even when spoken silently to ourselves. First, intensity needn't make us tense. Instead of seeking the "intense" perhaps we should focus on the "intent." They don't sound so different to our ears, but they do to our souls.
And, likewise, "relaxing" doesn't entail being "lax." We can hold our intention AND relax. Relaxing can increase productivity, rather than reducing it.
Really, they are not so great. I've heard expectations called "premeditated resentments," and I tend to agree. I am a planner, which is not—in and of itself—a bad thing. When I become overly attached to my plans being executed perfectly, however, it does become a bad thing.
This summer, I really outdid myself in the intricacy of my planning which included traveling to North Carolina with my son and two friends, taking them all to Duke lacrosse camp, spending his birthday at our house in the mountains with other friends, then flying to the British Virgin Islands where my son would do a three-week scuba and sailing camp while I stayed in a house there. My daughter would come visit halfway through my time on the island and then we would all fly back to the mountains and meet my husband to celebrate my daughter's birthday. That is an awesome plan, no?
As I sit here in the waning days of summer, looking back, I can laugh at all the ways my plans did not go as expected. When things were going awry it was harder to laugh. But this is what I discovered—the parts that didn't go as planned were not bad. They were just different than the summer I'd cooked up in my mind.
My son got a concussion the night before lacrosse camp and had to miss the whole thing. We had to leave the mountains and bring him home to Houston to recuperate. BUT my kids got to spend a whole bunch of quality time together, playing tennis, watching copious amounts of YouTube and building the world's biggest fort. I got to reconnect with my husband who I often go weeks at a time without seeing during the summer. I got to hang out with my daughter who was away in school in NYC last year. And we got to spend some time with friends at their Galveston house. Ultimately, my son recovered and the change of plans was not as catastrophic as my mind originally told me it was.
Note: Feelings are not facts.
When my daughter joined me in Tortola for what I'd imagined would be blissful days of mother-daughter bonding in paradise, she immediately hated the place. Not just mildly. She was hot (there was no air conditioning) and generally miserable. I struggled with her misery. Should I insist she stay? Should I let her go home early? I realized I was taking her dislike of the place personally. It was not a personal affront to me that she didn't like the place that I adored. She flew home after a couple of days, and we were both happy.
Note: People (even those closest to me) have different tastes than I do, and that's ok!
As I write about the things that didn't go as planned, I am reminded of how many things did work out beautifully. The house I found on Air B&B was just right for me—simple, walking distance to the beach, killer views from the patio and paid for entirely with my AmEx points. There were things I didn't know about like the roosters crowing at 5:30 every morning; the steep incline of the hill where my house was situated; and the lack of garbage service which required carrying my trash down said steep hill to the nearest dumpster. I am not just being a Pollyanna when I say that those things made the trip more charming. They made it real for me. I got to be a part of the community for a month, not just a pampered tourist sipping pina coladas (though I did sip a few!).
Note: When I am tallying what goes wrong, I must also tally what goes right.
I'm enjoying a bit of quiet mountain time before the back-to-school fall rat race descends. The rest of my family veered off plan again and headed back to Houston, but by this point in the summer mayhem, I am not phased. I stayed the course with no resentment. I remembered that we can love and support each other without being on the same schedule.
I hope your summer adventures—planned and unplanned—brought you want you needed this season. I'm heading into fall holding my expectations very loosely!