A Modern Mystic

Musings on life, work and contemporary spirituality

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Resistance: Review of a Book Every Creative Should Read Now


With his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield has done for us creative types, what the Buddha did for spiritual seekers 3000 years ago.

Upon awakening, the Buddha taught the first cycle of teachings, The First Noble Truth, long-misunderstood by legions of pundits to mean, “Life is suffering.” Actually the Buddha was identifying the problem, suffering, in order to set out the solution. Life is not suffering, suffering is not our nature, yet we must learn to identify suffering and its causes if we want to attain happiness. This reasoning is sound. Every successful military general knows that if he is to defeat the enemy, he must know as much as possible about it. Knowledge is power. Forewarned is forearmed.

Likewise, internationally successful author and screen writer Pressfield makes a brilliant study of what he calls Resistance, that particular quality of our thinking which keeps us grumpy, small, creatively frustrated and angry about it. He makes a masterful study, wonderfully pith and poetic, of the root negative thinking behind every type of procrastination known to sentient beings. Not just a manual for artists or writers, The War of Art is a must-read for anyone who has ever put off doing what they love or dilly-dallied their virtuous aspirations. I know I have done that. Have you?

With so many wonderful books, blogs, methods, systems, religions and TED Talks devoted to inspiring us to be our most creative and productive selves, why should we focus on the problem, rather than the solution? Because as the Buddha taught so long ago, and Pressfield proves, it is in knowing the problem that we understand the solution. By delving into the way thinking is hard-wired, we can short-circuit the habits that keep us from putting our butts in the seat and our feet on the path. Pressfield’s book is the place to start and for many years it has been my go-to manual whenever my own symptoms of resistance – sleeping in, skipping meditation practice, criticizing others, participating in family drama, etc. – kick-in and start to wreak havoc with my ambitions. I have read it countless times and I suspect I will read it countless more.

Read The War of Art. Locate your own favorite habit of resistance within its pages and then chop that repugnant enemy to bits. Or laugh it off and then go out and do what you have to do with a joyful heart. Today.

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Patience or Tolerance? What’s in a Word?

wireheartIn my work with coaching clients, seekers, beautiful and truly well intentioned people, I see sloppy language at the heart of many of our deeper dilemmas. We use words that we haven’t properly defined for ourselves and it’s so easy to hide behind them. Words such as “spiritual,” “angels,” “grace,” “compassion,” “positive thinking,” and “judgment” seem to be common places to store our misunderstandings about who we are and how things work. Yet as often as not, a few minutes of contemplation and research on our “spiritual” vocabulary can clear up a belief or habit of thinking that is keeping us stuck and unhappy.

Last night I attended a Buddhist teaching on patience. Along with generosity, discipline, diligence, mindfulness and knowledge, patience is one of the Transcendent Perfections or “Paramitas,” the heart of the bodhisattva’s practice.

After the teaching the group got into a discussion about tolerance. Wasn’t tolerance the same thing as patience? Shouldn’t I strive to always, under all circumstances, quietly put up with unacceptable behavior from others? Isn’t that the peaceful Buddhist way?

Well, no. This is a misunderstanding of the term patience. If we look closely we see that tolerance usually has an underlying flavor of anger. We don’t like something – a behavior, a person, or even an idea – and yet we refrain from acting, stewing about it all the while, presumably because we think that eventually some good will come of our forbearance. We should speak up when we see injustice or harm and try to muster the thought, “May this person be free from suffering and its causes!”

Unfortunately, a good result can never come from a negative intention. True patience means not reacting in anger, whether in thought, word or deed. At first this is a mighty challenging thing, and yet we improve with practice. Perhaps we first reach for tolerance, non-reaction, while understanding that we don’t like the anger that we’re feeling. Eventually, if we renounce our anger, true patience has a chance to take root.

It all starts with a word and the understanding of its true meaning.


The Fragile Heart

FragileHeartA gift box arrived in the mail this week. It revealed a beautiful blown glass heart, exquisitely hand made in rainbow colors. I can’t help but notice that it comes at a time when my own heart feels fragile.

At the start of the summer I decided to work on re-branding my business and deepening my connection to my work. I set things into motion: hired a branding expert and coach, enrolled in a training and credentialing course, and set lists and deadlines for accomplishing the many detailed tasks associated with moving my creative life forward. With everything planned and organized, neat and tidy, I then went on vacation, looking forward to giving these tasks refreshed attention upon my return.

Life happened instead, and I returned home to find the ground literally shifting under my feet. I first got the news that we had to move and immediately began the process of finding  a new home. The day after signing the lease, a close relative landed in critical condition in a hospital in the Midwest. I dropped everything and flew to be with family. I returned with barely enough time to pack and prepare for moving day, while monitoring my nephew’s progress long distance. And yet life hasn’t let up. There are rescheduled client meetings and make-up classes to attend, doctor’s appointments and birthday parties, Back to School Night, and volunteer responsibilities, new assignments and deadlines. It seems everything, including dinner, has a deadline.

Today I finally said it out loud. I expressed my frustration with not finding enough time to care for myself and a wise woman replied with a question, “Where is your heart?”

It was a gentle question that nevertheless pierced right to the core. What does Carrie need right now? How can I take care of her? I was stunned not to know the answer.

When did I lose the ability to check in with my own heart? Was it when I was a child trying to survive a dysfunctional upbringing? Was it when I got older and learned to associate my emotions with drama, manipulation and shame? Was it as an exhausted mother and exasperated spouse just trying to get one more thing done?

My Mahayana Buddhist training tells me to do everything I do while holding the enlightened intention to become Buddha (True Happiness) for the sake of freeing all beings from suffering. And yet because of my own personal growth work in the past – everything from therapy and 12 Step recovery, story-telling and memoir writing, to yoga and Buddhist meditation – I recognize the self-destructive side of doing for others to the point of exhaustion. I know I am not alone in this particularly feminine style of dysfunction whose root cause sends women to pharmacies and breast cancer surgeons in droves. We women are suffering because, in the face of all we are expecting ourselves to do and be, we are failing to get our own emotional needs met. At the risk of being blunt, we are shirking our number-one priority and responsibility, to take care of our own fragile hearts.

Where are our hearts?

Each of us must answer this question for ourselves. It is only by staying true to our own hearts that we can truly serve others. As women, when we authentically check-in, we do not find lists and deadlines, flow charts and decision matrices. If we are honest, we find tenderness, vulnerability, moods, knowing without being able to show our work, and decisions that fluctuate and flow.

For me, staying too long in my head leads to dysfunctional emotionality. Without the balance of time for meditation, contemplation, dreaming, praying, creating, giggling, cuddling my cat, window-shopping and trusting my wacky self, I become needy and emotionally out-of-control. This always manifests as a messy house, jerky communication, and a chaotic life. These outward signs tell me it’s time to pause and contemplate, to discover where I have given myself away or sold myself out.

I’m sure you can discover your own patterns, positive and negative, if you investigate and make it a priority today.

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Self-care Manifesto

photoI feel my best mentally and emotionally when I take care of myself physically. There are certain habits I maintain simply because I feel better when I do them. After all, this precious human body has been my responsibility for some time now, I would argue, since long before I left my family to set out on my own. What’s more, I have realized that taking care of myself is not only good for me, it is good for others as well. When I have a foggy head because I skipped lunch, I not only frustrate myself, I’m also more prone to snapping at my family and I disappoint my clients  by not doing my best work. Below is my list of must-haves in a daily self-care routine. Of course I can’t always achieve 100% success, but at least I always know where to start when I want to feel better.

I feel my best when I …

  • Sleep no more than seven and a half hours
  • Rise at 6:00 am, go to bed by 10:30 pm
  • Maintain a daily meditation practice
  • Drink water all day, a glass every hour or two
  • Socialize outside my home and office for a few minutes
  • Eat three healthy meals, including breakfast before 9:00 am
  • Consume fresh raw vegetables or homemade juice
  • Use alcohol, caffeine and sugar in moderation
  • Walk for at least 20 minutes
  • Wash my face and brush my teeth morning and evening

This may seem basic, but how many of us were taught the principles behind these simple techniques? Maintaining healthy routines, whatever they are, is the single best way to love yourself and take responsibility for your thinking and your life.

What’s your must-have list for feeling and thinking your best?

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Recovering after the Marathon


Storybook House

I’ve just finished the spiritual equivalent of a triathlon.

It’s funny. We tend to compartmentalize our lives, categorizing certain events as affairs of the heart, while labeling others merely material, divorcing the passion from the practical. But if we really look closely, it’s not that cut-and-dried.

Over the past several years, my new husband and I met, went our separate ways for a few years – both letting go of old careers and embracing new ones – reunited, married, blended families. Well, you get the picture. It has been a non-stop emotional equivalent of a funeral at the circus, the letting-go and the joy all jumbled together. Not once during all these many changes have I been able to stop and say, “Gee, this is a purely spiritual problem. I’ll just pray about it, the light will dawn, and I will be saved.” Or, “Wow, okay, if I just do this step and take that action, the practical result I want will fall into place.”

No, it’s been an athletic event in which we have had to exert a lot of muscle, display a little stamina, get up early in the morning and stay up late at night, say our prayers, do our rituals, watch our thinking and continually set the intention to stay in the race, especially when hitting the wall with discouragement or exhaustion.

I love following the antics of my Facebook friend Melissa, a single mother, business owner and kick-butt runner. I’m fascinated by her tales of ramping-up for each race, the pain of training in the cold and the wet, the camaraderie with her fellow runners, the celebration of victories and the humble acknowledgments of failure, the full-on commitment to her sport and the brave insistence on taking care of herself. Most recently she has helped me understand why today, this week, I am so tired.

Because I should be.

That triathlon I mentioned? We just sold my husband’s cherished dream house, a 108 year-old 4-story beauty that he has lovingly care-taken for over a decade. Long before I came on the scene, he entered this home full of bright dreams for his daughter’s and his own futures. Those dreams have materialized, even if not exactly in the way he envisioned  them on that lovely summer day when he fell in love with this home and saw a new life ahead. Now a new dream is emerging, a shared dream, with less stuff, more mobility and exciting far-away adventures. And the packing, dumpstering, sorting and winnowing is hard work of the spiritual and material kind.

So this week, I am following Melissa’s advice to slow down and recuperate after the race. My body and spirit are tired and the most honorable thing to do is to recover. So I sit. Drink green juice. Relax. Sleep-in. Ponder. Watch the relentless rain. Dream.

The next finish line is just around the bend.

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Falling apart is a good thing

When is falling apart a good thing?

  • When that stiff upper lip prevents me from speaking the truth. “Yes, I’m afraid. Yes, I need help.”
  • When my insistence on “my way or the highway,” leads me down the wrong path again.
  • When I can’t remember the last time I experienced joy for no reason.
  • When I no longer engage in daily activities that relax my mind completely–a walk in the rain? buttermilk pancakes topped with mounds of whipped cream? playing fetch with my dog until we’re both panting?

Falling apart? My version usually involves runny mascara, pajamas, a thorough tantrum, a bad hair day and the worst cold I’ve had in years. I often mutter the very words I counsel others to intone and they come out sounding whiny and pathetic: help me, comfort me, hold me.

It’s okay. I’ve been there. I’m human. I make mistakes and I recover. I fumble around a lot. And yet things are never as bad as they seem in my head. Falling apart helps me to get to the other side, the place of forgiveness, self-love, ease, relaxation and hope. Strangely, sadness and despair, if I allow them in, lead me straight to joy every time.

Falling apart is like Bon Ami cleanser on the greasy grime that has accumulated on the soft surface of my beautiful gleaming heart. It’s not pretty, but it gets the job done.

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Stop trying

That’s what I said: “Stop trying.” Right now. Just quit.

You may not realize it, but Trying is the enemy of Doing. As Accomplishment’s evil step-brother, Trying will get you to the church on time, fill the pews, pump the ginormous pipe organ, and leave you jilted at the altar. Trying is a wily suitor.

I watch the line of middle schoolers present their field study journals to the trio of teachers ready to give them the reprieve of a free night to frolic with their friends. I’m one of a few dozen parent chaperones on a week-long tour of the Central Oregon fossil lands. Think Outdoor School combined with Outward Bound and an archeology dig in the Outback, and add 75  hormone-pumped teenagers, 40 sleep-deprived adults and two scenic-cruiser buses. After an exhausting day of hikes, Forest Service guides and geological statistics, the only thing standing between me and a hot shower is to get my four adolescent charges through the gauntlet of teachers there to ensure that each kid keeps-up with his field work.

The kids know what’s expected–a water-colored pencil sketch and accompanying fact statement for each landmark visited today. They also know that once their work is complete they are free to enjoy two hours of socializing or sports before it’s lights-out in tent-town.

So I am astounded when one of my charges, a savvy 8th grader, shuffles to the front of the line and hands in his journal, despite not having completed two of the water color scenes. When the teacher matter-of-factly points out the omission, reminding him that he must keep up with the assignments if he wants evening free time, the kid whines, “I’m trying.” Without missing a beat the teacher retorts, “Trying isn’t working. You’ll have to do something else. Until you’re finished, your team will not be allowed to attend the free activities.”

How many times has the pubescent voice in my own head whined, “I’m trying,” right before disaster strikes. It doesn’t matter whether I’m embellishing a blog post, editing a manuscript on deadline or crafting a spinach frittata, I’ve learned to pay close attention when that phrase enters my mind. Why? Because I am keenly attuned to the tone of impending failure embedded in that short declarative sentence.

You see, although the verb “to try” may have once meant “an earnest and conscientious activity intended to do or accomplish something,” anymore it simply stands for the Hail Mary three-point shot at the buzzer that goes wide its mark or the half-hearted attempt at KP duty that leaves dirty dishes in the sink. It just doesn’t cut it. In fact most of us uttering the phrase, “I tried,” whether in our heads or aloud, honestly mean “I failed.” Otherwise, wouldn’t we rather say “I’ve done my best!” and leave it at that?

Indeed, like the weary field study teacher, if I were reigning monarch, I would banish the phrase, “I’m trying!” Imagine “trying to eat breakfast” instead of chewing and swallowing your oatmeal; “trying to walk” instead of rising up out of your chair and moving your limbs; or “trying to relax” instead of releasing a long, slow deep exhale, and you soon see where I am going with this.

The Trying is the obstacle. It’s like walking with your shoelaces tied together. Far from labeling a state of reaching for perfection, Trying has become a phrase to white-wash our own personal sense of failure. By focusing on the mental activity of effort, we rob the present moment of any possible engagement in what we are actually intending to do. We stay trapped in our heads alongside concretized notions of unattainable perfection. Meanwhile we waste the utter wisdom of the present moment itself.

Give up Trying. Embrace doing. Accept mistakes. Release excuses.


Mindful marketing

I love the little synchronicities that keep me tuned to what’s important. This morning during a chat over a tall chai latte, a strategic business partner who had recently SEO’d my entire online world, reminded me that the best way to optimize my presence is to post often.

“Yes,” I lamented, “I now post to two blogs! Who has time for other social media?” For more efficiency, she suggested I share my posts on the two blogs. “Good idea,” I thought. “Now what do spirituality and social media marketing have in common?”

Not ten minutes later, as I stood in the check-out line at the grocery store, I spied the spring issue of the Buddhist review, Tricycle, and an article gracing its Vajrasattva-clad cover: “10 Mindful Ways to Use Social Media.”

Perhaps I’m not the only one who often has to choose between spending my time praying and meditating or mindfully working. I have often written about work issues on this blog. But on my business website, are people really interested in my thoughts about a mindful approach to marketing?

More and more I see the lines blurring between the spiritual and the mundane. Perhaps it’s the collective sense that we’ve arrived at a turning point in human history. There has always been suffering—financial strife, natural disaster, war, revolution, social injustice and individual turmoil. It’s just that now we have instant access to personal and media accounts of human suffering from around the world. I’d like to think that this constant stream of self-created human angst has the potential to awaken us rather than to send us diving back under the warm blankets of avoidance and distraction.

I’m not sure whether people are ready to wake up to marketing their businesses in kinder, more generous and positive ways. I am sure, however, that I’m ready to put aside my fears of appearing too earnest, too woo woo, in order to offer exactly that kind of service. I’d like to spread the message that it is possible to help others while earning a decent living and distributing western wealth more equitably across the globe. There is no need to split the spiritual self from the business persona. In fact, we’ll need to bring the two together more and more in order to accomplish the healing our world requires.

Join me! Set a small enlightened intention to help someone else in your business today and then tweet about it. And check out @TinyBuddha while you’re there!

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Laughing with fear

I looked up in the shower this morning to see a large rat disappearing into a hole in the open-beamed wood ceiling in our basement bathroom.

Cat and ratThose who know me well, know that I have one true phobia: rodents. I can pick up spiders with my bare hands, turn and calmly walk away from a snake, and see blood without fainting or even reacting at all. So of course, I tend to see rats everywhere, even where most people hardly notice them. The fear of rats, mice and similar critters has, at times, given me nightmares or induced me to jump on top of tables or counters screaming  like a cartoon character. (This behavior has delighted my teenage son ever since the first time he witnessed it at the age of two. We were building a fence and the pounding caused a rat to come out from under the house and head right toward me. I let out a  high-pitched staccato scream that made him giggle so hard that I temporarily forgot to flee in panic.) This life-long phobia has even prevented me from visiting the retreat center where my beloved teacher is headquartered.

Now anyone who has read this blog knows that I work with fear continually. In fact, the most searched-on posts in my archives have to do with my work on the Coward, the archetype most closely associated with fear. My dear fans might wonder, “What does a naked, wet and  cowardly rodent-hater do when she spies a big fat rat above her head?” The answer: she calmly investigates her fear.

FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real. Just yesterday my business coach reminded me of this handy phrase. Maybe that’s what stopped me in my tracks this morning. Or maybe it’s the practices I have been doing around confidence, trust and certainty in my positive intentions. All I know is that I stopped, and for the first time I faced off, not with the rat, but with my fear of the rat.

You know what? In my calm observation and investigation there in the shower, I realized that it was not a rat at all, but the stub of a black PVC pipe going into a hole. The long tail? A metal bracket seen at a funny angle. Now I was naked, wet and laughing so hard I nearly slipped in the shower.

Fear is like that. We create what we fear with the power of our thinking. I’m learning that there is never a reason to react or make a decision when I am fearful. When I am afraid, that is the time to check, observe, listen, and investigate with all the curiosity I can muster. It probably isn’t what I imagine. And if it is, it might be more afraid of me than I am of it. In any case, there is always more room to maneuver when we “approach” what we fear. And sometimes there are even valuable gems hidden there. Like a good naked belly laugh. I really needed that.


Bells and whistles; mindfulness now

There were two related items in my email inbox this morning.

In one, a money coach ranted in her blog about the dangers of electronic banking. She argues that it’s easy to stay in a fog about one’s finances when you just react to a bell by clicking and dragging money into various accounts. In another email  Change.org announced that it had changed the unfair practices and policies of several large companies and institutions based on the numbers of email and online petitions filed by regular people like me.

In the wake of the extraordinary political events taking place in the Middle East, I wonder who is right? Does the World Wide Web keep us in a distracted fog or is it the savior and whistle-blower capable of keeping those in power accountable?

I have decided that neither is true. I agree with Mikelann Valterra that allowing our bank account to alert us when our account gets low, if relied on, will send us into what she calls “the money fog” faster than you can say “Brother, can you spare a dime.” I also feel a need to look closely at what these bells and whistles can do for us.

Put simply: in a world designed to distract us, online services can be another way to practice mindfulness.

Let’s dig deeper.

When I use the term mindfulness I am not advocating a type of meditation where we sit on the cushion and will the world to go away. Many of us have tried and “failed” at meditation because we have an unrealistic expectation of what it can provide. As long as we draw breath (and beyond) we will never stop thinking. So how helpful is it to sit down and try to stop doing it?

I offer beginners a different path to awareness. I’ll illustrate with a story from my own beginnings as a practitioner of mindfulness.

Many years ago a girlfriend and I went on a weekend retreat in Northern California lead by an ex-Zen monk who was later to become quite prominent in the Buddhist movement in the U.S. The retreat was a looser version of the kind offered at Zen centers around the world; there was a schedule of sitting meditation, dharma talks, “work,” relaxation and free time with bells chiming to indicate when it was time to switch activities.

The first morning my friend and I were given a project in the kitchen, where, because our teacher was as famous for his cooking as for his zen-ing, he presided . We spent a happy and sunny hour chopping until, in the flurry of bells chiming and shuffling here and there, we arrived barely on time for our next event, a dharma talk.

Far from expounding profound and sublime words about suffering and nirvana, our host spent the entire period ranting angrily about the lack of mindfulness of two retreatants who left the kitchen without cleaning-up and putting their tools away. He went on to rant about the shoes he was finding in the pathways rather than neatly stacked on the shelves outside the meditation hall, and on and on. My friend and I sat in the hall, our cheeks burning with shame and rage. I never was able to look our teacher in the eye again and it was many years before I could think about him without recalling the fear and trembling I felt for the rest of that long weekend.

The next morning when we awoke at dawn there was a mattress propped outside the teacher’s hut. It seemed his hot water bottle had leaked a quart of water while he slept and he set it outside to air. Mindfulness is a life-long project.

It is only now that I understand the significance of that teaching, the reasons for the formality of Zen practice with its gasho-ing, neatness and thriftiness. Even the anger of that dharma rant is a precious reminder to me. Yes, I did leave a dirty knife at a kitchen station long ago. I just wandered away, not thinking of the consequences that another person might cut themselves, that the knives might rust or get dull, that someone would have to clean-up after me, that my forgetfulness might be the condition for the rage of another human being. Most importantly, I look back at that time with the realization that I was asleep at the wheel most of the time. My life was chaotic because I did everything that way, floating from one event to another without any awareness whatsoever of where I was going or where I had been.

I gently urge anyone who wishes to have more joy, more heart, more aliveness, more presence in their life, to do this simple thing: think about every little thing you do as you are doing it. This is more difficult than it appears, because we are unaccustomed to thinking about the everyday tasks of life. When you get up, make the bed. Do it carefully, with joy. While in the kitchen, clean up rather than leaving the dishes in the sink for later. Put items back where they belong right after you have used them, even if it means taking extra steps. Stop taking the short-cuts. Pay attention to the way your muscles feel when you choose the stairs. Finish one task before starting a new one. Dare to do one thing at a time for just one hour. Tackle the items in your email in-box one at a time. Even the bells and whistles on the computer can be the moment-to-moment signals to remind you to be present, to stop, to face the item squarely, to do the job to the best of your ability before moving on to the next item on the list.

Anything that can be used to put us in the fog can also be enlisted to wake us up.