A Modern Mystic

Musings on life, work and contemporary spirituality

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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.

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Are you coachable?

I sometimes lapse into the bad habit of trying to do everything myself, reinventing every wheel and generally making life a huge struggle. In those moments I am just not open to new ideas about accomplishing my goals. That’s when I usually get feedback from the Universe.

You know who the Universe is—our friends, spouse, children, clients, cat, even the perfect stranger who seems to be doing what they’re doing for the sole purpose of annoying us. Whatever the issue, when it’s time to face it, forces of nature seem to conspire to bring it to our attention time and time again.

I have sometimes insisted on doing things my own way for long periods of time. Very long periods. I just stubbornly keep doing what I’m doing while wishing for a different outcome. This is known as pride in Buddhist thought. Pride is the particular type of negative thinking that says, “I already know that” or “I don’t need to learn that” or “I can do that on my own” or sometimes, “I’m such a wreck no one could possibly help me.” One doesn’t have to be flashy or arrogant to display pride. In fact many of us display the most pride in the areas of life in which we experience lack or decline.

Recently I’ve had a chance to really explore the way pride has caused me a lot of unhappiness. Like many people in our cyclic economy, I have struggled with financial issues. You name them, I’ve dealt with them, including divorce, single-parent wage-earning, job loss, career change, debt and other fiscal challenges. And despite being intelligent and resourceful I have eschewed the kind of help that could get me on track.

Luckily the Universe is smarter and more persistent than I am. Last September she threw me a client, a financial planner and money coach who needed some edits for several writing projects. For several hours every week I was reading and editing content about how to heal one’s relationship with money.

There was lots of drama and emotion around this work, more than with my other clients. I began to notice the money coach balking at proposed edits, not listening to my advice or doing the opposite of what I advised, not paying me promptly, calling me outside normal office hours with last-minute requests and generally requiring higher maintenance than I felt my fee justified. I was really miserable and I began to push back. Although she was a steady client and I depended on the income from our work together, I considered dropping her altogether.

Finally one day she called to tell me that she had hired a writing coach and that she would be reducing her use of my services. At that moment my Buddhist training kicked-in. I began to see how I was projecting my own discomfort with taking advice in an area where I needed help. I recognized that it was the negative thinking of pride that kept my cup full of resentment and a know-it-all attitude. And a full cup cannot take anything else in.

Since the ah-ha I’m happy to report that things are better. When my client offered an 8-week course on money management I jumped at the chance. It was hard for me to admit that I need help to learn simple tasks like budgeting and charging properly for my services, but I showed up and paid attention. I am enjoying the freedom of finally coming to terms with the negative financial patterns that have kept me stuck. I emptied my cup and allowed some healthy humility to show me the next steps.

I realize that to be coachable is to be vulnerable and human. It is the most creative place, one of fertility and curiousity. I have never felt more positive about my future and my ability to learn the financial skills I need to get to the next stage in life. And all I had to do was ask for a little coaching.

And my coach? She called this morning. Seems that she needs a little advice about the direction her blog is going. Wow. Being coachable is beautiful thing that successful and happy people seem to understand.