Why we keep going

[Originally written to read at a Community Arts Night at the beginning of a new academic year at SSU where I work, but it’s also about all of us and why we keep going, keep coming together, keep searching for more… especially in these challenging and uncertain times.]

 

So here we are, gathered on the front lawn of Park Hall, some of our faces hidden behind masks we were not expecting to have to wear just six short months ago. Just another random assembly of human beings, wondering how we got here, and what we’re here for, and what this year is going to be like, each of us full to the brim with our own separate hopes, dreams and fears – that are even more hidden than our faces but no less real for it, no less powerful.

How did we get here, and what for? When life just keeps on being weird and sometimes hard, and people even weirder, what keeps on drawing us humans together? What makes us push through the weirdness and the hardness again, get out of bed again, and put on a mask to be able to sit next to someone we perhaps don’t even know yet, to listen together to some words, some melodies, some stories?

As we live this beginning together, I’m recalling the beginning of my experience as an undergraduate student.
1992 sounds like a lifetime ago, but I can still distinctly remember the chronic jaw ache I was left with from smiling broadly and constantly for a week or more, desperate to make new friends in this new stage of my life, newly at university and away from home. There were endless queues for everything, it seemed (remember, 1992 was in prehistoric times before the Internet was really a thing!) – queues for a student card, for a library card, for an account with the bursar, for meals, for second-hand text books, to get into the student union nightclub… and often I was in each queue for an hour or more, and next to more new people every time. It was exciting, and exhausting. And a little tedious after a while. As I recall, none of us were very original – always the same three questions: Where do you come from, what are you studying, what residence are you in? Always the painful smiling – a different kind of mask – always the awkwardness and the trying to hide it, always the attempt at witty repartee, the sizing each other up: What are you actually like behind your grin, your mask? Might you be my friend?
Often there were the unavoidable instant judgments: No way – not my kind of person. Too cool to want to be friends with me anyway. Nothing in common. Well, you’re not in my faculty or residence so, among 20,000 students, I’ll likely never see you again anyway.
Occasionally there was the strange pleasure of coming across a semi-familiar face in the crowd after a few days. “Oh… hi! We were together in the queue at the library the other day, I think! Yeah! How’s it going? I know, right?!” Even more occasionally, the inexplicable glimmer of inner recognition: Oh, I actually like you and I think you might like me! Hang on: Am I making a friend right now?! Am I perhaps actually an acceptable, likable human being? Is my new life going to not only NOT be a disaster, but maybe actually be fun?”

Of course, all that effort and strangeness soon became a thing of the past, judgments and insecurities slipped away – mostly! – and there were actual friends. Friends to go to lunch with, or sit in a lecture with, or drive with to a waterfall in the middle of the night, our treacherously dark and slippery path through the woods from the road to the water’s edge lit only by a flickering candle, so that we only ever heard and never saw the roaring, invisible cascade. (Don’t do this at home, kids!) Is this not a miracle in itself? No, not just that nobody died or broke a leg that night! But that strangers DO become friends, whose presence brings comfort and laughter, to whom you dare to tell your secrets, whose weddings you one day attend, whose kids you grow to love, whose divorce hurts you too. Is it not miraculous that we are not destined to be stuck forever in our seeming separateness, but that, over a lifetime, we gather around us a motley crew of other human beings who think we are OK, probably even more-than-OK, and whose company we feel truly privileged to enjoy? That we can discover through the ebb and flow of life and relationship that we do belong after all, and that our connectedness is what is most true about us?

And so, we gather – to ask the big questions:
How did we get here and what are we here for and… is it going to be OK?
We gather to live the questions together, and perhaps some distant day to live into the answers, or into even more beautiful questions. Though the goodness of the world and of life itself can sometimes seem hidden behind a mask of ugliness and suffering, we bear witness together to indisputable glimpses of beauty, justice and compassion, and to our longing for more.

Maybe that longing for more, and the willingness to follow it and not give up, are the greatest miracles of all – as if we are being relentlessly pulled onward by some immense flow that we cannot see.
Though it’s dark and we feel our way forward blindly, the air is undeniably damp and the roar in our ears is growing.
This cascade, this mighty force of kindness is real and it cannot be stopped.

So may we dare to trust the flow that carries us forward, and help each other to trust it too.

We are loved, dear ones, and we are love.

We are wildly beautiful and deeply compassionate.

Let us lend each other the courage to take off our metaphorical masks – even if fabric ones have to stay on a while – and dare to be seen in all our flawed and astonishing beauty, dare to be loved, and to love ourselves, each other, and this wonderful, wounded world.

We are the miracles.

Lockdown Lessons : Trusting the Process (with Meditation)

I am fascinated and intrigued by the way in which the Covid19 global pandemic is an extraordinarily collective and yet simultaneously highly individual experience. I resonate deeply with many personal observations from friends and strangers about their experience, but also encounter greatly dissimilar perspectives and accounts that stretch me, and hopefully break my heart open a little bit more.

Life can be painful and beautiful in a million different ways, can’t it?
But one thing seems to hold true for us all: life is painful AND beautiful. Brutiful, as author Glennon Doyle puts it.

One thing I noticed during this strange season – and I wonder if you resonate with my experience here? – is that as my world shrank for a while to the size of our house and family of three, and slowed down besides, life’s usual realities continued, while somehow also becoming more pronounced or perceptible. For example, shifting and unpredictable emotions existed way before Covid, of course! And yet in the world of lockdown I had the impression that there were new emotions, or perhaps old emotions about new things, and that they seemed to shift more quickly and sometimes be more intense – one day full of energy and gratitude for my life and health and connections, the very next day bone tired and deeply sad. Without a busy schedule to distract me, I was able to practice observing, feeling, honouring, and moving through my emotions in a new way. I got better at acknowledging them out loud or in a message to a friend; at allowing the reality today to displace the reality of yesterday, whether the change felt “good” or “bad” to me; and at trying to pay attention to what today’s reality was calling for… Perhaps it was getting a deferred task done at last, or prioritizing connection with my loved ones, or choosing a long, hot bath and some tears. With more time to “play with,” it felt easier, I suppose, to notice how each mood, energy state, or “felt meaning” in my body was temporary. As such, nothing needed to be either feared or trusted in too heavily. Each passing state was real and needed to be heeded, honoured, and responded to, but none was all-encompassing or authoritative.

I guess I could say that I have come to know in a more personal and embodied way that there is a ME that experiences all these shifting states, emotions, and felt senses but IS NOT any of them. I am bigger than everything that passes through my experience, and I am part of a Greater Whole that resources and supports me, and within which my participation and action matter. I regularly lose “sight” (touch/ sense) of this truth, but am learning to trust something that I heard meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg say last week:

“Healing is in the return, not in never having wandered.”

Thank goodness! If healing is in the return, then I can begin again each time I wander from my centre and forget myself and my interconnectedness. I can begin again, and again, and again. Every day. Perhaps someday I will learn to begin again every hour, every moment, even with every breath.

Of course, beginning again is only desirable if the goal is not perfection – and perfection NOW! – but rather being alive in and to this moment, here and now, growing in and with it. I can more easily choose to begin again, again, when I am invested in the process rather than only in the end result, when I believe that it is worth bringing the fullness of my attention and presence (or as much of it as is possible for me!) to the present moment, exactly as it is and exactly as I am. Because I believe that this brutiful world is worthy of attention and presence.

As my life and world begin to expand and speed up somewhat once again, I am feeling the need to remember and hold onto these lessons I have learned about how to move with the ebb and flow of life, and trust the process of life and growth, however long it all takes. Because of this, I’ve recently been drawn back to a prayer/poem by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Patient Trust,” that I’ve loved for some years.

Its message calls to me again, and it may resonate with you too in whatever life season you are living through.
So I’ve created a guided meditation in the audio file below, in which I offer you the chance to listen to and contemplate with me this prayer-poem and its invitation to “trust in the slow work of [God]” [or whatever other word or concept resonates better with you].

Let me know if you take some time aside to engage with this meditation, and what connects with you.
And let me know, too, if and how you resonate with my “lockdown lessons” or what was different for you.

Invitation

Everywhere
the world is dancing.

Two squirrels high in the treetops
leap nimbly between branches,
unafraid to fall.
A ribbon of weather-bleached caution tape
flutters gleefully in the breeze.
At my feet, morning sun glints on the diamond shard
of someone’s discarded revelry.

I watch the river’s rush,
and feel my face crooked,
caught between joy and pain.
I’ve slipped on rocks before
and hesitate now,
unable to step as blithely.

Still, an eagle drifts
easily to his perch,
and the little laughing streams
call to me between pebbled shoals.
So I pick my way down to the water’s edge
and contemplate
its ceaseless flow and
the endlessness of it all.
The mornings when I am astounded
by the dearest freshness of things,
and those when I wake half-asleep,
secretly, simply exhausted
by constant change.

It’s a dance I can’t keep up with.

Honestly, I wonder,
how can we dance at all
when so much is wrong?

The river’s roar all but drowns
my thoughts as I watch
reflected light play on a stone,
revealing its hidden aliveness.
The sun warms my back, slow,
and a cautious joy rises inside.

Of course it is only as I turn
to leave the water and the woods
that gratitude and love
brim uncontained.
I can’t help but love
these soaring trees
and their fallen friends,
the unseen birds bravely trilling
another morning’s song,
and the dozen silhouetted crows
gathered at the somber summit
of a single still-leafless tree.

Giving in
to delight,
I think,

If the world,
knowing its sorrow,
dances on,
how can I not
dance too?

Infected

(written March 2020*)

 

Symptoms are most severe in the old.

First, on the tongue and lips
the aching
tang of salt water
though it’s been years since you visited the ocean.

Next,
the
heart
begins
to swell
bigger and
bigger until the body
can no longer contain it.

There are dreams
day and night
of roots spreading from your hands and feet
down into neglected earth,
tendrilling out to meet
the rooting of friends and strangers,
the web of all those you cannot touch
but grasp, now, that you love
and need, and they you.

The limbs can become
restless as they wake
from their senseless sleep,
realizing their power
as if for the first time.
There is a sense of urgency:
What have we been
doing until now?
What is ours to do?

Many
experience
a band of tightness across the chest
that is ancient
and needs tending
with deep breaths
and rest,
with a new gentleness
and curiosity towards one’s own being,
fragile and infinite.

There are reports
of interesting coincidences in timing:
the urge to quietly shut the door
some weeks before it was required.
A turning inward.
A turning outward.
A letting go.
The resolve to be oneself at last.
Feeling very small and very large.

As if we knew it was coming,
especially the young among us,
who, though without visible symptoms,
are most deeply affected:
awake, on watch, alight.

 

*and, no, neither I nor any of my family are actually infected by the coronavirus!
But I am hopeful for a different kind of infection for us all globally, once this is past.

A Meditation (& Story) for Calm & Compassion

Dear friends, there’s a lot going on right now. And it’s changing all the time!
Each of us will be responding to this situation with the COVID-19 virus differently, struggling with different parts of it and not struggling with others, and as things change and develop so quickly, we are forced to change and adapt too. I don’t know about you but I’m not a great fan of having to change and adapt quickly!

I’m feeling so aware that, in these strange and uncertain times, we very much need each other. I am also feeling the urge to be intentional about what I need to do in order to navigate the ongoing, potentially stressful circumstances as well as I can, and to do whatever I can to support and help others. I want to find practical ways to do this, and have a few ideas bubbling, but decided to start by offering a meditation and story I brought to our community at St. Stephen’s University this afternoon, when we met to let students know that in-person classes are suspended for the remainder of the academic year.

I’m hoping that this offering will both help with what you may be feeling right now, but also suggest some really simple tools you can continue to use in the weeks to come. Because we all need some calm and compassion round about now, am I right? Before the meditation, I want to start with a story of my own from this week, as a way of giving myself, you and all of us permission to be dealing with this in all the varied ways we are and the ways we will.

So, on Saturday – having heard on Friday that schools in New Brunswick were closing for two weeks and so my daughter Amelie would be home for that time – we went to Superstore to buy groceries we needed, and I decided to buy a little more than I usually would at once. I was NOT STOCKPILING, I might add – I only bought six giant packets of toilet roll (jk, I didn’t buy any!) – just enough to not have to go back in a few days like I normally would. I haven’t been feeling overly anxious about the outbreak, a bit concerned for my elderly parents in the UK, but on the whole feeling like we can do this, we can make the changes we need to in the face of this challenge, we can even learn from it, and support each, and do this together. Anyway, there Amelie and I were in Superstore, putting most of the things on my shopping list into the cart, but also coming across a few items we wanted that were sold out, like (horrors!) British-style Heinz baked beans. And, yes, the loo roll section was almost empty. (What’s with that?!) Good thing I bought some last week haha! Around the Natural Food section, Amelie got out her phone and was on it but walking next to me while I got milk, salsa, and so on.

After a bit I turned to her and said, a little snappily, “Why are you on your phone?!” To which she replied “Because you’re being so weird!”

“What do you mean?” I responded, “Like asking you why you’re on your phone?”

“No! Before that! You’ve been being really weird, kind of angry, and annoying, like a really weird energy, and that’s why I went on my phone – to get away from you!”

I wanted to deny this and defend myself, because I really thought I was doing fine, but I managed to refrain, and tried super-humanly hard to be pleasant – maybe even fun?! 😉 – the rest of the way around the store. I realized as I did this that, yes, I did feel a bit weird, but hadn’t been aware of it until Amelie acted as a kind of mirror for me. (It’s one of the profound gifts of having a daughter!) 🙂

I felt bad for affecting her with my unconscious weirdness, and annoyed with myself that I hadn’t noticed there was anything going on. But I’m slowly learning that judging myself doesn’t do any good, while self-compassion and gentle curiosity go a long way! So I tried to be compassionate and curious towards myself and my behaviour:

“Hmmm… what’s going on in me right now? I’m trying to be a grown-up here and just deal with it, but this is weird and I’ve never experienced all this and I don’t know what’s going to happen and what my next weeks are going to look like! True, I haven’t felt particularly anxious, but I when I pay attention to my body and my emotions I realize I definitely feel unsettled, uncertain, and because of that somewhat on edge, and that’s making me annoying… and weird!”

So that was me this weekend. Today it’s different; I realized this morning I felt a bit emotionally vulnerable. This afternoon I feel more mentally muddied. And of course tomorrow it will be different again, and I probably won’t realize quite what’s going on inside me – and outside! – for a while, till I overreact to something or someone, or notice my body not feeling good in some way.

All of you have your own stories that you could tell, and some of your story you might not be particularly happy with or proud of, and other bits you’d be fine with… and isn’t that just what it’s like to be human? But all of us are dealing with new realities and will continue to do so for a while, and that brings new stress for us to cope with. We are all doing our best, using the tools we have at our disposal, maybe learning new ones as we go along, not knowing at times how to understand ourselves, or how to keep up or catch up with what’s going on around us or in us. In all of it, I hope we can keep trying to be kind to ourselves and those around us as we respond/ react to whatever is happening, bringing gentle curiosity rather than judgment to ourselves and others. And I hope this meditation can help with that.

A Meditation for Calm & Compassion

The meditation I’m going to offer is a really simple one where we’ll be invited to take a few minutes to just be in our bodies – these dear bodies of ours that carry us through life and hold all our emotions, and that are processing a lot right now. We have this simple and incredible tool at our disposal at any moment of the day to help us come into our bodies and give them some support – our breath. Whenever we take just a few moments to consciously breathe, we come into our bodies rather than getting stuck in our minds with their often racing, problem-seeking and problem-solving thoughts; and as we breathe and come into our bodies we also come into the present moment, rather than being stuck in the future or the past. So let’s do that now.

Make sure you have some protected time for this and are in a comfortable position. Take your time with it, pause often, enjoy. You can decide whether you want to read ahead to see where this is going and then come back to engage with each element, or simply pause after each new suggestion. Of course, and always, adjust things to fit who you are and what you need in this moment – we are all different and that is wonderful!

Take a moment as you begin to really notice where you are, and then to notice your body in the chair or however you are positioned. Now either gently close your eyes or lower your gaze to the ground and keep it there softly, and just notice that your body is breathing itself without you making an effort for it to do so. You are alive and sustained.

Start to deepen your breath now, breathing in through your nose if you can, and out through either the nose or the mouth. Take a few deep breaths in and out, and notice how your chest and your belly expand and rise as you breathe in, and fall and empty as you breathe out. If it helps you, place a hand on your chest or stomach or both, as you breathe, and pay attention to the movement of your hand instead of the breathing itself. Just breathe.

If you want to, you could start now to lengthen the exhale, and really pay attention to it as the breath leaves through your mouth or nose. I like to breathe enough that it makes a bit of a rushing noise, with the mouth either closed or open. If you do this, listen to this hushing noise as you exhale, and let it be a HUSH, a kind and comforting “Ssshhh”, that you are saying wordlessly to your body, to your emotions, to your mind. Just saying,”It’s OK! Shhhh. Hush.” Just breathe a few times like this, deeply in, deeply and slowly out, with a comforting HUSH to yourself.

As you breathe now, notice if there is anywhere in your body that is feeling anxious or tense or unsettled. If you like, put a caring hand on the part of your body where you feel this emotion or sensation, and as you breathe, use your breath to give loving attention and support to this part of you or this feeling, with no judgment and no need to fix or change it or yourself. Just letting it be, just breathing, just being as you are in this moment.

Continuing to breathe, you might be able to release some tension you feel in your body on the exhale, perhaps relaxing your shoulders or un-tensing your hands.

As you give yourself and your body this loving, accepting, calming presence, just as you are right now, I invite you to repeat, out loud if you want or can, or just internally in your mind and heart, these phrases that express the lovingkindness you are directing towards yourself:

May I be filled with lovingkindness.

May I be safe and protected.

May I be well in body and mind.

May I be at ease and happy.

As you continue to repeat these phrases (used in Lovingkindness Meditation), you can picture yourself – either as you are now or as a child – and hold that image in your mind and heart as you direct lovingkindness towards yourself. Adjust the images and the words as you want and need in order to best open your heart to kindness and compassion, remembering that without loving yourself it is difficult to love others. 

May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be safe and protected.
May I be well in body and mind.
May I be at ease and happy.

Repeat these phrases a few times, letting any feelings of compassion and love permeate your body and mind, while also being aware that the meditation could feel mechanical or awkward or bring up feelings that are the opposite of lovingkindness – maybe feelings of irritation or anger or sadness. If this happens, it is especially important to be patient and kind toward yourself, allowing whatever arises to be received with friendliness and kind affection.

Now, having evoked this lovingkindness towards yourself, you can expand this to include others, turning any worry or concern you may feel for others into intentional wishes for their well-being. So choose a person or people that you are concerned about, picture them, and repeat the same phrases with them in mind, with love and care:

May you be filled with lovingkindness.
May you be safe and protected.
May you be well in body and mind.
May you be at ease and happy.

As you repeat the phrases, it doesn’t matter whether the image or feelings are clear or not. It just matters that your intention is to wish them well, and to open your heart to lovingkindness and compassion.

May you be filled with lovingkindness.
May you be safe and protected.
May you be well in body and mind.
May you be at ease and happy.

After directing lovingkindness towards this person or these people, you can if you like gradually begin to include others in your meditation, perhaps in ever-widening circles, even expanding your concern and compassion to include our global community at this time. We need this, our world needs this.

May you be filled with lovingkindness.
May you be safe and protected.
May you be well in body and mind.
May you be at ease and happy.

As we draw this meditation to a close, take a moment to check in with your body. How does it feel now? If there is even the slightest bit of calm or compassion or peace that’s been created by coming into your body, paying attention to your breath, and directing lovingkindness towards yourself, your body, and others, notice this and savour it now for a moment. Let it be. Let it grow.

As you end this meditation, you might want to take a moment to let your body know you will be back at a future point to give it some more loving attention and let it breathe more deeply. 

Well done and thank you!
Be safe, friends, and BREATHE! 🙂