Category Archives: healing

Permaculture and the Psyche 4: The Problem is the Solution!

imageWhen events grow uncomfortable enough to permeate the boundaries of what I know to be true; when the discomfort of encountering a perspective that doesn’t quite fit my current worldview encroaches upon my awareness, I have a choice: I can view the new information as a problem, or I can view it as a solution.

 

How can a problem be a solution? Because discomfort engages the awareness. For the first time, I can see there is something wrong. And that means I can change it.
Bear with me here: I am going to take a brief field trip away from permaculture and into neurology. Recently my sweetheart let me borrow his book on neurochemicals and it jumpstarted a whole new way of thinking about this permaculture principle.

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Long ago, back in California, I attended UCLA evening classes to obtain psychology prerequisites. I sat in a huge arena-style classroom and listened as the tiny professor, audible only through the speakers behind me, expounded upon the development of the human brain. He explained that the brain “prunes”, hugely, when we are very young; a vast amount of neural circuitry is deemed unnecessary and mercilessly cut from the brain. We do this for efficient and speedy processing of information.

 

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But thereafter, whenever we take in information that doesn’t fit our previous experience, the brain simply disregards it. It is only when this information reaches a critical mass, or induces a certain level of emotional discomfort, that our brain is willing to even “see” it at all.

 

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This is how a person can continue to hold on to a worldview that is utterly disproved by information all around her—her brain just can’t “see” it yet, because it doesn’t match her prior experience. She hasn’t yet developed the critical mass of internal or external discomfort to create a new pathway in her brain, one that would enable her to see the information that has been there all along.

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The language I learned in later counseling classes for this process, when we got into Piaget and development, was that all of us have “schemas”—ideas about how the world works—and any time we receive new information, we try to plug it into an existing schema. We really, really don’t want to have to create new schemas. It’s hard.

 

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So we’ll cram new information into our old schemas any which way, however awkward the results: “oh, lacrosse? That’s kind of like soccer, but with squishy tennis rackets!” “Oh, a moose? That’s basically a big cow, with antlers.” We try to relate any new information to old information we already have, because those circuits are already there, greased with myelin for speedy processing.

 

 

We would rather believe our schemas than integrate information that disproves them. So, imagine I had a loud dog as a child, and had therefore developed the schema that “dogs are loud animals”. If I were to meet a dog that did not bark I would be likely, at first, to assume that this animal is not a dog. Dogs are loud, this animal is not loud, therefore this animal is not a dog. (This sounds silly, but I squirm when I think of how many times a day I make similar, if more subtle, errors!) I would have to be exposed to many different quiet dogs before my brain could be persuaded to adapt my schema to include both loud and quiet animals into the schema “dog”.

 

 

Similarly, if I grew up in America and never met anyone from the Middle East; if my only exposure to Middle Eastern folks was in news of terrorism, I might well develop the schema that “Middle Eastern people are terrorists.” It would take many conversations with Middle Eastern people, perhaps even a journey to experience the Middle East through my own eyes, before my brain would take the risk of altering that schema.

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Our brains aren’t bad—they do this to protect us. It’s important to be able to process information quickly, and we, as animals that develop our brains through experience rather than instinct, can actually equip them to process current information, true information about the world around us AS IT IS TODAY, rather than working with instincts and ideas that were developed in a much different world, as reptiles do.

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But to do that, we have to be able to feel discomfort, the discomfort of being WRONG. We have to be able to notice and face the information that tells us we are incorrect, rather than avoiding it. We have to be willing to revise our opinions of experiences that have felt  true in the past.

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In short: we have to have PROBLEMS!

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There are so many examples of problem-as-solution. Nettle juice heals its own sting. Couch grass, world’s WORST weed, choking and starving out whatever you’ve planted (sorry, not altering that schema, don’t care what godawful weeds you think you’ve discovered) makes the most incredible bio-accessible fertilizer for your garden when brewed into weed tea. Ever heard of the wounded healer? Folks who have been through terrible things and have gone through their own healing process make incredibly compassionate, informed healers. Think of vaccines: disease healing disease.

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My sweetheart’s neurochemistry book says that there are two ways you can make new circuits as an adult. One is through overwhelming emotion. For example, if you have always loved chocolate cake, and then one night  as you are eating a piece of chocolate cake you learn that your best friend has died, your schema for chocolate cake is going to change. You won’t associate it with happiness anymore, you’ll associate it with grief. Overwhelming emotion can rewire our circuits instantaneously.

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The other way to make new circuits as an adult is through repetition. This entails  laboriously repeating a behavior again and again until the brain takes to it. I am getting married in two weeks, and as a form of purification and ritual readiness, my honey and I decided to do thirty days of clean eating.

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notice how there is no toast with jam. 😦

We’re two weeks in, eating only whole foods, no sugar, dairy, alcohol, or grains, and boy is the repetition grueling. I want my tea with milk and sugar every morning. But EVERY MORNING, I don’t have it. And slowly, my brain is building a circuit that says “black coffee is an acceptable substitute for milky, sugary tea in the morning.”

 

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Did I say slowly? It’s SLOOOOOOOOOOOW. I WANT MY TEA WITH MILK AND SUGAR! But this morning, I didn’t even reach for the teapot. I automatically took down the coffee beans. It is slow, but it is happening.

imageOn Wednesday night, we had the magical experience of using both deep emotion and intermodal artistic repetition to build new circuits in the brain. It felt AMAZING in that room.

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Maeve had found live musicians, at the last minute, and as we engaged in our kundalini kriyas, they drummed and played for us. We could feel, tangibly, the problems resolving to solutions in our bodies, the ways physical stress can lead to joy.

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We used co-counseling to explore the self-critical and maladaptive voices that repeatedly shut us down. We identified these voices, gave them names, and then embodied them in a role play that led to terrible, stagnant feelings. Hooray! Deep emotion activated!

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Then we spent some time on art, using color and shape and line and symbol to discern what was behind these voices, what unmet needs they represented. The unmet needs told us the desire these voices were hiding. Perfectionism can be a desire for acceptance, for example, and unworthiness can be a desire to feel valid.

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We embodied the desires, this time, and the joy in the room was palpable. Hooray! More deep emotion!

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And then the art we had made about critical voices became seeds for paintings of our desires, and the room filled with extraordinary color and swirling light. Problems transformed into solutions right before our eyes. There was silence and laughter and a deep sense of creation.

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This is what I so love about the Expressive Arts. If you want your life to transform, deep emotion and repetition have to be engaged. When the emotion is evoked by lovely music, by delicious motion, by moving and heartfelt words, by brilliant colors and lines and brushstrokes and shapes; when the repetition is engaged by exploring a theme first through art, then poetry, then movement, then music; the transformation happens seamlessly. And it is passionate and powerful and safe and lasting.

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I love this about permaculture too. Yes, the world is full of terrifying and desperate problems. But as we learn from nature and repetitively, with deep passion and emotion, apply her solutions to the land around us, we gain agency and hope. As we transform problems into solutions, again and again, we find that we are transforming not only ourselves, but also the world around us.

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This workshop series has been a source of great delight for me over the past month. I am so grateful to Maeve for co-facilitating with me, and so grateful to all who attended the workshops, responded to these written reflections, and gave me feedback on the concepts and ideas we explored.

I am by no means finished playing with this ecotone of permaculture and psyche….I will continue to wonder and write and inquire into all of the interesting interfaces between ecology and psychology. Stay tuned for the BOOK! ❤️

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September 3, 2016 · 1:25 am

Salt is a Sacrifice

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Listen:

What we forget is that

Salt is a sacrifice

 

Each bite is Earth ground down

Body into taste to

 

Waken you

Here

To this bite, this breath.

 

To shield ourselves from this is

A strange falling

 

Listen: ritual can be simple,

Easy as noticing that this salt is

Earth,

Ground down.

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The changes I have undergone lately, the journeys I have undertaken, have woken me again and again to two things:

I have much to offer and

The world is hungry for me to offer it.

There is a strange falling in shielding myself behind the eternal student, the safety of beginnings, and yes, that infusion of fresh air is always necessary. But the accumulated wisdom needs somewhere to go. And it wants to go into my work.

The odd piece of this for me is that on the one hand I’m a baby counselor, not more than a month into my first counseling job, and it feels really disingenuous to start rocking the boat already. On the other hand, I am a seasoned woman. Life has taught me, and taught me, and taught me, and I have had the wits to listen.

So: I am all of it, baby and wise woman, student and elder. The fires that burn deep in my belly are the same fires: to fight for the personhood of mothers, for available childcare so that women can participate in the culture. The sweetness of self-determination for all, a yearning for each person on this planet to have the food and space and respect and love and art supplies they need to ripen into themselves. The deep, deep-in-my-bones love for this earth, these mountains, the stories the forests and stones and rivers tell and the magic beneath those stories.

To this burning I offer: a mind sharpened by the privilege of an excellent education, a heart warmed by the generosity and sacrifice of untold ancestors and fellow travelers, a life story that has broken my ears wide open to hear the experience of others without losing myself, and wisdom passed down from people, plants, and traditions that held me and held me until I learned.

In the day-to-day, this ritual fire takes the shape of a windowless office in the bowels of the Buncombe County Social Services building. Here, I listen to the stories of humans who have been batted around between walls of not-enough. Not enough options, not enough privilege, not enough respect, not enough attention, not enough love. My job is to assess their need for substance use disorder treatment and sometimes that is what I do.

But the fire burns, invisible beneath my pressboard desk, and what I really do is try to listen with every pore of my skin. I offer tea and water and a closed door and attention and flowers. If there are resources I can offer I will offer them, but more often what I collect is the story.  I place it as a twig on the fire. And the fire of these voices is growing  into a conflagration that wants to burn away all the not-enough and leave childcare, time alone, laughter, and fruit trees in its wake. I don’t know how to do that yet. But I have faith that I will. Or, more truthfully: WE will. 

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The mountaintop I left this morning was shrouded in fog and a sweet soft rain, a rain I realized suddenly was a hydrosol of Earth, every plant and clay and being in this watershed distilled and condensed in the falling mist. I am so blessed to have this time to make art, to learn, to nourish myself.

May I always feel the blessing in the rain. May I always remember that salt is a sacrifice.
May I be of service to the ones who walk into my office. May I be of service to the great fire beneath the surface of what I do.

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May 20, 2016 · 5:51 pm

of cleavers and crows

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I have had the odd sense, ever since I moved to Asheville, of seeds I planted and forgot years hence coming to mysterious bloom.  Over twenty years ago, I moved to Asheville with a frame pack and a guitar. I crashed on the floor of a friend’s dorm room and walked the streets until I found lodging in a sweet, small apartment in a house on Chestnut Street. I took long runs every morning, following Chestnut Street until it dead-ended in a stately old cemetery.

All these years later, I was told that finding lodging in Asheville was a difficult proposition. I should be prepared to live outside of town and to wait months for the right thing to show up.

The first house we looked at was on Chestnut Street, right by the old cemetery where I used to run. It was a sweet little wood-floored home with a fireplace and a yard, in the heart of the historic district, walking distance to town. The rent was astonishingly affordable, considering the location, and perhaps for that reason the open house was bombarded with applicants. Afterward we walked to a nearby restaurant and talked excitedly about how amazing it would be to live here, and how unlikely we were to get the chance. All those applicants!

I sat and watched the phantom of that seventeen-year-old girl run by, and I knew we would get the house.

We got the house. I live on Chestnut Street again, all these years later, this time with my family.

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Two years ago I sat out in the sun eating, in Boone, and talked with a new friend from my Expressive Arts cohort about our dreams and hopes for the field. We were both fascinated by the intersection between art and place, and I told her of my connection to Ireland and my deep desire to return there. She told me of friends in Ireland who had just started a fledgling expressive arts institute, and we began to dream of traveling to Ireland someday to visit them and collaborate on these ideas of art and landscape. We laughed, and made art about it, and moved on with our lives.

This Monday my friend and I flew together to Ireland to attend the Expressive Arts Spring Symposium, and spent a week making art about sacred landscape in a conference hosted by the friends she’d told me of on that day two years ago.

Honestly, it frightens me sometimes, the way life brings its harvest in. I feel unworthy of it, and worried about the price I will have to pay for all of this beauty. I feel very conscious of each move I make, each word I speak, knowing how irrefutably the seeds grow and show their fruit in my life.

On the day we flew to Ireland, two very momentous things happened. I had my first job interview for a counseling position and I learned that Touchstone Farm, the place I landed right after I left Asheville twenty years ago–the place that set me on the path of herbalism and yoga and searching for the sacred–was being put up for sale. It felt like the closing of a circle. I had returned to Asheville, had reached the beginning of my life as an Expressive Arts therapist, and the door to the past had closed.

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Touchstone was very much on my mind and heart as I woke the next morning and walked out into the Irish countryside. Horses stomped and blew steam into the air, and a hooded crow lifted off from the fence in front of me in a heart-stopping line straight upward to the sun. It seemed to hang there for a minute, far above my head, and I wondered how the world felt to the crow, spread beneath it like that.

The hedgerow in front of me was overgrown with nettles and cleavers. Back when I was an apprentice at Touchstone, Shaker gave me a guide to edible plants from the community library and pointed out a few to get me started. Cleavers was one of the first I tried. It clings to you—the leaves are slightly sticky, and the seeds velcro themselves to your socks. This is a good way to remember its properties–it’s a spring-cleaning plant; it adheres to and cleans away the winter ick. I tried it plain and found its taste clean and springlike, full of chlorophyll. I liked the way it felt in my body, how it cleaned me out. But I hated the texture. Another apprentice suggested I put it in a blender and make a smoothie. That was worse. Finally, I read a recipe for cleavers coffee that consisted of dry-roasting the seeds and grinding and preparing them like coffee beans. I had a handy supply of cleaver seeds right there on my socks, so I tried this and found the resulting beverage delightful, slightly cocoa-flavored and smoky. Seeing the cleavers here on the tumbled stones of a farm wall in Ireland was like being surprised by an old friend.

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cleaver bouquet

I wouldn’t have known what cleavers was the first time I came to Ireland, because I had not yet been to Touchstone, had not yet learned to see the world through the eyes of a botanist. I was fifteen the first time I came to Ireland, and sixteen when I returned the summer after that, learning quickly enough what nettles were as I pulled them out to make a garden.

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nettles rampant!

That summer I was living in Miltown Malbay, working as housekeeper/companion for Josephine Phillips. If Shaker taught me about plants and the sacred, Jo taught me about poetry. It was alive to her. She sat in her windowseat watching the storms roll in and softly recited poems to herself. Her eyes were slowly losing their battle to macular degeneration, so she committed as many poems to her formidable memory as she could.

I was full of energy and wanderlust, wanting always to bike off to Ennistymon or wander by the sea, but Jo was very firm that I should take some time each day to sit still and memorize poems. On rainy days we listened to poets read their work aloud on the BBC and Jo would sit there, dreamy, lost in the words. I learned to love words, watching Jo.

The crow flew away, and I picked a little bouquet of the nettles and cleavers, thinking of Jo and Touchstone and the way these long-ago seeds have borne fruit. Here I am, in Ireland, writing poetry, I whispered to Jo. Your lessons took!

Nettle juice heals its own sting, I thought, recalling all the teachers who have guided my steps through the world of plant medicine. I rolled the nettle leaves between my fingers until their stinging hairs were crushed and I could take them like little Ireland-acclimation pills.

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Jo is gone now. I felt her so strongly this week in the wind that blew through the trees by the river Nore and the poetry that came flowing onto the page. Touchstone is gone too, in a way. But they are alive. They are all alive in me. 

I made nettles-and-cleaver tea when I got back to the hotel and sat sipping it in the sun, sending out a prayer for the seeds others have planted in my life and the for the ones I am planting. This world is sacred, and so is this life. I sometimes cannot believe the beauty of the stories I have been honored to carry.

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Carrying On 

(for Jo and Touchstone)

 

I am knee-deep in nettles and peat.

I am one beat of breath to the crow above me.

I am caught in the arms of ancestors long fallen.

Who remains in me? Whose story am I walking?

 

                                                        ~ Kilkenny, 3/30/16

 

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April 5, 2016 · 6:32 pm

The Moment and the Messenger

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tayatha om bekandze bekanze maha bekandze bekandze randze samu gate soha

I learned this mantra years ago, while living in the garden oasis guest house of my dear friend Shui Lan. We listened to it together as we sought and claimed islands of peace in our chaotic lives. Shui Lan taught me to use this mantra to overcome both physical pain and the deeper pain of believing I am ever separate from the Oneness.

I have returned to this Medicine Buddha mantra over and over again as I surf the changes and excitements and pains and disappointments of this life. The words translate, I am told, to this:

do it like this:

start with OM, the undercurrent of the universe

do away with the pain of illness

do away with the darkness of ignorance

do away with the great separation

send this prayer to the highest, the widest, the deepest

offer this song and then relinquish it.

I offer this song, and then relinquish it. Because we don’t get to keep anything, do we? Sometimes at night, just before sleep, I review the golden moments of the day in my mind: the tickle of my son’s soft hair as he squeezes me tight, the deep joy in the clear eyes of my beloved as he laughs, the steam rising from a cup of perfect tea in that first sweet hour of the morning. I don’t get to keep any of that. I savor it, and breathe it in, and then relinquish it. Spring is bursting out in delirious joy all around me, a song to the sky that rises and then transforms. It doesn’t stay.

 

This dance of offering and relinquishing has become more subtle and complex as I grow older.  When is self-acceptance called for, and when do I need to change? When am I being lazy, and when do I need deep rest? When should I retreat with a cup of herbal tea and when should I jump madly into the fray?

Where is the sacredness in the afternoons I spend engrossed in paperwork, allowing the stress and frustration to mount until I lash out at my family?  Why do some days feel infused with magic and play, and others so heavy and purposeless? How do I reconcile the world of deep reverence and joy with the world that allows a friend to lose her child?

Lately I’ve been drawing the Raven card over and over again, the messenger from the great mystery. The message is: pay attention. The moment is a message, and my job is to pay attention. IMG_6648

I have come to accept that I will never arrive at the perfect balance between these poles. Each is as true as the other. The afternoons of waiting endlessly on staticky hold for the IRS while children screech at each other are just as real as the afternoons of liquid light and synchronicity. Life is a surge between them, a spiral of coming to peace and being devastated and coming to peace again, a little deeper each time, a little wiser each time. Yesterday I learned Pema Chodron’s definition of compassion:

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

This strikes me as being deeply true–true not only in our relationship to others, but in our relationship to our own lives. My life is not an interaction between the healed and the wounded. I am not wrong or broken when I am sick, or out-of-sorts, or reeling from loss.

Can I learn to relate to myself in those moments as an equal–not try to fix myself, or paper over my sadness and frustration with deep breaths and positive thinking? Can I learn to approach ALL OF IT with reverence and grace, to understand that ALL OF IT is an expression of an underlying Oneness?

Maybe not–not yet, anyway–but I am certainly being called to try. Again and again, life teaches me to stay on board through the hard things instead of wishing myself away to an ideal future. Sitting with friends who have just suffered unimaginable loss is every bit as sacred and important as sitting with friends who have just given birth.

IMG_6649This is especially scary, I think, because I have a fear that if I pay attention to the darker parts of life, I will somehow lose my way and fall entirely into darkness.  This is a shadow of the relentless “spiritual” drive to purify and enlighten and transcend, and it comes at the expense of authentic experience.  Somehow I have taught myself that joy is more valuable than sorrow, that happiness and idealism are more important than anger or fear.

Really, all of them are just temporary states, weather for processing experience. Yes, happiness and joy are much more pleasant to experience and socially waaaaay easier to explain, but are they innately more valuable? My times of deep anger, rage, and pain have all led to phenomenal growth and courage. I don’t particularly wish to return to them, but they propelled me forward to where I am now.

There is a fear, too, that if I find the sacred in the painful, I will somehow negate the misery, the wrongness, of suffering. I don’t want to ever be okay with the fact that there are hungry children or women who cannot vote. Instead, I want to be able to stay with my life when it takes me into these experiences: to let the righteous anger and sorrow and terror lead me forward into action rather than paralyzing me, and all without losing my reverence for life and beauty.

Life is short and full of unexpected joys and sorrows. Don’t I want to be able to welcome all of it? Don’t I want to be fully present for each moment, rather than wishing half of it away?

So here I am, balanced as usual on the fulcrum. I live in a beautiful city filled with incredible friends. I am deeply loved and I love deeply. I have just learned that I am going to IRELAND in a week for the Expressive Arts Symposium, which is like a thousand million dreams exploding into truth simultaneously, and all because of the support of incredible friends and family. It’s almost too much joy to take in—can I really deserve to be this happy?

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And also–real too– deep sadness. In my family, a child with mysterious symptoms that frighten us. In my community, children dying in a fire; dear friends losing close family, children losing parents. In my country, the rise of fear and hatred; in the world, waters rising, terror and devastating loss in Turkey.

Does the one experience negate the other? Or, somehow, can I live in such a way that I treat all of it with reverence?  I want to learn how to hold it all. I want to learn the art of finding the sacred in the devastating.

I found myself discussing all of this with my friend Maeve on a sunny patio on a beautiful spring morning last week. She has been exploring similar themes in the yoga classes she teaches and told me about the 5 kleshas, or causes of suffering: ignorance of the truth; labeling/judgment; attachment; aversion; and clinging to life.

I find such beauty in this framework: envisioning aversion and clinging to life not as forms of suffering, but as causes of suffering! It was in talking to Maeve that I once again remembered the Medicine Buddha mantra, and that fundamental sickness of thinking any of it is ever separate.

I am neither Buddhist nor Yogi, but I am profoundly grateful for the wisdom of those who have gone before and tangled with these questions so gracefully. Maeve and I have decided to explore this together, one klesha at a time,  through yoga and art and sacred slowness. We’ll attempt to welcome the shadows and the suffering with reverence and presence. (We’re meeting to explore the first klesha on April 21st, Lunar Beltane. All are welcome—if you’re in the area, we’ll be at our studio in the Phil Mechanic building; if you’re not and want to join in, let me know…we may try to structure it as a live webinar).

I offer this song and then relinquish it. I am filled with deep, heady joy even as I am devastated with sorrow.

Each moment is a messenger. I am learning not to turn any of them away.

teyatha om bekandze bekandze maha bekandze bekandze randze samu gate soha

 

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March 21, 2016 · 7:14 pm

a still place, containing everything

 

moon“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. ”
~Pema Chodron

 

 

I woke this morning in a dreamy fugue, not quite able to pull myself from the world of sleep into the bright one of legos and breakfast-making that awaited me.  In the kitchen, I danced with my son to this song while I cooked eggs and tried to push away a growing sense of nostalgia for a life that wasn’t mine.

There is something about this music that reminds me of the time I spent in New England, working on an organic flower farm that also offered yoga and sacred circle dance.  It was a long time ago, and the friendships I made there still bear fruit, but this nostalgia is not about that place.  It’s about something deeper than that.  It’s about a life built around the deeper spirit of things.  It’s about a life built around seeking, and mystery, and an overarching pattern that I fit within but can never encompass.

I’ve written about nostalgia before—here and here—but today wrapped its arms around me and reminded me that however often I come to this understanding, it will both elude and find me again. There is no endpoint to life.  It goes on and on, with its immense joys and unbearable losses. Things come together and they fall apart again. We never ‘arrive’ at happiness.

And yet–there is, always available to us, this deeper place of relating to life, this ever-present and invisible river of other lives, other experiences, those who came before and are yet to come.  There have been long stretches in my life when I lived more in that world than in this one. Lately, with the tasks there are to do, with time stretched thin between studies and work and children and projects and plans, I have mostly forgotten that there is more than today’s to-do list.

I danced with my son in the kitchen, and I cooked breakfast, and we walked to Meeting, pausing to look at the striated colors the rain had painted onto the path.  It was a beautiful morning, bright and warm, and my heart was full and ebullient as I readied myself for the silence.  Yet the moment I sat down, tears began to fill my eyes and drip onto my chest.  I played it cool and kept my breathing even, surreptitiously swiping at my eyes from time to time, unsure of the origins of this sorrow.

yvar3My youngest son looked up at me, puzzled, and asked why my eyes were crying.  I told him  I did not know.

The moment I spoke these words, I began to concoct theories.  I’m crying because I won’t see the boys for seven days.  I’m crying because I’m overwhelmed.  I’m crying because my grandmother is in pain and dying.  But I wasn’t listening to the reasons.  My heart knew.  It was bigger than that.

The tears kept falling, steadily, for over an hour.  People rose and spoke out of the silence of Meeting, sharing messages of loss, of the connection of community, of the beauty to be found in stillness.  I spoke too, worried my voice would quaver but unable to silence myself.  I spoke of the world of linear time and the world of presence just alongside us, always, infinite and containing everything.  I spoke of the sense that sometimes the boundaries between self and world blur, and I fall in love with the rise and fall of everything, the transience and beauty and impermanence of lives that have brushed mine and passed on.  I spoke of the gratitude I feel in these moments of supreme joy, walking in the sunlight with my children, even as I know they are growing and changing, as beautiful children are born, beloved elders die.

The sorrow ended as abruptly as it began, and we walked home laughing, but I’ve been tender all day.  I want to hold everything close and bathe it in my attention.  I want to understand why that song tugs at my heartstrings, I want to wrap my mind around the scope of all that I’ve lost and all the treasures I’ve experienced. I find myself wondering whether I will still be here in thirty years, wondering and wise, whether I will be strong enough on this path to put my hand on another’s shoulder and say ‘this is how it is, the daily struggles and losses, the small joys, and this is how it will be always, and that’s the beauty of it’.

I think about the ones who have done this for me, the ones who have really seen and opened my heart to seeing:  Rilke, and Teilhard de Chardin, and Hildegard von Bingen, all the ones whose names I don’t know who have felt this same shuddering beauty.  Where are they now?  When I think of this, I am not afraid of dying.  I love life so much, and yet I cannot fear to walk a path that these have walked before me.

The days go on, full of floors that need to be swept and dish drainers that need to be emptied; applications that must be filled out and nails that must be clipped; tires to inflate and battles to fight.  Each day marches forward from the last, bearing pain and ugliness and boredom and beauty and delight.

 And beneath all of it, always there:  this still place, containing everything.

2013-12-23 11.59.32

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March 16, 2015 · 3:23 am

tear up the art

swirlThis morning I had a far-ranging, heart-lifting conversation with the wonderful Michelle Wilde that set my mind spinning.  We were talking about the cyclical, eternal routine of the day-to-day and the incongruity of living that way when there are shattering losses everywhere in the world.  We were talking about relationship, and childrearing, and mental illness.

“We are always talking about setting boundaries,” she said. “Boundaries are what we set in politics—they’re imposed and artificial.  Nature doesn’t have boundaries.  What if instead of building walls we planted gardens?”

I thought about the deep love I have shared with people who have hurt me terribly. I thought about building walls around those experiences, trying to isolate them.  And then I thought about what it would be like if the walls were torn down, if I saw those incidents and relationships as strange soil–soil in which to plant the seeds that won’t germinate in the sun and rich humus of my daily life.

thornsThere is a gift that darkness gives us.  When I think about what there is for me to do in the face of the terrible losses we are sustaining right now, I think about the strange soil of my dark experiences.  I survived them.  Sometimes I survived them by behaving in ways that contradict my own moral code.  I think about some of the relationships I have sustained with people whose brilliance is matched by a searing lack of empathy.  In this strange soil, I can plant seeds that would not grow anywhere else in life.  A person without empathy does not worry about the judgment of others. She can live the kind of experiment that might greatly advance our species, because she does not fear social censure. But the personal costs of befriending her are terrible.  These are strange and vital gardens. They are frightening, and the impulse to wall them off is strong, but if we plant here we may grow answers that would not grow elsewhere.

It is only recently that I have had the courage to make terrible art. I asked my teacher, once, after having a profound art-making experience that resulted in a slab of what appeared to be gray vomit, if I had to keep this terrible thing.  She said I had to keep the message.  I could ask this art I had created: what do you have to tell me?  And I could hold onto the answer and let the form go.

I’ve been thinking about that, in the context of walls and political boundaries and activism and loss and gardens.  Where do I miss messages by holding on to forms?  Where do I refuse to notice the truth of my experience because it doesn’t look the way I want it to? Where do I build walls instead of allowing the soil to be what it is, perhaps not for heirloom tomatoes but for wild and thorny medicine?

When I do retreat to the soothing cycles of the day-to-day, when I do take nourishment from what remains the same, I want to bring the messages with me.  Those messages are an honoring of the terrible power of my own shadow and the shadows of others. On the days when I cannot even take action, I can pay attention to what is true.  Because nature does have boundaries, of a sort:  the edge zones of sand to ocean; the falling away of forests into grassland.  There are places that do not nurture life. But even these are not walled away; they too are ground down by water and wind, warmed by sunlight. We do not have to live there or look upon them every day.  But they are there, slowly becoming everything else.  And they are part of us.  We can tear up the art, but not before hearing its message.

(This song is another work-in-progress exploration of these questions. )

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August 12, 2014 · 7:56 pm

croesus & fukushima

I spent yesterday learning bollywood-style choreography, hosting/taking an intense workshop on the touch drawing technique, and wildly spinning to amazing fiddle music at the contra dance.  There was hardly a moment to take a breath, but while my body made hand mudras and shimmied my shoulders, pressed ink into paper, and twirled in the arms of my dance partners, my mind doggedly pursued the same topic it’s been tumbling for weeks now.  Weeks of making art and writing papers, studying for exams and curing hundreds of bars of soap, visiting family and holding babies and blending body butters and solid perfumes, watching plans coalesce and unravel, feeling by turns utterly filled and completely devastated–I’ve been thinking about what’s beneath it all.

All of these different layers of self—the ones that come out at family dinners, the ones represented by the photographs we throw away and the poems that would embarrass us horribly if they ever came to light.  The parts we claim and don’t claim.  The parts we don’t even notice—the way our walk differs from everyone else’s, or what incites us to love, or why certain colors or sounds induce longing.

It strikes me that the ones who inspire me, my dearest friends and deepest teachers, are the ones who live frighteningly close to the surface.  We feel EVERYTHING.  It can be called sensitivity, touchiness, flakiness, vulnerability, mental illness, intuition, creativity, genius….so many of us who are this open to the world end up broken by it, submerged in depression or mania or something in between; so many of us develop  addictions as ways of dulling this excruciating sensitivity. Some of our addictions are benign—too many cups of sugared tea—and some kill us.   All are ways of tuning out, because our default setting is so very very tuned in.

But some of us manage to shift our value system, to see this burden as a gift.  We decide to highly prize experience and sensitivity.  We linger over every new idea, every scent, every painful and deeply felt emotion.  We let ourselves grieve in every color over situations that others seem not even to notice.

And lately I have learned something—we ALL notice.  All of us are born this close to the surface.  It’s just that some of us hide it better than others, and some of us dull it away with behaviors or time or routines.  I haven’t managed to hide mine. Or, perhaps, I have, by building my life around it.

At the touch drawing workshop, beautifully facilitated by Katrina Plato, we were urged to ask questions and let the drawings answer. I drew with closed eyes, on tissue paper that had been laid over rolled paint, so that the pressure of my fingers and elbows and hands marked the page. When my eyes opened I would quickly lift the drawing and begin a new one. I made 31 drawings in this way. They cycled through downcast faces, trees, weeping eyes, dancing women, ambiguous swirls, and back to downcast faces. Some of them terrified me.

touchdrawing5

touchdrawing6

touchdrawing4touchdrawing7                                                  touchdrawing2

In the end we were asked to quickly number and title our drawings, keeping them in sequence so that they could tell an unfolding story.  There was one disturbing series that I titled “Croesus” for no particular reason. When I came home I read about Croesus and learned this:

Croesus was a spectacularly wealthy king crowned in 560 BC.  He reigned at a time when the once powerful Ionian cities were falling to the Persians in Anatolia.  He asked the oracle at Delphi if he should go to war; the oracles answered that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.

The empire, of course, turned out to be his own, and Croesus was burned alive.  Some stories relate that as he burned, he cried out ‘Solon!’ three times–Solon, a poet and reformer who had warned the king that good fortune is fickle.

Terrible as that is, this is the story that broke my heart: There was a Phrygian prince called Adrastus, a young man who had been exiled for accidentally killing his own brother. Croesus took pity on Adrastus and offered him refuge. Adrastus thanked him by accidentally killing Croesus’ only son, Atys.   (what is it Maya Angelou said?  when someone shows you who they are for the first time, believe them.)

touchdrawing3

Croesus series

It is so hard for me to come to terms with this, that our very mercy, our desire to do good, can be the vehicle of our destruction–that sometimes there is no reason, no redemption, only terrible waste. I know that it is true and I do not know how to make peace with it.  But boy oh boy did it answer my question! Art amazes me in this way, in its power to coax out meaning, and in doing so, to heal.

Because it does heal. I have to remind myself of this; it is easy to think of expressive arts as ‘soft’ therapy, useless in times of real trauma, self-indulgent when there are so many who need water or light or, I don’t know, stitches.

But I had a dream several nights ago in which I lay beneath the ocean floor and looked up through layers of oddly warm water.  Fish of every color swam urgently past and then a whale, slowly, looking straight into my eyes.  And then another.  I was pinned there, beneath the water and between the unyielding gazes of these beautiful, sincere creatures trying fiercely to communicate something of extreme importance.  I saw a leaf catch fire at the corner of my eye and felt an overwhelming and inexplicable sadness.

When I woke , I saw my friend Zoe’s partially painted canvas.  She’d left it with me, urging me to either paint over it or complete it, and so I began painting.

I did not know I would paint my dream–not until the next morning. After painting on and off for several hours, I could see that I was painting about Fukushima and my deep despair over what is happening in the oceans of this world. And then I saw that my friend Zoe, who speaks fluent Japanese and studied papermaking in Japan, who practices acupuncture and shiatsu, was all over the canvas: layers of handmade paper torn up and collaged, points of light swirling along the meridians of the ocean as if to diagram its acupuncture points, underlying colors and depth she had left there for me.

fukushima Everything is a dialogue.  I am never in this alone, and neither are you.  When I finished that painting I felt emptied out—there was so much grief I did not know I’d been holding. But I also felt held, by my friend, and by the simple loving craft of papermaking, and by the power of acupuncture, by all of the good and beautiful things we humans have done.  Held by the mystery of it all, the mystery that is so much larger than my sadness or my dream or my vision.  Held by my own sensitivity, that is willing to open me to so much in this world that could hurt, and that defies explanation, but is willing all the same.

It is good journeying with you all. Thank you for your own willingness to live close to the surface of things, your bravery in feeling everything, the way you communicate what you’ve learned to the rest of us. That’s an answer right there.

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December 8, 2013 · 9:34 pm