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img_1418On Saturday, we hosted a self-love gathering in the studio. Everyone brought chocolate to share, and we gathered in a circle to engage in a slow meditation and guided massage practice.

Self-love (especially these days, with narcissism parading itself all over the news) can get a bit of a bad rap. If we love ourselves, where is our motivation to change? If we pay attention to ourselves, where is our compassion for others?

The decision to love yourself can be greeted with disdain, with accusations of greed or pride or self-centeredness. And that’s just in your own mind! The accusations from others in your life can be even louder and stronger.

So—is it worth it? Or will self love merely morph you into a navel-gazing hedonist?


I invite you to take data for yourself. Below, I have written out a practice for self-massage that includes a meditation on self-love. Here’s the challenge: for the remainder of this week, at the end of each day, write down honestly the answers to each of these questions:

  1. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being abysmal and 10 being delightful, rate the quality/depth of your interactions today with your family and friends.
  2. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being abysmal and 10 being delightful, rate the honesty and authenticity of your interactions today with your family and friends.
  3. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being cruel and 10 being exceedingly kind, rate your interactions with strangers today.
  4. 1 being all day and 10 being practically no time at all, rate the amount of time you spent today feeling grumpy, moody, or self-deprecating.
  5. 1 being all day and 10 being practically no time at all, rate the amount of time you spent today feeling lighthearted and positive.

Then, next week, make time every day to engage in the practice below. It’s self-absorbed! It’s completely self-centered! It will appear to squander a full ten minutes of your precious time! Do it anyway. Engage in this practice every day, then answer the five questions above each night. Then compare your answers from week 1 and week 2.

If you are anything like me (and you may not be; we are all wired so differently!) your numbers on week two will have shot upward (except for question 4, which will have dropped).

Why is this?

Because you, my dear, are a person. You are the person with whom you have the most intimate relationship of all. And the way you treat yourself cannot help but have an influence on the way you treat others around you.


There is also a sneaky way in which, when we are not filling our own cup, we begin to expect others to fill it for us. We grow needy and angry and frustrated with other people. Filling our own well with self-love means we lessen our expectations on the people around us. And that is a very loving thing indeed.



  • Begin by sitting quietly in a place that you have made sacred through lighting candles, burning sweetgrass or palo santo, or spritzing an herbal mist. Take a few deep breaths to calm and center yourself in your body.
  • Take a massage bar (available here) or place some warm oil into your hands and cup them, warming it between your palms. Close your eyes and think of something or someone that brings you deep joy. As you inhale, pull the sensation of joy up your spine. As you exhale, pour it down your arms and through the palms of your hands into the massage bar. Continue breathing in and out, visualizing joy like light pouring into the bar, until you can feel a radiance between the palms of your hands. Allow this radiance to fill your mind and heart, thinking only thoughts of love, joy, and acceptance throughout and toward your body, for the duration of the massage.
  • Deep in the center of your heart, ask yourself: what are the words I am always longing to hear? What do I most wish someone would say to me? Whatever it is that you most long to hear, begin to whisper it to yourself internally. It doesn’t matter if you believe it at first; simply repeat it internally as a mantra.
  • Continue to warm the bar with your left hand. Stroke the fingertips of your right hand across the warmed bar to gather some balm. With these fingers, using small, concentric circles, start at the nape of your neck and very slowly press your fingertips side to side along the back of your neck, working from side to side and down toward your shoulders. Work very slowly, using your inhale to massage and your exhale to press deeply. With each touch, visualize the radiance of the bar soaking deep into your skin, energizing and nourishing your cells.
  • When you have reached your shoulders, return the bar to your right hand, gather some balm on your left fingertips, and use side-to-side motions down the right arm, continuing to massage on the inhale and press deeply on the exhale, all the way down to the wrist. Continue to send a sense of radiance and joy into the body through your fingertips. Clasp your wrist gently for a full breath.
  • Repeat this process using the right fingertips on the left arm.
  • If you have time, repeat on both sides working upward from the sole of the foot to the groin, cupping the hands over the pubic area for a full breath to finish.
  • Take the bar itself and press it gently into the skin of the stomach using the fingertips of both hands. Massage in gentle concentric circles, moving in a circular motion clockwise around the belly button. Finish the belly massage by placing both hands palms-down on the belly, pressing gently inward, visualizing radiance and joy flooding from the palms of your hands into your belly.
  • Finally, gather some balm on the tips of the left fingers and massage the right hand, pressing deeply into the palm and gently pulling each finger outward. Concentrate on the feeling of giving the touch, the sensations that your fingertips encounter as they stroke and press on the hand.
  • Gather balm on your right finger tips and massage the left hand. This time, concentrate on the sensation of receiving the touch, both in the skin of the hand and in the heart.
  • Complete the self massage by pressing the palms of both hands together at your heart. Breathe deeply, allowing the inhale to swell your heart into your hands, and as you exhale, visualize the light and warmth from the massage swirling throughout your body. Whisper the words to yourself one final time, or speak them aloud. Close the space by blowing out the candles or smudging a final time with sweetgrass, palo santo, or herbal mist.
  • IMG_0106.JPG                                                                                                                                                                             I’d love to hear your results if you have time to share in the comments! As always, thank you for stepping into my world to read this.


February 13, 2017 · 5:49 pm


img_0118I marched in Washington on Saturday, and it felt AMAZING. Today, reading all the backlash against the march, it strikes me that we need to think not only about what we are doing, but how we are doing it.

As activists, we are being called to long-term, sustainable, embodied action. The way that we choose to engage will, to a large extent, determine how effective we are. Some points to consider:

Think about your nervous system.

Regardless of your political viewpoint, this is a stressful time. When stress is triggered in our bodies, the chemicals coursing through us compel us to fight or run. If we do not, if we continue to stay still, over time we learn a third response: freeze.

This “freeze” response is also characterized as learned helplessness. Our bodies shut down because we cannot fight or run. Over time, this leads to multiple adverse health consequences (look into the classic ACES study for more on this).

Our brains can trick us. Especially on social media, it is easy to get our mental and emotional energy invested in “actions” and arguments that give us the feeling that something has been accomplished. Actually, it hasn’t.

True change happens in the body.
We need to be able to physically respond to our stressors to feel agency.

The march was a concrete physical action. We stood next to people we had never met. We heard directly from women who had lost their children because of systemic racism. Our feet shook in the cold and our hearts beat fast in the crush of the crowd and we acted on those feelings. We shouted, we sang, we walked. We felt anger and sorrow and we walked through it. And, bodies and minds fully engaged, we discussed our plans to keep building the change that we seek.

This felt experience of agency tells us that our fight/flight system is working the way it should. We feel a stressor, we respond physically, and we feel a sense of agency and empowerment. When we put our feet to the ground in service to our beliefs, we protect ourselves from all of those adverse consequences of learned helplessness.

Get your body on your side.

1) Don’t let your mind trick you into believing that any action is effective action. Set aside a time each day to be politically active in effective ways: community organizing, outreach, and participation, letters and calls to congresspeople, and donations of time, money, and expertise to causes that you believe in. Sign up here for a good place to start.

2) When your time is up, stop for the day and engage in an equal amount of parasympathetic activity—a walk in the woods, meditation, yoga. Why?
· Because this is not a sprint. This is a marathon. We aren’t doing anybody any good by working ourselves into early heart attacks.
· Because my work is only as good as the quality of my information. And if my information is coming from facebook and huffington post instead of from the trees and people of my community, or the place of wisdom that I land in when I take the time to get centered, then it is highly imbalanced information.
· Because quality of life is what I am fighting FOR. Sacrificing my quality of life to fight for quality of life is inauthentic.

3) If political stressors come up at any point after you have already engaged in your time of action, physically move your body. Shake for five minutes, or do a quick sun salutation, or walk around the block. Move the feelings through you. You can address them with political action tomorrow. Keep your boundaries strong and focused.

Decide what you are willing to do to defend the part of yourself that will never die.

This is an important question, especially considering the myriad ways that self-care can be misinterpreted as self-indulgence.

We are all going to die. None of us get out of here alive. I would much rather die speaking up for things that will live on after I am gone—equality, respect, kindness—than to live a long life in silence. What are you willing to die for? Figure out what it is, and make it a non-negotiable part of your self-care to feed that extremely important aspect of yourself.

On Saturday I stood for 17 hours in the cold. My bladder hurt. I was on my moon time, with no place to change my cup or pee. I felt dizzy and hungry; we had driven late into the night to get to the march on time and I had only a few hours of sleep under my belt. I was pressed in a mire of people so crushing that there were moments I could not even breathe.
By the end of the day, I was utterly exhausted and drained. And EXHILARATED. Because I had deeply nourished the part of me that is bigger than my body. Had I stayed home and caught up on my sleep and taken a hot bath, it might have looked more like self-care.

But when we talk of self-care, remember how much bigger you are than your body. Remember to nourish the part of yourself that goes deeper than your face, your age, and your story.


Remember that it is not just about the conversation, it is about HOW you have the conversation.

I have seen a lot of shaming surrounding this march. Body-shaming, Republican-shaming, Liberal-shaming….every kind of shame that can be served up. As a counselor, I have learned that shame shuts a person down. Literally.

If you look at brain scans of a person feeling intense shame, there isn’t any activation in the rational/logic/language area. If you shame a person, you have deactivated their ability to take in what you have to say.

We want people to hear what we have to say, right? So let’s not shut them down. Here is how I have learned, as a counselor, to gain enough trust that a person will hear what I have to say.

When you have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you, try this:

1) Listen. LISTEN. Take the words in actively.
2) Validate the words you hear. Repeat them if necessary.
3) Find a bright spot or point of agreement to emphasize. Even if overall you find you are disagreeing with the person, find one place where you can honestly and authentically praise or agree, and do it.
4) Gently express your own view in this way: a) what you see, b) how it affects you, c) what you would like to see changed, and d) how it would feel to you if it did change.

It looks like this:

Person A: I get why some people marched, but I think it was frivolous. All those women in pink hats. What does that change? Nothing.

Person B: Hey, thanks for being so honest about your thoughts. It sounds like you are really hoping for effective change and you are worried that the march won’t create it. I have the same fears.

Person A: Yeah, the whole thing was just really self-congratulatory and stupid.

Person B: I can see how you could feel that way. I’m curious about what you would like to see in terms of effective action. For me, when I hear you say that the march was frivolous, I feel a slight recoil, as though the unity and power that I felt there is being discounted. It also makes me think that you view me as frivolous and stupid, even though I’m sure that’s not what you meant. I would like to tell you about my experience of the march. I think if you would be willing to listen to me tell you what I saw, I would feel a lot more open to hearing your perspective.

Does that sound like a lot of work?


Is it worth it?


Why? Because this is a divide-and-conquer game. Already we are being characterized as the “enemy”, and we cannot play into that. Infighting will destroy us. Ignoring the real hurts of those who elected Trump to see change will destroy us. The most amazing thing I saw at the march on Saturday was Black Lives Matter signs next to Climate Change is Real signs next to Free the Press signs next to I Love Data signs next to Equal Pay for Women signs. I have been to rallies and conventions for each of these causes before, but NEVER have I seen them march side by side. Never have I seen them find common cause.


We cannot afford NOT to listen to each other.

A final caveat on this type of conversation: if you are a person who is privileged in a way that the person you are talking to is not—i.e. if you are a man talking to a woman, or a white woman talking to a black woman, or an English-speaking American talking to a Spanish-speaking American, or an able-bodied person talking to someone with a disability, the first step gets WAY WAY WAY MORE IMPORTANT. The onus is on us to listen, listen, listen.

However frustrated or uncomfortable we get, however triggered or angry or sad we get, we are being given the incredible opportunity of seeing the world in a way that we could otherwise never know.

Can women be wrong in a conversation with men? Absolutely. Can black people be wrong in a conversation with white people? Sure. Can liberals be wrong in a conversation with conservatives? Well, I’ve never experienced it, but statistically, it could probably happen. (THAT IS A JOKE.)

But the onus is on us to LISTEN, not to try to correct. When we are listening, we are both learning and building trust. That means that later, when we speak, the information we give is a) more likely to be coming from an accurate understanding of reality and b) more likely to be heard and processed by the rational brain.

(And if the word “privilege” shut you down, think of it this way: I walk in a different world than men do. Sometimes when I am talking to men about my life they think I am lying to them because my experience is so different from theirs. But with the ones who listen enough, we eventually get to a place of trust where we learn from each other. We cannot build a movement of inclusivity until we understand what the world is truly like, and we cannot understand what the world is truly like unless we listen to those who experience a different part of it than we do. That’s really all there is to it.)

Build bridges, not walls.


I saw many signs on Saturday with this declaration. If we truly mean it–if we want to build bridges–there is a certain adjustment we will have to make within ourselves.

Many of us came to activism, or herbal medicine, or counseling, because there was some trauma in our lives that we wanted to overcome. We are very, very good at climbing up on our stumps and proclaiming our stories. As a group, we tend to be less skilled at listening to the ways that our lives have impacted others. And this is extraordinarily important, because in order to build bridges, there is a certain amount of “sucking it up” that is going to need to happen. There is a certain amount of simply listening to others’ stories and giving space for their anger WITHOUT REACTING IN ANGER OURSELVES that will be required.


Why did I put that in all caps? Because it is the lesson that I myself most need to hear. Nobody likes hearing negative feedback or criticism, and most of us shut down when anger is directed our way–especially when the anger is coming in response to something that we feel we are doing right. Here’s an example:


While reading many perspectives about the march, I kept noticing a feeling that was rising in me in response to the criticisms of it as an action. And there are so many criticisms: not intersectional enough, not welcoming enough of trans women, not inclusive of pro-life women, not effective enough. The response I kept having to these criticisms was frustration. I felt frustrated that we are making all of these divisions when we so desperately need unity right now.

But what is frustration? It’s a small wall. It’s a wall I build in myself against these perspectives, rather than a bridge to understand them.


Again, it is so key to remember what we are fighting FOR. If we are fighting for a voice, for equality, for the human rights of all, then we cannot get there by silencing others’ voices or denying their right to share their perspective.


In action, what this means is that we are going to need to valiantly keep our eyes on the prize and ride out the pain of critique, the awful feeling of being judged and found wanting, the terrible feeling of not being heard, and CONTINUE TO BUILD BRIDGES ANYWAY.  Build those bridges, and then go take a sweaty run or cry with your friends and get the feelings out in a safe and supportive way. NOT with the person you are building bridges with. Take care of others, and then take care of yourself. Repeat. We are incredible people. We can do this.

I believe that life is calling us now to sustained, sustainable, embodied, long-term action. I think the march was a beautiful place to start. And now I am going to move forward carefully, taking care of body and spirit, taking care to listen. I feel as though I am in beautiful company.

Now go drink a cup of skullcap tea, because this is an herbal blog.

2013-12-23 11.59.32


January 23, 2017 · 9:41 pm

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.

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.

In short: we have to have PROBLEMS!


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.

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.

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.


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.”



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.


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.

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!

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.

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

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.

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.

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.


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

Permaculture and the Psyche Part 3: Least Effort for Greatest Effect

IMG_7749Bertolt Brecht said “Grub before ethics.”  Maslow said there is a hierarchy of needs: one must first have food, shelter, fire, and water before she can focus on self-development or creativity.

If certain needs are not met, we stop developing.

This is as true of gardens as it is of people. If the soil on your land is depleted, no amount of backbreaking tilling, planting, or weeding is going to ensure a good harvest. But a tiny investment in building the soil will yield spectacular results.

If you are deeply exhausted, investments in education, nutrition, and exercise are not going to pay off. But if you give yourself a bit more sleep— everything transforms.

The principle of least effort for greatest effect has a beautiful assumption at its center: you are already moving toward self-realization. Everything is. You do not have to work and work and work to achieve perfection. Your only job is to discern what obstacles are hindering your natural perfection, and remove them.

By perfection, I do not mean the kind of perfect that is the enemy of the good. I mean a living, breathing balance, such as we see in a climax forest or a well-nourished, well-loved child. In natural perfection there is always room for growth, but there is nothing actively hindering that growth.

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Sometimes the obstacles are blindingly obvious: racism and poverty and other inequalities jump immediately to mind. Other times they are more insidious; we think we need to work harder when really we need to relax and be more receptive. We think we need to explain when really we need to listen. We think we need a brownie when really we need a hug. We think we need a hug when really we need a brownie.

If we can somehow open ourselves to the idea that we are intrinsically fine just as we are, the obstacles start to reveal themselves. What, then, is hindering us? Do we need shelter? Water? Fire? Food?

Do we need someone to listen to us? Do we need an hour more sleep per night? Do we need a room we can be alone in? Do we need a schedule that allows us to sleep late, or rise early?

Do we need to be working in a field that utilizes our natural gifts rather than deadens them?


Do we just need a freaking cape? 

Five minutes spent removing an obstacle to your natural progress is worth a year’s hard labor fighting your own natural tendencies. That’s an actual statistic I made up.

So: how do we learn what our natural plan is, and what our obstacles are?

On Wednesday night we used two of my favorite tools, the Ikigai Venn diagram and the Merlin Process.

ikigai.jpg (825×820)

To find your Ikigai, you look at the areas of overlap between your talents, your training, your passions, and the needs of the world. You find the sweet spot that encompasses all four, and THAT is where you put any extra energy, time, or money.

Tiny efforts in the area of your Ikigai yield exponential effects, because your passion and education and talent line up to push your ideas into the world.

(And if you need a refresher on how Venn diagrams work…


…that should do it. )

Merlin Process is a joyful, heady way to trick your brain out of the insecurities that thwart you from achieving your Ikigai. Here’s how it works: Merlin is said to have lived backwards through time. Legend tells of his birth as an old man and his death as baby. The glory of this backward trajectory was that Merlin never had to worry about his future; it had already happened! We can play with this magic ourselves, by pretending our future is already in our past.

It works like this.  Take a little time and work out your Ikigai by making lists of the things you love, the things you are good at, the things you can get paid for, the things the world needs. Notice the areas of overlap. Work your Ikigai until you have it down as a sweet, solid sentence.

Now find an open-hearted friend and talk for five minutes IN THE PRESENT TENSE about how your Ikigai is the center of your life now. For example, if my Ikigai is to write and work with women on the overlap between ecology and psychology to solve personal and global injustices (which, by golly, it is!) then my Merlin Process conversation might go a bit like this:

Me: Wow, so, five years ago I remember sending my first book about permaculture and psychology off to the publisher….so much changed after that! I remember how I started traveling to talk about the book, and set up so many workshops and retreats for women who were suffering, and how the proceeds from book sales and the nonprofit I set up funded so many trainings for women all over the world. It feels so good that my job is to have my hands in the earth and to laugh with women, and I never have to get up before 8 am. I love how my needs for sunlight and laughter and connection and the outdoors are all fulfilled by my work, and it is so amazing to me that I can offer counseling and retreats to the women who most need it, women who would never be able to pay for these services if it weren’t for the incredible donors to my nonprofit and the proceeds from my books and gardens. It astounds me to have a life that leaves so much room for free days with my children, and travels with my beloved; I feel so at service and yet life is not drudgery. It means the world to me that I can respect my natural rhythms and take time for rest during my moon cycle. I love that the work I do leaves no footprint on the earth except for lands that are more deeply loved, lives that are more carefully tended.

Friend: Wow Lissa, tell me more about what your life feels like now! How on earth did you do that?



Continue this conversation for as long as you want—you may surprise yourself with what you already know about how you got where you want to go! (And switch off with your friend so that everybody gets a turn being Merlin!)

Here’s another amazing story of least effort for greatest effect: Trees for Life and the instant forest . It also serves as a segue into next week’s workshop, our final exploration: the problem is the solution.  (my favorite!)


If you want to attend the permaculture and the psyche workshop on Wednesday, email to reserve a spot.

And if you do engage in the Ikigai/Merlin process above, I would LOVE to hear from you in a comment what you discovered about your purpose!

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August 28, 2016 · 9:31 pm

Permaculture and the Psyche Part 2: Stacking Functions

IMG_8026I have been wearing this bracelet since Wednesday evening. It is very simple; one bead of Czech glass, one of jasper, and one of turquoise. As I type or write or lift a cup of tea to my lips, I let my eyes rest on these simple beads and a sense of purpose fills my heart.

On Wednesday, we met for our second week of Permaculture and the Psyche workshops. This week we discussed the practice of stacking functions: the ecological imperative of multifunctionality. The bracelet I now wear was the result of the lengthy artistic process: first we discerned our needs through writing, yoga, and co-counseling; then refined them through guided meditation; finally we made them tangible through the selection of beads to represent each core need. Now, every time I gaze at my wrist, I am reminded of who I want to be, what I want to be doing, and how I want to experience my life.


Stacking functions, in permaculture design, is about getting multiple needs met with a single element. You may be familiar with the Three Sisters garden in which corn, beans, and squash are grown together. This garden stacks functions beautifully: the corn serves the function of both food and a pole for the beans to climb on. The beans serve the function of fixing nitrogen to replenish the nutrients that corn, a notorious heavy feeder, draws from the soil. Squash spreads between them, serving the function of shading the soil to minimize water loss through evaporation and also shading out any weeds that might compete with the corn and beans. By stacking these functions with clever interplanting, the three sisters garden does away with the need for poles, fertilizer, mulch, water, and the labor of weeding!


We can “stack functions” in our own lives by meeting several core needs with a single action. I gave this example on Wednesday:

after work each day, I have an hour or so to transition from the work environment to my home. I spend my days in a small office, away from the sun and light of the outdoors. I want to get outside and see my friends. I want to move my body and renew myself from any difficult encounters. But with all of these needs to meet, and only an hour in which to meet them, it behooves me to stack functions! I could go for a run and meet my need for sun and exercise. I could take a friend for a drink and fulfil my social need for friendship. Or, I could walk to the yoga center and ask a friend to join me in a yoga class, thus meeting my needs for motion, friendship, renewal, and sunlight in one fell swoop!

Of course, our needs change every day. It is important to remember to cultivate that internal witness (last week, we processed the permaculture principle everything gardens, using yoga, meditation, and artmaking to cultivate the inner witness. We learned how to observe the forces gardening and shaping us just as a permaculture designer observes the light, wind, and water that moves across a landscape. Read this post for more) so that we stay flexible in our responses. Some days I don’t want to be social and active at all; my body tells me to go home and sleep! But maybe I can walk home, and change my route to include the grocery store, so that I stack the functions of preparing for dinner and getting some sunlight and exercise into my journey.

Discerning the core needs of a system is the first step in any good design. We do this through observation and the careful collection of data. Every piece of land is yearning toward something; left alone; it will go through a process of natural succession and arrive at a humming homeostasis, whatever the climax community is for that particular piece of land.

There is a phenomenal amount of potential energy in that groundswell. When we fight that energy, say by plowing a piece of land and inserting rows of tomato plants, we set ourselves up to battle weeds, insects, erosion, and disease.


But if we observe, and discern what the land wants to be, we can use design as a bridge to meet all the needs of the system with plants that are useful to us. Then, that groundswell of energy will surge forward through the design instead of against it. In temperate forest like we have here in Asheville, we might plant a forest of fruit and nut trees, edible and medicinal shrubs, and edible-tuber, edible-green, or insectary ground layers wound through with wild grape to mimic the composition of the forest this land wants to be. Such a design, if well-implemented, will fare far better than the rows of tomatoes.

The difference between a tomato garden and a food forest is one of complexity and relationship. The way we design relationship and complexity into our gardens (or our psyches!) is by stacking functions: placing each element of our system into elegant relationship with other elements in order to meet our needs as efficiently as possible.

IMG_7836It is important to note that stacking functions is just one part of the equation. There is another permaculture principle that reminds us to design in multiple elements for each function: the reverse of stacking functions. Imagine, in the three sisters garden, if there were to be a terrible drought. Yes, the large squash leaves shade the ground, helping to conserve water in the soil, but if there is no water there to conserve, all three plants will die. We need to have a back up system, perhaps a well-placed rain barrel  to collect roofwater from the garden shed, to meet the function of watering in case our first element fails.

Last year, my stomach muscles split open in a severe case of diastasis rectii and major surgery was required to repair the damage. I discovered very quickly that I had become reliant on physical exercise as my only stress-management tool. Lying flat on my back for the months of surgery recovery, I had to quickly re-learn the importance of designing in multiple elements to meet core needs! Now, I have learned to process stress by meditating, talking with friends over tea, and writing (although exercise is still my go-to!) This way, my entire stress-management system won’t crash the next time I experience injury.


me, managing stress


This process of observing life, discerning core needs, and designing strategies to meet them efficiently (with back ups!) can sound a bit exhausting.  Applying our intelligence—even our awareness!—consciously to our lives is not something that most of us are taught. But I have found that when I take the time to observe myself and my true needs, I can design a life that works with my natural tendencies rather than fighting them. In the long run, this saves immense amounts of mental, physical, and emotional energy and pain.

If you want to play with this process in your life and make your own stacking-functions bracelet, read on!

Below, I’ve included a script for three guided meditations we worked with on Wednesday. Get a pen and paper, a handful of beads, and something to string them on. Find a quiet place, light a candle and some palo santo or sweetgrass, and read these meditations to yourself or have a friend read them to you.

1. Close your eyes and bring your awareness down into the very center of your self, breathing deeply and low in the belly. Find the beat of your heart and smile at the heart, notice if the heart smiles back. Breathing deeply, imagine the face of a person that you admire or even envy, a person whose way of being in the world fills you with a longing, an edge of wanting to become MORE…. Perhaps you’ve never met this person, only read of their physical or mental or spiritual accomplishments. Or maybe this is a friend whose way of being in the world inspires you…. Imagine the face of this person, their eyes, their posture as they carry themselves through the world…. Notice the effect they have on the world around them, what they are doing, the expression on their face…  What is the essence of this person you so admire?…    Really looking at this person, what is the word that describes their way of being in the world?… If you had to condense what it is that you so admire about them into one concept, what would it be? …

Breathing low in the belly, allowing this image of the person you admire to dissipate, keeping the word. Smiling at your heart, noticing if your heart smiles back. Coming back to the room, quietly write your word down and then close your eyes once again.

2. Now, eyes closed, breathing deeply, come back to that place in the center of yourself, finding the breath low in your belly, finding your stomach and smiling at it. Notice if it smiles back.  Breathing into this smile, settling deep into your belly, picture the last time you read about something in the world that made you tear up. What do you see, or read, or hear about that fills you with a burning rage, or overwhelming joy, or a deep sorrow? What is it in the world that deeply moves you or what is it that you cannot stomach? Picture the last time you were talking so passionately about something that your heart was pounding and you couldn’t keep up with your own words. What were you talking about? …Let these memories surface, watch them, and find what is at the heart of them. What is the issue that burns brightest in your heart? What calls to you most strongly in the world? Find its essence in a single word.

Breathing deep into the stomach, letting these memories and images go, keeping the word. Smiling at your stomach and noticing if it smiles back. Bringing your attention briefly back to the room, quietly write this word down and then close your eyes once again.

3. Now, eyes closed, come back to that place in the center of yourself, finding the breath deep and full. Bring your attention into the silver lobes of your lungs. Smile at these temples that connect you through breath with the rest of life. Smile at them, and notice if they smile back.  Breathing into this smile, settling deep into the fullness of the lungs, picture yourself in the place you feel most radiantly comfortable, alive, and happy. What is the place most sacred to you? Is this place outside, inside? What does it smell like? Is it bright or dark, cool or warm? What are the colors of this place, what do the textures feel like against your skin? What is it about this place that feeds you? What makes it sacred, what sets it apart from other places? How do you feel when you enter it? If there were a single word that could contain the feeling of this place, what would it be? Find the essence of this sacred place in a single word.

Breathing deep into your lungs, letting these images go, keeping the word you’ve found. Smiling at your lungs and noticing if they smile back. Slowly bringing your attention back to the room, quietly write this word down and, when you are ready, look up.

The meditations will leave you with a list of three words. Take your three words and really look at them. These three words make up the core of what is most important for you to be, do, and experience. These are the elements you want to stack in to your life design.

What currently meets these needs for you? Where in your life do you get to be the quality of the first word? Where in your life to you get to do work that addresses the second word? Where in your life do you experience the feeling evoked by the third word?

Select three beads whose color, shape, or symbol invokes each of your three words. These three beads will be the centerpiece of your talisman, reminding you always of the core of who you want to be, what you want to do, and how you want to experience life.

Tie them onto a string and wear them around your wrist.

As you make decisions throughout your day, look at these beads and quietly repeat the words to yourself. As you choose how to spend your time, ensure that these three vital needs are met in as many ways as possible. Pay particular attention to people, activities, and places that meet all three.  As you go through the day, notice ways you can build in back-ups for these needs. With every decision you make, give first consideration to meeting these needs.


Next Wednesday, we are meeting at The Enneagram Center in Asheville to explore the permaculture principle of least effort for greatest effect through yoga and the expressive arts.  If you’re in the area, join us by emailing Maeve Hendrix(; if not, stay tuned and I will write about the experience next week!

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August 20, 2016 · 1:16 pm

Permaculture and the Psyche

Sometimes life gets difficult, out of the blue. I’ve spent this week wrangling shadows I thought had long been laid to rest, struggling with angry and caustic pieces of myself I would love to think had evolved away.


Last night, I put a  beautiful statue of Kali on my altar and burned sage and cried on the hands (and arms and shoulders) of my beloved and did angry, sweaty, yoga, throwing everything I know how to throw at these heavy and painful feelings. They are still there: rage at situations in which I feel powerless over the wellbeing of my children; deep sorrow at the ugly shadows of my country that keep emerging; self-hatred over old behaviors and habits that hurt the ones I love. I pull them out of myself like an endless ball of dark thread, spilling it all into the laps of trusted friends and family, allowing it come into the light like a bloodletting.


It still hurts, knowing that this murderous rage lives in me. But when I speak it, when I acknowledge it and move it through me, it loses the power to secretly poison my internal world. It is tempting to hide this side of myself, but I know it is far braver to witness it for what it is, to face its consequences openly.


In a few weeks I am holding a workshop with my friend Maeve on the intersection of permaculture and wellness psychology, and the first week’s theme is Everything Gardens.


We teach what we need to learn.


Everything gardens. Deer nibble complete circles around the bark of trees, killing them so that they fall and provide habitat for grubs and other insects for winter food. Beaver build homes that function as dams, increasing the habitat of their favored foods and placing it right at their backdoor. Anger, held within, gardens a healthy space for itself to continue to grow and increase. If we are not actively gardening our thoughts and environments, they are gardening us.


It could be as simple as a grouchy co-worker that you would do anything to avoid. That co-worker gardens your daily path around the office. Or a sudden rainstorm that cancels the hike you’d planned. The weather gardens the shape of your day.


The first step in any permaculture design is a careful observation of the land, where the sun rises and sets in each season, how rain moves across the landscape, if there is a neighbor’s dog that always pees in a certain spot, or a wind that blows strongly from the north every winter. These forces, once observed, can be interacted with: either channeled into the design or counterbalanced. For example, carefully dug swales along the contour of the land can capture rainwater that would otherwise have sluiced and eroded across the landscape, allowing it to filter deep into the ground and nourish the roots of plants long after the surface soil has gone dry. Wind can power a well-placed windmill, generating electricity or pumping water for driplines. Dogs can be trained to pee on compost piles, depositing nitrogen where it is needed rather than burning the delicate leaves of a new plant.


In the same way, we can  train ourselves to observe the forces that move across our own landscapes.


It can be external: I observe for a while that I am grouchy when it rains and I can’t spend my lunch hour outside, so I purchase an umbrella that lives in my office. It can be internal: I notice that there is a certain time each month that I feel angry and raw, so I learn to take that time off to myself and away from any relationships that I might hurt with processing that should have been internal. It all starts with observation and the willingness to be aware of my own habits, the invisible forces that influence me.


Everything Gardens means that I am being shaped constantly whether I participate in it or not. As the saying goes, if I keep walking down a road, chances are I am going to get where I’m going!  


I am learning to bravely look at what gardens me so that I can choose my road. It is neither simple nor easy, but it is incredibly valuable. And I have discovered a strange beauty that emerges when I have allowed the anger and the hurt and the ugliness to safely express themselves, and find I am still standing at the end.

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July 31, 2016 · 2:37 pm

on resilience

IMG_7420There is a terrifying beauty to my life these days. I say terrifying because there is a specter that arrives at the door as you greet each thing of beauty into your life, the specter of its loss.

The love relationship at the center of my life right now runs very deep, into the crevices and shadows of the places I know I still need to grow. Being this deeply loved and cherished by turns inspires and horrifies me. It raises questions of my own worth and also of my ability to continue to grow, to create, to be as volatile and vital as I was when this man I love first loved me. There is an intrinsic fear that if I change too much, this love will fall away; or if I do not change enough, this love will fall away; a deep and shadowy fear that it is all a wonderful mistake and I will wake one day to find I am no longer loved.

Then, too, loving this deeply gives a hostage to fate. The hard rains that came last week slicked the road and sent the man I am going to marry into a hydroplane, skidding in a full circle across the highway. I nearly lost him. Life is so tenuous. How do we live with this constant specter of loss?



One glimmer of an answer is given to me by my original hostages to fate, the boys who daily lose some of their baby softness and are sharpening into young men, men whose lives are slowly detaching at the roots and widening away from me. I have learned, day by day, slowly and sometimes against great resistance, to love them with flexible curiosity. I have learned to love them in anticipation of change, rather than in expectation that we will be the same parent and child we were yesterday. I have learned, with wrenching pain, that life will hurt them and I will be powerless to stop it. I have learned that I have very little power in their lives, except to give them a homing place between their explorations. I have learned that my life is mine and their lives are theirs, that we find meaning in wildly different places, that they are not necessarily going to enjoy my (freaking amazing, wildly inventive, dammit!) cooking.


There is another shadow to beauty of this kind, and that is guilt. Who am I to have so beautiful, so privileged a life when there is so much pain around me? Every day between the gray walls of my office cubicle I am vouchsafed new stories, stories of loss and pain and such heartrending unfairness that I sometimes howl into a pillow when I get home. Stories of poverty and oppression that is punished with more poverty and oppression, deep pain that is punished with more pain. All I can do in the face of this monstrous unfairness is look it in the eye and challenge it with the conviction that life can turn around.  All I can do is hear the humanness in these beautiful people, people who have been treated all of their lives as less than human, people that never had–and may never have–the chances that I was lucky enough to have been given. I can’t give them the privileges attendant upon the color of my skin. I can’t give them my loving parents, or the blind luck of my genes or educational background.

There is an impulse that arises to deny it all, to numb away from it. In the evenings there is a compulsion to climb into bed and read escapist fiction, to shut myself away with a glass of wine and deaden myself to what I have seen and heard. Sometimes I succumb to that impulse, and sometimes it helps. But it does not honor this life I have been given. As Wayne Dyer writes, you can never be sad enough to lift another’s depression, or poor enough to make someone else rich.

So. I wake and stretch and try to spend the day reaching toward the light instead of tucking myself away from fear of loss. I am training myself to live in appreciation of this beauty that has been granted me, to explore its furthest reaches with curiosity and tenderness.  The most respectful thing I can do is live it, and appreciate it, utterly. Then I can turn back to my friends and clients in the wilderness and say, try this way. It’s less thorny up ahead, you can do it.

My friend Maeve and I are presenting a series of workshops starting next wednesday that explore the connections between permaculture and psychological resilience. As I prepare the curriculum for these workshops, I am reminded again of the incredible elegance of ecology. I am reminded that the problem is the solution, that everything gardens, that in my guild of neighbors I may find nutrients that I cannot synthesize for myself. I can use my privileges to synthesize nutrients for my neighbors by taking actions they cannot take.  I can learn how to do this most effectively through observation and awareness, for forces that move through my landscape will invisibly alter me if I do not pay attention and act to change them. I am reminded of natural succession, of how our very growth changes us and prepares the ground for the next cycle.

And I am reminded that the heartrending beauty at the center of any garden, of any ecosystem, is change. Dandelions and chicory give way to passionflower and muscadine, which pave the way for locust and tulip poplar, then oak and beech, which shade out the dandelion and grape and locust—but then fall, leaving sunlit gaps, and there are the dandelions again. Our task, then, is to gather the dandelions and then the grapes, fill our arms with locust blossoms, climb up into the beech and soothe ourselves in the shade. My task is to honor what has been given, for as long as it lasts, and prepare the ground so that all of my neighbors can thrive. Diversity is resilience: in gardens, in the psyche, in the neighborhood.

I am resilient in my change. I do not need to fear the change. I need to actively participate in it.



July 23, 2016 · 4:03 pm

Salt is a Sacrifice



What we forget is that

Salt is a sacrifice


Each bite is Earth ground down

Body into taste to


Waken you


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


Ground down.


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. 


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.



May 20, 2016 · 5:51 pm

of cleavers and crows


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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



April 5, 2016 · 6:32 pm

Witness & Wound

photo 1Perhaps it’s the impending trip to Ireland, but I’ve been drawn recently to the story of Ceridwen’s cauldron.

Ceridwen lived on an island with a loathsome son and a beautiful daughter. Troubled by her son’s deformities, Ceridwen toiled for a year to bring together a complicated herbal potion that would grant him complete wisdom. The process so exhausted her that she fell asleep toward the end of the year, just as the three shining drops of prophecy and wisdom rose to the top of her cauldron. They were so potent and pure that the moment they rose to the surface, the cauldron shattered into pieces.

There is much more to the story–Ceridwen’s son, Afagddu (“utter darkness”) was pushed aside at the last moment and the wisdom was received by a boy who eventually became Taliesin, the greatest bard ever known–but it is this first part that haunts me.

 Awen, the divine spark of inspiration, arises from Ceridwen’s cauldron—a cauldron of transformation, a cauldron of experience and knowledge and suffering.

Struggle, difficult as it may be to accept, is a necessary ingredient in wisdom.

I wrote last week about the five kleshas and I’ve had the first klesha on my mind: Avidya, or ignorance of the truth.*  I’ve been thinking about what a slippery concept “truth” is. I’ve been led by the nose into very unhealthy situations while I was searching for the “truth”. It’s a chameleon. Grabbing onto any single “truth” dogmatically can completely destroy my connection to the evolving nature of experience.


Ceridwen’s cauldron is a glowing metaphor of this. The suffering, the knowledge, the experience, all of it gets stirred into the cauldron, and over time beautiful pearls of wisdom are distilled. But in order to create that wisdom, the cauldron has to shatter and spill all of the poisonous leftover dross. Every time I wake to a new truth, the cauldron shatters. New truths aren’t something I can contain while remaining the same.

The cauldron shatters every time. I wonder if that’s why it can seem so much easier to maintain ignorance!

This part is important to me. I have found, as I walk deeper into the field of therapy, that there is a danger when we examine wounds. We can fall into them and aggrandize them, make them into a story from which we never escape. Yes, it is important to confront our shadows and learn the origins of our pain patterns. But this doesn’t mean that we allow them to eternally weigh us down and prevent change. We confront them so that we can transform them; we place them in the cauldron, distill what wisdom we can, and then throw away what’s no longer useful.

photo 3 - Edited

This offers a door of understanding into the first klesha, ignorance of the truth. Becoming aware of the truth in order to eliminate this cause of suffering is not a passive process. It requires the willingness to confront what is untrue and engage with it, distilling truth from it. It can even mean looking again at truths we’ve held past their usefulness (those cauldrons really hurt when they crack!)

Long ago I learned that complaints are just desires in drag. If you can figure out the desire behind the complaint, you will have a clear map to your own happiness. This process of confronting the truth and distilling wisdom from wounds reminds me of unmasking the desires behind my complaints.

There are wounds I’ve sustained that felt so destructive, so poisonous, that it seemed impossible they could contain a desire. I would never have imagined that they held any beneficial power or wisdom. Now, years later, some of those wounds exist ONLY as wisdom. They don’t hurt at all anymore. Other wounds, not yet fully processed, still lead to great embarrassment and dysfunctional behavior even when they are lightly grazed. The difference, I’ve found, is in my willingness to confront the wound. Once witnessed, wounds begin to lose their power. The ones I’ve owned and spoken of over and over again have faded in their power to harm me, and because I have directly confronted them, I’ve changed the problematic behaviors they led to. Others, I have not yet had the bravery to confront directly. They still operate from the shadows, guiding my behavior in unhealthy ways and sponsoring knee-jerk reactions that hurt those around me.

It is my ignorance of these wounds that causes suffering. By this I do not mean that talking about the reasons why I act destructively is enough. It’s the first step in a process that has to include changing my beliefs and behaviors, confronting the desire behind the complaint and acting upon it. Sometimes I remain ignorant to wounds because I know that confronting them would force me to change in ways I am not yet ready to contemplate. I’m comfortable in my ignorance… until it causes suffering great enough that I can no longer ignore it.

eostraeAs I’ve learned more about Expressive Arts therapy, I have found myself drawn again and again to witnessing the wounds. How do we use art and poetry and music and movement to safely uncover these parts of ourselves and look them in the eye? How do we alchemize them into wisdom, allow our old ways to shatter, safely pour away the dross, and move on?

Maeve and I will lead another iteration of this exploration on April 21st, using movement and art and poetry to contact both wound and witness. By witnessing our wounds, we begin to dispel the ignorance that leads to suffering. We gain in wisdom and self-control and self-love. We map out our desires and walk fearlessly toward them, fortified by the Awen distilled from our suffering.

All are welcome to the workshop–just bring your brave self and a journal. If you want to participate from far away, I’ll post details about how to watch live (just as soon as we figure them out!)

*Disclaimer: everything I know about kleshas and Ceridwen I know third- or fourth-hand. I cannot read Gaelic or Welsh or Sanskrit and have not immersed myself in the cultures that originated these beautiful stories. Please take my interpretations as what they are, the impact of these stories on one woman’s life and experience.

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March 31, 2016 · 10:15 am