I’m taking a few moments to reach out from my working home retreat (a.k.a. sheltering in place) to write about a topic that has been at the forefront of my mind since all this went down:
At the beginning of the month, I stepped into a new role I’d been preparing for, for quite some time: teaching a mindfulness meditation course. The first class session took place in-person and was attended by 17 women. By the second class – a week later – things had begun to change rapidly, and we weren’t able to meet face-to-face. Already familiar with Zoom video conferencing, I moved the course to that platform without missing a beat, and it’s how we conducted our three remaining class sessions. This week, I began teaching a second mindfulness course. And now a third is in the works!
Needless to say, I’ve been busy…because it’s a really good time to begin/return to/deepen a meditation practice!
As the participants in my courses report, mindfulness meditation provides real, practical benefits for navigating our lives as we adjust to new, constantly changing information and circumstances. It’s gratifying to be able to offer skills that help people to be more resilient and emotionally healthy during these challenging times when we’re experiencing so much anxiety, grief, and other strong emotions.
In today’s class, we discussed ways in which we can integrate mindfulness practice into daily life. Not just formal meditation “on the cushion” but ways we can pause for presence throughout the day. The possibilities are endless.
For example, any moments of waiting are invitations to mindfulness:
waiting in traffic/at red lights/in line (if you still go out)
waiting for websites to load
waiting for food to heat up
waiting on hold to talk to someone
waiting for your gas tank to fill
waiting for a video conference to begin.
Virtually any activity can be an opportunity to take a mindful pause and awaken a more spacious quality of presence. My new favorite is:
Hand-Washing to Awaken Awareness
In the 20 or so seconds you spend washing your hands, you can shift out of your head and whatever story is going on inside it and into presence. You can become aware of what is happening here and now: the sensation of soap lathering, the stream of warm water on your skin, the fragrance of the soap. It’s actually quite a lovely experience when you direct your attention to it.
At times, I’ve noticed myself feeling impatient and wanting the 20 seconds to be over so I can get on with what’s next. This was especially true on days when my workload was heavier. Over the course of the past couple weeks, I’ve trained myself to allow hand-washing to cue presence. As a result, hand-washing breaks have become much more pleasant. They bring me back to what is actually happening in the moment. It might be the sensations described above, the movements of the breath, or simply being aware of the energy in the feet or body as a whole while standing at the sink.
Hand-washing can ground you in the moment and in your body. And what’s wonderful about that is: It gets you out of your head and whatever trance you were in. It liberates you from the prison and tunnel-vision of thought. It’s like waking up from a dream.
Hand-Washing to Awaken the Heart
In my classes, I teach about the two wings of mindfulness that work together like the two wings of a bird: awareness and compassion. Awareness is a clear seeing of what is present here and now. Feeling the sensations of the soap and water and the energy/aliveness in your body (feet, hands, etc.) are examples of awareness. The other wing, compassion, is bringing a loving care to the moment.
Hand-washing also can be a cue for practicing lovingkindness, and here’s how: As you wash your hands, you can be aware of the greater intention behind hand-washing. By this, I mean something beyond any sense of fear that might be present. Caring for your own well-being and the well-being of others. You might send yourself caring wishes by thinking silently (or even singing out loud) phrases such as:
May I be well and healthy. May I be safe and protected. May I be peaceful and at ease.
You can bring to mind someone you care about and send them well wishes, too (which is sometimes easier than sending them to yourself):
May you be well and healthy. May you be safe and protected. May you be peaceful and at ease.
You could even expand your lovingkindness to the whole planet:
May all beings be well and healthy. May all beings be safe and protected. May all beings be peaceful and at ease.
So as you wash your hands, you remember your wish for yourself and others to be well. This awakens the heart and generates a sense of connection, even when we can’t be with those we care about. Many people have been expressing grief over not being able to hug their parents or children, and this practice offers a different, more spacious kind of hug. You can imagine your dear one’s face smiling as you send them well-wishes while washing your hands.
Mindful Moments Matter
A new study by researchers from Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth shows that short moments of mindfulness can have profound effects on regulating emotional intensity. In other words, practicing mindfulness throughout the day counts. It’s not just about taking time out of your day to practice formal, seated meditation for months on end (though I highly recommend it if you can do it, as it deepens your practice). You can reap benefits of mindfulness practice much sooner than that, in the moment, when you switch to that channel.
Each time you wash your hands, you can consider whether an awareness or compassion practice feels most right at the moment. It gives more meaning to this activity we do so many times a day. It also liberates you from your active mind that’s so often either focused on the past (regret, grief, etc.) or the future (worry, fear, etc.) and so rarely inhabits the present moment – which is the only moment we ever have and where all our power resides.
Returning to the present moment several times a day is an empowering practice that adds up through the course of a day, a week, a month, a year. Each time you bring yourself back from the trance of thought is like doing one rep that strengthens the muscles of awareness or compassion and deepens those neural pathways back “home”. It allows you to wake up from the dream and rest in a quality of consciousness that can hold everything that arises, like the ocean holds all the waves.
I only take in current events in small sips. It’s all my sensitivities can handle. Touching in briefly a few times a week is plenty for me. I don’t watch the news at home, but when I go to the gym, headlines flash on multiple television screens, from different sources. But it’s pretty much the same: angry-looking heads and talking heads talking about why everyone’s so angry, sandwiched between commercials designed to make you feel not-good-enough without whatever product or service they’re selling.
From where I stand, it looks like a lot of unmet needs creating lots of fear and suffering. We are the walking wounded, walking around wounding, whether we realize and intend it or not. We’ve all been hurt in some way and often don’t even know how we are wounded and what deeper longing lies beneath the veneer of our various cravings, addictions, and aversions.
My mother was an appearance-conscious stewardess during the golden age of flying, and I experienced a wound in childhood that set me up for a life of self-consciousness and suffering. She couldn’t possibly have foreseen how deeply her words – intended for my benefit – would hurt me. She, too, had been wounded, in a different way, and I have tremendous compassion for her. The person who wounded her did so out of their own woundedness. And so it goes. It’s the human condition, what we’re given to work with and evolve from.
How would our view of others and our interactions with them – the quality of our hearts – change if we could see people as walking wounds crying out: Love me! Assure me that I’m good and worthy! Even the ones who seem so full of themselves.
How would our relationship with our self change if we could see our own wounds as being rooted in innocence? And if we could see the wounds we’ve inflicted on others as being rooted in ignorance rather than inherent badness?
Have you ever held a baby in your arms and soaked up their radiant innocence?
Have you ever been held in the arms of someone who sees that in you and loves you unconditionally – perhaps a grandparent? If this person were around, what would they say to you now? What do you most need to hear? What would set your heart free?
If Love could speak, what would s/he say to you? And what difference would hearing it make in your life/heart/mind/relationships?
Well, I did a little exercise (inspired by author Elizabeth Gilbert) that you can do, too. I reached out to Love and then wrote down what Love said to me. It went something like this:
I’m right here, sweetheart. I will be here for you No matter what you look like Or how much you weigh. You don’t have to try to be More special, successful, Popular, or prosperous. There’s nothing you need To be or do To be worthy and beautiful And forgiven for everything You’ve not forgiven yourself for.
I will never abandon you. There’s nothing I need from you, And there’s nothing you could do To lose me. I’m with you When you get stuck In the painful trap Of conditioning and fear And fall short of who You want to be And find it so hard To accept yourself.
When you lose sight Of who you really are, I remember and hold up a mirror So you can catch a glimpse Of yourself as I see you And love yourself enough To draw healthy boundaries And shine. But I also hold you dearly When you feel too tired to shine. I’m here when you stand tall And when you fall.
When you are in need, Call upon me and hear The words I whisper constantly Into your heart: You are not alone. I see you, and you matter. You don’t have to prove your worth; You already are enough. I am always here. You can draw strength From me.
I’ve reread these words several times since channeling them and realized two things. First, what I’ve tried to do and be for others (the mirror) is exactly what I most needed, myself. Second, this is exactly how I feel about my four-year-old granddaughter and what I’d want to say to her every day for the rest of her life – though the third and fourth lines would be different and address her own inevitable wounds.
I’d be willing to bet that these are the words my own grandmothers would say to me if they could. And that makes the words very real. Not just some wish-fulfilling fantasy but a message that grandmothers and others who are capable of loving in the purest, most unconditional sense would want to imprint on dented hearts.
The good news is that we can fill ourselves up from within so we don’t walk around so needy. So we can love ourselves and others better. It’s a form of activism that feels important to me.
How would the world and each person in it be different if we reached out to Love every day and heard what we most needed to hear before even leaving the house or interacting with anyone else?
What would Love say to you?
P.S. – The night after doing this exercise, my mother came to me in a dream for the first time in quite a while. In the dream, we hugged for a good, long time. I felt her love and warmth, and surely she felt mine. It was the first time I’ve experienced a dream-hug with my mother (who passed away nearly six years ago). And it was wonderful. Totally filled me up. I went through the day shining brightly and radiating love.
We can do this.
And if you’d like to hear the words Love spoke to me, then listen here. I recorded this for you.
This morning, I intended to write about a completely different topic, but then this came. Perhaps because someone needs to read it.
Winter Solstice occurred late last night: the moment at which the sun was farthest from the Northern Hemisphere. This is the darkest time of year, and although it might not feel like it, the light has begun to increase, little by little, each day going forward.
It makes me reflect on the darkest days of my life, my own dark night of the soul following my mother’s death, when so much was changing.
I’ve grieved my share of deaths and losses, but the worst feeling of all was not following the call of my soul. That’s what made this dark chapter even harder: I allowed my light to dim.
On the surface, it might sound like avoidable suffering. (Why not just follow your soul?) But I understand now that there were some soul lessons I needed to learn before I was able to move forward, and life delivered the perfect circumstances and teachers. The perfect storm.
Sometimes my conditioning and desires were too strong, and other times I wasn’t able to access my power for whatever reason. There was a lot of fear and an underlying sense of unworthiness that kept me feeling and living small.
And so the journey became one of taking back my power, baby step by baby step, just like the light begins to return ever so gradually at this time of year. Sometimes it was two steps forward, one step back. But I learned not to beat myself up for the step back and focus more on the steps forward.
I began creating inspirational quote pictures that I’d put where I could see them every day. They were messages from my deeper self that I hoped and prayed would take root. The images were of places and moments when I experienced a sense of empowerment. I read and recited the affirmations every morning and kept them with me wherever I went.
Some of them stayed with me for a long, humbling time. But eventually all were replaced by new ones.
I prayed for help and guidance from my Higher Power, spirit guides, and angels. And I received it. Sometimes it was strength. Whispers of inspiration. Or the vision of a being of light standing at the edge of the Forest of Forbidden Thoughts and Fantasy when I began to think a thought that didn’t serve my soul and my healing. Other times it was physical injury: falling down the stairs, finding a tick on me, smacking my mouth on a space heater, health issues.
If I didn’t listen to the more subtle calls, I got smacked with unambiguous, physical wake-up calls. But I was grateful nonetheless because, after all, I’d requested help. My deepest yearning was to follow the call of my soul and undo a great deal of conditioning that didn’t serve me. And that’s the kind of help I got.
In the beginning, freedom seemed unattainable. My greatest hope and strength came from others who had found their way out of their own dark places. From their examples, I knew liberation was possible.
Some who were in similar or worse circumstances also were catalysts for healing. I empathized with their pain and wished they could be liberated from it. In doing so, I realized I wasn’t alone or unique in what I was experiencing and also was worthy of liberation from suffering.
To reiterate: What I know now that I didn’t know back then is that there would be assistance every step of the way. Assistance I never could’ve dreamed of: Feeling drawn to take Reiki training and to say yes to any number of new possibilities that showed up. Some of the possibilities had been in my orbit all along, but I hadn’t given them attention. Until I was ready. Really ready to transform my life into something greater.
I learned that when you feel really stuck, you might be on the brink of unprecedented growth.
Now I look back with so much gratitude for the journey because I’ve come so far from that dark night of the soul. It’s not the end of the road. You always can go further. But the journey from the darkest days to where I am now was the greatest leap in consciousness I’ve experienced my entire life. (And I’ve spent my life as a spiritual seeker working with a guide, so to say that is a really big deal.)
I learned the importance of self-love and burning in a fierce love (not blame, not hatred, not regret) everything that doesn’t serve me. I’ve learned there is a source of steadfast, unconditional love I can call upon when I need it, when I’m not feeling strong enough. I’ve learned that when I need it most, there is a circle of loved ones around me whose love still reaches me from beyond the grave. And behind them is even more love. Beings of love and light. I’ve learned to source my life from that great love and to see myself through the eyes of unconditional love.
I wish this for everyone who is suffering. Because it’s possible.
From the darkest days, I found the brightest light. The journey required lots of patience, forgiveness, and love. I became disciplined with regard to the thoughts I would and wouldn’t allow myself to think, and learned that mindfulness of thoughts paired with compassion forms a mighty superpower that can be used to benefit ourselves and others.
I’ve shifted from seeking validation from others to generating it within. Can you imagine how different our world would be if more people – including world leaders – made this shift and didn’t walk around needing others to fill their empty holes?
I offer the story of my journey to encourage anyone who is experiencing a dark night of the soul to keep going and have hope. And to encourage anyone who is supporting someone through dark times not to give up on them, no matter how many times they stumble and fall and could be left for dead. I’m not suggesting anyone should be a doormat and try to save others. (I learned that lesson the very hard way.) Healthy boundaries are essential. I’m just saying: Maintain an attitude of hope and unconditional love, and trust their soul’s path. If there’s nothing else you can do, send love and light.
And give it to yourself, as well. Let any self-judgment burn up in that fierce love. Allow yourself to receive the love and light that seeks you. Learn to receive it. You are worthy.
The only way out of the darkness is through love. As love grows in you, it pulls you along and gains momentum.
Do not fear the darkness. It’s where you will learn to shine your brightest light. Individually and collectively, that’s what the darkness calls forth from us.
I enjoy conversations with my granddaughter so much. During this week’s sleepover, while making star-shaped cookies on a stick that looked like magic wands, the topic of dragonflies came up. Over the summer, we noticed a dead dragonfly on the sidewalk at Congress Park. Remembering that dragonfly has become a predictable segue for talking about my parents, which is one of her favorite topics.
“The dragonfly’s body stopped working, just like your mommy and daddy’s. Your mommy and daddy died. But they’re not died…right?”
“Yes,” I confirmed. “My mommy and daddy’s bodies stopped working, so they don’t have bodies anymore. But they are still able to love!”
I used to write a lot about grieving my parents’ deaths. Writing was how I made my way through the dark forest of grief. Eventually, I found myself on the other side of the forest. The darkness was behind me. Mercifully, life goes on, and a new chapter begins.
Beyond grief, there is another story waiting to blossom. A rather amazing one if we’re open to it.
Our dearly departed continue to connect with us after they’re gone. But they are so much more than the quirky personalities they had on earth. They offer pure, unconditional love. If you allow yourself to receive it, it can transform your life. Big-time. It can save you from yourself and turn you into your own best friend. I know because it happened to me.
It started as a little voice that countered the words of my Inner Critic. As I paid attention to it, the voice grew louder and more constant. And when I heard it, I felt my mom’s presence. It seemed like she was near and speaking to me through my own heart. But it wasn’t the voice of her personality. It was the voice of unconditional love. I felt my mother’s deep, abiding love for me, as if it were a seed planted in my heart. It was also like being on the receiving end of the steadfast love I’ve always had for my children. The kind of love that didn’t want them to suffer and learn things the hard way, and didn’t need to be right. No ego, just pure love.
It was like my mother’s love was beaming straight into my heart and watering that seed, and also holding a mirror that reflected my love and compassion for others right back to me. So I could love myself. Really love myself, probably for the first time ever.
See, I went through some difficult years after my mom died. Grief made me vulnerable to losing myself in a way empaths are prone to. I’d given away my power, and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t seem to take it back and set myself free. I was really stuck, and it was the worst feeling. I felt powerless and prayed often for help and guidance to rise above the illusions and habits that imprisoned me. And whenever I asked, it was given.
For a while, it was a being of light similar to Glinda, the Good Witch standing at the entrance to the forest of forbidden thoughts in my mind. She radiated love and light and assured me that there was nothing there for me. Her compassionate presence served as a shield that prevented me from stepping into the danger zone. She helped me to have healthier boundaries and to form new neural pathways by putting warning signs at the entrances to the old ones.
Then they arrived. All of them. Everyone who had truly loved me before they passed into non-physical. They formed a circle around me, and I felt their love coming through so strongly. They did not want me to bring suffering on myself but didn’t judge me for doing so. They couldn’t stop me, but they could be present and surround me with love and light.
Their light lit the lamp of my own self-love. It didn’t happen overnight, but in time it empowered me to stop searching outside of myself for love and self-worth and to kindle it from the true source within. And that allowed me to set down the backpack of illusions I had been carrying around. Finally, I didn’t need it anymore. The trance lifted, and I was free to be me and to shine my light brighter than ever.
It feels like I have bushwhacked back to my true Self, reclaimed it, and put it in charge of my life. And I honestly believe I couldn’t have done it without some help from the other side. There were also people in the physical world who helped me to get unstuck, and I’m so grateful for their love and patience. And other women experiencing similar things were some of my clearest mirrors. However, it really felt like a team of angels was assisting me, too. People-pleasing empath that I was, it wasn’t enough for me to want to stop suffering. Realizing that nobody who loved me would want me to suffer is what did the trick.
Love is strong medicine that can set us free. My parents’ love for me has continued after they passed on and was strong enough to help me to generate self-love, which empowered me to heal. I’ve learned to love and forgive myself, and everyone else, too. Now my self-talk is completely different than it used to be. I relate to myself with unconditional love: so nurturing and forgiving and loving. So powerful and transformative. I’ve never felt so alive, so fully myself.
It’s kind of weird timing because the world seems so out of sorts, and we already have snow on the ground and temperatures in the teens when it’s only mid-November. But maybe it’s perfect and exactly what is needed, and maybe it’s happening to many others as well. It’s okay, even if the world is going through tremendous growth pains and feels unseasonably and unreasonably cold. Maybe love blossoming within us, one heart at a time, is exactly what this world of ours needs most to evolve. We have each other, and the dearly departed, as well, loving us and rooting us on.
As for the cookie conversation, I assured my granddaughter that it’s okay that the dragonfly and my parents don’t have bodies anymore – because they don’t need them. The part of them that we can’t see keeps living and loving. I told her that even though my parents don’t have a body now, they send me so much love, and I will do the same for her when my body stops working someday.
Our conversations, and the love between us, never have to end. We just have to learn to recognize a different kind of voice, be receptive, and practice a different way of communicating. There is a bridge between physical and non-physical. We just need to find it.