Today I woke up feeling inspired to write about something that’s been on my mind big-time. It was the topic of my most recent meditation class. It’s the point I wanted to get across to my granddaughter when we talked on the Telephone of the Wind. It’s a heartfelt message I sent to a friend this week. It’s what I’ve contemplated a lot since the beginning of the shutdown when people were sick and dying without loved ones at their side. And it’s something many may benefit from hearing in this time of deep division – and today on the 20th anniversary of 9-11, as personal and collective grief gets stirred up.
It’s a message of lovingkindness, empathy, compassion, and common humanity: how to send it, receive it, and realize it.
There are two wings of mindfulness training. One is awareness, and the other is compassion. Both are essential, and they go hand-in-hand. They strengthen and enhance each other.
The compassion wing encompasses lovingkindness (metta in Pali), which was taught by the Buddha and is practiced to cultivate altruistic, unconditional love towards yourself and others. I could go on and on about the value of it, but not here. Although I will describe a simple practice later in this article, first I want you to understand there is a stream of lovingkindness that flows constantly and offers itself to you continuously. You can help yourself to it at any time, and it is my wish that you will…because it’s helped me during difficult times.
Here is a story I’ve told in my mindfulness meditation classes that illustrates the basic idea.
I remember the days and weeks following the birth of my first child. It was like the doors of my heart were burst open. I saw people walking on the street or running errands in a whole new way: as someone’s precious, innocent, radiant child. Just like my daughter. My heart was so open and tender, and I realized we all started our lives in the same way: so radiant and pure.
I realized that things happened to these people who looked so hardened and angry. And my daughter would be in this far from perfect world with all these hurting people and would be hurt. She’d suffer. I couldn’t prevent it. As a new mom, I felt connected with all the mothers around the world who wanted to protect their children from suffering.
As my children grew and went through challenging times, and when parenting was really hard, I would feel this same connection with other moms – down the road and around the world – dealing with similar situations and maybe struggling with shame, as I was. And I wished I could ease their pain and loneliness. So I’d imagine sending love to them. And I’d imagine some of these other moms were doing the same and were sending love and compassion to me. And I allowed myself to receive it.
The really beautiful and amazing thing is that all the love I felt for my own children was practice for eventually being able to extend deep lovingkindness to myself. When I’ve felt less-than. When it’s been hard to overcome unhealthy habits and deep conditioning. When I failed again.
Lovingkindness also has been a great resource when I’ve been grieving and missing loved ones and feeling lonely. All of a sudden, we can remember we’re not alone, and so many others on the planet are experiencing the same kind of suffering. And somehow, that helps. It creates a small crack in the suffering that allows greater awareness to come through.
I love teaching about lovingkindness. People who come to my meditation classes tend to have lots of practice caring for others but forget to include themselves in their circle of kindness. The capacity is there. You just have to remember, or give yourself permission, to be an unconditionally loving presence to yourself, as well. To beam the light of your love inward.
Unconditional Love Bank
I invite you to bring to mind someone who has loved you unconditionally. Maybe a grandparent, mentor, or furry friend. Take a moment to feel what it is or was like to be in their kind, loving presence. See the look in their eyes, the way they express(ed) love.
Whether or not this being is still in physical form, they would want you to know that you are loved and worthy of love. If they could, they would wrap their heart around you whenever you are suffering or struggling and let you know you are never alone. They would have your back.
When I took my granddaughter to the Telephone of the Wind and modeled out loud how to stay connected with a loved one whose physical form has dissolved, I wanted her to know that I always always always will be there for her like that. My love for her is an eternal stream she can step into, even when I’m not physically present. And I would want so very very much for her to step into it and receive my love and be resourced by it.
It’s like money deposited into the bank of your heart that is there for you to draw on.
I remember after my dad died, when I went to the actual bank and opened my parents’ safe-deposit box in a private room and saw the contents of it for the first time. I felt like Harry Potter stepping into his vault at Gringotts Bank for the first time and seeing what his parents left for him. Sometimes I’d go to the bank and take the safe box into a private room just to feel that feeling of being so cared for.
It’s like that. There is a love bank in which everyone who has loved you has made a deposit. You can tap into it at any time. It is there for you. And when you do that, the love generates interest. It never runs out.
This is what they (would) want for you:
And this, too:
It’s how you can allow their loving for you to continue on. How you can be and grow their legacy of love.
The Stream of Lovingkindness
So there’s the bank of unconditional love where our loved ones have deposited love for us to access at any time. And there’s also a stream of lovingkindness being generated in this very moment – every moment – by thousands upon thousands of people around the world who are practicing lovingkindness meditation right now, sending heartfelt caring and compassion to anyone who needs it. Even though most of them are complete strangers to you, they nonetheless want you – yes, you – to receive their caring. They wish for your suffering to be eased.
You are loved. Someone is radiating caring to you. You are not alone.
Perhaps some of them are suffering in the same way you are, and are intentionally sending lovingkindness to all who share this particular kind of suffering. It might be the suffering that comes from having a parent or child with severe mental illness, being in an abusive relationship, going through divorce, feeling fearful about finances, seeing a loved one suffer in some way, receiving an unwelcome diagnosis, or grieving the death or suicide of a loved one.
Early in the Covid shutdown last year when people were being admitted to the hospital alone, without anyone being able to visit, I thought of and participated in this stream of lovingkindness a lot. I wished those who were suffering in isolation could know of this stream of love and caring and draw strength from it. And the exhausted frontline, essential workers, as well.
No matter what you are experiencing, there are others at this very moment suffering in the same way. In your next breath, you can send caring wishes (to them, yourself, or others) and receive caring wishes generated by those who are practicing lovingkindness meditation at this moment.
As grim as things may seem in the world, on the news and social media, in your community, or in your home, there is so much love in this world. So very many caring hearts. The stream of lovingkindness never stops flowing, even when we’re not aware of it. It’s just like the ocean waves keep flowing to the shore even when we’re not at the beach to see it or to feel it on our toes.
At the end of many of my guided meditation sessions, we practice compassionate breathing, which is receiving and sending lovingkindness on the inhale and exhale. It’s inspired by teachers such as Pema Chodron and Kristin Neff.
What is it you are most in need of at this moment? What would be most nourishing, nurturing, or resourcing for you? Breathe in that. Imagine or sense this energy entering with your next inhalation and circulating through your body, filling you. You might even direct it to a certain area – for example, your heart – or visualize it as white or golden light or sense it as warmth. Take a number of breaths like this, breathing in what you most need. Practice receiving it, allowing it to fill you. Exhale what doesn’t serve.
After a few cycles of this kind of breathing, bring to mind someone you wish to send lovingkindness to. Someone who is struggling or suffering in some way, or whomever your lovingkindness wants to flow to. It might be a certain person, a group of people, or even the whole planet.
Generate a caring wish for them. Here are some ideas:
May you be well.
May you be safe and protected.
May you be free from suffering.
May you live with ease.
May you be balanced and peaceful.
May you be kind to yourself and others.
May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering that lead you to generate suffering for others.
Whatever feels right to you: Go with that.
Then release this caring wish into the world on your next exhalation. Imagine the person/group/planet being filled with and surrounded by this caring wish you have for them. Again, if it’s helpful, it might be represented visually as light. You could visualize them being filled with and surrounded by white or golden light that embodies this caring.
So the practice is breathing in caring for yourself and breathing out a caring wish for others. Your very breath becomes the vehicle for receiving and generating lovingkindness.
Perhaps end the practice with:
[Breathing in] May we all have love and caring.
[Breathing out] May we all be free from suffering.
Sharing and Connecting
There have been so many times when I’ve been floating on the river in my kayak feeling incredibly peaceful and wishing I could bottle the feeling so everyone could experience this great peace. This is another opportunity for practice.
In any moment, if you see or experience something beautiful, are filled with a deep sense of peace, etc., you can share it with all beings by exhaling: May all beings experience this [deep peace].
Similarly, when you feel weighed down by the suffering of the world – perhaps the deep division we continue to experience – you can send a caring wish to all:
May this suffering serve awakening – or – May we be free from this suffering.
This may help us to feel less alone and overwhelmed and generate a sense of common humanity and compassion. It can be done on the meditation cushion or in the midst of daily life, as we breathe.
Please help yourself to this beautiful energy of love that is always flowing to you. This beautiful energy that is who we are at the core of our being.
This summer, the river that runs by my front door has been my refuge.
On the river, everything is so normal and predictable. It could be any summer. The sun and moon rise and set on schedule and travel the path they always do, undistracted by human drama. Birds sing. The water lilies open and close at the same time each day.
I speak insights and words of gratitude into my online journal through my phone (set to airplane kayak mode), and herons and eagles have an uncanny knack of appearing suddenly out of nowhere and flying overhead as if to underscore certain especially resonant and relevant inspirations. The other night, I was on the river doing this under the moonlight, and instead of a heron or eagle, it was a shooting star that appeared like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that had brought me to tears of homecoming.
It’s downright magical and sacred on the river.
This stretch of the Hudson River is the church I attend almost daily. It’s been keeping me balanced and centered as 2020 continues to carve its unpredictable and uncharted course through human and personal history. It’s taught me how to stay and to deepen my connection with the life around me. When I teach meditation classes, I use the phrase “on and off the [meditation] cushion.” But out here, “on and off the river” carries the same meaning.
There is a small spot on the riverside nearby just large enough for a family or small group of friends to enjoy the river and launch kayaks. It’s been getting a lot of use this summer, which is great. However, people often leave behind their garbage. It’s been happening more noticeably this year than in the past.
One day, I paddled by this spot and was disgusted and saddened by the sight of trash piling up. It fit a basic theme of selfishness that was pissing me off. So of course that’s what I saw. A narrative arose in my head about people who feel entitled to leave behind their garbage in the name of personal freedom. I saw selfishness, irresponsibility, a lack of caring and concern for others and the earth.
I paddled away feeling irked. And separate from and somehow better than the people who left behind their trash. But it didn’t feel right. As I paddled on, I asked myself how far down the river I was going to carry these feelings and assumptions.
The great thing about having a regular meditation practice is that I can catch myself sooner when my mind goes over to the dark side. And once you realize what’s happening inside your head, it opens up a field of spaciousness in which the heart can speak.
I realized that just as people can do better with cleaning up after themselves, I can do better than judging them.
So I paddled along with a prayer in my heart:
May I and all beings be free from the suffering and ignorance that causes us to do harm. May I and all beings be free from the suffering and ignorance that leads us to exclude others from our heart.
That felt better because I was back in connection with my fellow humans.
Our human struggles and the demons we wrestle with are universal, even though they may look different on the surface. We get triggered, addicted, distracted, stuck. We fall short, miss the mark, make mistakes. It is the human condition.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that when we stop blaming others and making them wrong and instead take an honest look at ourselves and our reactions, we become empowered. Because the one and only person we can change is you-know-who. When we shift the way we look at something, new possibilities can come to light. We can find a better way to hold a situation so we can see expanded possibilities and take some kind of positive action.
Opportunities for Caring
If we explore a little deeper, we’ll likely find that underneath our anger, indignation, and judgment is some kind of caring. The light of love, kindness, and compassion wants to shine forth, but the ego tends to obstruct it when things aren’t the way it thinks they should be.
The caring in me resonated with ideas such as putting a small sign at the spot on the river inviting people to enjoy it and to remember to carry out their trash. Maybe leaving a box of bags in case they didn’t think to bring their own. Or putting on some gloves and cleaning up the spot myself. We can see an opportunity to be of service and shine our light instead of another opportunity to disconnect our hearts. Instead of just photographing and griping, I can bring a bag and be part of a solution. I can share my images and ideas and be part of a productive dialogue.
The great news is that before I had a chance to do that, someone else had come along and cleaned it up! Another caring heart.
I’ve paddled by the littered spot on the river many times since and started reflecting on how it is connected with the other things we find unacceptable in our world, in our lives, and in ourselves. Might they, too, be opportunities to shine more light and love?
I’m thinking of issues participants (mostly female) in my mindfulness meditation courses bring up – that often resonate with me, too. I find it so beautiful when one person voices something they’re struggling with and others reassure them that they understand and that they’re not alone. Which is the truth. So often, we feel alone in our struggles, as if nobody would understand. Or maybe (God forbid!) they’d judge us. But we’re never alone. Our struggles really aren’t that special!
For example, instead of seeing weight gain as moving in the wrong direction or being unacceptable, could it be an opportunity to love your body more, not only when it meets your expectations but also when it doesn’t? With practice and intention, might feelings of disappointment or disgust cue you to take a breath and beam love to the parts – of your body, your life, your world, your past – you deem unacceptable?
I often do this during self-Reiki and chakra work. It’s a beautiful practice, and it really is a practice that you do again and again. As your capacity for mindful awareness increases, those familiar feelings of shame can cue love, compassion, acceptance, and even appreciation! And the kind of love that inspires you to give your body/life/world what it most deeply thirsts for instead of what is merely habitual. Without beating yourself up – because you realize punishment is neither a necessary nor effective path to well-being.
Might anxiety or white coat syndrome be an opportunity to bring more love and kindness to yourself, and to be less judgmental? To listen to what your body is saying when it gets your attention through a sympathetic fight-or-flight response, instead of trying to whip it into submission? Instead of creating more tension and dissatisfaction through resistance?
Blame and disconnection.
“I’m right, and you’re wrong.
Regrets and mistakes of all kinds.
What do you see in a heap of garbage on the side of the road? When you look in the mirror? When you take in community and world news? When you communicate with someone who doesn’t see the world as you do?
Can we learn to hold what we repel in a different, more spacious way so new, more empowering and caring possibilities can arise? Can we include them in our circle of lovingkindness so they can awaken our natural wisdom and compassion instead of keeping us rigid and stuck?
Yes, we can. Held the right way, the demons we wrestle become allies that help us to evolve. To love better.
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.
Yesterday, one of my daughter’s dearest friends died suddenly and tragically. She was 25. My heart goes out to my daughter, who feels devastated, and to the young woman’s family and especially her young daughter, for their profound loss.
This is someone who was my daughter’s best friend during the most anguishing chapter of our relationship. As soon as this person came into my daughter’s life, my relationship with my daughter declined to the point that she ended up moving out of my house and living with her dad when she was in ninth grade. I didn’t have much contact with my daughter for a few years, and it hurt so much. There’s no pain like the pain of feeling disconnected from your own child and not being able to actively parent them when you know they are having trouble. To make matters worse, the adults closest to my daughter encouraged her to believe that I abandoned her.
That is an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
During those years, I lived behind a wall of shame. Being a mother was my identity, and I just couldn’t face anyone. I didn’t know how to answer any well-intended questions about my daughter that inevitably came up in casual conversation. How could anyone understand everything that happened that resulted in her not living with me or having much to do with me? It was so complicated – too complicated to explain to anyone. Every step of the way, I did what I felt was best. I never stopped loving her. But she left anyway and was out of my reach for a few very painful years, which is something I believed no one would understand.
Afraid of what others would think of me, I kept to myself. I continued to raise my son, went to work but didn’t disclose much to my colleagues, and talked mostly with my husband, my mother, my spiritual director, and my therapist. At the time, I was a kindergarten teacher and always had about twenty children in my care every day to whom I gave my heart even though I had virtually no contact with my own daughter who was living in the neighboring school district.
But that’s not where the story ends. After my daughter graduated from high school, things shifted. Eventually, we became (and still are) best friends. A couple mothers of older daughters who had experienced similar situations assured me it would get better. They gave me hope. And now I do the same for others. Sometimes we just have to be patient and give loved ones time.
When my children were little, every night at bedtime we did a white light visualization so they could fall asleep surrounded by a bubble of protective energy. When my daughter was estranged from me, I continued to surround her in white light, which was about all I could do.
I see in hindsight that the wall of shame didn’t serve me. It cut me off from so much friendship and connection that could have raised my spirits and self-worth during that time. I didn’t need to suffer as much as I did behind that wall. But I didn’t want to burden anyone with my drama. And I didn’t want to be judged and possibly rejected. I felt so vulnerable and deficient.
And I didn’t like my daughter’s best friend during those years. I felt she was a destructive force in my daughter’s life. She was one of the people I blamed for the estrangement. Eventually, they drifted apart and would come and go into and out of each others’ lives. This person was like a bad penny that kept turning up, and I wished she’d go away. It seemed like every time she showed up, there was some kind of drama.
So now this young woman is dead, and in my heart I’m holding both relief that she will not be in my daughter’s life anymore and compassion for how hard this life was for her and for the loss everyone who loved her is experiencing. The loss is profound for my daughter who, after not speaking with her for quite some time, was on the phone with her only a few hours before she died. Their last words to each other were: I love you. Regardless of all the negative feelings associated with my memories of her, my daughter’s loss is real, and that’s what’s most important now.
It’s so hard to witness loved ones in relationship with people we see as toxic to them. I know there was so much more to this woman than what I saw in her. My daughter could see her finer attributes, and so could her dad (my ex-husband), who sounded like he was crying when he called me to break the news. She showed up at the hospital within hours after my granddaughter was born and was the first person outside of the family to hold her. She was a mother, and clearly motherhood was important to her.
Sometimes motherhood or fatherhood isn’t enough to keep someone healthy. It’s not because they don’t love their children (partners, etc.) enough but because they are struggling with issues we couldn’t possibly understand unless we walked in their shoes. If only we could understand their hidden pain, our hearts would be full of compassion for their suffering and how awful it must feel to fall short again and again despite the best of intentions. Sometimes even when we can see someone’s finer attributes (that may be invisible to others) and find them lovable, we need to maintain healthy, self-protective boundaries. Because some people are destructive forces for us, even though they are so much more than that, as well. Even though they are beings worthy of love and compassion.
Have you ever witnessed a loved one in relationship with someone you felt wasn’t good for them? My spiritual director expressed recently how hard it was for her to see me suffer that kind of disharmony. She wished she could pull me out, just like I wanted to pull my daughter out of certain relationships. But we can’t do that. We don’t have a magic wand that powerful. And even if we did, perhaps we all have soul agreements with others who are predestined to come into our lives to help us learn certain lessons, even difficult ones. It can be so hard to love the ones your loved ones love, especially if they seem blind to or spellbound by their harmful qualities. Sometimes all you can do is to be there for someone even when they aren’t showing up for themselves, and send them love and light.
I’ve learned it’s usually in our best interest to defer to those who love us, especially when they all concur that a certain person is a destructive influence in our life. But we might choose instead to take the wild ride. We’ll learn our soul lessons one way or another. It can be so challenging to stand back and watch someone choose the wild ride and to have compassion for those who probably need it most.
Perhaps that is something we are here to learn, even especially when we believe we know what’s best for someone else.
In the introduction to her book, Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach tells the story of a woman who was unconscious on her deathbed. Her daughter sat next to her for many hours saying kind and loving words to her. Early one morning, the woman suddenly opened her eyes, looked intently at her daughter, and whispered, “All my life I thought something was wrong with me.” Then she shook her head slightly as if to say, “What a waste,” closed her eyes, went back into a coma, and died later that day.
This story brought tears to my eyes. It resonated. Because I don’t want to get to the end of my life and realize it could have been so much more if only I hadn’t held back so much, believing I needed to improve myself before what I had to offer was worth sharing.
Self-Love is Real Love
This week, our culture celebrates love. Romantic love is but a drop in the bucket. There are so many other forms of love, and self-love is one of them. Let’s not forget to include ourselves in our circle of love! Because we still can, and it makes a great difference in our quality of life and the lives of those closest to us.
Nobody is perfect. We’re not supposed to be. We’re not supposed to be like anyone else, either, so forget about making any comparisons.
Can you love yourself exactly as you are and have tenderness for ALL parts of yourself, including everything you’ve done or not done? Doing that pulls you out of the trance of unworthiness and the limiting beliefs you have about yourself. Loving yourself like that transforms your life and allows you to love others better.
If you think it sounds silly, naive, or selfish, then you don’t understand what I’m saying. I’ll use the language of dreams to paint a clearer picture.
“We’re Taking Away the Supports”
A few months ago, I dreamed I was at a large retreat to kick off the mindfulness meditation teacher program I’m taking with Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. My friend showed me her sleeping accommodations, which felt like the inside of an airplane with no room to move around, and so close to others! I didn’t know what my dorm looked like, but I couldn’t handle being in such close quarters!
Next, I was in a large auditorium not paying attention to the presentation because I craved chocolate. I’d seen a bowl of it earlier, but it had since been taken away.
Then I stood in a doorway at the back of another auditorium. Others stood next to me, and I felt a little “less than”, lacking in some way. Tara Brach came up behind me and whispered in my ear: We are taking away the supports. I didn’t know exactly what she meant but trusted her.
When we came out of that space, we saw that all around the circular auditorium we’d been in, the event organizers had set up cozy spaces for pairs to be together, kind of like tents without roofs. For each pair, there was a small fireplace, two cushions on the floor, and an elegant pitcher of water with two glasses. We were to go directly to our space-for-two. I felt anxious about being up close and personal with someone when I was tired from traveling and hadn’t had an opportunity to touch up my appearance. It was nighttime, and I wanted to retreat to my room and get some sleep.
Over the loudspeaker, a voice asked us to consider the most cherished possessions we hold on to. It wasn’t referring to physical objects, but the excuses we go to in our minds that hinder us from engaging or being more fully ourselves. The things we think we need in order to be okay. This blew my mind, and I started to cry. I wondered: Is this program too much for me? They were going to take us to the depths of our excuses so we could let go of them and be more present. Really present.
They referred to our excuses as possessions that are separate from us. Our deepest, most cherished supports. These would all be exposed, and we’d learn we don’t need them after all. Who would you be without your most cherished beliefs about what you can’t do or who you need to be around others to be accepted? These beliefs are possessions. They are not you. You do not need them to survive.
I woke up from the dream and considered: What do I feel self-conscious about that compels me to keep a certain distance from others? Why does it take so much energy to be around people? (And does it really, or is it more about having boundaries?) What underlies my food cravings? What uncomfortable feelings do they mitigate? What flaws do I feel I need to conceal to be more attractive to others? How do all these things keep me from being my True Self?
This dream showed me clearly what my self-limiting crutches are. It spelled out all the things I feel are wrong with me and unacceptable to others and how I try to hide them and soothe the discomfort. It revealed lots of opportunities for growth.
What Will I Say?
A few nights ago, I dreamed I was in the audience in another auditorium. It was an event for the hospice house in which my mother passed away. When the speaker finished talking, she came up to me and whispered that I was next. That’s when I remembered I’d agreed to be a speaker. But I hadn’t prepared anything to read! I’d forgotten about it entirely! I began to panic.
Then I remembered that I did a trust fall during our last Hidden Treasure weekend, and it reprogrammed me at a cellular level. I’m stronger than I think I am. Maybe I didn’t need notes and could just speak from my heart. Well, I was going to have to do that because I had no notes! I tried to come up with a general idea or a few points I could jot down, but nothing was coming to me.
There were lots of people mulling about. I wanted to use the bathroom and touch up my hair and makeup. All the bathroom stalls were in use, and I didn’t have a chance to look in the mirror because it was so crowded. But deep down I knew it would be better to have a quiet moment alone to get centered. Inspiration was more likely to arise from quietude than in a crowded bathroom or lobby.
When I walked out of the bathroom, the lights were turned down, and the we’re-waiting-for-you music was playing. As I made my way through the backstage area, my mom walked towards me looking for the piano so she could wheel it on stage. My heart lurched because I wasn’t there to play piano! I told her that, and she said the piano was for somebody else. She knew I was there to give a talk and not play piano. Whew!! I felt relieved because I wouldn’t have to play in front of the audience (which would have been much more stressful than giving a talk) and because my mom wasn’t pressuring me to perform to make her happy. She understood that’s not what I’m here for.
Then I stepped on stage, and all of a sudden, I knew what to say. I’d talk about how I found a new relationship with my mom after she died, and sharing my stories would offer hope to people who were bereaved. My talk would be a message of hope that would ease people’s suffering. And I didn’t know that until the moment before I started speaking, and after my mom relieved me of any pressure to play piano. Then I was able to let something arise from deep in my heart that could help others. It was the difference between performing and being real. Impressing vs. connecting.
I didn’t need to look a certain way to be worthy of being seen. I didn’t need to impress anyone. It wasn’t about my hair, makeup, or clothes. I didn’t need to feel guilty for letting my mother (and myself) down for not following through with piano earlier in life. Those beliefs only get in the way of being my True Self and set the stage for end-of-life regrets, like the woman in Tara’s story.
Both dreams revealed the importance of being present to others without worrying about how I look. The purpose of my life is not to impress or please anyone, even though that’s how I was conditioned. It’s about connecting with people heart-to-heart with the intention of easing their pain.
In waking life, it’s time to cut through the limiting beliefs the dreams spelled out so clearly so I can live more fully, shine brighter, and love better. It begins with loving, forgiving, and accepting myself like my life depends on it. Because it does. And nobody else can do it for me. Or for you. It’s inner work we can only do ourselves. In the poet Rumi’s words:
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.
How about you? What self-limiting beliefs and habits are holding you back? How can you love yourself into the radiant fullness of who you are and shine, shine, shine?
One evening, I was making oatmeal raisin cookies and took my grandmother’s electric hand mixer out of the cabinet. I often use other methods for whipping up a nice, fluffy batter, but sometimes I’m drawn to the mixer. As I used it to beat the cookie batter, my energy shifted. I began to feel what I assumed my grandmother felt when she made cookies for loved ones or whipped mashed potatoes for a holiday meal. The pleasant feeling grew stronger and felt like love and joyful anticipation of being with family. Her energy and love came through the hand mixer so strongly!
Then I felt her presence even stronger behind me, like a hug from behind. It filled me with happiness, and I cried happy tears! She’s been gone for seven years, and I miss her.
Some inherited objects are like conduits of energy, portals into a departed loved one’s heart. That’s why my grandmother’s electric hand mixer survived my epic decluttering event last year. When I held it in my hands to determine what to do with it, I felt her spirit and decided to keep it. I call it the “magic mixer” because, in a way, it brings her back.
There’s something special about a grandmother’s love. I’m sure I’ve written about it before. It tends to feel more purely unconditional than a parent’s love because grandparents tend not to worry so much about things parents lose sleep over. There’s a kind of wisdom and perspective that comes from launching your own children, from which you can view the inevitable challenges and understand that much of what parents worry about is small stuff. Much smaller than parents in the thick of parenting tend to believe. Grandparents can see the bigger picture and assure subsequent generations, “It’s going to be alright. You’ll see.”
What I’m trying to articulate is that, generally speaking, parents can get so caught up in the day-to-day business of raising children that it’s harder to see the forest for the trees. They have lots of balls up in the air and get tired, stressed out, and snappy. The parent-child dynamic tends to be stickier and more controlling than the grandparent one, and to be fair, I didn’t give my grandparents the “attitude” I reserved for my parents! The parental ego can get so tangled up in children’s successes and failures, and even without meaning to, parents can make you feel like you’re not good enough as you are.
Not so with grandparents, or at least not in my experience. I attended an Elisabeth Kübler-Ross talk in Tampa back in the early ’90s, and she asked us to think of one person who gave us absolutely unconditional love. I was in my early 20s, and my grandmother came to mind. Kübler-Ross followed this question by suggesting it’s often a grandparent who’s present to us in such a steady, unwavering way.
That’s how my grandmother was. She was my rock. When I looked in her sparkling, blue eyes, I didn’t see the worry I saw on my parents’ faces. I saw my goodness reflected back to me. I’m sure I gave her plenty to worry about, especially with the divorce when my children were young. But she still came out with reassuring words when my parents weren’t able to, and she made light of their reactions. We had a special bond.
I’m reading a book called Walking ToListenby a young man named Andrew Forsthoefel, who walked 4,000 miles across the United States after graduating from college because he wanted to hear people’s stories and wisdom and understand what it means to be an adult. He was on a quest for guidance and found it, sometimes in the most unlikely people and places. The book falls within my favorite genre: people walking on a quest for personal transformation.
One sentence I read the other night really spoke to me. During his travels through Alabama, he was taken in by a pair of grandparents, and the woman told him about when her mom died. When she remarked to her priest that she felt like an orphan, he replied, “You are not an orphan. You are a matriarch.”
Truly, in any moment, we can choose to focus on what is missing or what we’ve got.
I dreamed of my two-year-old granddaughter the other night. In the dream, she came up to me and exclaimed, “Mama!” (which is what she calls me because she can’t pronounce “grandma” yet) and collapsed in my arms, as if I was her safe place, just as my grandmother’s heart and home were mine. Little Ava needs the purely unconditional, grandmotherly love I can give her. I want to be her rock, like my grandmother was mine. She will need a rock. Don’t we all? Someone to be there for us unconditionally, who reflects our light and believes in us always.
That’s the energy I felt when I used my grandmother’s electric hand mixer. Grandmotherly love, as both a granddaughter and a grandmother. I am new to this grandmother thing, but the love I experienced when using the mixer felt like a form of both guidance and connection. It was like holding a compass in my hand. A compass that points to love.
There is a choice in moments like that to lean into grief or gratitude. I could cry because I miss her and feel bad about the way her life ended in a nursing home. Or I could embrace how her spirit connected with me, grandmother to grandmother, and seems to be guiding me in my new role, which she inhabited gracefully for 45 years.
Little Ava. She’s the one who most needs me to reflect her beauty, light, strength, and goodness. I am motivated to be the best I can be not only for myself but also for her. May she see her own reflection through me and how I love her. By loving her unconditionally, may I plant seeds for her to cultivate self-love. Hopefully it won’t take her until she’s 50 to do so (like yours truly), but that’s her path and her business. My part, my responsibility, is to love her…without any strings or conditions. Just love, like my grandmother did for me.