It’s incredible out here on the dock this morning. There’s a refreshing river breeze. It’s even a little cool, which is welcome relief from the heat and humidity of the past few days. The waves are lapping against the shore, the sunlight is sparkling on the water, the warmth of the sun is caressing my skin, and the birds are singing. If the water weren’t so choppy, I’d go out in my kayak. But honestly, I’m glad to have an excuse to indulge in a different pleasure this morning: playing my singing drum on the dock.
I’ve had the drum for less than a week but have wanted one for quite a while. Actually, I wanted a hang drum, but they are very expensive and harder to come by. So I began exploring alternatives and then kind of forgot about it until a couple of weeks ago.
I love to play my singing drum. Especially on the dock on a bright and breezy, summer morning.
There’s road noise to contend with. Always is here on the busy side of the river. I hear the familiar vibration of the steel deck bridge and the cars and trucks only a few yards away from my spot on the dock. But I’m trying to keep my attention on what’s most important: what uplifts me and feels most right in this moment. Just letting all the traffic noise be and not pull me away from my own be-ing.
Making music while all this other stuff goes on is this morning’s meditation practice. Choosing to feel and express my interconnection with the sparkling sunlight on the river, the eagle flying over the island, the wind, the movement and rhythm of the water. Focusing on that. Making music with that.
I can’t control the road noise. But I can control where I put my attention and whether I am in harmony or disharmony with my surroundings. Does my music embody union with the sparkling sunlight on the water or resistance to the rumble of traffic rolling by? Am I expressing wholeness or separation?
The state of your mind and heart is an integral part of the music you offer the world, literally and figuratively.
My advice? Play what you love. Focus on what you love, what brings you joy, meaning, satisfaction, grace. Can you keep your focus on that when all the other stuff is going on around you? Can you tune the other stuff out so you can co-create with life? Or even better, can you incorporate it into the totality of what you are living and embracing this very moment and express unconditional presence?
I sense our music is of a higher quality – less fearful and more authentic – when we play (talk/listen/act/love) from a state of presence and interconnection.
It’s all part of a larger practice of being more improvisational and not relying on notes (of one kind or another) on a page. Expressing from the heart in the moment and trusting that whatever arises is what’s most needed and real and true. That’s the leading edge of my practice these days.
When I hit the record button on my phone, I noticed a subtle shift from expressing to performing. From letting the notes and rhythms flow uninhibited to wanting to sound good and be appealing. But that’s a practice, too. A continuum. My intention is to push the record button and remain in presence, whether I’m communicating through music or words. It’s the same basic practice whether it involves playing music, interacting one-on-one, leading a guided meditation, facilitating a meeting or workshop, addressing a group, or teaching a class of young children. In my case, all my early childhood teaching experience has become a foundation for the rest.
Cultivating deep authenticity and trust…in myself and the wisdom inside me. And also in the magic of connection that happens in the moment, that transcends any stories I create in my head about relationship.
I looked to others for guidance and validation my whole life. But that need comes from the false self, which is a layer I’m in the process of shedding. Because it’s time, and I have a feeling that hormones are finally on my side. Now what I want most of all – more than any kind of worldly success or status – is to trust and follow my own guidance. To be MORE present, improvisational, inner- and inter-connected, and LESS self-conscious, rehearsed, and influenced by others. To express my inner being rather than try to be who I think others want me to be. The latter has had a long enough run! It’s time for a new experiment. It’s kind of scary. But even more, it’s exciting.
So this morning, I brought my singing drum to the dock and allowed the sparkles of sunlight on the water to be the notes I played. They looked like this:
And if you’re curious, they sounded something like this:
“Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.” -Anne Lamott
I finally watched the movie, Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon. It was selected by Mindful.org as the “mindful film of the year” and really struck a chord. I’m drawn to stories of people embarking on pilgrimages of self-discovery that involve backpacking through the wilderness, and Wild features a woman who is grieving the death of her mother and decides to hike 1,100 miles solo along the Pacific Crest Trail to reclaim her life, which had been thrown into disarray in the wake of her mother’s death. Unlike my sister, I watched the movie prior to reading the memoir on which it was based. Now I want to read the book!
Watching the movie made me aware of a deep-seated desire to do something out of the ordinary to honor my own grief and rebuild my life. I yearn for a rite of passage – a touchstone for transformation.
Part of me longs to take a backpacking journey – as portrayed in Wild or The Way – or to retreat to the solitude of a simple cabin in the woods for a few months to get some perspective. I just want to stop the world for a little while to take inventory and forge a new vision – because my world changed ten months ago when my mother died, and it will never be the same again. I will never be the same. I want to create something fresh and vital from the ashes and make the most of this “one and precious life.”
At the end of Wild, a voice-over summarizes the woman’s journey:
“But if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. What if I wanted to sleep with every single one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if all those things I did were the things that got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?
It took me years to be the woman my mother raised. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it without her. After I lost myself in the wilderness of my grief, I found my own way out of the woods. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there on the last day of my hike. Thank you, I thought over and over again, for everything the trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know.”
-Cheryl Strayed, as quoted in the movie adaptation of her memoir, Wild.
I have some of my own “what ifs.”
What if situations that seem dreadful or unfortunate on the surface teach us something? What if walking through the darker corners of grief is part of our journey? What if people who appear as adversaries are actually helping us to awaken and move on? What if getting pushed to our limit is exactly what we need in order to change?
What if I’m here to do my work in this world by using my particular nature and programming to the fullest, rather than trying to force my nature to conform to incompatible situations? What if my nature/essence/personality is no accident and serves a purpose that I have yet to understand and utilize fully?
During the winter, I prayed for clarity…and received it. And I’m grateful for it, even though the timing feels inconvenient. I have resolved to walk through a door that, for years, I’ve been afraid to walk through, even though doing so still scares me. And that’s why I’m now praying for courage – because not doing it would be too great a compromise. Certainly, there will be other “problems” that arise when I walk through that door, but at least I will not compromise my spirit any longer. That is a burden too heavy to bear.
I think of how preoccupied I was with what “to do” with my life – meaning what kind of work to do. For a long time, I equated work with livelihood but have since come to define it much more broadly, as the energy we give to the world. The specifics of it don’t seem as important as the context in which it is carried out. I acknowledge the importance of being in an environment that is aligned with my principles and values what I have to offer, an environment in which I have freedom to be myself and to release my best, most authentic energy and talents into the world. I’m realizing that if conforming to a system or environment devastates your spirit, you must have enough self-respect and faith to move on. When a situation isn’t compatible with your nature, you owe it to yourself to say, “No, thank you,” and move forward…because it would be a waste of your precious life not to. I think it would be a tragedy to get to the end of this life and see that I wasted time failing to express my highest nature by remaining stuck in something that requires me to be someone I’m not – something that binds my wings and has lost its spirit, meaning, and purpose. Remaining stuck is like clinging to a rotten branch. It’s allowing the lower, fearful self to be in the driver’s seat. It’s not living.
No, thank you. I was made for more than that!
I wonder: Does everyone go a little crazy while navigating the wilderness of grief – each in our own way? Can you ever be the same again after losing your mother? And is “sameness” something to even wish for? Or is it one of the great delusions? (As a photographer, I would answer yes because it is becoming apparent to me that, based on the interdependent nature of this world of form, nothing remains exactly the same from moment-to-moment.)
In recent months, I have been spending time watching the Battenkill River flow. Its movement is much more dramatic than the flow of the Hudson River in front of my house. The roaring Battenkill inspires and influences me greatly and has been teaching me about letting go and dislodging the fear-based belief that my present set of circumstances is the safest, healthiest place to be.
The only thing I know at this point that my mother’s death has awakened me to the gift, opportunity, and brevity of our human life. Status quo appears to be over. And rather than focus on the time, money, and energy wasted on something that ended up not being a good fit, I can be thankful for all I have learned and the ways in which I have grown as a result. No stepping stone on our path is for naught. We wouldn’t have gotten this far without it. But it is not the end of the path. There is more to come.
In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Work is love made visible.” And when it’s time to move on, may we do so with love, gratitude, and confidence.
I imagine you’ve heard the proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” For the past week or so, my teacher has been Anita Moorjani’s book, Dying to Be Me (Hay House, 2012) – which I finally got around to reading! This is an inspirational memoir written by a woman who was dying of end-stage lymphoma, had a near-death experience (NDE), and returned to her body knowing for certain that her cancer would be healed completely. It is an amazing, profoundly inspiring account. As miraculous as the medical piece is, what impresses me most is the way her life changed as a result of what she experienced during her NDE.
I was intrigued by the author’s descriptions of how her NDE transformed the way she perceived and lived her life because so much of what she had to say described with surprising accuracy the way I have come to perceive and relate to the world. However, there is one major difference. Right before deciding to return to her body, she was guided to go back and live her life fearlessly. And she did. Eliminating fear transformed her life completely, and I realize this is precisely what has been holding me back. (You, too, perhaps?) The rest of this post is a reflection I wrote when I was midway through the book and inspired deeply by the author’s revelation that love is the nature of the entire universe and our true essence, as well. Since so much synchronicity occurred as I read and reflected on this book, it feels right to share my reflections. (There is something very powerful and magical about this book!) So here goes…
I spent decades believing it was of the utmost importance to figure out what kind of work I should do – meaning what kind of paid job I should devote my life to. I felt this was predestined, and if I did not figure it out correctly, then my life would be wasted; I would have failed, and I would be held accountable in the end. (I had a tendency to put a lot of pressure on myself.) I believed there was one thing I was meant to do, it was my Life’s Purpose, and it was so important to discern it and to have the discipline to see it through. But I’m realizing now that what’s most important isn’t what I do but what I am.
I am love, and so are you.
If I am love, it doesn’t matter what I do. What I do becomes an expression of who I am. I suspect that many situations can be transformed from the inside out if we stop focusing on outcomes and accomplishments and allow the love that we are to flow through us. It is a choice to cut off the flow, whether or not we are aware that we are doing so. We can align ourselves with any situation by surrendering to the flow and allowing our essence – love – to be expressed in the world. Not our ego desires, but our true essence. When love comes through, miracles happen.
And yet, there are times when it seems love seeks new expression. There may be another way in which our essence can manifest more fully through our work and actions in the world. Too much thinking can get in the way of allowing this to happen. Imprisoned by fear, our minds generate countless reasons to stay where we are and not risk change. I think of the great blue herons I observe on the riverbank. They know when to move on to a new spot – when conditions are no longer favorable and other spots offer greater possibilities.
Imagine a heron too afraid to move to a new spot along the river when the food supply at its current location is insufficient, or a predator or other threat encroaches its space, or it is time to migrate to a warmer climate. How absurd! The heron knows instinctively what it needs to survive and takes swift action. Not bogged down by the human mind’s compulsion to process the situation in detail, it moves with the flow of life, lifting into the air and following its instincts to a new spot.
“When we try to move with this flow rather than adhere dogmatically to the doctrines of others or the beliefs we once had that no longer serve us, we more accurately reflect who and what we truly are.” -Anita Moorjani (Dying to Be Me, p. 154)
I think of my true essence (or “infinite self” as Moorjani sometimes calls it) as a heron that discerns when conditions have shifted enough to inhibit its fullest expression. I have spent a lot of time observing herons and can tell when they begin to feel uneasy and are about to rise into the air and squawk en route to a new spot. I recognize that unease and restlessness in me and realize that what is different between the heron and me is a mind fettered by fear.
“The mind is more about doing, and the soul is more about being… The intellect is just a tool for navigating through this life…while the soul only wants to express itself.” (Dying to Be Me, p. 146)
“I have discovered that to determine whether my actions stem from ‘doing’ or ‘being,’ I only need to look at the emotion behind my everyday decisions. Is it fear, or is it passion? If everything I do each day is driven by passion and a zest for living, then I’m ‘being,’ but if my actions are a result of fear, then I’m in ‘doing’ mode.” (Dying to Be Me, p. 147)
I have spent countless hours on the river searching for definitive answers about what to do in matters large and small. Once, the river told me to write, so I did. The little voice within tells me to keep writing, so I am. I think the path of the infinite self unfolds when we find our center and do what we feel drawn to do from that centered awareness – when we are still enough to hear it speak. I am beginning to recognize the voice of my infinite self that arises when I am not immersed in thought and urges me to take a certain action. It’s like a little nudge. Make this phone call. Read this book. Message this person. Pause for a bit. Plan an exhibit. It has a different quality to it than my thinking mind – like the difference between intuition and thought – and when I follow it, I feel more alive. It feels right. It’s different than checking off items on a to-do list.
It seems to me that the path unfolds when we stop allowing fear to hold us back and do what we feel drawn to do each step of the way because we realize how precious our time is and that we help the world to evolve by allowing our essence to be expressed as magnificently and completely as possible. (A major theme of Moorjani’s message is to remember our “magnificence.”) I truly believe that when we follow and express our true essence – love – the universe responds and supports us. But first, we must stop clinging to the alligator we have mistaken for a safe and stable rock and surrender to the flow of the love that we are.
I just came across an article about the five most common regrets of the dying, written by a former palliative care nurse. The article really puts life into perspective. Click HERE to read it.
Doing hospice work back in my twenties was perhaps the most important educational experience I’ve ever had. Dying persons – even those with whom I only had one visit – have been among my greatest teachers, and the article explains why. The obvious theme of the article is the value of living an authentic life and realizing that, despite circumstances, we can choose either to be true to our authentic self or to do what others pressure us to do. It is our choice.
I think I have learned the most from human beings who recently entered this world and from those who were about to depart – because at the beginning and end of a human lifetime, people tend to be most authentic. Babies are pure, unconditioned energy that reminds us of who we were before the world convinced us to be otherwise. Young children live in the moment with an innocence that is truly inspiring. They imagine, play, sing, dance, and create. Children are pure potentiality. Each one of them can be an artist or engineer, and perhaps the greatest joy I experience as a kindergarten teacher is witnessing when a child seems to be in his or her element and pointing out special skills, talents, and activities that bring the child deep satisfaction and joy. In other words, I love to notice what lights them up. Witnessing that spark is a responsibility we have to one another. (I watched a video in which children’s picture book artist, Eric Carle, spoke of how his kindergarten teacher made a point of telling his parents about his artistic talent and encouraged them to support him in that direction.) Children love stories. And they notice things that older children and adults have learned to look past. Children have helped to awaken me to the wonder and astonishing beauty of the natural world, and I am so grateful for the presence of children in my life. I’ve heard it said that it’s useful to remember what brought us great joy as a child, and to be sure to keep that alive in our life.
Dying persons are “real,” too. They need to make peace with the reality of future being stripped away from them and learn to live in the moment. This requires loosening the noose of ego and moving through predictable stages in order to come to terms with the end of life as we know it. There is a limited amount of time for putting everything in order and for reflecting on and reconciling that which got swept under the rug for whatever reason during their healthier, more active years. At this time, people see The Big Picture.
In between childhood and preparing to die, we identify more with the world and often get caught up in various pursuits and activities that consume a great deal of our time, our days, our lives. So it’s beneficial to retreat regularly from the hustle and bustle and spend some quiet, solitary moments listening to ourselves and noticing what arises in stillness. Spending time with children and old people is also good medicine, for they can reawaken us to what is ultimately most important.
We owe it to ourselves and to everyone around us to “keep it real.” What better gift can we give the world than our authentic selves? Earlier in life, I had trouble determining who or what my “authentic self” was in the first place. I often confused it with worldly pursuits, such as a certain career or goal. No, no, no! Our authentic self goes far beyond any condition or detail we might try to pin on it. It is unconditioned and fluid and goes beyond concepts and words. But you know when you have expressed it because you feel truly alive, energized, and peaceful. At least that has been my experience.
For me, the telltale sign of not living authentically is when I feel disconnected from the people and life energy around me. This happens a lot now in the teaching profession as public school educators across the United States are required to deliver new curricula (tied tightly to third-party student assessments and teacher evaluations) that we often are learning as we go along. Scripted curriculum is not authentic teaching. Even when school districts give teachers permission to “adapt” curriculum, it is very difficult to do that the first time you teach it because you don’t understand it well enough. It often takes a great deal of time and reflection to understand something well enough to adapt it. But I’ve noticed that when I put down the manual and allow my authentic self to drive instruction, magic happens. I feel more connected to my students, and they seem to be more engaged. And when I hear from parents that their children love going to school, I know that authentic instruction is taking place despite it all. Something real within me has connected with something real within them, and that connection is pulling us through. My yearly teacher evaluation score means nothing compared to the wonder and love of learning that I hope to instill in my students – for the connection between teacher, student, and curriculum is what ultimately matters most to me.
My “daily reflection” following my parent-teacher conferences last week is that, despite my concerns about the developmental appropriateness of the Common Core curriculum, to a large degree…
I don’t mean only teachers and students in a classroom. This is true of any mentor relationship, apprenticeship, or adult-child relationship. I think we often learn the most from who our teachers are. How they hold their instrument often speaks louder than the notes they play.
Earlier in life, playing piano was my whole world. I didn’t pursue it professionally, though, because of stage fright and not being able to handle competition. I gave it up because it ended up being about how others would perceive me rather than the music I could offer to the world. But sometimes I’ll sit down and play, and it’s the best feeling. I recently had a dream in which I was sitting at the piano with my eyes closed playing what was in my heart, and it was the most natural thing in the world. The music was so beautiful. I loved that dream and woke up wanting to play more. In the dream, I was not playing to impress others but to express the authentic music springing from within. That is what I am talking about. Teaching, musical performance – it’s all the same when it comes to authenticity. We must do our work in this world for the right reasons and be really honest with ourselves about whether the sacrifices we make in pursuit of our goals are worthwhile in the long run – or whether we are pursuing an illusory ideal. Are we overlooking what is ultimately most important? For when we are on our deathbeds letting go of worldly concerns and reconciling bigger questions and fears, we will realize how ultimately small and self-sabotaging our little fears and anxieties were – and will regret allowing them to sidetrack us from what was truly important.
For those of us living in the workaday world and feeling overwhelmed, I want to share some advice one of the wise women in my life offered recently. She insisted that no job deserves 100%; perhaps 60% is enough. Save 100% for spirit. Don’t let the demands of the world encroach on your spiritual health and deplete your energy. Know where to put your boundaries, and save yourself by honoring them. We need to remember that we are so much more than any job we do and not allow our lives to be consumed by what we are paid to do – or by whether we will be rated as “effective” or “highly effective.” Perhaps “effective” is good enough, especially when the criteria bypass completely your authentic reasons for being there. Achieving a healthy balance between “work” and “life” is critical if we are to end our lives unburdened by regret. If you have your heart set on a pay raise or promotion, it’s useful to consider whether the sacrifices are ultimately worth the consequences in terms of time and energy available for the people and activities that are most meaningful to you.
I believe there is always a way to express our authentic selves. We might need to reframe the work we do in our daily life or erect boundaries around our life outside of “work” to allow energy to flow from our authentic wellsprings. Or it could be as simple as smiling at someone or following through on an impulse to perform an act of kindness. And, as I wrote above, it is also our duty to help others recognize their own authenticity when we see the telltale light in their eyes.
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