How To Save the World All By Yourself

 

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Photo credit: _Teb holes

Yesterday, at church, I sat next to a dear friend whom I haven’t seen much lately because we both live crazy lives. As we hugged and she asked how I was doing, I gave the obligatory “Oh, I”m fine!”  I was raised in the South, this is what you’re supposed to say no matter what is really going on in life. My friend, on the other hand, was more honest and admitted life was really hard for her at the moment.

 

“You’re right, I’m not really fine, either,” I confessed.

“You do know what FINE stands for, right?” my friend asked me.  I shook my head.

“Fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.”

I laughed, because this is very true. We offer our “fines” when it doesn’t feel appropriate or sacred enough to drop f-bombs on Sunday morning, or when we’re trying to keep up the facade of “I’m rocking it at life right now, thank you very much” when the opposite really feels more authentic.

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Do you ever feel like you have to save the world by yourself, or at least die trying, in order to be accepted by God or to win at life or whatever?  I know with my higher level brain that this is not the case, but I swear I live my life every day like it’s all up to me.  I’m not really sure where I got this tendency; it might have had something to do with all the pressure I felt as a kid and young adult to get as many people to Jesus and heaven as possible.  Some preachers can really make it feel like the success of God’s whole agenda is in your court and you’d better not drop the ball because hell is on the line.

I’ve been watching myself very closely over the last few months, and specifically the mad driven-ness I have in certain areas of my life. Here is my list of craziness, things that plague me on a daily basis.  When you see me sitting around doing nothing, or at work taking care of people, or driving my kids somewhere, all of these things are simultaneously churning through my mind: [Note to self – maybe these are why I always have resting bitch face….I can never just relax and chill out]

  1. I have to eat plant-based perfectly because doing so is the best for the environment and our resources.  If I don’t eat vegan perfectly every day I will single-handedly be the tipping point that pushes our climate beyond redemption.
  2. I have to keep my home energy use significantly less than all of those around me because I don’t want to be the one who caused an electricity grid blackout or used the last remaining stores of propane on the Earth.
  3. If I don’t figure out how to parent perfectly then my kids will automatically become addicts, slobs, purposeless vagrants, or writhing heaps of fetal-positioned therapy clients who hate me because I couldn’t get it together as a mom.
  4. I must listen to NPR and all other credible news sources daily so I know what is going on at all moments in Zimbabwe, and Peru, and Liechtenstein, as well as the big news making countries that are constantly in the headlines. If I’m not aware of EVERYONE’s suffering, then I must not care for ANYONE’s suffering.
  5.  I must read every book ever written because I have to be cultured and be able to reference all of the experts so that I have something worthwhile to say.
  6. I have to be an activist – for EVERY worthy cause.  Civil rights, women’s rights, child slaves on chocolate plantations in West Africa, clothing makers in Bangladesh, migrant food workers in the Pacific Northwest, etc ad nauseum.
  7. I’m aware of my ego, and aware of the real “me” that lies behind that ego.  As such, I have to constantly be aware of all of my motivations and work as hard as possible to keep waking up.
  8.  And finally, for now at least, I have to be a super well-rounded person all of the time – working full-time, while freelance writing, while doing graduate school, while parenting three kids [one of whom is special needs], while trying to do all of the above list perfectly.

When I write all this down, it really seems ludicrous. No wonder I’m exhausted all the time.  But honestly, I don’t think I”m the only person in the world who is like this.  Yeah, I have my own special kind of crazy and ADHD and core wounds, but I know plenty of people who are out there thinking they have to save the world, too.

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The fact is, I can’t save the world by myself.  Whether or not I live perfectly vegan and plastic free, or have the tiniest carbon footprint ever, or be the most amazing mom that ever lived, life is really out of my control. When I have my wits about me, I recognize that I really only have the tiniest bit of control over the most trivial things. The big stuff is ultimately out of my hands.  I might be able to offer influence, but that’s about it.

It is very unlikely that little old me, or little old you for that matter, will ever be the tipping point for the climate, or political systems, or global food production.

And the fact that I obsess about this huge list of really big things on a daily basis begs the question: am I really trying to save the WORLD, or am I just frantically trying to save MYSELF?

Furthermore, what am I trying to save myself FROM? Am I really putting all my cash into this one pot of Earth, or do I think that life and meaning will extend well past whatever ultimately happens to this planet?

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I”m in another Eckhart Tolle phase.  I usually cycle back to him at least two to three times a year, and each cycle feels like a spiral.  I pick up something new from him that I wasn’t previously able to understand or grasp.

Right now I’m thinking about the spaciousness that he teaches on – how we need to accept what life gives and let there be space around those things. Because, it is this space from which new things can spontaneously manifest.

Another point of Tolle’s that I”m mulling over is how we don’t really do LIFE, LIFE does us.  Life is dancing US, Life is playing through US, not the other way around. Life is expressing itself through a variety of different forms, and we can see that through all that is created.

I don’t tend to leave much space in my life, mainly because I’m frantically trying to save the world. I’m going to run out of time, I tell myself. I get too caught up in forms (including the form of time), trying to make them perfect and thinking that we will be saved through the saving of form.

What would it be like I wonder, if my hero journey in life is not to set out and find the things I need to save, but let life bring them to me? Do I trust life to bring me what is mine to do, and trust that it will take to others what it has for them to do?

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There is a Jewish concept that I really like called tikkun olam. Now, preface here, I am not a Jewish scholar so don’t tear me apart if I misrepresent this a little. I love how it was once described by Rachel Naomi Remen in an episode of the podcast On Being:

“In the beginning, there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand, thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand, thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world.

And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.”

And then another quote:

“One part of Judaism called tikkum olam. It says that the world has been broken into pieces. All this chaos, all this discord. And our job – everyone’s job – is to try to put the pieces back together. To make things whole again … Maybe we’re the pieces. Maybe what we’re supposed to do is come together. That’s how we stop the breaking.”
― Rachel Cohn, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

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This idea of tikkun olam, as I understand here, changes everything. No longer is it about me trying to find EVERY SINGLE BROKEN piece in the world, sorting through them, and putting them all together.  The pieces are not outside us – I am a piece, you are a piece, and so on. We are looking for the light inside of each other – or, Namaste…the divine in me is recognizing the divine in you.

We as the broken pieces in humans and the broken pieces of creation are to come together and unite once again. But this can’t be done by us frantically running around smashing into each other and saying “By God, we will make this fit. This puzzle will come together right now in this way. This is what the one Light is supposed to look like!”

No, this is where Tolle’s space comes in. We must sit, be still, and allow the space, allow the brokenness that exists without fighting it. Then, perhaps Life will break through in the space and bring the right pieces to us, bring us to the other pieces that are right for us, and the Light will begin to concentrate.

I am one corner of the puzzle.  I can’t fit together all the pieces on the other side of the puzzle.  But I can be part of the healing in my little place; I can join with the pieces that the God/life brings to me.  And if I miss a corresponding piece the first time around, that same God/Life is trustworthy to bring it back again. [I’ve got more than enough evidence of this regarding tough life lessons.  :)]

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As one final thought, largely to myself. The greats in history, the ones I look up to and sit [figuratively] at the feet of, didn’t try to save the whole world.  Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, and countless others…..they only did the work that was in front of them. They didn’t take on work that was not for them to do.  Yet, the willingness to piece together their little parts of the world enabled that piecing to spread outward.

So, how can you save the world by yourself?  How can I?  We can’t save the world. All that we can do is say yes to the Life that is dancing us, welcome it, let it lead.  That is the very most, and best, that we can do. And this joining with Life, and God, and Light…this is how we are saved.

 

 

 

Don’t Strive to Be Liked; Strive to Be Authentic

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Photo credit: Col·legi Oficial Infermeres 

Here’s a little secret about me. I still struggle with some big insecurities.

All of you who know me well are laughing right now because this is no secret to you. They come out the most strongly when I’m under alot of stress, or am facing something new or challenging. Almost all of my insecurities are rooted in my childhood fears:  am I enough?  Is there a place for me in this world where I truly belong?  Am I seen?  Am I loved?  And at my core:  am I likeable?

Thanks to alot of shadow work, therapy, and battling my demons, these insecurities have subsided to a level where I can function quite well in my daily life. The majority of the time I don’t pay as much attention when thoughts flood my head from these reservoirs of lack and “not enoughness” hidden away in my ego.

However, as I have grown into a skilled watcher of myself and the way my mind works, I have noticed a phenomenon about me.  When I am in brand new situations where I’m not completely confident in my skills or abilities, it is very easy for those insecurities to rise up and take over, and suddenly I am interacting with the world around me through my child-self once again.

Have any of you ever experienced the following:  you leave home as an adult, live life on you own as a competent, secure, confident person who stands up for what is important to you, and then……you go home to the people and places you grew up with and suddenly you regress to who you were back then?  It’s like a switch is flipped and this other personality, the one that you tried to rid yourself of for so long, comes right back out?  It’s like your family and people from your past still see you as that young, immature person you once were, and somehow them still perceiving you that way causes you to transform instantly back into that person?

I think this is a version of the Pygmalion or Golem effects in a way; it’s like how people perceive you in some circumstances literally controls how you view your own self and how you act in those situations.  And it’s maddening, frankly.

I’ve always wondered why this happens to me – why am I triggered by my family, childhood home, and new situations to revert back to someone that is no longer representative of who I am now, the real me at my core?  And am I getting some kind of subconscious pay-off by continuing to allow this to happen?

A couple of months ago I started working at a local hospital as a brand new nurse. Stressful, unfamiliar new situation for sure. And sure enough, some of these old insecurities rose up again and my timid, low confidence, defer-to-everyone else self took over. It was pretty frustrating because I would no longer typically describe myself to be the cautious, introverted person I used to be so much of the time.

I love this new job, but it has been alot to take in with so much to learn in a fast paced environment.  As the first several weeks passed and I was on the floor learning the ropes and taking care of patients, I could feel the strong pull within myself to shrink back, to be super nice to everyone ALL the time, to make sure everyone’s needs were put before my own (not talking about patients here, but fellow colleagues), treating myself as though I was a wet-behind-the-ears newbie with no significant life experience.  Which, of course, is absolutely not true.  I may be new to nursing, but I am not new to life.

On one particular day, I had one of those periods of “If someone even looks at me I”m going to burst into tears.”  I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and my ADD was seriously in overdrive. My preceptor would give me instructions and I swear my brain would literally stop – I would retain nothing and would have to retreat to quiet corners of the unit to help my synapses start firing again.

I listen to audiobooks everyday as I drive to work, and as I so often do, I turned to Brené Brown to get some insight into this spazzy little mouse I was regressing into. I’ve done some wicked hard things over the last few years, I thought. I am way stronger and more confident than I ever used to be – why is the job making me such a pansy that feels like I have to please EVERY SINGLE PERSON I walk by every moment of the day?

Brené didn’t really give me the cause of my deep insecurities, but listening to her book The Gifts of Imperfection made me realize that I was working way too hard at ensuring that I was well-liked by everyone instead of striving to live out my authentic self.

This is exactly what I did as a child and young adult. I wanted to be accepted, included, liked…and so I did what I thought I needed to to have that happen.  Which usually involved me trying to tame my quirky personality, be super Christian girl who never did any wrong, and be uber polite and gracious to EVERYONE.  Two things I have learned from this:  it is exhausting, and trying to be who everyone wants while trying to squelch who you really are inside usually ends up in disaster.  Either you die a little more on the inside, or you find that those people you were trying to make like you aren’t going to like you anyway.

So, to my point:  I realized [thanks Brené!] that this was exactly what I’ve been doing in my new career. Something, maybe the stress or exhaustion or my lingering fear of failing, had triggered me into reverting into my old ways of viewing the world and behaving. I had slipped back into that dream-state where I was convinced everyone has to like me and I have to be perfect in all of my interactions with other people. But all of this was at the expense of me, myself, and I.

After I had this audiobook epiphany, I went to work with the resolve that I would choose being my authentic self over my need to be liked.  And can I just say, that in the last couple of weeks, it has made all the difference,  Suddenly my ability to learn and retain information has improved, I said what I thought more instead of mulling over every little thing to make sure it was received well by everyone. and I refused to engage in conversations that absolutely did not resonate with me just so others in the group would think I was nice and had the same interests they do.

Yesterday I had to call a particular doctor about a patient – he and I had never spoken before, just walked by each other. Later, my preceptor told me that the doctor had asked if I was new, and said that he was going to “test me”.  The “me” from a few weeks ago, in my timid mouse moments, would have been upset and worried – what if I prove my incompetence and he thinks I”m stupid?  But instead, this time I thought – Punk resident! Bring it on! I’m not playing this stupid hospital game where techs, nurses, and doctors test and intimidate the new person. I will continue to do the best that I can and be my authentic self. I will not cower under someone just because they think they are smarter, or more skilled, or are more powerful than me.  That’s no longer who I am.

At the end of the day, it is way more important to me that I go to bed knowing I lived out my true, authentic self. I’ve worked so hard in the past to be liked by everyone, and in the process was taken advantage of, walked over, and demeaned by plenty of people.  I want to be in relationship with people who appreciate who I am because it is who I am, not because they find copies of themselves when they look at me.

Finally, I don’t want others to feel like they have to change themselves in order to be in relationship with me. Obviously, in this diverse world we are going to encounter people that we just don’t like and will never get along with. But I think that’s OK – I would much rather people be genuine and true to themselves than feel like they have to live lies and wear facades just so we can all not cause each other any discomfort.

I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am now. It’s taken alot of painful excavating to discover the real me. I’m not prepared to bury that all again just for the sake of someone who has opinions about how things should go but has no history or vested interest in me. I hope all of you will strive for and hold on dearly to your own authenticity, too. Don’t let others be the ultimate judge of your “enough-ness”, value, or place in this world.

 

 

Leaning Into Life’s Sharp Points

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My stress level has been at an all-time high lately. I finished nursing school and passed the NCLEX (thank God), and started a new job as a nurse a few weeks ago. All of these things were stressful enough, but what made me the most anxious were the logistics of life as a single parent with young kids.

I have decided that 12-hour nursing shifts were not created for women who have kids but don’t have partners or helpful family that live nearby.  Thank you Jesus for good friends and College Nannies/Sitters who have helped me out and significantly reduced my desperation levels. But even with these, I struggle on a daily basis to breathe and keep panic attacks at bay.

Each morning as I drive to work I have Pema Chodron playing on audiobook. It’s people like her, and Eckhart Tolle, and Byron Katie, and Ram Dass, and others who have pushed me forward these last two years…to be present, to get comfortable with discomfort, to find and embrace my edge.

Pema says in one of her books that her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, told her to learn to lean into the sharp points in life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like sharp things, and I especially don’t like leaning into them. I like smooth, soft, rounded, and safe. But I think I’m finding that when I do lean into the sharp places, and face them head on, I’m discovering that I can handle more than I thought…I’m braver than I used to be….and hard things don’t scare me quite as much anymore.

When I first moved back to Indiana and got divorced, I would flip out at much less than I do now. Two of my dear friends bore the brunt of this flipping out…the phone calls where I would be half crying, half hyperventilating, dropping just about every swear word and proclaiming that I absolutely couldn’t take anymore.  Funny thing is, I took those things I thought I couldn’t, and then I took more. Those two friends have remarked that I don’t flip out nearly as easily as I used to. The things that used to set me off now just make me laugh or shake my head.

The sharp places in life aren’t just the painful things that come for us; there is also a razor-thin edge that must be walked to live truly awake, to wholeheartedly discover the kingdom of heaven, to be here right now. I’ve been thinking alot about Jesus and his remarks on the broad and narrow paths.  I don’t think that Jesus was talking at all about paths to heaven and hell, or paths filled with a few good people versus a whole lot of bad people.

I think Jesus was trying to tell everyone that it is a very hard thing in life to “wake up” and stay awake, but a very easy thing to stay asleep or fall back asleep after you’ve gained some insight or awareness. It takes real effort to “be here now”, to live in the present, fully alive and unwilling to let every distraction overtake you.

In my mind, the narrow path is a tightrope, that must be carefully crossed. Tightrope walkers are fully awake: they aren’t worrying about the future or the past, and they don’t allow the crowds distract them.  They are focused intently on what they are doing at that exact moment.  If they do let themselves become distracted, they risk falling off the rope and missing their destination.

The broad path, on the other hand, is playing life safe…always making sure there is at least one escape route present…a contingency plan for when things go wrong. It is also the path of least resistance – doing what comes easy and not pushing past to one’s edges and limitations. It is about putting safety and security as the highest value in life.

It is my tendency, and I think that of many people, to pull away from the sharp points in life, to not even try to walk that tightrope, to pull back from our edges that look more like cliffs. We draw boxes of right and wrong, identity, and social constructs so we can climb inside and feel safe. We allow ourselves to be distracted by the most meaningless things, and we avoid all that we fear.  As a result, we literally sleep our lives away, living in the dreamland of the past and future, and we fail to journey forward to find out what it really means to be human.

I’m learning that if you face your edge, that sharp place where you will either survive or go plummeting across the side of a cliff and die, somehow you make it and you find that your edge keeps extending outward.  I have also discovered that the more you wrestle with the great possibility that life will indeed fall apart or that you might actually die, you become less and less afraid of it. A very real paradox for sure.

With the help of Pema and others, I am starting to believe that the sharp points in life are my teachers, and so in a sense, they are gifts.  Where I used to bemoan hard things and say “Why is this happening to me?  This isn’t fair!”, I am sometimes able to welcome them as the wisdom of life, bringing me exactly what I need to wake up.

A final note about sharp things: I think most of us tend to believe that once we can get all of our crap together, life should smooth out and get easier, less unpredictable. When things go badly we wonder what we did wrong, or why God isn’t working for us, or if Satan or someone else is targeting us. But the reality of life is, there is no static perfection. Things come together, and things fall apart.  The trick is to ride those waves without attaching so tightly to the outcomes that we identify with them.

Logistics and scheduling in my life right now is a nightmare.  But that doesn’t mean I suck as a mom/adult and did anything wrong. I could get everything figured out perfectly this week and it may all get shot to hell next week. The point then is not to run from the sharp places that are painful and scary, but to accept them, be grateful for them and their ability to open our hearts, and then release them when they go.

Yes, way easier said than done, but I think this is real truth.

“People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.”
“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
― Pema Chodron

 

Bit Rot and the Difficult Task of Curating Your Past

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Credit; Antonio Roberts

I occasionally hear of people who have degrees in library science.  This has always puzzled me – I could see how someone might get a bachelors degree in such a field, but a PhD?  What would the dissertations cover?  Reconfigurations of the Dewey Decimal System? Strategies to improve database search efficiency?

A couple of weeks ago I finally met someone who had degrees in library science, and now I finally GET it.  She explained some of the in’s and out’s of storing data, the process of archiving, and the tough job of knowing what to throw away and what to keep. Library science also seems to require some conflict resolution and negotiation skills to help people let go of items, books, and documents that are no longer relevant.

And where I once thought that library science might possibly be the most boring degree path possible, I now think it shall be a path for me to pursue in a future incarnation.

During my brief lesson on the need for and usefulness of library science, I was introduced to a phenomenon I’d never heard of. Bit rot.  For some reason, it strikes me as really funny, and I laugh every time I say it out loud.  Bit rot is the gradual degradation of data and information in storage media – also known as silent corruption, a phrase that is even funnier to me.

Electronic data in these storage mediums isn’t really decaying the way one would typically imagine when envisioning a rotting material. To put it very simply, storage media contains tiny metallic regions that hold an electrical charge. Sometimes, through various factors that contribute to decay, these regions can change their electrical charge, known as flipping. These charge flips can cause data to be corrupted or lost. Bit rot can cause small issues, such as clicks or pops in audio files, to the extreme of entire files becoming completely unreadable by software.

My amusement by the idea of bit rot got me to thinking more about a topic that is always at the forefront of my mind: knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.  And, if you keep something, how long should you keep it?  How important is what I’m keeping and this will affect the type of storage I use?

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I read a really great little book a couple of years ago called Experience Curating by Joel Zaslofsky. (By the way, it is ridiculously cheap on Amazon right now – this is my own personal endorsement; I am not receiving any kickbacks for posting this.) In his book, Joel makes the point that with all the information we have flying at us every day, we have to come up with a way to sift through it, isolate what is most important to us, and store the information in such a way that we can easily retrieve it. Just how a museum curator might select and display only the best and most relevant pieces to represent certain ideas or historical periods, so we must be ruthless in how we gather and deal with the information in our own lives.

I don’t think most of us are very good at curating our lives. We try to convince ourselves that we really can take in all the information available to the world, we can read all the books, we can listen to all the music, and so on.  But, this is entirely impossible. According to a recent Forbes article, 90% of the data currently existing in the world was only created in the last two years. Mind boggling, much?!

This begs the question, can everything really be meaningful?  Or does everything start to lose its meaning when there is too much of it? And with the wealth of ideas and “stuff” in the world, how do we determine what is most meaningful to each of us personally?

Here’s an example.  With the development of cheap digital cameras and smartphones with good camera capabilities, people take insane amounts of photographs. But really, how many of those photographs are quality work? Also, are the myriad of photographs we are so quick to snap really helping us to remember an event or special moment? There’s something called the photo-taking impairment effect that says our frantic need to photograph everything might actually reduce our ability to fully appreciate and remember the subject of the photograph.

How many of us go through all those photos stored on Facebook and Instagram and actually organize them in any useful way?  And how many of us have SO many photos that the idea of culling our collections seems completely daunting and overwhelming?  I should add here that all of your old photos sitting away in files somewhere are subject to bit rot, too, so you might not want to wait too long before deciding which ones you really want to save long term.

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Besides the ninja-skill requiring job of sorting and sifting information that is shoved at us every day, sometimes curating our past can be equally difficult. I’ve been struggling for a long time to figure out what to do with old photographs and possessions that I no longer want…but they aren’t entirely my possession to make decisions about.

My mother passed five years ago, and so I’ve made alot of difficult choices about what things of hers to keep and what to throw away. Some of her prized possessions hold little meaning for me because I don’t know the stories behind them or the emotions stored within them. However, it still feels rather cavalier on my part to just dismiss the gravity those things carried for my mom by giving them away or throwing them away.

My dad is about to remarry and is also deciding what possessions from his “previous’ life should continue forward and what should be left behind.  And again, I’m asked if I want this or that, and should this be thrown away or kept? I struggle with knowing whether I will one day regret the choices I am now making about those things.  Right now, simplicity and minimalism resonate with me – will I always feel that way?

I wonder too about how my children play into this curation game. I had not thought about it until recently….that what I am throwing away and keeping impacts them, what they know about their heritage, the stories and photos that would have contributed to their shaping.

I have been divorced for almost two years, and I felt a great need to get rid of as many things from my old life as possible.  I no longer wanted the furniture, kitchen items, or house decor that my ex and I had once bought together and shared.  Those things only kept me tied to something I am very happy to be free from.  But I am heartbroken now to realize that I never took my children’s feelings about those things into deep consideration.  I thought of how I desperately wanted to be rid of things, but not that they might desperately need to stay attached to those same things from the years that their father and I were married.

I’m glad I came to this realization before I tossed out all of the old photos I had of our family when I was still married. I’m glad I didn’t delete all of the digital photos I have stored on Facebook that still have their father in them.  I credit this to an article I read a while back.  Those old photographs and even the household “things” I got rid of don’t belong solely to me – they also belong to my children. Tossing old photos is kind of equivalent to erasing their past, and saying that those years didn’t matter.  But they did. And it is not my job to curate my the information and memories that are important to my children and their lives.

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Like most things in life, I think we have to pursue the middle way in deciding what to keep and what to throw away.  Keeping nothing or just very little has the power to rob loved ones in our lives of stories, items, and memories that they are entitled to.  At the same time, keeping everything take away meaning, reducing what is special and unique to the realm of the commonplace.

I think what I’ve learned by chewing on all of these ideas is that, like all things, nothing that I do impacts only me.  My actions, what I consider meaningful, and how I curate my own life ripples out and affects others, most importantly, my children. I’ve been quick to throw away so much because it reduces my stress and makes me feel more comfortable. But that is not necessarily true for them.

Perhaps we should approach our lives a bit more like archivists. The currently trendy idea of minimalism tells us to discard with abandon, while our consumeristic culture is also telling us to buy cheap and buy fast.  Maybe we need to put the brakes on both of these ideas by taking the time to determine what we really find most meaningful in life, and then carefully preserve just those things.

 

There’s No One Better to Take Care of Yourself….Than You

 

I just returned from a week-long vacation to Upstate New York where I used to live. I’m about to jump back in full time to the workforce and really needed a breather after nursing school.

I stayed with one of my best friends the whole time, and it was incredibly relaxing – alot of wine, alot of good coffee, shopping, touring the beautiful Finger Lakes countryside, and most importantly- sleeping in ridiculously late every morning.

One of the many reasons I enjoy being with this friend so much is she literally doesn’t think I can do any wrong. One day she’ll come to her senses and lose the biased filter she’s looking through, but until then I will continue to relish her encouragement and constant cheering on of everything I do.

Almost every time I talk to this friend, she says:  “Julie, I’m so proud of you. You are making such good decisions!”

Every time I hear her say this, my first instinct is to snort with laughter.  Me? Make good decisions?  And all the stupid choices I’ve ever made in my life flash before my eyes. She must have had a little too much Finger Lakes wine, I think to myself.

But then she’ll remind me of specific decisions that I’ve made over the last three years – really hard decisions, decisions that demanded sacrifice on my part, decisions that changed the course of my life forever, decisions where the end outcomes were entirely uncertain.  And yes, she’s right. I have been making good decisions.

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Lately, I’ve been using a neuroscience and mindfulness app to help me eat more mindfully. I’ve always managed to keep my weight within healthy limits, but its been a lifelong struggle. Even as a vegan or vegetarian, keeping the weight down isn’t easy when eating is one of your main coping mechanisms for life ‘stuff’.

As I was listening recently to one of the daily meditations, the app’s designer, a neuroscientist named Judson Brewer, commented that ‘the best person to take care yourself – is you.’ I TOTALLY agree with this statement, but I think it takes some real convincing people to get them to trust in themselves.  Many of us are taught from a very young age not to trust our instincts, to receive external confirmation, and to rely on the experts.  This belief in the inadequacy of ourselves is a real disservice to us – it overlooks the divine within us and the fact that we know ourselves better than anyone else ever could.

It took me a long time to start trusting myself to know what is best for me. To reach this point, I had to get to a fundamental shift in how I viewed myself.

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When I was little, as young as 7 or 8, I remember thinking that I wished I could just push pause on my brain.  If I could just step out of my body and brain for 5 minutes, I would feel so relieved.  How I wish I had known about meditation back then, or even contemplative prayer as taught by Richard Rohr or Thomas Keating.

I thought that I was what I thought. Even as a youngster, I could conjure up thoughts that made me feel like a horrible person. And the constant stream of thoughts coming down my brain pipeline was relentless and overwhelming. Yet, I believed those thoughts and acted on those thoughts because I didn’t know there was an alternative.

Finally, in my 30s, I began to try out meditation, largely thanks to Rohr and Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. (I finally stopped believing that ridiculous notion suggested by a Frank Peretti novel that demons will stir up the soup of our minds when we try to empty them through meditating.)  I was astounded when I discovered through meditation that what I had desperately hoped for in early childhood was true, albeit in a slightly different way.

Inside me, there is the “me” I think I am and identify with, and then there is the “REAL ME.” This realization changed everything for me and started building the foundation on which I could trust myself.

I now know there is the ego, the false me – a ghost that thinks it really exists and will last forever.  It is the me that gets blown around by the circumstances in my life, that gets its feelings hurt, that feels it must have its way all the time.

Then, there is the REAL ME, the deepest part that is connected with the Divine and is eternal. This is the calm, still ME that isn’t afraid, that loves and accepts all, that knows that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

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I really like the passage in the New Testament Gospels about the vine and the branches as told by Jesus (or I would interpret this as the Cosmic Christ, or Christ-consciousness). In the book of John (which I view as a mystical, post-resurrection view of Jesus), Jesus tells the disciples that he is the vine and they are the branches. If they remain in him, they will be fruitful, but if they aren’t plugged into that vine, they will wither away.

This idea makes so much sense to me now that I get the idea of there being two “me’s” – my false self, and my true self.  My true self is the vine – that divine part of me that brings life, and love, and creativity, and joy. It is the part of me allows me to make good decisions, decisions that aren’t rooted in fear and shame. The branches are my false self – the part of me that can look pretty and smart on the outside but doesn’t possess anything longlasting or of substance.

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We are complete and whole as we are.  We just miss this sometimes because we get so caught up in believing our false selves.  Yes, we are influenced and impacted by our environments, genetics, and so many other factors. But way deeper than any of that is who we really are.

Later in the New Testament there is a passage about the “priesthood of all believers.”  This is an area where Protestants grumble at Catholics. Whereas Catholics have priests in place for people to confess their sins, Protestants are adamant that we can serve as our own priests to go before God.  But I still think many Christians cut themselves a bit short in this realm. We believe we can enter the holy of holies, sure….but we usually crawl in on our hands and knees reminding God of how undeserving and wretched we are.   I think this is exactly what we shouldn’t do.  The holy of holies is the very deepest part of ourselves that is connected with all things, all creation, and the Divine. This is the place of original blessing that Matthew Fox speaks about (no, not the Party of Five guy). This is where real prayer and real connection with God happens.

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If the Vine is within us, and Blessing is within us, then it makes no sense to hang our entire lives on what other people think. Of course, there is nothing wrong with mentors and good advisors – they can help point out when we’re being driven by our egos and fear. But I’m convinced the more we start learning to separate the voices of our true and false selves, the more authentic we become and the more we can trust our decisions.

No more frantically running around trying to find the best book to tell us what to do.  No more making decisions after consulting a billion people so that if the decisions turns out to be a bad one, we can blame it on them. No more questioning our value and worth. No more feeling like we have to fit in with society or tow the party line.

The best part of all of this is: being able to hear and thank people for their opinions and advice, and then calmly being able to decide whether or not it resonates with you.  After all – you are connected directly to the Divine. You are connected directly to your eternal self. As such, you know yourself better than anyone, and ultimately, know better than anyone what is best for you.

Walking the Labyrinth

I walk in the circle of destiny

Winding road of twisting uncertainty

I start along this journey

Praying there is something waiting for me

Anxiety fades the lines; unclear beneath my feet

Unpredictable the turns; leaving no easy retreat

The road is one well traveled

Yet so much misunderstood

Why do I walk this lonely path looking for the one and only cure?

The crunch of sand beneath my feet, the deafening echo of progress

The rising moon over the tree breeds the light which lends to focus

Around the twisting turns, where control slips through my hands

I look up to the rising Goddess and continue to walk on the sand

I turn the familiar corner and look to the prize that awaits

Walking forward to the center, the conclusion of my pending fate

The reason I walk in the shadows, the reason I step through fear

In the center of this journey inward, suddenly it becomes so clear

I am the cure,

The answer is within my soul

One foot in front of the other,

The center was always the goal

The light of the moon looms above me and my feet are solid on the ground

For the power I was afraid to find, had already been found

I am the one I seek; I am the one I fear

In mirrors I see myself; in the labyrinth it becomes so clear

— Crystal Blanton

I Won’t Eat Animals But I Still Can’t Let Go of Lab Rats

 

ear mouse

I have some major cognitive dissonance going on in my brain.  It’s been there for quite a while, actually.  As I’ve gotten older and really tried to learn to look at both sides of every story, I’ve realized that there isn’t always a pat solution that will make everyone happy.  There isn’t always a clear path that will ensure justice for each party involved.

This is probably why I like Taoism so much.  Life no longer seems to consist of black and white decisions, or clear right and wrong choices. Taoism, as my Western mind understands it, says there are two sides to every coin and life must exist in a balance. As Alan Watts has written, “Seen as a whole the universe is a harmony or symbiosis of patterns which cannot exist without each other.”

I have two primary struggles with what balance should look like in life right now.  The first is the balancing act of conservation and walking lightly on the earth versus the amazing benefits plastics and single-use medical devices have given us, and the fact that the latter have led to landfills and plastic-filled bellies of fish and birds.  I’ll talk about that one a different day. The one on my mind today is how on one hand I refuse to eat animals anymore, but I value and am so grateful for the tremendous medical advances we’ve seen because of drug and behavioral testing performed on animals.

I feel like quite a hypocrite, but I’m not sure what to do about it. I gave up eating meat about four years ago, and with it I have worked hard to be as non-violent as possible with my life. I instruct my kids not to killbugs just because they can.  I refuse to set out mouse poison or traps anymore.  A couple of days ago I accidentally smear-killed a bug on my computer screen when I simply meant to flick it away….and I felt a twinge of guilt for flippantly ending a life that was only days long to begin with.

 

But on the other hand, I cannot deny that the sacrificial lives of so many mice, rodents, fruit flies, and pigs have led to the most incredible medical breakthroughs. (I should clarify here that I’m NOT talking about cosmetics testing on animals). In the last decade or so, a novel method in genetic engineering called CRISPR has been developed and has gone gangbusters in the biotech world. It is a method for editing harmful pieces of DNA sequence in genes associated with diseases. This technology is offering new hope for devastating diseases like Huntington’s, hemophilia, and malaria, just to name a few. But at the very heart of CRISPR and other gene therapies and almost all newly developed pharmaceuticals, there are countless animals who have suffered and given their lives. Their lives were taken so we could know when something was safe enough to try on a human.

 

You may be thinking I’m nuts.  They’re just mice. Or, they’re just fruit flies, they don’t mean anything. I used to feel this way. But now, when I see that we are all interconnected, that all of us came from the same stardust, I can’t help but wonder what gives us the right to cage and experiment on other beings.

I don’t have a solution to my dilemma, but I’m beginning to feel very strongly that just like indigenous peoples would pay respect to animals that gave up their lives to be food, so we in the medical and science communities should pay serious respect to all of the critters in creation who have suffered that we might not have to.

 

That just like patients are made aware when someone has donated blood or organs to them, they should be made aware of these other sacrifices made for them.

That when we do ridiculous yet groundbreaking feats like growing human ears on the back of mice, we offer thanks in humility.

That when we clone animals without completely understanding how they will live and age and die, that we still call their lives valuable.

That when our lives improve because of medical and drug treatments, we remember to not only be grateful for scientists and health care providers but also the animals those treatments were first tested on.

I don’t know if there is any harmony at all in the way we are striving so hard to stay alive and free of disease at the expense of other sentient beings. Is it possible to find some sort of balance in this?  I don’t really have any answers other than that I don’t believe at all that creation was simply handed to humans to do whatever they want with. And maybe this is all a part of the journey to increased consciousness. Maybe this is a struggle we must go through to reach the next planes.  Or, maybe there is no ultimate solution, no ultimate way to be.  Maybe the whole point is to be grateful, and humble, and to recognize on a daily basis that life is not all about us.

When You White-Knuckle Life…

peace

Have you ever been in one of those spaces in life where you just try to bull your way through?  Some “thing” is happening that you fear will absolutely fly out of your control and explode in your face if you don’t grip it as tightly as possible? If you can just keep a handle on it long enough to find a workable solution everything will be OK?

You tell yourself that you’ll just try harder. You’ll be more diligent. You’ll create a routine. You’ll strategize. You’ll come up with multiple contingency plans.  You’ll keep asking everyone what you should do. You’ll mine all relevant scientific literature. You examine this thing from all different angles; you analyze it until your mind is exhausted.

But sometimes the solutions never come. No one has written a book that actually speaks to the situation that you’re in. There is no TED talk for this exact problem. Your friends and mentors empathize with all that is going on in your life but they have little in the way of wisdom to pass on to you to make it through this one, relentless thing.

And you find, God dammit!, that this thing just won’t go away, refuses to resolve, refuses to give you peace.

I have one big thing that just won’t seem to go away.  It is here just the same as it was last year, and it has brought me to my knees. I’m left with nothing. No ideas, no understanding, no real expectations.

I have gradually been learning that life refuses to be white-knuckled. It will not be dictated to, and it will not allow us to tell it how things should go. It will not let us grip and control our outcomes. We can wrestle with it and insist on our way, but every time, we will be put in our place until we can come to it out of an attitude of receiving.

I’ve been talking with a friend of mine about how real peace comes from within, and we can’t have true, long-lasting external peace until we reach that place of deep quiet within our individual selves. Trying to create peace in external circumstances or life situations will never really work until we can tap into streams of calm inside of us.

This makes me kind of crazy; I want this THING to be FIXED, NOW!  However, I’ve noticed over the last year, that my responses to this never-ending thing in my life are not quite as frantic, not quite as panicky, not quite as fatalistic as they once were. Instead of rushing to conclusions or solutions immediately when something goes wrong, I have much more capacity to sit in my realization that there is nothing I can do in that moment that will change anything.  It just is what it is.

Ghandi said, “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.”  This path of peace begs us to accept each moment as it is, and acceptance requires that we stop white-knuckling for control over everything. We accept this, and now this, and now this.

Byron Katie has taught me that when we believe our thoughts, we suffer.  We suffer when we take the things that life gives us and label them all as this or that, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. Our peace is destroyed because labels require action on our part and the rectification of situations.  But then we concern ourselves with whether or not our actions are the correct actions to take, and we seek only very specific outcomes. When those outcomes aren’t realized, we suffer even more.

As Eckhart Tolle has said, “You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level.” When we grasp at life and cling to what we think we want or change our environments or move to a new house or buy a new car, we are only dealing with details projected out of what we believe.  Nothing is really changing on the outside. Nothing will ever change until we allow ourselves to be changed.

I do not claim to understand how this works, but I am coming to live a knowing that what is within me paints my outside world.  If I am stressed and afraid, I only see a scary world.  When I tap into the peace of the divine within me, then I pass peace on to the world.

I don’t know when my “thing” will go away.  Maybe it will, maybe it will go on indefinitely, maybe it will become more complicated. I can throw all the hissy fits about it that I want and none of them will change anything.

But I’m tired of needless suffering over things I can’t control, and so I’m pretty motivated to stop fighting, stop wrestling, stop demanding what I want out of life. I’ve never done this life thing before, as far as I can remember; who am I to tell it what I need and don’t need. So to end with Longfellow, “For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”

Receive the sunshine, receive the rain, not white-knuckled and grasping, but hands open, welcoming, accepting.

“To love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.”
― Ellen Bass