Article

faith

So this is what it’s like to be a woman of faith.

I am prostrate before Her, held along with my broken heart. Though momentary, the grief is complete. For a few seconds, I cry. Contorted tears. Onto an Oriental rug and into the air, I spill the contents of my heart.

“Here it is.” She holds up in her hand this one more thing to give up. One more thread in the tapestry of shedding and growing to pull—and pull—to its logical, loose end. I see it, and for a microsecond I hesitate. She flicks her wrist before I can refuse.

After She’s begun the unraveling, there’s nowhere left to go but down. I submit like I’m free falling, taking in both how swiftly and slowly everything moves. There is nothing left to do but savor and learn. I also submit to the reverberating pain because I have faith—because She has faith—that I will survive and emerge improved. And that this is all part of Her plan.

With Her help, I have given up this thing now, ripped it clean off. The cut was quick. I open my eyes to survey the heart contents spilled in the air and on the floor. In this sacred space, I see a constellation of insights and learnings about myself and about the tricky obfuscation of mind. The way that my Dear One honed right in on the blame, self-directed hostility and assumption of failures I carry. And the way he could say it and it bounced off my suddenly deaf ears.

I’ve seen that mind trickery before. Been on the other side of it and circled, circled—poking, coming back and poking while it seemed like the other person had become selectively hard of hearing. Even though they’re speaking to this glowing nub of pain over and over again. And then finally, they hear me: the kernel, the original wounding, the source fracture wound is acknowledged.

And then, tears.

And then, freedom.

I close with gratitude for my own freedom. And for my good karma to have developed such spiritual skills in this lifetime that at the outset I was not surprised that this, too, was to be taken away. And for my Dear One providing unwavering compassion and care. And for my own radiance reflecting off the silver lining of yet another dashed dream.

All of this freedom originating from faith—from a subjugation of myself to faith. To Her.

Article

i am the white room

I woke up this morning in a white, padded room. Not a room, exactly—it has no walls. The floor seems to blend into walls that are not there. It’s an optical illusion. The light plays a trick on the eyes, so you’d think there was a wall where there’s only more wide open space. I resolve to stay in the seated position I found myself in, rather than stand up and risk falling on my face.

In some moments there is something there other than space. The room takes form in those moments when the silence and the emptiness bring up a desperate rage in me. I scream. I claw at the air—and it’s such a relief to find my fingers met by something rather than nothing.

Each time I go to claw the air, I feel a rip like tissue paper under my fingernails. I am screaming and shredding tissue paper, or perhaps mattress stuffing. It is so satisfying, and endless. And white. Rip, rip, rip. Tear, tear, tear. Everything blinding white.

After the clawing and screaming, I am breathless. The rage is gone—I’m just small and spent now. I want to lie down and cry but no tears come. Can you be too tired and beaten down to even cry?

When I first found myself here, the whiteness of everything felt almost blinding. It piqued anger and rebellion; harsh. Now, it feels like being held in a cloud. I can’t explain the shift. Everything is bright—I can neither sleep nor perk up enough to explore. I can only be right here. Right here, in this place without walls, ceiling, objects, distractions—without even past or future.

In the quiet, I notice: I’m breathing. I’m just breathing now. I also note that my tongue has pressed up against the roof of my mouth again—that thing it does when I’m anxious. Making it relax and feeling some space around my whole heart open up. My eyes are closed, but I can half feel, half see the white light all around me seeping into me. Slowly, the sense of me in a room disappears. But when my body is gone—somehow, I’m still here.

I feel full now. Full and empty at the same time. In my body but without the borders of my skin, bones and muscles. I feel that I glow, and am white. I am the white light now.

Now, I’m that holding the container for whatever is here. I refuse nothing.

I am the white room.


 

Sometimes (i.e., on good days), meditation is like this. 

Article

a fuller and fuller broken heart

Remember the despair of being a teenager? When I felt alone in the world, different and isolated—especially as the fullness of the world around me started to become so present and vivid that it was impossible to ignore?

When I was a senior in high school, I tried to explain the idea of seeing beauty in all things all around to my English class:

“Even in a bird poop, there’s beauty,” I insisted. Mr. Faison said maybe I was going too far. But I knew what I meant. Its brilliant whiteness, how different that excrement is from another species’ and what that means about the movement of nutrients and the building blocks of life we all share. And the beauty in its plainness—how it reflects endless evolution and lifetimes that have come and gone unnoticed. A whole Mary Oliver poem in a bird poop.

Having been air dropped back into myself after nine years in relationship and marriage, so much is resurfacing from my earlier years: A devotion to my deepening Buddhist/spiritual practice, a drive for physical activity and exploration (climbing, cycling, diving), a call to live in spiritual community and renunciation, and a call to the ocean and islands.

Practice, Step 1: Triage the pain and reduce the trauma. Build concentration through awareness of breathing meditation for at least a few years.

I recognize this intense loneliness and openness from my adolescent years, too. I now know it as the combination of isolation and heart openness that Chogyam Trungpa calls the spiritual warrior’s heart of sadness. In my teens and early 20s, it was so raw that it could only sting. It seeped into my eyes and burned so badly and I couldn’t wipe it away, no matter how frantically I tried. It colored all that I saw and made me desperate.

When I began the relationship that would lead to my marriage, I was just emerging from this time of jumping in front of moving crises. I had begun to meditate seriously and was dropping in, deep and fast. I was even becoming enamored with my skills on the cushion. And then, whoosh! I ran head first into Sweetheart and was off on a different path than the one I had formulated of being a monastic, teaching the Dharma and living close to the land.

A month ago, when I received two invitations to Hawaii within five minutes—one to scuba dive and one to visit a Zen temple—I realized that I’m right back where I was nine years ago. History, as it has a habit of doing, was rhyming if not repeating. And I asked, why?

In that moment, I picked up where I’d left off in “The Power of Myth”, a dialog between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. I walked right into this line about how mystical experiences and psychotic breaks are both similar and different: “The mystic swims in the water the crack-up is drowning in.”

I remember how out of control I felt in the face of my emotions a decade or two ago. If I had continued on that path at that time, maybe I’d have ended up a crack-up. I have seen my share of psychotic breaks and dark nights on the meditator’s path.

I often bring my attention to the feeling of the wind on my skin these days. As if I were swimming and feeling the movement of the water around me, moving my arms gently and feeling my body sway. Closing my eyes and floating. Moving the intense emotions and energy of these times through me and remembering that, as Katherine Woodward says, life is happening through me, not to me.

I raised my arms like this as I came down a hill in the headlands north of San Francisco today, cycling fast and free on the flat stretches and the downhill. Touching the yellow, blooming tips of the wild anise on the roadside with my fingers. And my heart broke open a little wider still, bringing tears to my eyes. The intensity of loneliness, being accompanied by the whole universe, beauty and plainness flowed through me all at once. I listened close and heard a full throated cry—no, a wail—in my heart.

Practice, Step 2: Give the child within what it cries out for through self-directed loving kindness. Nurture that inner child’s resilience and feel the power and love of being the caretaker for another few years.

But instead of being frightened by it, made desperate to do something about it or needing to extend to it nurturing and consolation, I found I could rest there and hold space for it. I hear it echoing and feel it stretching my sternum still.

I‘ve still been turning over and around the concept of courage. When I brought up my ambivalence about being called brave or having courage to a dear and wise friend, she suggested the alternative: I could be checking out. She saw me rising to face what confronted and offered itself to me, instead. Courage, we suggested, could be a way to describe choosing to be awake.

And, indeed, I have a vivid memory of sitting on the edge of the bed as I spoke my desire for separation. I felt the pull to lie down, put my head on my husband’s chest and fall back asleep; to stop facing with eyes wide open what was holding us both back in our marriage. I was startled by how strong the pull was—so overpowering that I could only imagine it being similar to the pull of addiction and thought immediately of the Lotus-eaters.

Practice, Step 3 of ?: Let go and surrender.

The ache is no more intense than it was in my teenaged years. Only now, I have the strength and the context in which to hold it. I have the physical energy and the fatigue of life experience to face it like a mother patiently waiting, arms crossed, for her child to end her tantrum. To face it with a love that is persistent, yet plain.

This is how I bear witness these days to my heart breaking open, to a fearless warrior spirit emerging. This is how I discover a greater universe and a fuller and fuller broken heart.

Article

training for life

Two and a half years ago, I wrote a blogpost entitled “Training for Death”. I started it with this quote:

Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations – we fall to the level of our training.

– Bruce Lee

I thought of this quote again last week, at a women’s circle I go to in Oakland full of extraordinary, tough and jolly women. It came to me after I had disintegrated into tears during a round of check-ins. The topic of the night was “Carry Your Death With You”—a mis-paraphrasing, it turned out, of an interview one of the circle members did with Marina Abramovic.

For me, carrying my death with me wasn’t something I had to think hard about. As I detailed recently, I’ve been carrying around with me the death of a dream of a life I thought I was meant to live. In fact, I haven’t needed to carry it at all—it just keeps showing up in the billboard of a pregnant woman, in my pregnant coworker, in my coupled friends, in the engagement announcements I see daily on social media and in the innumerable small tasks I have to move through to legally dissolve my marriage.

On top of all this, it had been a particularly rough week at work that also held within it a little ego death. So that’s what my check-in in the go-around was about and what led to the tears.

I laid this all out, wrapping within it an update on my divorce, etc. Then I finished. Just as the woman to my left was about to speak, someone interrupted.

“Can I just say thank you? That took a lot of courage to be vulnerable and honest with us, including strangers you’ve never met before. So thank you.”

Many people have commended my courage in being open about what I’m going through right now, and even called me brave to step away from my marriage. And bravery and courage feel like the wrong ways to understand the energy behind my choices—until I think of this teaching from Sifu Bruce Lee.

Under duress, under the stress of major life change and loss, I am falling to the level of my training.

That training has involved more than a decade of seated meditation in which I dig into my heart, opening my flesh with my bare fingers to know what’s inside. To face what scares—what existentially terrifies—me. And to speak authentically and with coherence between what my face, words and body are communicating. This is how I have trained, and therefore now, this is how I live.

To be entirely honest, I feel like I speak these days and hardly know what I am saying. I’m exhausted. Being awake to my pain and processing—and fighting all the myriad ways I try to turn towards distraction or dissociation instead—has plain worn me out.

At this point, I am living in large part out of habit and muscle memory. So thank goodness for my training.

 

Article

how I remember shoken michael stone

Shoken means “sees clearly”.

Shoken Michael Stone had a way of looking at me with his clear seeing hawk eyes that made me squirm. For me, being his student meant being forced to face discomfort and my own unending awkwardness as a young meditator and yogi.

In interview on the meditation retreat I sat with him in Canada, I pulled the zafu cushion a few inches away so we wouldn’t be knee to knee. He moved closer, face expressionless and eyes illuminating all of my bullshit and hindrances. Or so it felt.

This was after I had gotten my room assignment wrong and stole a bed from another retreatant. Later, I spent the whole second half of the retreat sick with a fever and endlessly runny nose.

On yoga retreat with him in Wisconsin, I was the only person who didn’t know anyone else there. So I wandered around the town looking for a place to eat dinner, only to walk into the same restaurant Shoken was at with his closest students—except I was getting take-out, and standing around awkwardly while they waited for the check. And then I got sick, again.

I started to wonder if my getting sick was Canadian super bugs (Shoken and his crew were from Toronto), or if Shoken was spooking me into runny noses and fevers.

Last week, Shoken died. When the official statement came out from his family, it detailed his battle with increasing mania tied to bipolar disorder. And that he wanted relief, even in the form of an opiate. And so he finally went and found some, and died of an overdose.

I hadn’t spoken to Shoken in years and I was never a core student of his. But in the wake of his death, I find myself deeply saddened, asking why he left us—this love army out here working to grow consciousness and wake the goddamn world up. I hurt for how weary he must have felt, how much he must have been suffering and how conflicted he must have felt as a father of much life on this planet, including four young children, who just wanted to slip into a non-manic sleep for maybe just a little bit.

As the object of my metta and karuna meditation, he feels vividly close by. I can see my hand beyond my closed eyes in meditation, stretching toward him and resting on his chest. Though I can see the color and feel the fabric of his tee shirt, the rise and fall of his breath, I don’t see his face. Over and over, I wish for him to be free.

Shoken’s closeness to the edge—of mania, of risk, of the dharma—also feels close by and real. I reflect on his early days driving race cars, learning to meditate from his uncle in a mental institution, leaving home as a kid in a van and how he recently wrote about picking up skateboarding at the skate park again as a practice of “dropping in”. It fuels a growing closeness to my own edge—whether it’s a growing edge or a precipitous edge, sometimes I can’t tell.

I feel into the desolation, void and sadness that accompany Shoken’s death and walk myself into the night. Feeling the wind on me, doing Mu-I to push the energy and pooling emotions up and through me.

I feel a fear and foreboding that I am on the brink of getting to know the void, mystery and death even better soon. Like it’s around the corner about to pull someone else away and down into that poppy sleep. And like I’m being pushed closer to an edge—again, what kind of edge, I don’t know.

I practice yoga like Shoken taught me. I recall my more youthful awkwardness, shame and longing for connection around him and his sangha without regrets. I sharpen my own clear-seeing eyes and cultivate this edge like my tongue is feeling around in the dark for a piece of glass.

I choose not to fall asleep, to dream. I choose to wake the fuck up. This is how I remember Shoken Michael Stone.

Article

my loving kindness practice on the siyli blog

Screenshot of blogpost "Loving Kindness: Two years and going strong"

Last week, we tried something new on the blog at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI), where I work. So, of course, I was the guinea pig. h/t to the amazing Lise Waring, who manages content for SIYLI and came up with the idea to blog about staff mindfulness practices as a way to build up evergreen content for the blog!

It was a joy to write about my metta loving kindness practice, though I had to work hard not to write too much! This is what I nerd out about, y’all, if you can believe it.

I’d love to hear what you think!

Article

how to practice in difficult times

I let my domain hosting expire. Again.

And, again, I let it lapse for so long that the database backups for my site expired. So after a few months of seeing a “no website database connection” error and scratching my head as to how to restore my website to its former mediocrity, I decided to clear the slate and just start anew. So here’s a new theme, and a blank website (or it was until I imported all my old blogposts).

After all, it’s a new year. No, not a new calendar year. According to numerology, a new personal year (which starts on your birthday).

I just turned 35 and I tell you, it’s glorious. (Aside from the crepey skin, which I wish I could figure out.) It is such a relief after living through my teens and twenties to finally feel grounded on this earth, able to stand on my own two feet. I have a knowledge of self and a self-confidence—and perhaps most importantly, a self-love—that have been welcome discoveries in my 30s.

The emotional rollercoasters are old hat. I have many, many tools to let the vicissitudes of life come and go, ebb and flow. I’ve come to embrace that my job—kind of my only job on this planet—is to allow things to not happen to me, but happen through me.

Speaking of emotional rollercoasters, have I mentioned I’m getting divorced?

Practice Tips: Meditation & other practices for the apocalypse

Here are some of the practices I have been using to get energy to flow, to process large amounts of emotional information and changes—and to make swift, assertive (and yes, counter-intuitive and to some, shocking) decisions when it feels like the world is crumbling around me:

  • Seated meditation, obviously.
  • Letting the wind take what’s not needed. It has been important to cut through the emotional noise and the clutter that is useless fear. So whether it’s being by the ocean or standing on a mountain in the desert or sitting on a bench outside work, I have brought my awareness to the wind on my skin and asked it to take whatever is not useful to me. I imagine the wind even flowing through me, sweeping away the bits that get in the way of seeing with clarity. I raise my arms away from my body and ask the wind to take what’s not useful anymore. I sometimes also knead and massage myself, exhaling deeply with the same intention of letting go. I start at the top of the head, then go down one arm at a time, then the front of the torso, then the back, then one leg at a time. At the ends of my arms and legs, I pull at the toes like I’m yanking out and flicking off something. I learned this from Roshi Norma Wong, who along with Zochi also taught me:
  • Mu-I Tai Ji, a 10-step practice that very effectively boils stagnant qi and moves it through the body.
  • Journaling. This is new for me and has turned out to be extremely important. I sit down and write freeform until I feel like I’m done. Whatever comes up goes down on the paper. I’ve realized that, unless I do this, I carry around the same thoughts in my head and in my body (in the form of muscle tension in my shoulders, neck and back).
  • Exercise. A sense of bodily strength has been important to give me the confidence that I can make it through difficult, challenging times. I’ve been spending a lot more time in the gym working with small freeweights and bicycling. In fact, today was the first time I made it through the Ashtanga primary yoga sequence in maybe a year. Even though I was certified to teach yoga in 2012 and used to have a daily practice, it has not been calling to me—perhaps because it is too yin. My meditation practice and the resulting self-awareness have been useful in holding any aggression that naturally comes up with this sort of exercise, but the increasing yang has been important.

Some things I have found unhelpful:

  • Listening to music compulsively, even if it’s damn good. Gotta keep that Spotify shit in check.
  • Television and movies. I am currently watching one TV show episode per week, and only occasional videos on Facebook.
  • Being too busy. I make sure to have time alone, doing one of the above useful practices every day.
  • Eating a lot of meat. I’ve felt a lot better equipped by eating mostly vegetarian, with max one meal with meat per day.

What practices or habits help you in times of transition or stress? What do you do to get clear when a BFD decision needs to be made?

 

**metta**

Article

Resources for new meditators

I meet a lot of people at Stanford (and beyond) these days who want to learn how to meditate or who are new to meditation and want to deepen their practices. I’ve put together a list of resources and tips, mostly focusing on recommendations for stuff in the Stanford/Silicon Valley areas that I hope are helpful!

(Please note that I’m most familiar with the Insight/Vipassana traditions in the US, so this resource is far from exhaustive, and does not include yogic, Zen, Tibetan, Asian Buddhist communities or many sub-lineages that exist in the US.)

I want to learn how to meditate. How do I start?
Great! You have a few options:

  1. Download an app with guided meditations and training curriculum, like Headspace.
  2. Get a book from a well known meditation teacher, like “Meditation for Beginners” by Jack Kornfield.
  3. Go to a beginner’s class at a meditation center like the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. There are organizations with meditation classes in other religions, lineages and traditions (TM, Yogic/Hindu Vedantic) that I’m less familiar with in the area, too.
  4. Stanford also offers beginning classes through @BeWell and the School of Medicine. (Know that these tend to be less holistic and focused on an adaptation of Buddhist meditation called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction/MBSR.)
  5. Meditate with a sitting group at Stanford! Email me about guided meditation at the GSB, MemChu or with the Zen group on campus. I’ll hook you up.

– – – – – – – – – –

I started meditating with a book/app and I want to learn more. What’s available?
You can  set a goal for yourself of sitting more regularly and for longer periods of time, but if you’re asking this question, you might be feeling like this isn’t something you can just do by yourself. So, here are my thoughts:

  1. Find a sangha, or community. Having people who understand the value you’re finding in meditation and who can share their own experiences with you is invaluable. A sitting group at Stanford or elsewhere is a great place to practice, make new friends and learn a lot of cool new things. See 2 and 4 above.
  2. Sit a meditation retreat. These can range in length from 1 day to several months. If you’ve started sitting with a sangha, you can ask the teacher about retreats coming up in the area and with teachers they recommend. You can also look online at various meditation retreat centers like Spirit Rock in Marin, Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz and Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Washington. Each center has information about how they run retreats and what the schedules and norms are.

Note that the Insight Retreat Center offers retreats for free and by lottery because they get so much interest. Other retreat centers generally charge for retreats on a sliding scale or offer scholarships for individuals on fixed incomes, People of Color, GLBTQ meditators and people under 30.

The retreat costs do not cover honoraria for the teachers, so that’s something else to budget for. Retreats are becoming more and more popular, so it’s wise to try to plan for and register for a retreat at least 3 months ahead or they’ll be full.

A lot of folks hear about Vipassana retreats in the S. N. Goenka tradition. These are the ones that are 10 days long, you have to do a 10-day before they’ll let you do a shorter one and they’re free of cost. My first few retreats were Goenka retreats, and they served me incredibly well. However, it’s important to know that their approach is very intense and rigid — I call it “Buddhist Bootcamp”. Although I am incredibly grateful for having gotten started in this lineage, I have three complaints/warnings about it:

1) They misrepresent that their way of teaching Vipassana is the “only” way. In short, it’s not.

2) They discourage you from exploring other lineages or practices, including walking meditation. You’ll be best served if you dedicate at least 1-3 months honestly exploring a lineage and a specific meditation practice you like, rather than floating around without ever investing yourself. But it’s BS to think your practice will be damaged by being open to other approaches.

3) It’s not necessarily right for Americans, especially us ambitious, Type A personalities. The Goenka approach can make Americans too rigid, too ideological and amplify how hard we are on ourselves already.

– – – – – – – – –

I’m bad at meditating…
Nope. I’m gonna cut you off right there. There’s no such thing as being bad at meditation.

If you’re encountering a lot of resistance to efforts to concentrate and quiet your mind (restlessness, tiredness, boredom, a busy mind (aka “Monkey Mind”)), then you’re doing great. Keep up the good work ’cause the practice is doing what it needs to do. Your job is to just stay curious, see what’s coming up and follow whatever instructions you’ve chosen to follow.

Article

Training for death

Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations – we fall to the level of our training.

– Bruce Lee

I heard this quote from Sifu Bruce Lee last night at a meditation sit in San Francisco with Anushka Fernandopulle. Anushka shared it in the context of cultivating one of the 7 qualities of Awakening enumerated in Buddhism (Buddhists love numbered lists): upekkha, or equanimity.

We were talking about the relationship between equanimity and death,  a two way street. On the one hand, reminding oneself of your own death can spark the recognition of the impermanence of all things and the reality of all things being interconnected (so there’s not stand alone, individualized self). That creates a chain reaction that can result in knowing equanimity, which I think of as the willingness to be equally near to all things and phenomena (h/t Christina Feldman).

On the other hand, someone in the group was asking for guidance on cultivating equanimity towards death — the very thought of it fills him with fear and dread. He found the reminder that, because our cells turn over and are replicated constantly, we are constantly dying and being born to be helpful. In the course of 7 years, in fact, every cell in your body has been replaced. The person you were 7 years ago no longer exists. The person you were when you started reading this post is gone. The day to dayness of this idea does seem to help one build up a willingness to even be near to death.

I’ve seen dead people and animals, but I’ve never watched anyone die. I’ve read and heard that people can die in so many ways — full of fear and venom, or peacefully ready to let go. This Bruce Lee quote suggests that how you die is informed by what you’ve practiced most in your life.

This is a good reason to meditate. I meditate for a few reasons, but now one is because I want to die well. Meditation is my training for the many moments of duress I encounter, the biggest ones to anticipate being related to death.

May the training of mind help raise me to my expectations in those many future moments of struggle, panic, fear and loss. And may my expectations reflect the truths I’ve come to know through my training.