Death, Taxes and Rebirth

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Is a real life perfect? Is your life perfect? Is your life real?

There is no way to know where you will see the most beauty in your life, or have the most profound experience. Battlefields and graveyards are as full of enlightening and profound, happy and beautiful life experience as the playground or, for those of us who love equines, the paddock.

When we are looking around for a life to live we often look to books. When I was a child I read every biography of every famous person I could find. My school had a series of orange-bound books to inspire young readers. They told the lives of inventors, orators, presidents, nurses and many more. I learned so much and could see myself and feel the passion stirring in myself so clearly. I wanted greatness, I wanted to make a difference. And I wanted to be different. These books helped me choose how to be different and make a difference.

That was in grade school. In high school I learned to swallow my pride, to be ridiculed and sometimes to be seen. Being seen was the thing I most wanted and most feared. I wanted to pick and choose, to have total control over other’s opinions of me. It would take a while for me to see that no one had control over opinions of anyone, even the ones we carried inside. We were all reading a script of what was acceptable and what was not and our comfort in our lives reflected our ability to be ourself and what that meant in our wider world.

It amazes me to think of what I felt in second grade. How I saw my world and choices opening up. I felt there was so much room for me, so much passion and verve and I would be able to be so forceful in my life.

In third grade our teacher started to bring the world in which we lived into the classroom. The newspaper was brought in. We read about current events. We were never asked to think about them much. We were told about choices we might have and we were shown what was going on beyond our familiar walls and walkways.

I felt as if my brain were being recreated from a passionate idealist to a pragmatic realist who would be molding myself to the task at hand, not creating that task. It has been a big slow leap to embrace a life that has much promise and much pragmatism.

When making a change, the change has to fit in where we are. Going from nothing to something or something to nothing happens, but for most of us the path is slow and takes its time. Even when change looks fast, it is often because we haven’t been aware of the steps.

Change is recognized and happens first in one place: our mind. Our mind is the body’s expression of our experience. Habits and personality make up our experience. The story that we tell about ourselves creates our personality and is our main influence in how we live our life.

There is no such thing as “hard-wired” when we speak of the brain. Our brain is 75% water and the consistency, in most of its structures, of a soft-boiled egg. In this blubbery environment there are over 100 billion nerve cells, neurons, wonderfully arranged and suspended and ready to be at our beck and call.

It’s easy to change the brain, it changes all the time. Unless, of course, you do the same things all the time. Tell the same story. Sleep the same way at the same time, function hurriedly through your hour, day, month, year – your life. Without changing anything you will not change – unless the world changes you, which it is prone to do.

Then what do you do? A cry for help is a good start. Back to the books you read in second grade, good too. Get someone to help you stick to what you want to do for yourself or help you find the goals you want and the will to achieve them.

Your brain is capable of processing enormous quantities of data. You have more RAM sitting in your brain waiting for your use that in any computer you couldn’t possibly afford and isn’t made anyway. There is nothing so flexible as your lovely brain, so willing and able to do the work for you.

What does it take to turn it on? What does it take to change your life for the best? Keep the good and pare away the not-so-great parts? A few new habits acted on with the passion of a second grader. Every start is a new beginning, nothing can’t be made better. Every neuron in your brain is ready and waiting for new paths to open up. Give it something to do, start the next moment of your life.

A Word From My Teacher

As I sit in the midst of boxes for moving (not too far – 20 minutes south, to Kent) I receive a newsletter from my teacher Narayan with whom I have sat many a retreat.
She is somewhat younger but when I first met her fresh, always robed in white, aspect I realized she is peer to all. She spoke of staring at a candle in her bedroom when she was twelve – driving her parents mad. She spoke of what she saw in the world and what seemed, from my point of view, she knew without experience. Some are like that and the rest of us, more like me, paddle the streams of experience – whitewater rapids to backwater sloughs – with and without grace, but paddle firmly in hand.
I share this with you now and in my practice (life – whatever you call it – the living of life) there is a deepening, a tangy spritzy pungent scent to the life I’m living. I feel older and more permeable, more focused, enjoying the ride.

Here’s Narayan:
Practice Over Time

by Guiding Teacher Narayan Liebenson

The forms of practice sometimes need to shift over a lifetime, but the essence of practice can burn even brighter as we come fact to face with the fathomless treasures of old age, sickness, and impending death. These are the most human of experiences. As you lose everything without choosing to, and accept the natural limitations of this body-mind experience, it becomes ever more possible to live with greater love and wonder and with less clinging and attachment. This is the sign of a true contemplative, not just a person who can sit endlessly on a cushion.

It is easy to get lost in concepts of time and age, believing in conventional messages that encourage a reverence for youth and a fear of death. However, older people with a lifelong practice are the lights of a sangha. Some older yogis have been practicing for decades, giving them the chance to meet physical and mental limitations from a completely different perspective than the ordinary one.

A rich arena of investigation is to ask whether one’s practice has to weaken with age. In times of change, there is often a sense of loss as well. In opening and allowing the grief that accompanies loss, a deeper dignity can emerge. What are our ideas and concepts about what practice is and what it means? Is practice something separate from the rest of our lives? Is it possible to open our hearts to things as they are, whatever way they are?

There is experience, and there is, as well, one’s relationship to experience. The awareness of this relationship is what makes all the difference in the world. With an orientation of openness and acceptance, we are alive to life itself and come to see that it was never ours to control. In this way, we deepen our understanding of patience, surrender, and grace.

Older yogis with a lifelong practice have a wisdom that is hard won. They are the visible signs of the humanness of life as well as the possibility of transcendence. We practice for others as well as ourselves; older practitioners need more commitment and diligence than ever before as they age.

Whatever posture you now need to support your practice is the best posture. This is the time to adjust your practice in a way that works for you. I encourage you to practice with an open mind, free from expectations, and to embrace without compromise the aspiration to awaken.

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The Messenger

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My photo is just one of the many items named “The Messenger.” In my experience the concept of the messenger – as in don’t shoot – is the most consistently salient theme encountered. I was the messenger in my family – there were others before me – I don’t know if that’s why not many of them speak to me. I don’t know because they don’t say. There is no message.
Pema Chodron states that.. “feelings like disappointment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us whenever we are.”

Who do you listen to. What are you looking for? Do you see anything? Do you hear the messenger? Are you listening?

And, to make my point, this photo is the most consistently bought and used – program covers, magazines, set designs, in all sizes – that I have ever produced.

The Give Away

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What we create with another Being is not ours to give away.
While looking at a photo of two people I know intimately, I was struck suddenly by what the photo did not show.
It did not, could not depict, their years together. How they met, what they feel like now – yes, what they really feel like – which may not be the smiles shown for the taker of the photo, who is also not in the photo but is very much there.
No children or other travels, houses, books, sex, honesty, lunches or breakfasts are depicted. No loving or nasty moments, no clutching or letting go.
We take them as they are this moment photographed by the person we don’t know, in their lives or not, past and future not here. Only the moment. This moment. This one important moment. And if this photo gets into an album and if the album is shared and seen by present company and future grandchildren and further on, they will think they got something. They will think they know something.
And they will. They will know this moment. And they will make of it what they will in their moment. And nothing will be given away, it will be taken.

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The What About Love

Lately I’ve been going through boxes. It seems strange to me that in many places I’ve lived, those before me have left mementos. Sometimes special rocks, flowerpots, and more than once, a box of letters. One woman even had me photograph her entire family album and then never wanted it back. Go figure.
This time a letter from a concerned aunt or friend, I don’t think the writer is the parent. Why do I think that? Because the tone is restrained and equanimity is attempted – but then generations past have had more reserve than ours.
It starts, “My Dear One,” and tells current events, the weather, how the river flows as it passes the house and the state (not good) of a tree they must both have loved. Words of love and caring, times shared, but you can tell they are in the past. The writer is not giving her full feelings.
“I know this day marks the anniversary of your marriage. Even as you may experience joy, I feel restraint and I want courage to take the lead from sentiment and self-pity. Even so, the timing and manner of your leave-taking leaves an unbridgeable chasm in my heart. While sorry not to have enjoyed your company these last two years, I wish I thought we could be honest with each other. I question what we had. What I thought, who I thought I knew.”
There is a paragraph about how her choices have affected all family and friends, teachers and ministers and all those whose trust in themselves was shaken by her actions.

Letters are carriers of affect that those around the author do not guess. In a letter I found that my father wrote – and why it was on his desk I do not know, perhaps it was a draft or he never sent it, I will not know. He writes to a friend I never heard of how grateful he was for the presence of my mother. Something he never showed when I was around. He was very dependent on her in his blindness and not all that kind.

Funny what we put out. What we choose to say. What we choose to leave unsaid. What we choose to leave behind and the crap shoot of who will find it. It’s what I love about life – what do you love? What frustrates? What do you want? Do you ask for it? Did you? Did you?
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What We Do When

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I found a short poem by Raymond Carver who is always good to read if you’re feeling a little down and don’t mind staying that way. I love him and read most of what he wrote while he was alive – he died young in 1988 while I was trying to be a writer and looking for reasons to let it go.

I did let it go then, I just couldn’t be where he was, he was so there. When he died a note to himself was found in his shirt pocket – I paraphrase what it said, “just one more day, give me another poem to write.”

It may have been an old note, he may have written that poem, but I know he wanted more, nothing so simple as one more anything would have been enough.
Here’s the poem I found:

I find myself, at last, in perfect silence.
Knowing the little there is left.
Knowing I have to love it.
Wanting to love it. For both our sake.

I looked for something from Carver because I knew I would find a reflection to mirror the particular loss I feel at finding a note my daughter wrote to herself before she left. It expressed hope for love and success and happiness. It was totally the girl I knew. She happens to be the only person who’s loved listening to hits from the fifties with me. A dog or an occasional cat has – but no human in my midst. I say this because while we were listening to those songs, it was enough.

Not having her in my midst goes way beyond the songs, but it isn’t beyond Carver. Whether loss in love, death or trust, he has the phrases and stories that express even beyond my experience of grief. Writing can express a strength that’s there or inchoate, it can be a harbinger or a swamp. I practice writing a lot and I encourage my clients to do the same. Sometimes we don’t know until we’ve written or said something out loud. Joan Didion was known to say she never understands how she feels about something until she’s written about it.

That is quite dramatic. Writers do that for us and to the extent that we feel moved, we can join in.

 

 

 

Homesteading For Armageddon

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Are you prepared? That’s what everyone wants to know. Am I prepared, have I got the right stuff, will I need more – that I can buy, that I can learn – will I have everything I need for the occasions I am entering?
Retailers want you to buy stuff. Institutions of learning want you to buy stuff. Insurance and financial companies want you to buy stuff. How can you possibly have it all? Or any of it?
Of course, I’m not talking about what we buy but I am writing about what we think we need. Where do these thoughts come from? Who puts them in our minds? It is from our minds that we get these ideas, these states of lack.
It’s simple enough to say we weren’t born with them. It feels as if we were, so early and often do we get inoculated with the cultural and family identity we are born into that by the time a bit of pragmatism slips into our forebrain, we are convinced it’s our stuff.
I hear people struggle with their self image. Why are they so unprepared, why so confused, why so sure in the past and not now. There must be something wrong with them, they need more stuff, more courage, more knowledge – they aren’t prepared for this.
I used the word “occasion” earlier because I want to underscore the brevity and possible fluidity of whatever it is we find ourselves facing. “This too shall pass” is a great line to take, also try out “so what” when nothing to do comes directly to mind. The only way to know what to do is to trust your mind. The only way to know your mind is to know it – get used to it, know when it’s making stuff up, trying to sell you an action not geared for what you really need.
A client of mine (40’s) was looking at cars and her friend – young man in his 20’s – thought she should have a truck. She was asking for help to decide and I asked her where did she live – suburbs – when did she use a car – to and from work – did she haul stuff – never. So why get a truck? She had no idea, but he was so enthusiastic and had a better plan for what he wanted than she had for what she wanted.
Sometimes the best plan is your own. You may not follow the crowd, but you can follow your plan, you just have to know your mind.

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Preparing to grow corn is different from preparing for a spiritual journey – but they might end up in the same place.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My Fairy Godmother

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Her name is June and she’s rocking the moon. Comes up with everything I want and then some.
Don’t worry – I haven’t been hacked or taken over, I know this isn’t usually what I write about – although if I could have thought of a good rhyme for moon I would have gone on…. I took this photo some time ago in a slightly off-beat shop in Brattleboro Vermont and have been wanting to use it. Every time I write about her though, I find myself getting corny and cynical. So I thought I’d write about corny and cynical.
A lot of people come to me because they are ashamed to face themselves, who they think they are, not as you or I might see them – we are not so hard on those who are not ourselves.
They (we) have spent so much time hiding their true selves that they’ve forgotten what’s real and what’s not and if the game of hideout is really what they’re playing or are they just screwed up.
Most of us are smart about everything except ourselves. We applaud others while we don’t appreciate what we’ve done. It’s hard to look at our self with a fresh eye and some appreciation. I get so used to what I do that I forget it can be special or insightful to someone else – I am not alone.
So when was the last time you took a photo of your fairy godmother? Or even noticed her existence? She can hold your hand while you take a good look at yourself – appreciation and all. She can hang around and show you some moonlight while you look yourself over – we all look better in moonlight. She can dab a little sparkle in your eye, make things look a bit glitzier. That’s a great attribute.
Check her out, make her work for you, I’ll give you her number.
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It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way

“Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
The above quote is Cassius philosophizing to Brutus while they both struggle with the meaning of their lives in their complaints against their Boss – Caesar. (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act I, scene 2)
Soon and often in our lives we come upon “harsh” realities we feel obliged to maintain. No one ever asks for help who is in balance with the objects of their lives and their ability and willingness to sustain them. It might be a job or a relationship, the need of better resources – a new car or children’s schooling. The desire that gets us off kilter keeps us there. We institutionalize it, we become its slave.
In this scene, as in much of Julius Caesar, the plotting and the complaints against Caesar grow to the culmination of his death, and his former cohorts becoming murderers.
In the squeeze to perform and promote what have become our desires – no doubt changed from our first wispy fantasies – we put ourselves in the crucible of those desires and let them take us over. Often without a clue as to how we got here. We feel “fate” has led us or our “nature,” sometimes we blame a parent. This is suffering for sure.
There is always some exterior modifier to point out our lacks – we were born this way, at the wrong time, to the wrong culture. I used to tease my “well bred” mother when she would complain about my actions that I had been given the wrong genes.
But really – let’s get gritty – what can we do? Once we feel overwhelmed, panic riding us, solutions beyond our grasp, what are we to do? This is the most irritating part – it was for Cassius too – because it isn’t the lottery or the new car/husband/wife. It isn’t the dictator or even the next helpful book/workshop or prescription. It comes right back to, “not in our stars but in ourselves.”
How and what we align ourselves with dictates how our lives unfold. A choice here, a path or road there and we have momentum going for us. Is it a flood or a stream, a wind or a storm. What’ll it be? What will you have, what choice will you make to determine your course? And what will it take down the road to correct it if you need to? Murderers have a much harder row to hoe than the one of us who says, “oops, sorry.”
What’s your story? How do you feel?
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Liam

IMG_0432It is just a week since Liam and I went on our last walk in the circle of the field Paula and I made for an infirm Tashi some years ago.
I wasn’t aware of anything much, going out as usual, gathering of dogs and me, a leash for Guinnie, no particular clothes – it was a beautiful warm fall day – we marched around the path’s circle, each in our own world sharing the gorgeous morning.
Open to all, I felt enchanted by the change of season, the enormous gift of sky and temperate weather, I turned around to repeat the circuit and was transfixed by the breathtaking view of Indian Mountain with her colors lit. Twenty steps later, Guinnie pulled the leash out of my hand, I turned behind to see Cho, Jules and then Guinnie, heads to the ground where Liam lay. The colors of Liam, always racing through the grass, on the path ahead and behind, were still. My mind could not grasp what I saw as my body reached him, my arms easily pulled him up and we all headed for the house.
In coordinated and purposeful motion we all reached the door, went in, my friend Rosie was here, I called, she drove me to the vet – not ten minutes had passed when I felt his breath gone and we were still a minute away.
I realized not one sound had come from him. He, so heavy in his life, so wiggly with promise and devotion to the next minute, was still and light in  my arms.
Incredible to me how fast change can come to life in death. How full and empty, weak and strong is the moment as it passes. I am always aware and at the same time dumb of change. I talk about it, teach it, this morning a week ago I got a lesson about it, with it, through it. My heart is full and empty, some human confusion in the empty bed and lap, the unseated place, the now extra dishes. When he was a puppy he would bury himself in toys or pillows or bed covers and we would ask, “where’s Liam?” I am asking that now, and every day he tells me a little more, teaching me, loving me from his place, just as always.

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