Embracing the Difficult as a Doorway to Love

October 21, 2015
Photo credit Mel Rabedeau

Photo credit Mel Rabedeau

Do you have difficult people or situations in your life? I can’t imagine a single human being answering “no” to that question. There’s no doubt that life presents us with challenges — some tiny and relatively inconsequential, some heartbreakingly large and overwhelming — in the form of people and circumstances.

There is a saying that goes, “experience is life’s greatest teacher.” And another one that goes, “relationships are life’s greatest teachers.” They are cliches because they’re true. We are handed, endlessly, opportunities to learn how to be more compassionate, how to set healthier boundaries, how to communicate more clearly, how to forgive and accept, how to stand up for our truth, how to do less harm, how to contribute rather than squander our gifts.

So life is clearly there just waiting to teach us. But what kind of students are we? How do we show up? How well do we listen? How much effort do we put in? How open are we to adapting or even letting go of our stories? How ready are we to wake up, shed old habits, and evolve emotionally?

It is not always obvious what path we should take in life when presented with complex scenarios and other people’s hearts, especially when we’re balancing taking care of ourselves with taking care of others. But if we set the intention that we will do what we can to be present, with an open mind and heart, for the lessons offered (in the guise of relationships and situations), we really can’t fail. As long as we are willing to show up and do the work, something powerful and valuable (no matter how small) will sink in, and we will grow, we will change, we will learn.

Sometimes these internal shifts (and their behavioral outgrowths) are so tiny as to be almost imperceptible and don’t become obvious until time has passed or many so-called “mistakes” have occurred. So we sometimes think we’re failing, or that it’s just too hard, or that it’s just not fair, and these stories we tell ourselves can become huge impediments to our ability to stay focused on the work of life, on the potential for integration and healing.

So we also need to cultivate, along with our willingness to show up, a sense of allowing ourselves to be imperfect, to learn in pieces or over time, to not interpret “set-backs” as failures, but rather as natural and normal parts of the growth process, which is almost never linear. And we need to embrace confusion as a stepping stone on the way to insight, rather than a debilitating energy that can provoke us to stick our heads back in the sand and simply run away from the challenge altogether.

Finally, we need self-compassion. Desperately. Thankfully, it is something we can cultivate and nurture in a very simple way. Sitting on the meditation cushion every day for 1, 3, 5, 10, 20 minutes is a deep form of self-compassion. When we commit that time and effort to a practice that is all about seeing what’s really happening, watching our thoughts arise and learning how to be less identified with them, exposing our self-destructive habits of mind, uncovering our deepest truths, and tending to our broken places, we begin to change, to wake up, to love and accept ourselves more fully. And we reap invaluable rewards.

We also have the opportunity to practice being compassionate with ourselves in every single moment — whether we’re walking, or washing dishes, or listening to our child or partner, or driving a car, or even paying our bills. As long as we are bringing in the energy, the power, of mindfulness — paying attention to what’s actually happening, in the present moment, on purpose, without judgment — we are doing the opposite of abandoning ourselves.

So, to truly transform, we have to care enough about the process to put in the effort, and we have to embrace the difficult and ugly stuff when it comes our way — welcome it as we would a friend, a teacher, a guide, a doorway to love. Maybe we can (on a good day ;-) ) open to the possibility of feeling grateful for all the darkness and challenges and defeats and breakdowns and dysfunction that come our way or that we wittingly or unwittingly put into the world. And feel thankful for the opportunity, every day, every moment, to learn what we may have never learned in school or from our society or even from our ancestors: how to remain present; how to allow our intuition to speak and be heard; how to find our way through this crazy maze with compassion, wisdom, strength and joy; how to come home.

Let’s go!

The War Within

August 25, 2015

Electrical-Storm_600“War, huh, yeah. What is it good for?
Absolutely nothin’. Say it again, y’all.”
     — Edwin Starr

Are you at war with yourself?

We tend to think of war as something that happens outside of us, involving weapons, nations, politics and the quest for domination.

But we are also at war within ourselves. At war with our feelings — when we ignore, numb, escape, sublimate. At war with our personalities — when we judge quirks and traits and characteristics we’ve decided are unacceptable. At war with the way we move and act in the world — when we criticize ourselves for choices we’ve made, “failures” we’ve brought about, or dreams or goals we still haven’t manifested. At war with our bodies — when we hate aspects of our physical looks, are angry with our bodies for not performing as we would like them to, or are frustrated with illness or aging. At war with our situations — when we refuse to accept that external circumstances change, or don’t change, and that we don’t always (hardly ever?) have ultimate control over outcomes.

Does any of this sound familiar? It is helpful to notice the places or times we are battling ourselves, to simply start to pay attention to this habit of struggle when it arises. As we learn more about these tendencies and bring awareness to all of it, we begin to have more choice — and we may choose more letting go, more peace, more acceptance, more love…rather than the fight.

Mindfulness practice is all about bringing every single bit of reality into the light — all the beautiful shiny joyful peaceful and happy parts, and also all the dark horrifying scary broken and sad parts. All of it. We bring our attention to whatever is happening, in the world and in ourselves, and we do our best not to judge it, but rather to allow it to be there in all its gorgeous glory or horrifying hideousness, whatever the case may be. We remain present for all of it. Only from this place of awareness can we see clearly and act skillfully. But when we fight ourselves, we do the exact opposite. We close the door on our reality, our experience. And we harm ourselves (and, ultimately, others) profoundly in the process. For who knows what wisdom and freedom might wait on the other side of that closed door.

The Buddhist tradition identifies three main poisons (kleshas) that “cloud the mind and result in unwholesome actions”: Greed, Hatred, and Delusion. They are also spoken of as Attachment, Aversion, and Ignorance. Certainly they are visible in our species — destructive, angry, insecure, consuming, confused humans in the process of destroying life on Earth as we know it. But keep watch, for these poisons are not just “out there” in others. We can’t just blame the government, or the media, or society, or Big Oil, or other people whose beliefs differ from ours. These poisons are just as surely “in here”, in our own hearts and minds. And it is our job in this lifetime to discover, uproot, and transform these forces within ourselves, to say, “no more”, and finally lay down our own angry fire.

This is why all the great Buddhist teachers talk about cultivating peace within as an solution for creating peace in the world. The cliche is true. We are basically little war machines walking around wreaking havoc, so often offering thoughts, words and actions that arise from ignorance, hostility, fear and denial. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can get a handle on it, start to learn about these aspects of ourselves, begin the work of healing our own internal conflicts, of crafting peace treaties with ourselves, of creating cease fires that save lives and hearts and make room for more and more love and kindness all the time. This is where meditation practice comes in. Sit. Every day. Watch, breathe, observe, learn, love, heal.

Hatred is War. Aversion is War. Anger is War. Judgment is War. Regret is War. Lack of Forgiveness is War. So where are you at war with yourself? As an experiment this month, start to notice when you have a feeling of judgment, dislike, aversion, disgust, or shame directed toward yourself. And then see if you can pause and just observe the feeling. Hold it gently, not feeding the story around it, but rather sensing the energy of it and where it resides in your body. And then from this place of presence, see if there is room for some love, acceptance, and forgiveness. Embrace the difficult, the sick, the old, the embarrassing, the weak, the shattered, the scared, the scattered, and breathe some love, some space, into that aspect of yourself. Make just a little bit of room for the possibility of healing, rather than hostility. And see what happens.

May you be happy, healthy, safe and at peace,

Independence From What?

July 2, 2015

fort_funston_independenceThe 4th of July is here again. The attendant dialogue evokes the founders’ dreams and demands for independence and all it implied: liberty; autonomy; self-determination; self-reliance; freedom.

We come to meditation practice perhaps seeking greater calm, better health, and a respite from the stresses of life. But we eventually realize that our deepest desire is also independence — not so much from external oppressors, but rather from the suffering we inflict upon ourselves; from the ways in which we make ourselves crazy; from our inability to accept, let go, and remain present for what is actually happening; from our hobbled capacity to embrace reality in all its glory, terror, perfection, and brokenness.

Just as humans the world over have fought and still fight to become independent from unhealthy power dynamics in relationships at macro and micro levels, we must bring this same courage and passion to our practice if we wish to free ourselves from our dependence upon our untrained minds, the stories they tell, and the deleterious effects these stories have on our well being.

So we practice in order to cultivate reliance upon our truest selves — rather than on some external or even internal authority — by utilizing our direct experience and our mindfulness as our wisest teachers and most trustworthy allies. We practice to release our intentions, words and actions from the restrictive domination of concepts, habits, craving and addiction. We practice to employ kindness, unconditional love and wise understanding as antidotes to the suppression and limitations created by our own greed, hatred and delusion. We practice to learn how to truly live…hearts open, minds awake, beings free from suffering.

It’s really all the same — freedom within, freedom without. Just as labeling our pain as “The Pain” rather than “My Pain” helps connect us with the universal nature of suffering, we can remember that peace and freedom come in many forms and exist on many scales, and that we must consistently work to develop these qualities and capacities within ourselves if we have any hope of manifesting them also in the world. If there even is any difference after all.

So on this anniversary of a certain kind of independence, I wish us all freedom from the ways in which we bind, suppress, capture and imprison ourselves, and each other. I wish us independence from whatever forces keep us small, afraid, angry, blind, and immune to the truth of our inter-being. And that our efforts may ripple out in whatever magical and tiny and large ways they tend to do, out into the universe, for the benefit of all.

May all beings be free.

Every Single Day Should Be Earth Day!

April 22, 2015

Dear friends,

Our newest song is a love anthem to our astonishingly beautiful, patiently loving, infinitely precious Mother Earth. Please enjoy listening to the song, watching the video, and sharing with your friends and family! EVERY SINGLE DAY SHOULD BE EARTH DAY!

We will donate 50% of all sales (from now to the end of April) to NRDC (National Resources Defense Council), one of our favorite environmental advocacy groups. Their mission: “NRDC works to safeguard the earth — its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends.” Right ON!

Thanks for listening and for helping the Earth…every single day!!!



Retreat Reflections

February 25, 2015

IMG_0673_mosscoveredrocktallborderI attended my first week-long silent retreat at the end of January. It was powerful and scary and instructive and illuminating and difficult and heart-opening and confusing and insight-provoking and wonderful and sad and mindless and mindful.

A lot happened but here are some observations that I feel are relevant to our attempts to integrate this practice into our daily lives and hearts.

First, the level of mindfulness that entered my body as a result of that much slowing down was profound and welcome. I have not managed to retain the same level of attention and presence here in daily, busy, distracting “life”, but certainly some amount and understanding of it remains. I feel generally slower, and I’m working on being ok with that — no simple task here in our culture that pushes action, productivity, accomplishment, competition, speed, and more, more, more of everything, all the time!

The other big shift was having the time and space to open up to some very difficult emotions I don’t normally allow full expression of in my busy life, even with a consistent daily meditation practice for support. By repeatedly witnessing the feelings as they arose, and my desperate and methodical attempts to stuff them or push them away or obsessively problem-solve in order to fix (ha!) the external circumstances I associated with them, I learned so much about the particular habits, patterns and types of thinking I use (yes, use) to escape from these feelings and fears. So I’m watching all of that with keener vision and more compassion now that I’m “back”.

Finally, here is one of my favorite quotes from the retreat:

“There is suffering that leads to the end of suffering, and suffering that leads to more suffering. The less willing we are to experience the former, the more of the latter we will receive.”

I find this fascinating, profound, true, scary, and helpful. It’s a reminder that sometimes the way to freedom isn’t all easy, simple, clear, joyful and light. There is usually work, and effort, and murk, and pain and heaviness along the way. Typically when we “give up” or “let go” of something we know is not in the service of our highest good, we do suffer — we are faced with uncertainty, loss, fear, emptiness, loneliness, and all sorts of discomfort. And this suffering is not necessarily a signal that we are on the wrong track! Rather, it is potentially leading us to a release of some clinging or attachment that has had us hooked and miserable (the suffering that leads to more suffering!) and therefore, ultimately, to a lightening of our load. It is helping rather than harming. It is part of the end of our suffering, and, consequently, our healing.

As amazing as it was to dedicate a solid week to this work in a retreat context — and I am so grateful for the opportunity — this is not always an option. Fortunately, just as valid and important is the work we have the opportunity to do every day, every hour, every moment, here, in daily “real” life, within the containers of our jobs, our families, our communities, our hopes and dreams, our selves.

It’s the work of slowing down, paying attention, honoring what’s really happening, and gaining a deeper understanding of our relationship to our own suffering and that of the world. In a nutshell, it’s the work of mindfulness. And, thankfully, there are no barriers to entry.

Make Space for Heart-Centered Intentions

January 4, 2015

sunset_OBHere we are again, at the turning of another year. As arbitrary as the date “January 1” is in so many ways, it does bring with it the seed of awakening. Like the space between breaths, it presents us with the opportunity to pause, to honor and reflect on what came before, and to wonder about, plant seeds for, and even envision what is yet to come.

It is the time of year we often set goals and commit to changes in our lives. These are usually called “New Year’s Resolutions”. I personally have a reaction to the word “resolution” due to the energy of intensity, single-mindedness, inflexibility, determination and even tension I associate with it. It implies an endpoint, or a final goal which must be reached, which feels limiting, and can be a set-up for failure.

How many new year’s “resolutions” have you managed to keep perfectly over time? I imagine that for most of us, this form of achievement is the anomaly rather than the norm. And the feelings of inadequacy that so often prompt the resolutions are at the root of so much suffering in our own lives and in our culture as a whole.

So instead, I practice intention-setting: identifying and committing to practices or shifts that serve my highest good and that of others, with the awareness that on this path there might well be setbacks, or difficulties, and that I might make mistakes, and I might forget, and I might fall down. I will try and learn from those pitfalls/detours, wake up to them, and then return to the path, re-commit to the intention, and go forth with new wisdom and hopefully a stronger capacity for sticking with my dream, hope, intention, desire — ideally without adding a whole pile of self-judgement that will just complicate matters and make the path muddier, longer, rockier and more isolated.

In setting intentions, or resolutions, or goals, or whatever name feels right to you for this process, here are some thoughts that might be helpful:

**Make some time for inquiry.
Inquire about the motivation behind the intention. Are you coming from a place of guilt, shame, self-critique, self-judgement, even self-hatred? Are you coming from a place of worry, anxiety, fear, competition, or ego? Or are you coming from a place of love, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and a desire for healing? A simple investigation into what lies underneath the intention can be very informative, and help you weed out which ones have the most strength, value and potential for success and good karma behind them (the ones that come from love, of course!)

**Don’t overdo it. A list of 10 things is probably too big. Maybe pick the one that feels the most important, and the one that feels the most attainable, and start with those two.

**Find the middle way. We need enough discipline to put in the effort required to make the change, do the work, practice, whatever it is. But we also need enough flexibility to allow space for the inevitable wobbles and instability and confusion and setbacks that come with most transitions. Find the midpoint between compulsion and laziness, and you’re on the right track.

**Don’t do it alone. If possible, share your intention with someone, and listen to theirs. This introduces not only a level of accountability, but also the opportunity for support, and the simple beauty of revealing our deepest desire and most tender heart to another human being.

**Don’t force it.
In order for them to hold, changes (especially the big ones) require us to have some sort of support network in place, a deep understanding of the cravings behind the unhealthy behaviors, a readiness that can’t be manufactured. Deciding to make a big change arbitrarily on a given date (Jan 1) might work out, but it might also backfire if the deep will and understanding aren’t yet there. So having wisdom around what difficulties might present themselves, and having in place some form of support (people, systems, community, groups, alternatives, whatever!) before jumping in is probably wise.

**Make it a daily practice.
While the first of the year provides an obvious opportunity to take stock and make change, we can also consider every day (every moment, even!) a little microcosm of this turning point. In every single moment, we have the opportunity to set and manifest intentions to act in ways that are more loving and kind, to commit or recommit to some sort of daily spiritual practice, to forgive, to serve, to share our wisdom. We don’t have to wait, white-knuckling it, through a whole year until January 1 to live a life full of promise, inspiration and positive shifts!

I will leave you with a link to Thich Nhat Hanh’s powerful and on-the-mark Five Mindfulness Trainings for something to consider in the realm of intentions, promises, vows, commitment. It is worth ten minutes of your time to read these through. Personally, they have provided me with much strength and a guiding light for how to live ethically and joyfully. I think you might find them beautiful, touching and inspirational as we head into a new year!

And here is the simplified version he offers to children (the Two Promises):

* I vow to develop understanding in order to live peacefully
with people, animals, plants, and minerals.
* I vow to develop my compassion in order to protect the lives
of people, animals, plants, and minerals.

Now that’s a very fine place to start ;-)

May you be happy, healthy, safe and at peace,

Sit Breath Love: Guided Meditations for Children and their Grown-Ups

January 3, 2015

SBL_9_600Dear friends,

In conjunction with the birth of the new year, we are very excited to announce the birth of a new JAM project:

Sit Breathe Love:
Guided Meditations for Children and their Grown-Ups

Listen + Download Here

Our intention is to share every month or so a new guided meditation you can listen to and practice with the children in your family or classroom. Click the “Follow” button on the download page to be notified when we add new ones.

These meditations will be in the mindfulness vein, and will touch on such areas as awareness of breath, cultivation of lovingkindness and non-harming, mindful listening, body scans, gratitude, joy, difficult feelings, and beyond.

Our January offering is called “Ball of Light Meditation”. You can use this guided meditation with your children when you’d like to cultivate a little peace and love. Try it at bedtime, or perhaps in the morning before leaving the house, to plant seeds of presence, calm and kindness. Listen, relax, and enjoy!

I use these meditations in my JAMcamps with children aged 4-10, but you can try with younger and older children, too, and see what happens.

Perhaps the most important thing is to model for your children your commitment to cultivating your own mindfulness. So do the practices with them as often as you can! You will show them, via embodiment, that it is important to you, too, and that you have faith in its value.

We would love to hear about how, where and when you use these practices, and how your children respond to them. So stay in touch!

May you be happy, healthy, safe and at peace in the new year and always ;-)

Take care,


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