A New Day

I always get a little nervous before a retreat begins and now it is over and I am on my way home. I am sitting at the airport happy that it went well. It was a five day one integrating MBSR (Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction) into clinical care. My colleague and co-facilitator Lucia McBee left the night before so I am alone. When I arrived a week ago I was exhausted. I was relieved to have arrived safely after driving on unfamiliar mountain roads in a rental car that didn’t hug the road like the one at home. The scenery was beautiful but I had to concentrate on navigating the narrow curving roads so I could not really take it in. Breath by breath I drove telling myself to be safe and careful. I slowed down and leaned into curves. I was tired, it had been a long day but I was awake. I was forced to be mindful. Now today I was relaxed and the drive had been easy. I did not have to strain to drive or force myself to be mindful. Having Lucia next to me made it more fun and I navigated the curves as we chatted about the retreat with ease.

Our group was diverse and some had never meditated before but were interested and open to learning. Lucia and I worked well together and complemented each other. The setting was new to us as was the food and the altitude, 4000 feet above sea level. We were at an Aruvedic Center, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. It was a large beautiful place but there was a-lot of uphill walking. We were not all accustomed to doing this but gamely walked until Lucia tripped over a door sill and my back began to hurt. Then we used the car and were thankful we had it and could also give a ride to any participant who needed a lift.

There is a lot of not knowing in leading a workshop/retreat as it is impossible to anticipate the nature of the group and what may arise. Lucia and I are both experienced and we had prepared a workbook and PowerPoint.This is a guide rather than a precise manual. Teaching for me is about embodiment of mindfulness and transmitting information from my heart and gut. This is based on what arises moment by moment. It requires concentration and being REALLY present. Shepherding people into a calmer more aware place is meaningful and reinforces my own practice.
Now that the retreat is over the challenge is maintaining my practice and forgiving myself when I lapse.

Last night I slept in a motel near the airport. It was very basic and my room was next to the parking lot and dingy. The air conditioner was loud and not working well. I had to remember not to complain, maintain perspective and appreciate that:
1. I found the hotel even though it took three tries. It was behind a restaurant and not visible from the road and I was able to ask a person who knew its location and gave me good directions
2. I had a place to stay.
3. It was clean.
4. I get to fly home on a new day refreshed rather than pushing on after teaching and driving.

This morning at the airport I needed to remember to breathe through my experience going through security. I was behind a family of five and the mom took a lot of time putting all the kids packs and miscellaneous in the bins. She finished and was told that she had to remove all the food in her pack. It took quite a while for the assortment of snacks to come out. Then I realized I had to remove the food in my pack as I did not have TSA, expedited security check at this airport and I had to remove my iPad and kindle. I did this mindfully and then forgot to take it with me after it was scanned and came off the belt. As I sat down by my gate in this small airport, two people came up to me to tell me I had left my electronics at security. “I wanted to take it to you,” each said, “but they wouldn’t let me.” How wonderful they cared. And when I returned to security the guard there handed it to me with a big smile: Gratitude!

........It’s a new moment. I am on the plane and it is landing. I will transfer at the large, bustling airport in Atlanta. I am glad I can walk and happy that I checked my bag. Traveling takes energy and attention. I instruct others to meet what arrives with awareness and kindness without resistance. I hope it is only my luggage and my husband greeting me in Boston—and this new day will be rich—and uneventful, my plane won’t be delayed or cancelled.and I have enough time to get to the gate where the plane to Boston departs. Again and again I am challenged to live what I teach. Lucky me.

Semi-Retirement: New Challenges

I’ve had time this week that isn’t filled with work-related projects. This is new to me. I am accustomed to having something to do, a presentation to prepare, a book to write, emails to answer or calls I need to make. This still exists but to a lesser degree and it raises questions of identity. Who am I? Is it OK to read a novel, take a nap, really do nothing? People yearn for retirement but I have always loved teaching and exchanging ideas or creating new programs. Work is an act of love and teaching mindfulness has always been fulfilling and brought me joy.

I have always appreciated the space between commitments but now there is a different feel to this space. Rather than it is in-between my “to do’s” it’s beckoning me to expand my interests and allow myself to not know what brings satisfaction. There are freedom and expansiveness to this lack of structure and there is also anxiety and grief. The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School now has the next generation of teachers and the structure itself is changing. I can’t go there and drop in on a friend and talk “dharma” anymore. Instead, I need to schedule a lunch date. This is still meaningful but it needs planning and is different.

In the mornings now I take a walk with my husband and our dog. It is spring here in New England and each day greets me with a surprise. There are new blossoms on the trees and the leaves are moving from bud to leaf displaying different shades of green. The azaleas are bursting with bright hues of purple and pink. Each day there are surprises. Our backyard is an urban meadow the grass strewn with violets and hyacinths, dewdrops and dandelions. With the rain, we’ve been having there is a fresh scent to the air. Each day is different...and I can take it in and savor the ability to experience with all my senses and have it shared with my spouse. It is a wonder. I’ve been working with back pain, arthritis, and a narrowing spinal canal. I am learning to walk, “like a ballerina”, pelvis forward, shoulders back, gaze level and forward-looking. Even as I shrink a bit I feel taller. This too is different.

Home to my heart/mind is my meditation community. This continues and always goes with me but it is time now to expand beyond the meditation community. It surprises me to discover that older women are interesting and even fun—and I am an older woman. My goodness! How did that happen so quickly? I can’t do the strength training at the gym that was hardcore and tough anymore. I used to be so proud I could do push-ups like the younger folks and feel comfortable with “jocks” but working out rapidly with heavy weights (for me) is no longer wise. I was forced to stop because of pain and now I need to build muscle mass again. This is humbling and requires patience and persistence (like meditation). I can’t rush it. Darn.

As a result, I discovered exercise in water and the Burdenko method. Igor Burdenko works with people who have been injured and have disabilities. His approach includes land and water, diet and meditation. The local Y has a group of women who practice this technique in the Y’s pool for 45 minutes three times a week. It is called “beginners water exercise”. They are not beginners and the youngest person is in her early 60’s. I didn’t think I belonged because everyone looked so old. Then I discovered I was one of the older ones: surprise. Each person was so welcoming and helpful that my eyes teared up...and it is both challenging and fun. It has also helped me realize that I have been prejudiced and a victim of ageism making assumptions that are just not true. There are life, energy, and love. There is no competition, only cooperation. Hmm, is this a consequence of aging?

So, blog reader, let’s see what’s next. I no longer am humming to myself, “the old gray mare ain’t what she used to be...” Let’s see what song pops in next. Perhaps, “Oh what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day.”

Maintaining Perspective

This Calvin and Hobbs cartoon by Sam Waterman has been speaking to me lately.

Being human means sometimes we make a mess of things—but we don’t need to make it worse by perseverating and catastrophizing the event. The body aging and a diagnosis of cancer offers challenges and forces us to come to a new balance. Doing so requires acceptance and not creating a narrative that may or may not be true (like, why me?). In the process balls get dropped, our “to do” list changes and sometimes there is a mess to clean up: the mind. My mantra was, “No Double Arrow, I will maintain perspective and not make things worse than they are.” With my back hurting and a diagnosis of breast cancer I had to juggle less balls and I did not like acknowledging my limitations and the sadness that came with it. Persistence was required to heal and maintain perspective.

Yes, the lump discovered in a mammogram was cancerous. Yes, I had a lumpectomy. Yes, it went well and only needed one day surgery. Yes, my surgeon was excellent. Yes, I do not need chemotherapy or radiation and yes, I still have two breasts and only a crescent shaped scar. I am lucky and grateful. Yes, this is not automatic and it is a reminder of my mortality and has me question how many balls I have in the air and note that I am not as quick and alert as I used to be. It takes persistence in being mindful and honesty in examining my priorities.

Relationships are a priority as is continuing to do service. My niece had a baby about a month ago. She lives 3000 miles away but I had no hesitation visiting her and her family and meeting my grand niece. Looking at the perfection of her little being, seeing her eyes open and begin taking in the world, observing my niece as a mom is a privilege. How wonderful. It is also wonderful to be able to go back to my place here in California where she lives and see the trees blooming. The snow is melting back east but covered the ground when I left. Tomorrow I and a colleague will conduct an eight day training for people who want to teach Mindfulness-based stress reduction. He is older too and we have a pact to remember self-care and pacing. We will have a longer lunch period to be able to rest. I believe everyone will benefit. Being of service, teaching and doing work I love is priority. Enjoying the time I have to not do is also priority. I find myself savoring walking the dog or looking out the window and seeing the trees swaying in the wind and noting how the light falls on the branches. I have begun painting and drawing trees that have deep roots and are multi-colored.

I am here. I am well. I am older. How lucky is that?

Traveling the Dark

To go into the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark

Go without sight

And know the dark too blooms and sings

And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

~ Wendell Berry

Recently I had the privilege to facilitate a five day program for the Center for MIndfulness. It is an intense five days and some people are meditating for the first time and fear can arise. I read the poem above prefaced by a story I love, “The Monster in the Closet” by Mercer Mayer. In it a little boy says to himself, “enough”. He is tired of being scared of the monster in his closet and decides to eliminate it. He prepares himself to do so, puts on his pith helmet, takes out his toy gun and opens the closet door. His monster has big purple polka dots and is cowering in the closet crying. The little boy sees his distress and has compassion for him and takes him into his bed to comfort him. There is a drawing of them snuggled together each helping the other. The book, however, doesn’t end there. On the next and last page the little boy is looking at the closet again and another monster is peeking out. The boy says, “I think there’s another monster in the closet but, I’m not ready yet.”

I wonder, are we ever ready to face our monsters? Can we believe that doing so will have a positive effect and lead to a sense of confidence and freedom: peace? Visitor Frankl who survived a concentration camp wrote in Mans Search for Meaning that “the one thing that can not be taken from man is his ability to choose his attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

As I write a good friend of mine is dying. For over twenty years she has struggled with cancer. She entered the darkness of pain, treatments, and uncertainty but she travelled it courageously and with a zest for life. It did not stop her from raising her children, making delicious meals, being kind to friends, doing pottery and enjoying trips with people she loved and enjoyed. The darkness of cancer couldn’t be denied or even fully accepted but...it gave her a deeper appreciation of life.

What attitudes are helpful? What is our intention and our willingness to explore what we experience as heavy and hard; dark? I too live with cancer. I feel well and am active but just recently a new malignancy was discovered. It is small and I will take care of it but once again I find myself taking a breath and appreciating this moment and my mindfulness practice. I don’t want a biopsy or having to be a patient again and perhaps not feeling well but...I will and I feel peaceful. Mindfulness is not a matter of mind, it is bigger. All the years I have spent practicing and teaching mindfulness to help others has been helpful to me. Attitudes such as trust, patience, curiosity, effort, letting go and letting be, even what I don’t like but acknowledging it and facing my internal monsters helps me face the external ones. They are easier to access and have become a part of me. Kindness and love exist in darkness and light. I am traveling on feet and wings of both shades. Sadness co-existing with joy. New discoveries and deep gratitude for what is already

To be continued...

The Love Remains

Living in New England in the fall is a time of beauty and one that visibly marks change. Here in Worcester, MA where I live the trees have retained their greenery for longer than usual but today, on my morning walk I began to see gold, orange, and red leaves, some on the ground, others brightening the branches of trees. This brings back memories of my mother at the end of her life. She died in October after suffering a a stroke subsequent to chemotherapy and lung cancer. As she laid in bed in the hospital I remember my father bringing in some carefully chosen leaves of color to brighten up the room and post on the bulletin board facing her bed. I am not sure she could appreciate their color or identify what they were but I do think she could feel the love they represented from my Dad—as did I.

To comfort myself after she passed I took out my watercolors and gave expression to my emotions with color and form. The painting did not seem quite complete so I began examining the ground around my house to choose a few leaves to add to it. I then dipped the leaves in glycerin hoping to preserve their brightness and vivacity and pasted them on the painting. Hoping to keep my watercolor as a momento I had it framed. I must not have done the procedure quite right because before too long, the leaves, though dipped and covered, became brown. I could not alter the decay or prolong their color. Everything changes. I realize this too is life. My mother and father have both now died but the memory of their love continues. I know this, I feel this yet, the sadness of their death remains and each fall I miss them and remember this time. The leaf I chose is still on the watercolor I created. It is no longer alive but the memory still exists and like death and feelings can not be denied.

Duck vs. Rabbit

I’ve been very lucky. I don’t always get what I want…and this is liberating. It teaches me to examine my relationship to loss and gain and what I perceive as good or bad. I realize there are many ways to view a situation. The drawing above is an example of an optical illusion. Look at it one way and there is a bunny. Look at it another way and there is a duck. Shifting attention my perspective expands and I can see both.

When I was very ill I needed to see and feel more than my illness. A broad perspective allowed me to open to more than my illness. I’d look out the window, appreciate a smile and remember to acknowledge that I was not my illness.

Acceptance is a process. Sometimes I have to dig deep down and be willing to take in new information to make peace with my situation and observe its “truth”. There is ease within dis-ease, life and death. Meditation is about dis-illusion, seeing clearly and understanding the true essence of a moment and the conditioning which affects our perception of it. To do this we must see more than one thing and be able to hold diverse views. I ask myself, what’s important and where is my focus NOW? What is the effect of a thought or action? Does it lead to a sense of well-being or not? How open am I to change? How do I meet sorrow and loss, joy and happiness?

Often we think we are what we feel and it will never change. I began meditating in the early 80’s because I wanted to be happier. Back then I’d drive Larry Rosenberg, my meditation teacher, to Worcester once a week. He was teaching an MBSR class for the fledgling Stress Reduction Program and I was working down the road at a job I didn’t like. I’d complain, Larry would listen, smile and sing,

“You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
you just might find
You get what you need.”
– The Rolling Stones

I did not like hearing this but it woke me up. It challenged me to examine how I perceived the world and where I placed my attention. Mindfulness brought me into the present moment and interrupted the “story” of what I thought I needed to be happy. I began shedding past conditioning and investigating the relationship between my thoughts, feelings and sensations and how they related to my sense of well-being.

Over the years I’ve learned that happiness floats. It is not dependent on any one thing but has many aspects. There are ducks and rabbits, your view and mine, feelings of happiness and sadness. Everything changes. The challenge is to acknowledge it all and realize we have what we need—it’s here now!

In the Stillness of Time

Somehow even though I am now well past my school years I still experience fall as the beginning of a new year. The air is crisp, the leaves have yet to fall but are transforming from the sweet green of the young buds to hues of yellow, orange, red and brown. As they dry and fall they mark the end of summer and signal shorter darker days. I note how my attitude has shifted towards this change. This year I do not feel a heaviness in my chest and a sadness as I contemplate the cold and darkness of a New England winter. My perspective has, like the sun, moved as I observe the beauty of my yard and the day here now before me. Spontaneously in the stillness of the moment I write:

The sun shines clear and bright
Leaves illuminated on slender saplings
broader than three months ago.
The sun is lower in the sky today
My blanket covered me this morning
Warm and snug I curled my toes uncramping them
Placing them on the ground
Meeting the day.

Everything has a life. A beginning. And an end. I have been contemplating my end. Today I feel healthy and strong. Gratitude fills me. As I write this moment has already ended and some cells have died as new neurons are being born. It is the cycle of life. My name means tree in Hebrew and like it I hope to meet each season, soak up the sunshine while it is here, celebrate the day, put forth leaves of different shapes and colors and be rooted and strong as wind and chill separate them from my branches as winter comes.

As sunlight dapples the leaves and wind moves the branches my eyes follow and my breath is even. My body remains in one spot and is cushioned by the pillow I sit upon. My laptop is near.

Knowing I can do nothing to stop time but hoping to capture it in my mind, I reach for it, raise its cover and turn it on. Moving my fingertips over the keys I use these words as mementos. Attention shifts but my intention, to savor the moment, and experience the infinite timeliness of time remains. Within there is stillness. There is peace. I don’t wonder how long it will last. It is here now.