Category Archives: Awareness

Swimming in a Sea of Sacred Stuff

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names

Rainer Maria Rilke, from “The Man Watching,” Trans. Robert Bly

IMG_2953I guess the planet, Mother Earth, is saying that it is time for us all to dive in and deepen our journeys. This is a time of great spiritual expansion. So much going on. So much light, love, and connection being shared upon the globe. Perhaps it is the balance to the many other things taking place where energies which are not creative, loving, or constructive are dominating attention. Many of us, however, are choosing to focus elsewhere.

I have two friends who, like me, felt called to start a women’s group – delving deeper into expansion, providing a sacred space for each other to share life journeys and amplify the sacred Feminine. I call this “soul support.” We all need it so much at this time (I know I do). How are you bringing or magnifying the love and light that is needed?

The Circle of Grandmothers and the net of light (netoflight.org) are quietly capturing attention and bringing the support of the sacred to those who feel they need additional support and clarity. Magic is happening where the Grandmothers are working with groups and individuals to anchor the net of spiritual light and love for our planet. I call on the Grandmothers many times each day.

My forays into the woods, the mountains, and the mystical right now are so rich. I’m hearing from others that this is the same for them. Growth, connection to the Sacred and to Mother Earth seem to be accelerating.

In my life, it has also been a time of grief and transition. Others are also opening to their own grief (both old and fresh), and learning how to let it rise to the surface, hold it, observe it, and hear what it may have to say to them. The journey is a deepening one and very expansive – connecting us to all beings. (This article by Jack Kornfield is lovely.)

IMG_3012Solstice has just passed and we are heading toward the full Buck Moon (or Thunder Moon). In August, a total eclipse of the sun is attracting solar tourists and driving prices for lodging way up due to the number of people who want the “best seat” for this event.

Each of these occurrences serves to remind us of greater forces all around us. Perhaps their message is to look up and out, or dive deeper – beyond the hubbub of distractions to what is greater than we are. Look beyond what is clambering all around you to see the cosmic backdrop, the sacred sea stretching out beyond the horizon. As a trusted guide recently said to me, “Pay attention.” The Sacred is right in front of us if we just open our eyes to see.

Let’s dive in together,
Karen

Sacred Training Ground(lessness)

“Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet,
to realize our dream of constant okayness….
But when…we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation
and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment….”  

– Pema Chodron

For many years, whenever my household had a financial surplus for a moment, it seemed a law of the universe that a car would break down and use it up. It didn’t seem fair at times, when friends’ lives appeared to be much more abundant. They took vacations, they celebrated special occasions in style. The benefit, however, was that this “life close to the edge” kept me always returning to my Source for comfort.

In those days, we named our Source our “Higher Power” and we found solace, guidance, strength, and peace each time we humbly returned to this spiritual well. Sometimes we found our Source in prayer and meditation, oftentimes we found these things in the words of other people – while they lovingly advised us or as they told of their own pain, struggle, or joy.

A belief that I lived by then was to “live simply.” This elevated my lack of abundance to a more spiritual simplicity – though I was never tempted to embrace the concept of “voluntary poverty.” I was fairly certain that abundance had its place, too, alongside simplicity.

Anyway, these days in a similar pattern, I’m recognizing that each time I reach a place in which it feels like I’ve finally integrated a spiritual concept that I’ve been struggling with for years, life seems to offer a challenge to put our integrity and groundedness to the test.

In the world of “manifesting” what we focus upon, I hope I’m not somehow calling for these challenges. If so, it is time to figure that one out – and soon!

No sooner do I have the sense of “Wow! I finally understand this!” that in the next breath the challenge appears. I guess if life is really and truly our spiritual training ground, this could make sense (though it seems kind of brutal!)

Pema Chodron print Etsy
Rebecca Borrelli, artist

In the midst of our most recent crisis, on an evening in which I felt my foundation shaking, my loving daughter sent my husband some encouraging notes. The last image she sent was beautiful – like a lovely Zen tangle. I zoomed in to read the words that encircled an image of waves crashing within a turbulent sea. It read, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.” Tears of recognition rimmed my eyes.

I read it again. This simple statement from wise woman, Pema Chodron, calmed and centered me. It reminded me that when overwhelming challenges arise, though they blow us off course and tear everything apart, they help us to grow. Though we would never knowingly wish for such chaos, they raise before us the possibility that maybe the goal is not to “have it all together.” Perhaps the goal is, when we are a shaken to pieces, to learn how to lovingly hold each tiny shard that’s been tossed, turned, broken, and tossed again. Perhaps it is also to recognize the calm, unmoving center in the storm.

So my daily practice, as we walk through this turbulent landscape together, is to ask: “Which places within need the most love and care today? And how shall I hold and honor them today – in myself and in my fellow journeyers?” In stillness, the answers arise for the moment.

Sigh. It is really pretty basic, isn’t it? And then I laugh at how complicated I make it.

The “Other” Way Counts

I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

                                   – Walt Whitman

The words of the poem, above, were printed on a poster that hung on my wall during high school. I think they were somehow emblazoned on my teenage soul, too, and have stayed with me.

I have so many friends and relatives who, in one way or another, deal with being “other” everywhere they go. They don’t quite fit. They don’t have a traditional career or any career. They are retired, but they don’t fit with the bridge group or the church circle. They are part of a spiritual tradition, but they don’t feel comfortable. They are not part of any spiritual tradition, but they know there is something more to life than what meets the eye, something deeper.

It isn’t a coincidence that my fellow sangha member, family members, classmates, acquaintances, and neighbors fall in this category. So do I. My life has been a richly woven tapestry – its patterns and circuitous routes often seeming without a unifying scheme. Good and bad, up and down, try this, now that, and so on. But as this website indicates, there is a common thread that runs through it all. I call that thread my spiritual path.

These days, I am integrating all kinds of things that I have learned from all kinds of places. I see the golden thread between traditions and non-traditions sparkling like crazy. One friend calls this “energy.” Yes. That’s it. Another friend calls this “God,” another “Vibration,” and another “Goddess.” Yes. Yes. Yes. Another says it is silence, mystery. One of my less spiritually-oriented friends calls it health and fitness, another “art.” Many call it nature. A teacher calls it the landscape of our dreams.

Each of these people is sorting out what it means to live in such a way that his or her life is in harmony with a higher purpose. They have each tried the traditional path and often it didn’t work, or some part of it doesn’t work. They were miserable. I say, “Yay, misery!” Very often it is a gift that sends us in our new direction.

Sequoia hikeYesterday, I was part of a discussion in which a room full of people shared this sense of “social dis-harmony” – or being out of step with traditional values. I could hear the struggle, which is often my struggle: the challenge to believe that our Way counts. Maybe a person gets paid for what he/she does, or maybe does not. Perhaps a person has a degree of fame or appreciation and maybe they’re completely unknown to the world. Is their way valid? Perhaps they have a plan or goal or perhaps they don’t. Maybe, instead of a goal, the present moment, lived mindfully or peacefully or with joy, is the whole reward.

I know that one thing I’ve learned on my circuitous route is that it IS real, it does count. I know this, because my pay is in my inner well-being, not cash. The real currency of this journey is good vibration, grace, peace, wholeness. Whatever our higher path or purpose, living true to it affects EVERYTHING.

Tending the Flame

candleWe are children quickly tired:
children who are up in the night and fall asleep as the rocket is fired;
and the day is long for work or play.
We tire of distraction or concentration, we sleep and are glad to sleep.
Controlled by the rhythm of blood and the day and the night and the seasons.
And we must extinguish the candle, put out the light and relight it;
Forever must quench, forever relight the flame.
Therefore we thank Thee for our little light, that is dappled with shadow.
We thank Thee who hast moved us to building, to finding,
to forming at the ends of our fingers and beams of our eyes.

– T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”

Some seasons are about tending the flame. We want to prove to others that we are worthy – of love, attention, appreciation. Others of us need to be needed. And one way to be needed is to make oneself indispensable…which also requires a lot of activity. Historically, this is how I’ve spent my time.

I’m noticing, though, that recently things have started to change. I’m less concerned about showing my worth by doing. And, remarkably, I’m beginning to actually know that it is better for the people around me and the people I love to do their own work, whatever that may be. I don’t need to be indispensable.

When I tend my own inner flame, it means taking time – to breathe, to exercise, to create nutritious meals, to rest and play creatively. I’m finding that I’m less interested in teaching and more interested in absorbing and observing.

One part of me that I’m beginning to trust and rely on is “the Observer.” She is quiet, centered and peaceful all of the time. I can rely on her as a steady presence who isn’t swept away by mood or emotion. She notices those things, but stands outside of them trusting that “all shall indeed be well.” She seems to have one foot in this world and one in a higher realm, a place of knowing.

I was listening to a teacher last night who said, in giving advice for spiritual growth, to take some time to meditate and go outside each day, and then “be a bit lazy.” Hearing this actually affirmed what I’ve been doing lately. I’ve been trying to break the cycle of go, go, go – seeking to live a life that is more about “being” than “doing.”

Spiritually speaking, I often feel like I should be doing more – reading another book, studying another teacher, integrating another practice. Yet part of me knows that this is not the way.  Less is truly more. Simply being fully present in the moment is actually all we need to do.

So here’s some advice that I’d like to pass on: “Be a bit lazy.” Take the time to breathe and be aware. Here. Now. That’s it. Relax and enjoy the ride. Allow beauty to draw you in, and joy to touch your heart. Let your rest be peaceful and luxurious. Soak in the splendor of this moment. And again, just breathe. That’s what I plan to be doing.mandala

Autumn Leaves

_ACT5558When things are shaky and nothing is working,
we might realize that we are on the verge of something.
We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place,
and that tenderness can go either way.
We can shut down and feel resentful
or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.” 

― Pema ChödrönWhen Things Fall Apart:
Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times

It has been a while since I have put pen to paper. It may be that I have been:

  • scattered
  • in the midst of seasonal change
  • confused (When someone I’m close to is struggling, I’m not sure how to stay in my own stuff.)
  • distracted

It is possible that the scattered and distracted energy I have been experiencing is more or less on purpose. If I’m scattered, then I don’t have to focus on what is really going on inside or around me. If I’m distracted – by tasks, urgent emails and phone calls, silly addictive computer games, and so on – then I can stay somewhat numb. After one is substance-free, food isn’t the only thing we can use to numb out!

So today, in this lovely fall weather, in the quiet and somewhat solitary journey I find myself on – instead of being distracted, busy, confused, I’m just hanging out with myself. When painful thoughts or feelings arise, instead of slamming them down like those little whack-a-mole, pop-up games in the arcade, I’m trying to soften into them.

Having compassion for ourselves sometimes means stopping completely when we’ve been going full-tilt on our favorite numbing behaviors. Sometimes seated meditation is just sitting still and breathing – allowing what we feel to be there without running from it.

Can I love and accept everything that bubbles up inside and just let it be? Gently sitting with ourselves with the same unconditional acceptance that we find for others is often the most powerful therapy we can experience.

I know about this. I’m sitting here meeting each temper tantrum, screaming fear with love…and it is the most peaceful I have been in weeks (or months).

Welcome autumn. Let the leaves fall. I’m just going to observe them them and maybe even find some beauty in the process.

Strange, But True

Few things can make us feel crazier than expecting something from someone who has nothing to give. Few things can frustrate us more than trying to make a person someone he or she isn’t; we feel crazy when we try to pretend that person is someone he or she is not. We may have spent years negotiating with reality concerning particular people from our past and our present….
– Melody Beattie, The Language of Letting Go

Hmmmmmmm…. During my morning meditation today, this passage (one I have read many, many times) returned to me. This time, I was not thinking about a particular person, but about all people, every situation.

I think the dominant motivator in my life has been to try to keep everyone around me happy and well – and the bonus for me is that I then feel needed. There is some completely insane part of my brain that believes that I can do this – keep others happy (and well)! But when has it succeeded? With my parents? My ex-spouse? My kids, siblings, and extended family? My workplace? The world? Again, I say, “Hmmmmm….” And then I have to let out a big sigh and step back.

Is anyone else like me?

In Melody Beattie’s reflection, above, she goes on to say, “We take responsibility for our life. We go ahead with the process of loving and taking care of ourselves.” Essentially, she states, “We detach in love.” So, we take care of ourselves, we continue loving, we forgive whatever needs forgiving, and we allow the other person to live his or her own life, to learn their own lessons – painfully or with grace – and find their own growth and truth. And she reassures us that we can give ourselves permission to do what we need to allow this to occur.

Growing up in an alcoholic household, that is not how we rolled. We learned to control things – be quiet, be funny, be helpful, be conversational, be heroic – all depending on the family’s mood. It was our job to make peace, make harmony, to bring happiness. The trait is deeply ingrained.

Strangely, the question that ultimately opens up, when we stop doing all of this is, “If I’m now taking responsibility only for myself – no longer focusing on others and controlling the world – do I have any clue how to be happy?” Often, my answer has been, “No. I don’t have a clue.”

In this, I’m guessing everybody’s response will be quite different. In the past, discovering the answer has meant making some radical shifts in my life. Today, it seems more simple. It means getting out of my head and more into my body – yoga, walking, swimming, breathing, and nourishing with wholesome foods. It means opening my eyes to the beauty around me and soaking it in. Living with gratitude for the love and friendship in my life. Staying in the moment instead of the past or future.

And for me, it means holding with tenderness the place inside that needs to be needed in order to feel worthy. Sometimes that involves recognizing the child-Self that needs some extra love and attention. It always means having compassion.

Byron Katie talks about “Loving What Is.” Whatever is churning around inside is my reality at this moment. Whatever is spinning around in the world around me is also reality. It is craziness to think we need to change it. It is what it is.

imageThe hilarious part is that – instead of fighting or fixing – all of it is transformed (changed) by recognizing and lovingly accepting our reality and moving on from there. Who knew?

Spiritual Journeying in Northern California

It was already late/ enough, and a wild night, / and the road full of fallen / branches and stones. / But little by little, / as you left their voices behind, / the stars began to burn / through the sheets of clouds, / and there was a new voice / which you slowly recognized as your own, / that kept you company / as you strode deeper and deeper / into the world, / determined to do / the only thing you could do – / determined to save / the only life you could save.                                            – from Mary Oliver, The Journey

Here’s a quick and somewhat disjointed reflection on my first week of study in interfaith spiritual direction at Chaplaincy Institute, Berkeley:

Last week at this time, the Campanile on the Cal Berkeley campus would be chiming 7:00 p.m. It would just be starting to turn cool and, from my “holy hill” window, I might see the marine layer of fog forming in the distance. The memory provides a stark contrast to the dry 106 degree weather-reality this evening, here in Bakersfield.

What a rich week of experience, learning and “being.” I wasn’t sure if I would love the course or hate it. My reaction to things like this tend not to be “in the middle”! Upon arriving at the funky, comfortable classroom – located in a section of a church gymnasium with a wood floor, large worn rug and numerous worn couches – I had the chance to encounter my fellow classmates for the first time.

We didn’t waste much time before sharing and listening to one another – practicing the skills of listening with open hearts and minds. We began to discover that our fellow journeyers were fascinating folks. The conversations that ensued falls under the veil of solemn sharing – so I won’t recount much in the way of anecdotes. But the diversity of my fellow students – from traditional Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic to Unitarian, Wiccan, Jewish, and Buddhist – was powerful. Not that such variety is unusual, but that such openness and respect from all these varied directions is rare indeed.

Each student was open to learning from the others and from the speakers who shared with us. During this first unit we heard from a Wiccan high priestess, a Daoist priest, and a Hindu Swami. As a group, we “sampled” some of each tradition so that spoken word became sacred experience. This, for me, is part of the wonder and excitement of being a part of this process.

We also, as I said, began to learn some of the skills we will employ as “spiritual directors” or spiritual mentors, and guides. I was glad to hear our instructor say that the historic and traditional term “spiritual direction” is problematic because what we do is largely non-directional. To me, that was great news!

Our time with clients is about “deep and mindful listening.” The spiritual (non-) director’s most important job is to hold space for the other person as he or she encounters the sacred or explores mystical energies. We are here to witness and accompany the other on the journey.

It was also affirming to discover that each of us seems to have gifts and experiences that have prepared us to do this. For many of us, our spiritual experience has been our lifeline through life’s challenges and trials.

By carefully opening doors and removing the barriers, we begin to embark upon this journey together. We get ourselves out of the way and let the mystical encounter begin.

I love being a part of a small group of people who have chosen to make this experience, study and practice a part of our growth over the next eighteen months. We are chaplains, therapists, hospice volunteers, clergy, artists and ordinary human beings on spiritual journeys. We are wise, foolish, whole, wounded, veterans and beginners. But we each share openness to experiencing the Divine, the sacred, the energy that vibrates through the universe. Who knows where it will take us?

May the unfolding begin….

Ari Bhöd

It is hard to describe my visits to Ari Bhöd*. It is a bit of an adventure just bumping up the winding dirt road to get there. But it is hard to encapsulate the experience. I can tell you what I’ve done when up there…

On my first visit:

  • Watched four Tibetan lamas create a sand mandala & listened to them chant a prayer and blessing

And as a volunteer:

  • Cleaned bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen of winter dust and mouse droppings
  • organized a couple of freezers
  • organized closets and bedding into categories – family guests, lamas, and rimpoche
  • climbed up the hillside to cut fir branches for the smoke offering
  • ate wonderful food
  • learned to clean and fill butter lamps

The activities have been oddly fun and invigorating but fairly mundane on the surface. Each time I go up there I lose track of time, feel peaceful, and as my friend, Marilyn, puts it, “experience of sense of spaciousness.” Good, sustaining energy.

I am not sure of a purpose for my time there, but I feel strongly drawn. Images that remain:

  • White smoke above snowy ground billowing out of the outdoor fireplace chimney (Joey told me the name for this stove, but I’ve forgotten)
  • Prayer flags blowing in the strong mountain wind with crisp blue sky as a backdrop
  • Evergreen boughs on the ground and the sound of the machete as branches are trimmed and cut
  • Linnea (and Yeshe) in the kitchen brewing up nourishing and enlightening foods
  • The 3-D mandala, Zangdok Palri
  • The wonderful scent in the empty temple
  • Radiant faces and smiles

And each time I visit, the lingering sense of peace. The soul-support for just being.

* Ari Bhod is a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center that hosts guests, visiting monks, lamas, and rimpoches. They host a summer camp for Tools for Peace. They are home to several stunning and unique mandalas, including at least two three dimensional mandalas. The center has many volunteers and a small group of residents. It was founded by the Venerable Lama Chödak Gyatso Nubpa.

Savoring the Sweet Life

Big SurIt is interesting that staying grounded, and not living inside my head too much for the past week and a half has meant not writing. Hmmmmm… What’s that about? I’ve been on many little adventures and celebrated another year of life. What a lovely little chapter it has been.

On my birthday, a friend celebrated with John and me. Gifts of music, beauty and art seem to have come my way from friends and loved ones: a CD of a favorite group (Wailin’ Jennys) and a soft t-shirt, a bottle of sparkling water, a yummy bar of dark chocolate, pens, pencil, pretty journal and drawing paper, watercolor pencils (fun!), and a GUITAR (and folk music books to go with it)! Everyone seems to see this as a creative year ahead.

I packed all of my goodies in my car the day after my birthday and headed up to a time of silent retreat with my friend. We talked all the way up there – catching up on what we’ve each been doing and getting the words out of our system. We shared where the Sacred has been nudging us both.

Okay, so Big Sur is a pretty fabulous place to go for a silent retreat. Who needs words there? Upon our arrival at the top of a small mountain looking out over the sea, we popped out of the car. Inside the small office/bookshop, we discovered: a lack of silence, slight disorganization, a delightfully flaky woman, some monastic granola and fruitcake and everything from rosaries and Thomas Merton books to incense, sage and wooden prayer beads. I had to get myself a little stretchy bracelet full of wooden prayer beads. Awesome!

Then each of our super cool little rooms were more spacious and comfy than we had expected – with a wall of windows at one end looking out at the view and our own little backyard complete with a plastic chair, flowers, birds and a spectacular view. We bowed, “goodbye and Namaste” and each took to our rooms – both happy campers.

So much happens when you are in silence. I tried to write down all I had done in that first half day (including taking a nap) and the list was long. Reading a memoir and some sacred writing, lighting a candle, trying out my prayer beads, sitting in the sun and watching the world, just BEING. Sigh. Soaking in the peace.

San SimeonA highlight for me was that this retreat (unlike my last one) actually brought me back to my home practice of yoga. The last one shook me up, showed me my vulnerabilities, threw me off balance. This one nurtured me and helped me live in my yogi skin up there on the mountain. At sunset the first night, I cleared a little desk and covered it with a scarf, placing a glass candle holder in the center. I lit it. I unrolled my purple yoga mat and pulled out my little list for home practice. I found my center and felt the energy streaming through as the sun got lower and the sky turned pink and orange over the water. Whew! Just awesome.

I could go on for pages about just those three days.

A few other highlights include: Both of us realizing that (though we had some trepidation upon arrival) we could have done several more days of silence; the good feeling of hiking up and down the two mile driveway until our calves ached and looking at the turquoise water and ocean of fog below us, alternately. Also, on the drive home, in addition to laughter and good music, we shared a terrific meal in the sun and a carefree hike along the bluffs before San Simeon. Then home to my sweet husband and a fun evening laughing and sharing the “good vibrations” from Big Sur.

Sunset on retreatMore about the rest of the week later. Right now, I’m just basking in joy, gratitude and savoring the sweetness of life. Hope you are too!

If I were to pray…

If I were to pray,
I would ask the life energy that buzzes inside to grow.
I would feel it as it touches each molecule and vibrates on,
out beyond the boundary of my skin…
Life, vibrancy,
At the heart of every moment
Light that erases angerdoubtjealousydepressionresentmentandonandonandon
Light that burns my universe clean and opens my heart.
Breathe in this moment.
Greet the breeze, the blossom, the birds,
Greet the motorcycle, the leaf blower, the truck turning too close to where you stand.
Send your fear down into the earth where it may be healed and transformed.
Bring it back up as a spring bubbling up with new life.
If I were to pray,
I would feel the light, the energy that holds you and holds me in one embrace
and I would know that you are held by a beauty, a force, so vast
that nothing could ever do anything but
multiply
our joy.

Amen.

– Karen Gatlin, February 2014