Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

What I Know of Forgiveness

Within with my loving-kindness work, I have and continue to endeavor to understand the notion of forgiveness. As a child I learned “forgive and forget” and it was easy enough to say the words of forgiveness, but I could never let go of the hurt in my heart. I felt that I failed in being a good person. I was also taught to “turn the other cheek.” I tried to live by those principles, but found myself taken advantage of, over and over. My heart was bruised and untrusting.
Years ago, I went to a workshop where I brought up how I felt foolish for letting people hurt me over and over again, citing the forgive and forget motto. My teacher looked at me, confused, and said, “Why would you forget? You don’t forget. You’d be foolish to forget.” It was a life altering moment for me. No one had ever said that to me before.

This post is not the answer to forgiveness as if there is only one answer, only one way, only one path. There are many paths and many ways and not all of them will work for you. This is the one that is working for me. This is my path to forgiveness. I share it in case any of my words can be of help to anyone else, in the way that it was to me.
I had it all wrong, thinking we were meant to “forgive and forget.” We are made to forgive, because people make mistakes, because we make mistakes. We are not meant to forget, or else how will we hold the person accountable when they repeat their hurtful behaviors?
I repeat, if we forget, how will we hold the person accountable if they repeat their hurtful behaviors? That makes sense. Then why forgive?
We don’t forgive someone because we’ve been taught it’s the right thing to do. We don’t forgive someone because other people are pressuring us to. An empty gesture is an empty gesture.
When we forgive someone, it is not about them. It is about us. We forgive them because we are ready to let go of the hurt in us. We forgive when our hearts need us to, when the hurt we hold onto hurts us. It doesn’t excuse the other person for their behavior. We don’t even have to tell them we’ve forgiven them. Because it’s about us.
If we wait for an apology before we release that pain, we anchor ourselves in it. What if the other party is never ready to apologize?

For me, apologies are not about solidifying who is right or who is wrong. At least, they shouldn’t be. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I am a huge fan of agreeing to disagree.
So if it’s not about someone being right, what is it about? Needing an apology is about needing the other person to acknowledge that they hurt you. Delivering an apology is about acknowledging that, whether intended or not, something you said or did hurt someone you care about.
If I offer an apology, I mean that I genuinely feel bad that I hurt someone and I acknowledge that the behavior was not appropriate for my relationship with that person, and I make a promise not to repeat it. At the same time I ask the other person to hold me responsible in case I do by pointing it out to me when I do it. Re-patterning doesn’t happen overnight.
When someone apologizes to me, I make sure I explain to them what it means to me. I offer them time to think about it and come back to me. I have learned my own worth and no longer say “It’s all right,” in an effort to make the person who hurt me feel better. The apology isn’t enough. Their actions afterwards matter more than their words.

Moving Forward
The last time I had to confront someone about how they hurt me (again), he offhandedly apologized so that we could “move on”… I told him that if he apologized to me, it was an agreement that he would never treat me that way again, that by apologizing he was acknowledging that his behavior was bad for our relationship.
I threw him off by not just saying “It’s all right,” like I had every other time. But it offered us a real moment of connection. I don’t know if he’ll follow through on his end and I have no control over that. But I feel like, for the first time, I have laid the groundwork for not accepting that behavior from him again.
Forgiveness will happen when I am ready to give it. I have forgiven the dead for hurts done to me, without regretting that they were not still alive to hear it. I have also made apologies to the dead, without condemning myself for not being able to put it into words sooner.
I have forgiven people I hope to never see again, because the trust they broke can never be repaired. And yet, for the actions they took, I have found a way to forgive them for the pain they caused, in order to free myself from the feeling of being victim, to take any power they held over me back for myself. No amount of hate can undo the past, but I do not have to live in it.

If you forgive someone, it doesn’t mean you have to trust them again. And just because someone apologizes, it doesn’t mean you have to forgive them. If you are still sitting in your hurt and your heart has not softened towards them, it’s not time yet. Forgiveness will happen when you are ready to give it. Just remember that our hearts are not meant to stay hard forever. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Awakening Your Heart with Metta

The practice of Metta, of loving-kindness, began for me with a series of repetitive spoken meditations. The basic premise is simple enough: to have awareness of your emotional state, awaken your heart to gentleness and teach it to have compassion for yourself, loved ones, acquaintances and people you have difficulty with. I performed a twenty minute meditation every night before bed, wherever I was.
Besides being generally more relaxed and patient, and sleeping well, this work has gifted me the confidence to trust my own intuition. Maybe it was just the act of meditating every night that opened the door to reconnecting with my personal voice, but it was the decision to learn loving-kindness that brought me my awakening and I have gratitude for it.
I have my voice. I can express my thoughts and opinions without caring if people disagree with me or criticize me for what I think. If I want to be able to have faith in what I believe and share those beliefs, I have to allow others to do the same. Their differing opinions are not about me, but are woven from their lessons and life experiences.
We are all threads in the beautiful tapestry of life. Instead of getting upset or hurt, I use my compassion to seek clarification, so that disagreements breed conversation and discussion, which in turn allow my thoughts and beliefs to grow. I find myself acting from a place of kindness, and no longer out of fear.

How Awakened is Your Heart?
Or, I could also say, how present are you in your body? I use this exercise as a test to gauge the connection between my emotional and physical body, which helps me stay mindful. Relax and place your hand over your chest. As you say these three phrases slowly, one at a time, pay attention to your breath and your emotional responses.
Inhale. Say “May I be well” on the out-breath.
Inhale. Say “May I be happy” on the out-breath.
Inhale. Say “May I be free from suffering” on the out-breath.
Repeat multiple times.
If the words sound mechanical falling off your lips, you need to open a bit more to connect to your heart chakra. If you are overly emotional from the go, you will want to do them with the focus being control instead of opening.

Meditations for Loving-kindness
These meditations are based on the ones I learned from Whispering Deer. Spend however long feels right for you at each step until you feel genuine compassion blossoming in your heart. Be mindful and present with the words you are speaking.

Self: This is often the hardest step for those who are raised in Western Culture. Speak each of these phrases out loud. Reflect on how you feel after each one. Listen to catches and tremors in your voice that reveal your emotional state. Like a soft-focus gaze, you want to feel the edges around your heart soften as you repeat it:
May I be happy.
May I be peaceful.                  
May I have the causes of happiness.
May I be safe.
May I be protected from harm.
May I be healthy.
May I be strong.         
May I care for myself.
May I live in peace and harmony.
            May I accept myself exactly as I am.
This meditation is to be repeated, until you feel a softness in the heart. This is the start of having loving-kindness for the self. While it is easier to have compassion for others in our society, we cannot take care of others until we can take care of ourselves. Revisit this meditation again, once you have mastered the others.

Loved Ones: This should be someone you are close to and have an easy relationship with, someone you have loving feelings for.
May [name of loved one] I be happy.
May [name of loved one] be peaceful.                       
May [name of loved one] have the causes of happiness.
May [name of loved one] be safe.
May [name of loved one] be protected from harm.
May [name of loved one] be healthy.
May [name of loved one] be strong.  
May [name of loved one] care for myself.
May [name of loved one] live in peace and harmony.
            May I accept [name of loved one] exactly as they are.

Neutral Acquaintance: Think of someone you interact with, maybe not every day, but regularly, but not someone you know deeply.
May [name of neutral person] be happy.
May [name of neutral person] be peaceful.               
May [name of neutral person] have the causes of happiness.
May [name of neutral person] be safe.
May [name of neutral person] be protected from harm.
May [name of neutral person] be healthy.
May [name of neutral person] be strong.      
May [name of neutral person] care for myself.
May [name of neutral person] live in peace and harmony.
            May I accept [name of neutral person] exactly as they are.

Difficult Person: This can be someone you have trouble having good feelings about in general, or someone who has acted hurtfully against you. I recommend doing this part at least twice. Start with someone you just have a bad feeling about and move onto someone who has hurt you.
May [name of person you hate] be happy.
May [name of person you hate] be peaceful.             
May [name of person you hate] have the causes of happiness.
May [name of person you hate] be safe.
May [name of person you hate] be protected from harm.
May [name of person you hate] be healthy.
May [name of person you hate] be strong.    
May [name of person you hate] care for myself.
May [name of person you hate] live in peace and harmony.
            May I accept [name of person you hate] exactly as they are.
Any time things become difficult and you feel agitated or constricted, ease out of it and return to a category or person that is easy for you.
Tips for Meditation
If you’re someone who falls asleep easily when you try to still yourself, let me assure you that it’s very common. It’s actually a way of your body throwing up resistance. It may be helpful to do these meditations with your knees bent upward, if you choose to lie down. If you start to fall asleep your legs will fall and wake you, and then you can slip back into wherever you remember leaving off with the meditation. Another thing you can do is to sit/lay with your thumb connected to another finger on the same hand. That physical touch will remind you subconsciously that you are meditating. They were both helpful tools in my early practice.

Wrapping Up
There is one final stage, which is to have gratitude for all sentient beings. By the time you are ready for that step you will most likely discover you already have those feelings of compassion within you. This work is slow work. It’s not an immediate relief. It’s difficult to unravel a lifetime of negative thinking. Allow yourself your feelings and be gentle. Never forget to hold compassion for yourself first, so that you may be able to offer it to the world around you.

            [Updated from an article originally published September 7, 2011.]

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Cultivating Loving-kindness

Eleven years ago, I attended a series of workshops that altered the course of my life. At my emotional core, I was full of pain and sadness. I did not know how to let go or forgive. New to my spiritual path, I didn’t yet understand the nature of faith. I know it now as a thing that religion has no ownership of. Faith exists without the need for temples, books, and miracles.
The woman leading the workshops, named Whispering Deer, walked us through the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness, also known as Metta. I was looking for that inner Zen, that place of peace inside me that hippies and yogis seemed to discover by sitting cross-legged with their hands on their knees and repeatedly humming to themselves- that was the only cultural visual I had to represent what I was looking for.
It’s amazing the stereotypes we create about things we simply don’t understand. These images act as resistance-barriers standing between us and the things we desire most. I wanted peace and compassion and yet I did not believe I deserved it. So I made fun of that idea of tranquility, as if to say, why would I want something so silly? Thus insuring I wouldn’t try for it… and fail. Again.
That weekend, listening to Whispering Deer’s story of transformation and seeing the person she had become standing before me, I finally believed that goal was possible for myself. And I wanted it more than I had wanted anything else in my life. I determined that if I could not find it inside myself, I would create it.

A new path bloomed before me.

The loving-kindness work I embarked on was a series of meditations to teach myself to have compassion. The side effect of the repetitive practice was the alteration in how I perceived events that happened around me. I had been stuck inside my own experience, and saw everything that happened as happening to me. It’s a nuanced line, and a change in inflection changes the meaning, but when you experience everything as happening to you, you cease to be in control of your world. You give that power up to the universe and put yourself at the mercy of its whims, like a ship adrift at sea. You become a victim of the world around you.
What I wanted was to be a part of the world with my hands firmly on the wheel. I wanted to be part of what was happening, of creating my own experiences. I dove into the lessons on compassion, spending 20 minutes in meditation every night, at the end of my day, just before bed. One of the things Whispering Deer told us was that the simplest Buddhist level of having compassion for oneself, was the hardest one for Westerners to master. She wasn’t wrong.
Embracing loving-kindness as a philosophy, requires you to build an awareness of how you respond to the events that occur in your life, and then to push into that awareness to understand those reactions. It’s a way of unlearning the way you have been taught to respond and discover your own intuitive way of walking through the world- which also requires that you be open to how different a path that might be.
If I step back and observe the world around me as a larger web, removing any personal attachments I have to how things work, I can see the pattern of emotional dialogue that plays out. We feel an emotion in our bodies and we react to it, at other people, without understanding where it came from or why we felt it in the first place. As a culture we lack awareness of our emotional bodies. How many times have you heard someone say, I don’t know why I feel the way I feel, I just do?
When we lash out against others because we feel a strong emotion, and we do it without seeking clarification, we commit acts of violence. Being angry/ frustrated/ irritated/ mad at anyone else is like sending out a tidal wave whiplash of your bad attitude. Others will feel it. Others will be hurt by it. I’m guilty of it. Whether you intended that hurt or not, you still have to own the responsibility for the effects of it. It’s why this path became so important to me. It’s why being a better version of myself became necessary.

This is a hard world we live in and it’s easy to be overwhelmed with the traumas, hurts, losses and failures we collect on our journeys. It’s no excuse for being careless with the people around us. Our world moves so fast and so quickly that, often, we feel like all we can do is tread water to keep from getting swept away or left behind.
Even our news headlines are sensationalized to best catch our attention and we’ve had to learn to accept exaggerations and misleading implications as truth. No wonder we get depressed by the world around us. This is a hard world, when everyone is only thinking of themselves. But it is a beautiful world, too, where people do work together and help each other out. In order to experience that, you have to be part of it. You have to participate in it.
We all have to be gentle with each other. We can afford to. We need to remember that we are not just individuals having a personal experience in this world. We need to remember that the face we put out into the world is how the world perceives us. We have to treat people the way we want to be treated. When faced with hard times and hard people, patience, compassion and gentleness are a better choice for the health of your own heart.

            [Originally published August 31, 2011.]

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Notion of Home

My childhood home.
It’s a bittersweet thing, to have the means and ability to travel on borrowed wings (and buses) to visit with people I love. It’s bittersweet to fill up with deep moments of words and stillness, of hugs and held hands, to have all of that and then to move on, leaving it behind. It’s bittersweet because it aches as much as it heals.
I think about the history we have on our ancestors, knowing that they lived in small groups in cities until someone was the first to leave their family behind, and start over somewhere new. And I know how it feels to move away and not have that support next door, or across the city. How must it have been before the automobile? Before the train, when five hundred miles meant a greater distance from one house to another?
Life is a series of flights, of migrations away from love while still moving towards it. We are always moving forward in spiraling circles, and when the love runs deep, we find ourselves returning to it to visit, even as we move away from it. Springs, coils, spirals. I am blessed to have left bits of my heart in so many beautiful places.
I am on my way home, on a bus, writing these words in a small notebook I carry with me. I was visiting home and I am on my way home. People get confused when I use that word for my destinations. When camping, I often call my cabin, tent or site home as well. Who does that? The truth is, I am home in me. Home is me. Home is where I am and who I love. I am on my way home and I am leaving home behind me, all at the same time.
When both things are true, when you accept that both things are true, the deeper notion of truth opens up worlds in your universe. I can be right without it having to mean that you are wrong. I can remember that what is known was once unknown and I can stare into the voids without fear, but with wonder and curiosity.
Across this threshold, possibility becomes hope and hope becomes the light I chase as it traverses the sky. Wherever I am, wherever we are, whatever home I inhabit, I mark time by the rising and setting of the sun. And yet, I know there is more to life than what I can see in my daily experiences. I can’t see it, I don’t see it, but I know it.
The light I watch makes a full revolution as the earth turns around the sun. Even when I can’t see it, I know it is still there, on the other side of the darkness. On the other side of the globe, someone else is watching that light when I am not. I don’t know them but I know they’re there. They also call it hope.
What else don’t we know? What else, and how much, lies beyond what we know?

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.
~Yoda, Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back

Our flesh is what’s known to us, binding what we call spirit in the edges of our skin. We spend our lives exploring them, discovering their purpose. And when we are satisfied with the flesh, we wonder at all that lays beyond it.
We gaze at the stars and we dream of their seemingly boundless space. And as our thoughts drift into the void, we find their reflection pulling us deeper within ourselves to our center, our original self… our origin story. There is so much life there, so much promise lies within us. No matter how far we find ourselves from our path, we can always touch it again and open the way.

“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
~George MacDonald, Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood

No matter how far we find ourselves from our path, we are never far from ourselves. Both things are true. We are the only home we will ever need. We carry it with us.
The earth rotates around the sun, the light in the sky I call hope. Be your own sun and shine. Share your light. Tell the people you love that they are your family. Breathe in. Let love be your greatest legacy. Let kindness be the only calling card you need. Every breath counts. Every choice matters. Every moment becomes part of your history. What story will you write?
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