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For these last days in December, I am participating in a blogging challenge http://www.reverb10.com/, which is an annual event and online initiative to reflect on your year and manifest what’s next.  Reverb provides writing prompts to elicit my reflections on 2010 and to generate my intentions for 2011.

PROMPT:  December 21 – Future Self. Imagine yourself five years from now. What advice would you give your current self for the year ahead? (Bonus: Write a note to yourself 10 years ago. What would you tell your younger self?) (Author: Jenny Blake)

You know what, I have stopped doing this.  I have stopped imagining the future and planning for the future in a way that compromises my present.  Think I am joking?  Call my financial advisor.  I recently cashed a retirement fund with the click of a mouse button.  I did not need the money for anything specific or any sort of financial mess that I am in.  I just wanted it.   My intention for that money is to help me become the person that I want to be TODAY because I am not that person yet.  And it is time to be her.  So what have I done with some of that money?  I have enrolled in a professional herbalist program that hopefully will lead me to acupuncture or naturopath school, because I would like to be an authentic healer for my family and community.  I am holding on to some money so that I can enroll in a course to become a certified yoga instructor.  I have taken a recent retreat for myself and I am going to do it again until I am all retreated out.  I am going to get a tattoo that I have wanted for a long time.  I treated my husband to a really great pizza in Asheville, NC a couple of weeks ago. I purchased some clothes and shoes that actually fit my current body…not the body that I want to be or the body that I once was.  Besides, what was that money doing anyway?  Expanding and contracting in imaginary ways in an imaginary account for some future that may or may not happen.

So what advice would I give myself for the current year?  STOP LOOKING AHEAD.  Be here now.

We have been told that we must plan, save, project, aspire.  But no one ever told us to just BE.  I am telling you now.  Just Be.  Warning: this may hurt, but look up from this screen and look around.  What is around you now?  The felty grey walls of a cubicle?  A messy kitchen?  Are these places where you want to be?  Are there people around you that you wish were not around you?  Worse yet, are there people you wish were around you right now who are not?

Even worse than that, are you, the person you want to be, the one who is missing?

In 2010, I discovered that I was missing.

For 2011, I have set the intention to find the person that I want to be.  I had to step out of my financially responsible self to do it.  I have also had to step out of my people-pleasing, comfort-seeking self to start to shed the situations in my life that are no longer working for me.

Are you ready to transform the place where you are into the place where you want to be?  What needs to be shed from you?  What needs to be found for you?

Now for the “bonus” portion of the writing prompt:  Write a note to yourself 10 years ago. What would you tell your younger self?

Dear 23-year-old self,

Your plans are solid and in place and what everyone has ever wanted for you.  They are the plans that you want for you.  But do yourself a favor.  Stop planning.  Put the becoming aside and let life awaken your true self.

Love,

Your 33-year-0ld self who is learning as she goes and grateful for every moment of it.

[Image from here]

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For these last days in December, I am participating in a blogging challenge http://www.reverb10.com/, which is an annual event and online initiative to reflect on your year and manifest what’s next.  Reverb provides writing prompts to elicit my reflections on 2010 and to generate my intentions for 2011.

December 20 – Beyond Avoidance

PROMPT:  What should you have done this year but didn’t because you were too scared, worried, unsure, busy or otherwise deterred from doing? (Bonus: Will you do it?)

Oh crap.  I signed up for this?  I mean, do you all have a few hours?  Because the response to this prompt could be long.  Grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine because my mind is already racing by categorizing all the ways that I fell short…let’s see…every day I make choices in my mothering that I regret because I am too busy.  Sometimes I throw pizza at my daughter instead of showing her ways to incorporate beautiful, healthy food into a meal because I am returning phone calls or rotating laundry or…you name it.  We all do.  And the truth is, those phone calls never really do get made, the laundry is never quite done, and so it is something that has the nutritional value of pizza again for dinner!

Even now, I cannot give what I want to this post because I have a conference call in an hour.  And I feel horrible.  Scattered.  Like everything only gets a fraction of my attention.

So what should I have done in 2010 but didn’t?

FORGIVE MYSELF.

This is life.  My life is going to be in a thousand directions at times and I perpetuate that momentum with my guilt.  The lists only get longer.  I SHOULD, I SHOULD, I SHOULD…

No.  Stop. Forgive myself.

Stop.  Forgive yourself.

Be joyous.  Make a mark on the wall that indicates how high the laundry piled this week.  Who knows?  Maybe next week it will be even higher.  Consider it a gain, not a problem.  Consider the abundance in that moment.  We have all of those clothes, and loving family members to wear and dirty those clothes!  I need to tell myself:  You are not short on time, you are just rich in life.

So if you did not do that in 2010, the forgiveness part, do it in 2011.  I intend to.  The laundry will get done, I promise.  Well…maybe not mine.

I am not sure why I am thinking now of the time, two years ago, when I was sitting with a hospice patient on Easter Sunday.  We sat in a tiny room in a high-rise apartment building overlooking Lake Erie.  She was tiny and fidgety in an over sized hospital bed, while I sat in a folding chair beside her bookshelf.  From time to time we would hold hands and stare into each other’s eyes.  She was so comfortably familiar to me, and I did not know why until I studied her shelves full of haphazardly placed books.  It was almost identical, book for book, to my own collection of books.  Well-worn volumes of poetry, books on meditation, Buddhism, Catholicism, human rights, saints and mystics and the occasional beloved work of fiction filled the dusty spaces.  I would read to her and watch her eyes light up before she fell into a light doze, only to awaken again for more.  This went on for several hours.  I remember feeling ease and delight sitting next to her, listening to her sporadic breathing.  This was exactly how I wanted to spend my Easter Sunday.  Witnessing the dying process summons a sense of resurrection in me and is a reminder to seek life in every moment.  To find it in the shadows and the light, in the tangible and the abstract.

Hanging on the wall above the head of her bed was a poem I had never seen before entitled Desiderata. Suddenly I knew.  This was not my hospice patient.  She was a messenger.

And I thought on that Easter Sunday in a tiny room by Lake Erie in a folding chair that I was offering  my hands to hold. Instead I realized that she was holding mine.

Desiderata – Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.

Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

[Image from here]

What distracts you from using your God Eyes?

Watching this 5 minute video will change the eyes you use to see, at least for today.  It reminds me of a rule that I have learned to live by:  the most important thing to know about a person is what you do not know.

I honor the place in you where Spirit lives.  I honor the place in you which is of Love, of Truth, of Light, of Peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, then we are One.

Namaste.


Sophia, pointing to a large and obvious church on our drive home from Trader Joe’s, asked “Who lives there again?”

“Oh, nobody lives there,” I answered.  “Many people like to go there to pray to God or Jesus.”

“I know all about Jesus, but who is God?”  she asked again.

“God is not a who,” I replied after holding my breath because honestly, I am more equipped to answer the question of how babies are made to a 4-year-old than Who Is God.

But somehow it came to me.  “God is the love that you have inside of you.  The love for all the things and people of the world and even beyond the world.  Never forget that you are God, that everyone is God.”

After a moment of thought she spoke.  “Some of the boys in my preschool do not have God inside them.”

I laughed for a second then realized the opportunity.  “Yes they do, Sophia.  If you practice using your God eyes, you will see it.”

[Image from Here]

My daughter loves to look through a book of art by Alex Grey called Sacred Mirrors.  The other day she stared long and hard at the page that features the painting below and ran her hand over the side that represents the agony of the modern world.

“Ohhhhhhhh,” she said on an exhale.  “I better try and fix that.”

At  4 Am on Saturday morning, I stood by my friend Michelle’s bed in our hotel room and watched her crawl out.  When she straightened up, our eyes met and we laughed.  We had never really spoken about the true circumstances we were in.  There we were, two almost-middle-aged women, each a little more fleshy than we want to be, with less than a dozen triathlons behind us, about to find our selves at the starting line of a half-Ironman.

Neither of us were surprised–Michelle and I have a long list of craziness behind us–but it was still funny.  I wonder if we had the appropriate amount of ESP when we were younger, we could have used it each time we got in trouble for acting up or talking in class.  Perhaps Michelle could have told our thin and serious 9th grade English teacher, “Look, make me sit in the hallway for talking to Amy again if you want, but someday we are going to do a Half-Ironman together, so we still have a lot to talk about, dude.”  Perhaps we would have been granted the time to talk ourselves out of it.

Michelle and Amy

But no, it was race morning and we had to put all of our sacrifice of training to the test.  We had to put our fleshy parts to the test.  We had to put our minds to the test.  Our last task was to ask all of those parts of ourselves to be iron on that day.  We were looking for pure alchemy:  flesh to iron.

Speaking of training, guess which part of the training was my favorite?  The swimming.  I was amazed at the times I could pull off swimming, 2000, then 2500, then 3000 yards.  Every time I got out of the pool after a training session, someone would stop me and ask me where I learned how to swim like that.  I would shrug and say that I had no formal swim training.  That I once could not swim 25 yards.  But somehow I trained my body to do 3000 yards, and by the end of the training I could do it in a pool and I could do it in the open water.

Do you know which part of the half-Ironman almost killed me?  The swim.

I cannot explain what happened.  The water conditions were beautiful.  My mind knew that nothing was wrong and that I could easily do the distance, but my body refused to agree.  I had an actual physiological panic attack.  My chest was constricted and my throat was almost closed.  I stopped to tread water with more than a mile to go, I could not even see the end of the course, and I thought, there is no way.  I started fighting for every stroke, every breath.  Lifeguards in nearby kayaks watched me with alarm because I was clearly in distress.  One even said, “I am going to follow you for a while, okay?”  I gave him a grateful, watery nod.

Somehow I panicked and sputtered and gasped through 1.2 miles of water.  Somehow I got out at the end of the swim course, physically exhausted.  Today, as I write this, I still have a strain in my chest when I take a full breath which tells me that I may have pushed that panic attack too far.  May have.  That was my true Alchemy of Flesh.

The faint pier in the distance was the swim start.

When my feet hit land, I knew gratitude alone could carry me through the 56-mile bike and the 13.1 mile run.  And it did.  This was my Alchemy of Spirit, which always proves to be way more powerful than flesh and mind.

On the bike course around mile 20, I caught up to Michelle.  I was surprised because she is a super swimmer and as fast on the bike as I am.  From two bike lengths behind her, I called, “Are you okay, Michelle?”  As I moved passed her she quickly told me that she had wiped out on the bike near mile 10 and that her handlebars were broken.  And then she said something that still brings tears to my eyes,  “How are you?”  What a question from someone who was obviously physically hurt, riding in the middle of nowhere on a broken bike, unsure of what the rest of the day would bring.  How are you? At this moment I knew my friend already had the Alchemy of Spirit needed to reach the finish line.

When I began the half-marathon portion of the race, I felt physically fantastic.  There can be no scientific reason for this.  None.  Something even bigger than the rules of physiology was feeding me.

I broke the half-marathon up into miles of gratitude.  I dedicated mile 1 to being thankful for my feet touching the ground.  Mile 2 was dedicated to Michelle who is solely responsible for urging me to test my limits.  I thanked her for always looking for what was beyond every circumstance in her life. How are you? I spent mile 3 missing my daughter, and thanking her for being such a trooper during the months of training.  Mile 4 through 10 were dedicated to my husband who gave me time and encouragement to take on such a challenge.  For always making sure my equipment was safe.  For making me laugh when I was scared and nervous. For rubbing my legs every night while telling me I was insane.  For proudly loving my insanity without question. Mile 11 was dedicated to everyone who wants to do something big and thinks they cannot.  I wished them the experience of their own alchemy of flesh and spirit.  I thought about the man with no legs who swam in the lane next to me almost every morning.  I thought about a friend with breast cancer, my mother-in-law with lymphoma, and everyone else who teaches me every day what it is takes to be iron.  I gave Mile 12 to the what seemed like 2000 volunteers out on the race course.   Mile 13 was spent thanking myself, because I do not do that enough.  The final tenth of a mile I gave to the huge, goofy grin on my face.

I think I will go back to being flesh for a while, in the comfortable skin of wife and mother and friend.  The truth is when you act like iron for a day, you never forget that you are.

Finisher

This past Sunday I had a particularly bad training day.  Not because anything went wrong, but it simply scared the pants off of me.  I had to do a 3000 yard open water swim and a 2.5 hour bike ride.  It just seemed like too much–I felt odd and claustrophobic in my wet suit and 3000 yards felt like it was so  long.  I spent the 2.5 hours on the bike analyzing what what was going wrong and what could go wrong.  Since that training session, I have been gripped, no paralyzed, with fear.

The Half-Ironman is this Saturday and it does not help that all participants are checking water and weather conditions every second, planning the logistics of the next 3 days and chatting about it online.  This is why triathlon is so much more of a mental and emotional feat than a running race could ever be.  There are so many variables.  A triathlete could face unsafe water conditions and a multitude of bike problems on race day.  If the athlete makes it to the run portion, there is no guarantee that his legs will cooperate after not touching the ground for 5 hours.  It is as if you were a newborn baby who has been floating for 9 months and someone puts you on the ground and says, “Ok.  Run.  A half-marathon. Go.”

And this is where the triathlon becomes one of the clearest spiritual metaphors.

Because the athlete has to let it go.

Eventually we freak ourselves out into a place where we have to say okay, I have trained and prepared without fail.  I have thought through everything possible.  The rest is out of my hands.

Then we are forced to call upon what we really learned during our training:  the mind must move out of the driver’s seat.  Because if we let the mind decide what the body can do, then we would have never made it past day one of training.  If we let the mind give weight to any issue then it gives our eyes permission to see it as a problem.  No, we must not allow the mind to direct our seeing.  We must allow, ALLOW, our will and spirit to tell the mind what is happening.  Not the other way around.

This is also how we, as spiritual beings, are called to live out our human existence.  We show up, most of us put in a lot of effort, and we often watch that effort fail or take us down an unexpected path.  We fight and fight until we are forced to realize that we are not driving our souls through this existence.  Our minds and intention may have set forth some very clear plans, but it does not matter.  We are forced to surrender, to be attentive, to be joyful in every step and even every fall.

If I never make it to the finish line on Saturday, it will not be because my mind told me I could not.  My body is prepared.  My intention and will are set to complete the race.  And the rest I have let go.

I suspect I will still be scared out of my mind every minute of the 8-hour race on Saturday.  I have set the intention to find joy in every swim stroke and pedal of my bike and step of the run.

If I fall, I will uncover the hidden joy there too.

Photo: Triathlete Julie Swail-Ertel after a training run in Irvine on July 15. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Happy 4th Birthday.

In the last year I discovered that you are not just my daughter.  You are a partner in a common vision.  All delight in the world gathers at your feet and you place it in my arms.  

Love,

Mama

This very moment is the perfect teacher.

Girl Before A Mirror--Pablo Picasso

“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
— Pema Chödrön