Joy: An Ever-Present Possibility

Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.  We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.

~ Joseph Campbell

There is a provocative Buddhist story about a man who encounters a hungry tiger on his path.  The man turns and runs, as fast as he can, covering great distances with the tiger pursuing him – until he comes to the top of a cliff.  He looks back at the nearing tiger and decides to jump, catching hold of a vine coming out from the rock as he goes over.  As the man hangs by this vine, just out of reach of the tiger pacing back and forth on top of the cliff, the man looks down to see another hungry tiger below him, waiting for him to drop.  Two mice, one white and one black, crawl out from a hole in the rock and begin to gnaw away at the vine as the man looks on in horror. Catching a glimpse of red to one side, the man sees a plump ripe strawberry growing on another vine just within reach.  Letting go with one hand, he plucks the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tastes! What joy!

Our lives are a bit like the adventure of this man, running from dangers that we cannot entirely escape. His capacity to experience joy, to choose to be completely in the moment and enjoy the good that comes his way, is a powerful example of the ever-present possibility of joy.  It is available only in the moment, it often appears in forms we do not expect, and we have to choose to turn our attention to joy in the midst of life’s challenges.

Joy and Pleasure

There are many ways to experience joy, and one way is through our five senses.  We can be transported into joyous transcendence by a performance of music, or by viewing a piece of sculpture, or by surrendering to the sensual pleasures of an excellent meal, a sexual encounter, or a swim in the ocean.  To experience the arts of any kind, as well as the endless beauty of nature, can inspire our experience of joy.  Yet in western culture, we are apt to become confused in the difference between the experience of joy, an internal experience, and an attachment to external stimuli that we come to believe as necessary for our pleasure.

  • I will feel happy when the weekend comes.
  • I need to relax with a drink before I can enjoy myself.
  • When I meet that special someone, I will know joy.

While there is some pleasure in anticipating joy, the problem lies in the illusion that the activity or condition is the source of our joy.  If we begin to think that without some particular set of conditions we cannot really be happy, we become vulnerable to missing the experience of joy right where we are.

Another trap to seeking pleasure as a path to joy is that we are likely to be disappointed.  Activities that please the senses are fleeting and don’t necessarily spark an inner experience of joy.  As passing pleasure fades without a change in our inner experience, we can be left feeling more empty than before we engaged in the seemingly pleasurable activity.  This leads to an increased craving.

So how can we promote the experience of joy?  Paradoxically, joy recedes the more we try to fill up its void in ourselves.  In the grasping for pleasure, we become too narrowed in focus, preoccupied with taking in.  Our inner response is of constricting, controlling, striving to achieve – not the inner conditions in which joy grows.  Joy requires an inner response of opening up, giving away, or extending ourselves to connect with something larger than our sense of self.  It involves an opening to other beings, ideas or causes beyond our individual need and benefit.  When we learn to nurture the inner response for joy, then a passing pleasure can easily enhance our experience of joy.

Sharing Joy

The experience of sharing our joy with another has an intensifying impact expressed in the common proverb: “Shared joy is a double joy.”  Those who experience joy within themselves tend to infect those around them with this “incredible lightness of being,” thus creating more of an environment of joy. Should the flame of one individual’s  joy begin to flicker or disappear, others are in close proximity whose flames are still burning bright.  The nurturing of relationship and community provides a kind of insurance against these qualities becoming entirely lost.  “Give and you shall receive.” Joy is the currency we receive when we give with an open, joyous heart.

Practicing Joy

Those who value others and are motivated to serve or give of themselves are also inherently able to feel joy in response to another’s happiness or good fortune. Buddhist teachings describe this capacity as “Mudita,” often translated as Appreciative, Empathic, or Sympathetic Joy.  It means to have a sense of gladness in response to the good fortune or joy of others.

This is one of four qualities of an open heart that Buddhist teachings provide practices to cultivate.

Sometimes this kind of shared joy comes easily. Watching a child discover some wonder in nature or accomplish a new task with pride often brings a smile to the observers face, even that of a stranger.  We smile and feel the joy arising in response to their joy. Yet it is our joy as well – there is not a separation between us – we are both in the joy together.

However, this shared or appreciative joy is considered one of the most difficult of the qualities of the heart to develop because of all the constricting mind states we have already developed that are impediments to it.  Habits of judging, comparing ourselves to others, envy, avarice and greed each prevent us from experiencing joy. When these arise in us in response to another’s good fortune, we are personalizing another’s experience – making it about us.  The practice of cultivating shared joy would encourage us to hold our focus on the other’s joy, repeating in our hearts an intention such as “May your happiness and good fortune continue.”  Over time, this wish for another can grow stronger as our begrudging attitudes diminish.  The outcome of this practice is that another’s good fortune will more consistently bring us an experience of joy, rather than a reaction of envy or negative judgment about another or ourselves.

Smile Meditation

A smile meditation is an immediate and powerful tool for practicing joy.  Like our breath, a smile is a spontaneous and automatic response to certain stimuli around us or in our own physical or thought processes.  But it is also something we can choose to influence – we can suppress a smile and we can choose to form a smile on our faces.  As a practice, it gives us a way to influence the mind-body connection in an intentional and skillful way.

I recommend practicing mindful smiling at any time, any place.  Practicing this around others can have an amazing impact on both your mood and your sense of connectedness.  As you form a smile on your face, the world will respond in obvious and subtle ways. What might be the effect on you?  Try the Action on Purpose Challenge below, and observe what happens!

However we practice opening to the ever-present wellspring of joy, the practice has the potential of increasing our joy exponentially by bringing us more experiences of joy, loosening our attachment to constricting habits of response which decrease joy, and igniting more joy in the world around us. Despite the hungry tigers that await us, we can open to an experience of joy in any moment.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.

~ Thich Nhat Hahn

 

~  Action On Purpose Challenge  ~

  1. Take some time to get quiet, go within, close your eyes, relax your body.
  2. Observe from inside yourself the feeling of your face at rest –  relaxed, passive, quiet.
  3. Now slowly curve the corners of your lips upward into a slight smile.  Allow your smile to spread across your face. Notice how this changes the muscles in your face.  Notice if it changes your feeling or mood in subtle ways.
  4. Set an intention to practice smiling over a period of time – perhaps a week, or a month.
  5. Plant reminders to help you remember to practice smiling – a sticky note, a smiley face sticker, a joyful photo….
  6. Experiment with smiling in different circumstances each day.  Here are a few ideas:
  • Smile at another commuter on your way to work.
  • Choose to smile at the first person you encounter as you walk into work, or into a store, or along the street.
  • Smile at each member of your household as you arrive home, or as they do. (Pets and babies count!)

Set a date now to reflect on this practice after you have done it for some time.  What do you discover? Have fun and enjoy your practice!

For more instructions in types of Smile Meditations, see http://chippit.tripod.com/inner_smile.html

Inspiring Intention

Intention is the core of all conscious life. It is our intentions that create karma, our intentions that help others, our intentions that lead us away from the delusions of individuality toward the immutable verities of enlightened awareness. Conscious intention colors and moves everything.

Master Hsing Yun

 

Any time is a good time to pause and take stock of our lives.  We might set new goals, make resolutions, or use the energy of changes in our lives or in the world around us to give us inspiration.  Our goals may involve beginning new projects, or renewing plans that have long lain fallow.  I find that people’s goals or resolutions can be generally divided into two types:  “doing” and “being” resolutions.  For the purposes of this discussion, I will call them goals and intentions.

Goals vs. Intentions

What is the difference between goals and intentions?  The goals we often set for ourselves are focused on a desired outcome in the future.  When we set goals, it helps us make plans for how to take sequential steps for meeting this goal between now and that imagined future time.  This is a very productive and useful process.  Some examples of these types of goals are:

  • I will lose 15 pounds this year.
  • I will be in a new job by September.
  • This year, I will make a decision about ______ and move forward on that decision.

Because our goals are set in the future, we have limited control over whether or when they get accomplished.  An unforeseen recession could affect our job search process; an illness or injury could affect our weight loss plan; and new information may clarify or muddy some decision we’ve been wrestling with.  However, our goals can be adjusted and timelines reset like a GPS system guiding us toward our given destination, no matter how many detours we may take from the initial route planned.

Intentions, on the other hand, are about how we want to “be” in whatever we are doing.  Our intentions can usually be practiced in the present moment, in any situation we find ourselves.  With an intention, the outcome is not the focus, but the process is.  This is reflected in the well-known axiom:  “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”  This saying actually originated in a poem by Grantland Rice, an American sportswriter who lived from 1880-1954.

For when the One Great Scorer comes,                                    To write against your name,                                                      He marks – not that you won or lost –                                    But how you played the Game.

Intentions refer to the qualities we want to practice and develop in ourselves. They might be reflected in such words or phrases as:

  • beaming love
  • making healthy choices
  • balance
  • being patient
  • listening deeply to self and others
  • opening to creativity
  • being generous with time and resources

Our intention can be held in our hearts, envisioned in our minds, or spoken as an affirmation (see the March 2017 article on Affirmations).  Setting an intention as we begin any spiritual practice or important endeavor becomes a powerful guiding light that shines through our actions. What quality is important for you to develop in yourself, and in your life, today? What are you seeking to embody or embrace?

Intention is also something we become more aware of as we look within…we discover the intentions that are already motivating us that we were perhaps unaware of. So in our daily practice or times of reflection, we both attend to our intentions through observation, and intentionally hold certain intentions in order to strengthen them.

Inspiring Intention

Intention arises from the heart – it is not a head thing.  In working with clients around setting intention, I see a frequent tendency to set an intention with the mind alone, with a tinge of guilt, or “shouldness” about the intention.  “I should be  more this, less that.”  It is no wonder that intentions set out of guilt induce more guilt, as we persist in viewing ourselves as too much of this and too lacking in that!

Yoga class has taught me a great deal about setting intentions. We begin with a period of total relaxation which significantly changes my energy from where it was when I walked into the room.  At the close of this relaxation time, before we begin to move into any poses, the instructor invites us to set our intention for our practice in the class.  I have always been amazed by what comes to mind…the intention, or a word or phrase to express it, usually arises spontaneously in that moment and varies from class to class.  I am clear that had I voiced an intention as I walked into class, it would not have been the same one.  Even if the words were similar, the intention comes from a different place in me after the time to relax and disengage from the many stimulations of my day.  The class ritual, the relaxation, the timing, the invitation from the instructor – this all comes together to inspire an intention within me to bubble up into consciousness.

Our own dormant intentions ignite with the spark of inspiration.  The artist, or work of art, that gets us excited about our own creative pursuits serves as our inspiration.  The friend who recognizes our deepest yearnings and encourages us forward serves as our inspiration. Our intentions can lie dormant for many years, some say for many lifetimes, and still rise up into consciousness when the conditions are right, we are ready, and we open to the inspiration around us.

Attention to our intentions, and the clarification of what intentions we want to energize and practice, are valuable tools to anchor and inspire our periodic goal-setting process.

Inspiration is the fuel that makes your dreams come true.       Where do you find yours?

Cheryl Richardson

 

~  Action On Purpose Challenge  ~

Try this exercise for uncovering your unique intentions or ideals.  Have paper, or an index card, and something to write with available.

  1. Take some time to get centered and relaxed, in whatever way works for you. Be sure to turn off phones and protect yourself as best you can from interruption. You might focus on your breathing for several minutes, do some yoga poses, listen to soothing music, or engage in sitting or walking meditation, for example.
  2. Once you feel centered and relaxed, allow your mind to recall a time when you felt very alive, whole, and joyous, connected to yourself and to others, complete. It may take some time to recall one experience, or you may recall several such times.
  3. Settle with one memory. It doesn’t have to be the “best” or the time you felt “most whole.”  Just pick one time when you really felt somehow centered, positive and full.
  4. Dwell with that experience for a time. Recall as much detail as you can about how it felt to you – what was going on inside you during this time.
  5. Allow a word or phrase to emerge that, for you, captures the essence of this moment or experience. This word or phrase doesn’t have to be meaningful to anyone else.
  6. When you are ready, write down your word or phrase on an index card. If words did not come, perhaps you can draw a picture or use color to capture the quality of the experience you focused on.
  7. Spend some time with this experience as an expression of an intention for you that you can bring into your current experience. How can you invite or nourish this feeling of centeredness? Ponder this in your heart.

May this year inspire our best intentions into practice!

Home for the Holidays

I long, as does every human being,
to be at home wherever I find myself.

Maya Angelou

 

Honing in on Home

It was Christmas Eve, but I had nearly forgotten as we hurried up the Greenwich Village street to attend a rather chic dinner party.  The gathering was full of 20-something professionals like myself, good food, witty conversation and laughter.  As the evening wore on, I became aware that no one at the party seemed to notice that it was Christmas Eve, except perhaps in passing.  I thought how cosmopolitan I’d become to wind up in this crowd this night.  As I was enjoying the after-dinner repartee, I suddenly heard the strains of a Christmas carol being played by a rag-tag Salvation Army band on the streets below.  The hostess moved quickly to close the window, blocking out the sound of the forlorn trumpet.  Yet inside of me, there arose a sudden yearning for that trumpet and familiar Christmas traditions, and I was quite taken by surprise.

In the 30 minutes that followed, the yearning increased rather than receding as I’d expected.  An image suddenly arose in my mind of a church placard, announcing the times of Christmas Eve services that evening.  I didn’t realize I had taken in that information as we passed the church on the corner between the subway and the apartment building where the party was held.  I slipped away from the party, tracing my steps back to the little corner church.  I sat in the sanctuary with a smattering of others to sing carols and listen to the familiar story of the first Christmas.  In that hour, I learned a lot about myself.  I discovered that I needed to honor both my adventures into new experiences and the roots that fed me from my past.  Sitting in that church, I was able to connect to the memories, people, sounds and feelings that allowed me to be at home in myself that special night.  I returned to the party at peace and a little wiser about the roots that sustain me. I had found a way home to myself that Christmas Eve.

Decades have passed since that Christmas Eve in Manhattan, but the experience is as fresh as if it were yesterday.  Every year since, during the holiday season, I have taken time to reflect on how to honor my roots as well as my current growing edges.  Then I have taken initiative to create a fresh way to be at home with each.

What is Home?

Home is both where we are rooted and where we are headed in life.  In the developmental urge to move away from our childhood roots – whether across the street, across the country, or across the globe – is a healthy need to find our own place in a larger, adult world.  Traditional psychologies have emphasized this urge to “separate and individuate,” reifying the “rugged individual” image so popular in Western cultures.  More recent psychological understanding, however, has brought into focus a relational context of ongoing, deepening connection.  Here we see both the possibility, and the necessity, of maintaining connections to our roots in ways that nourish the growth of ourselves, the people and communities from which we sprouted, and the ever-changing relationship connecting us together.

For some, returning to places and people connected with a childhood home can be very painful.  Even if a physical return is not made, the flood of memories the holidays evoke can make the season a difficult, sometimes dreaded, time of year.  If this is your experience, then it becomes even more salient to identify and honor the sense of home you have developed within.  This process allows you to be at home, at peace, wherever you are.

A place to begin in understanding some of the elements of “home” for each of us is to complete the following sentences:

  • I am at home at this place:
  • I am at home with this person / these people:
  • I am at home when I am doing this activity:
  • I am at home when I am being or expressing this quality:

Remember that home is not the place, the other person, or the activity.  Rather, it is these things, or even the memory of these things as we honor them, that bring us a sense of being at home in ourselves.

Finding Our Way Home

The holiday season can be a particularly poignant time for those who are away from family and familiar traditions for the first time, either by choice or by circumstance.  There is a rich opportunity to discover internally what is really essential for us to honor from our traditions, while also letting go of what is no longer important.

Though our relationship to home is an ever-present one, it is particularly called into focus during the holidays.  Perhaps my story echoes a similar experience for many, when we discover an essential root, or connection, to home.  It is by recognizing and nourishing our essential roots, while letting go and moving on from those that no longer feed us, that we learn how to be at home in ourselves – wherever we are.  This is done through mindful trial and error – our life experience.  It is by being at home in ourselves – by living our truth – that we pass on the richest soil for the roots of the next generation.

The journey is my home.
Muriel Rukeyser

 

~  Action On Purpose Challenge  ~

Take some time to reflect on what is most important for you this holiday season.  Wherever you are, and whatever you do, how can you be more at home with yourself?

Wishing you a growthful and joyous holiday!

Growing Gratitude

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget
that the highest appreciation is not to utter words,
 but to live by them. 

John F. Kennedy

 

Gratitude is a gift that keeps on giving.  To cultivate a grateful heart is to give our lives increasing grace and joy.  When we express our gratitude toward others, we are offering them gifts of acknowledgment and encouragement.  At times, gratitude comes naturally and spontaneously, bringing a greater sense of health, connectedness and joy.  At other times, gratitude may feel like a chore or take considerable effort to practice. Yet it is the daily practice, no matter what kind of day we have, that becomes the gift that keeps on giving.  It is the cultivation of the habit of gratitude that I want to reflect upon with you this month.

Definitions of “gratitude” generally include:

  • an attitude or feeling of appreciation for what we currently have
  • a warm or deep appreciation for our benefactors
  • a general disposition to express gratefulness by giving thanks

To be grateful, we must first pay attention to the positive in our lives – not take it for granted or lose sight of it in our pursuit of something we feel we do not currently have.  We must learn to pay attention to the fullness in the glass, not the emptiness.  Every morning, I see a simple treasure I brought home from a meditation retreat years ago: a calligraphy message reminding me to “Smile, you are alive.” Of course, some days I do not pay attention to this message. The days that I do, a smile is born anew.

Gratitude is a relational practice, and serves to bring us into positive connection with others.  Robert Emmons, author of several books on the science of gratitude, points out that, “Gratefulness is a knowing awareness that we are the recipients of goodness.”  He highlights two aspects of gratitude that he describes as acknowledgment and recognition.  First, we acknowledge that we are the recipients of goodness.  Secondly, we recognize that the source of this goodness lies outside of ourselves.  We must be willing to both acknowledge the positive in our lives, and to recognize that someone or something outside ourselves has intentionally provided us with the benefit or goodness we enjoy, often at some personal cost.  This process makes more visible the web of interconnection in which we are all embedded.

Choosing a Gratitude Attitude

I think gratitude is best defined as an attitude or perspective on life.  Gratitude is a choice, a way we choose to see and respond to whatever comes our way. Gratitude doesn’t depend upon circumstances, genetic wiring or something that we have no control over. When things go well, gratitude enables us to savor things going well. When things go poorly, gratitude enables us to remember the good that remains, to move through the difficult parts, and to recognize that they are temporary.

We foster an attitude of gratitude when we recognize and acknowledge that our opportunities are built upon the efforts and intentions of those who have gone before us:  our parents, our teachers, activists who fought for the rights we enjoy, those who have defended our freedom and integrity.  We act from an attitude of gratitude when we give thanks to and for those we are indebted to, and also when we pass along the gifts of our benefactors to others.   

What gets in the way of gratitude?

  • A sense of entitlement can block the recognition that other people contribute significantly to the good things that happen to us.
  • Becoming so focused on what we are striving for can keep us from noticing what we already have.
  • Increasing material comfort can lead to higher expectations of material need, greater entitlement, and more striving after material success.  It goes with the territory, and this cycle can make it more difficult to spend the time to acknowledge where things come from and the people to whom one is indebted.

What gets in the way of gratitude for you?

Gratitude Practices

How do we teach ourselves, and our children, to be more grateful – to truly experience more gratitude?  There are tried and true, concrete methods that have been powerful through the generations:

  • The etiquette of saying thank you is an ever-present reminder of our gratitude.  Though it may have become rote, it can also be an awakening tool.
  • Writing thank you notes to relatives and teachers, specifically naming our appreciation of what they have given us.
  • Expressing thanks before eating a meal, with or without a religious tradition, is a powerful tool for pausing to reflect on all we are grateful for.  More specifically, being mindful of all those who have contributed to our meal – including growing, harvesting, distributing, buying and preparing the food – is a wonderful reminder of our interdependence.
  • Ceremonies that are focused on showing appreciation for those whose efforts have supported and furthered a cause, organization, or group of people.

In the recent research on gratitude, people have been asked to keep gratitude journals on a regular, daily basis (see the Action on Purpose Challenge below).  The people in comparison groups were asked to chronicle their daily hassles or to reflect on ways they were better off than others.  Findings indicate that adults who keep gratitude journals “exercise more regularly, report fewer illness symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic about the future.” Emmons, in Thanks!)  I have utilized gratitude journals with many of my clients with great results.  I find that setting aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude helps people recognize the gifts associated with mundane or ordinary events, as well as more momentous ones.  This helps us savor the good that we see and provides the potential to interweave and thread together a sustainable life theme of gratefulness.

What enhances the practice of gratitude is to be very specific about what we are grateful for and to whom we are indebted.  We can increase the power and levity of our practice by writing this down, and by giving our thanks out loud.  As we cultivate our gratitude practice, more and more of our actions and responses will spring from a grateful heart.

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…. It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.

Melodie Beattie

 

~  Action On Purpose Challenge  ~

Keeping a Gratitude Journal

  1. Get a notebook or journal for just this purpose.
  2. Select a regular time each day for this practice. It need only be a few minutes.  Try making this a part of your getting-ready-for-bed routine, or perhaps just before your evening meal.
  3. Write down five things that inspired gratitude in you during the past day.
  4. Take a few moments to reflect on each item as a gift. Be specific about who gave the gift, and what effort it took.
  5. Find opportunities each day to express your gratitude out loud.
  6. Keep up this daily practice for at least a month, and then evaluate.

Fostering Faith

 

Sustaining a practice and maintaining ease in life takes effort and fortitude. I find that remembering what I have faith in, and nourishing this faith, helps to sustain me through the hard times. So this has become the topic of my article this month: finding, fostering, and focusing on faith. We all have faith in some form – may this help you remember yours!

You block your dream when you allow your fear
to grow bigger than your faith.

Mary Manin Morrissey

Fostering Faith

Faith is confidence in something – a person, statement, idea or thing – without a need for certain proof.  Our faith is shaped by our experience, our overall disposition, and our choices.

I have often heard others claim that a person either has faith or doesn’t, and that is that.  I accepted this for some time, being grateful for my own capacity to experience and use faith in my life.  However, in my work with others, I have gained clear evidence that faith can be discovered within the skeptic, and that there are means by which we can foster faith so that it is more available to any of us in our daily lives.

What do you have faith in?  This is an important question.  There needs to be a “what” for faith to exist, but the object of faith varies widely among us.  Trying to conform our faith to the focus of others’ faith – someone else’s “what” – can lead to doubt, disbelief, and discouragement.  Here are a few ways to think about faith that I have found helpful:

Finding your Faith

You may not have faith in a religious teaching or practice, yet have faith in what your senses tell you about the world.  It is easy to have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow, and that night will follow day, followed by night again in an ongoing succession. But imagine experiencing a total solar eclipse in mid-day, without the benefit of scientific explanation!  Any unexpected or unexplained event can shake our faith in what we thought we knew.  Thus our fear grows large when faith is lost or shaken. Yet having faith in what will happen next mitigates the fear of the unknown.

Developing the Faith you have 

What we have faith in affects our level of confidence in that arena, and thereby, our ability to take action.  Our faith may be very specific and simple.  For example, I have faith in my luck around finding parking spaces.  Because of this faith, I am willing to risk driving more places in my city and have found that my faith is usually well-founded.  My experience grows my faith, which encourages more attempts to park on the busy city streets, thus further increasing my faith-enhancing experience.  Even in recent times, as I avoid driving when I can, my parking faith remains strong.

Deeper, more central aspects of faith are much more important to identify and develop.  For example, a core statement of faith for me is that I have faith in the power of relationships to heal and foster growth. This faith is the foundation of my work as a coach and psychotherapist.  Each relationship is different, and therefore I can’t predict how each will develop.  Still, my faith keeps me engaged through some of the most difficult and darkest times. Often, my job is to hold the faith for both of us, moment by moment.  As relationships deepen and healing occurs, my core faith in relational presence and connection grows stronger and more steadfast.

Focusing on Faith

As we go deeper in identifying the faith we have, and take the time to nurture that faith or explore where it springs from, we inevitably end up discovering our working answers to some of the central existential questions of all time:  Who am I?  Why am I here?  What’s the purpose of life?  What happens when I die?  Most faith traditions offer some ways to think about or even answer these questions, as well as guidelines for practicing a lifestyle that brings us into greater harmony with ourselves, our fellow beings, and our experience.  All of the world’s religions share these elements. What is your experience with faith traditions or communities?

There are other kinds of faith communities which are not considered religious in nature.  For example, scientific or academic communities have faith in research and study to result in a greater understanding of the world, which can then be used for the betterment or health of all.  Non-profits have faith in the willingness of those with plenty to share their resources with the less fortunate.  The community of public service and politics shares faith in the capacity of democratic leadership and government to create positive solutions for community problems, and provide positive stewardship for community resources.  What communities of faith do you belong to?  What is the faith that you share?  How does your involvement in this community grow your faith?

Fear and Faith 

Finally, I would suggest that faith is the most useful antidote for fear.  What are you most afraid of?  Fear can weaken our capacity to act, while faith can inspire us to action and engagement.  Afraid of what is happening to the environment?  Then grow your faith in an environmental group or organization by investing your time or other resources to their mission.  Concerned about politics?  Decide where to put your faith and get engaged in whatever way you can.  If we wait until we are sure, until we have proof, to invest our time or energy, it will be too late.  Faith is a practice for today, now, this moment.  We can discover what we have faith in, and nurture our faith so that it grows stronger.  How will you live your faith today?

Faith is taking the first step,
even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

~  Action On Purpose Challenge  ~

1 – What do you have faith in?  Start a list!

2 – Where you have deep faith, explore where it comes from.  Does it grow out of particular experiences? Was it fostered by the influence of a parent, teacher or religious organization? Does it just seem to be there?  Did you intentionally develop your faith?

3 – What are the fears that threaten your faith? What do you wish you had more faith in?

4 – Affirm your faith in the face of your fears.

 

Effort and Ease

Last month, I wrote about developing a daily practice. This month, I want to address what happens on the journey once we begin.  Whether your goal is to develop a daily practice of some sort, or to finish a project, or to change a habit, I hope this discussion of the paradox of effort and effortlessness will be of support.

Even if you’re on the right track,
you’ll get run over if you just sit there.

Will Rogers

Every vacation or free day, when creative moments seem to stretch into hours, I wonder why it is so hard to maintain the ease of this rhythm throughout the rest of the year.  Can’t we be productive while moving at a pace a little slower and more relaxed?  These are the thoughts that led me to think about effort and ease – the time for climbing the mountain, and the time for stopping along the way to enjoy the view.

We all know that it takes effort to achieve any goal, while too much effort can burn us out or wear away our willingness to persevere. Taking it easy, welcoming ease into the effort, is a way to both protect our bodies and spirits while also maintaining the forward movement of the effort. One important element is to know yourself…what is the balance that works best for you, and how can you support that balance?

My yoga instructor often invites us, at the beginning of class, to check in with our bodies to clarify what we need in the class.  Have we been active and running around all day?  Then we may need to calm the body, relax the muscles.  Have we been sedentary most of the day?  Then we may need to challenge and activate the body, choosing different postures or intensity of effort.  How tired are we?  Does the mind need to be more focused or more at ease to be present in the moment? So it is in yoga class and in life.

Jon Kabat-Zinn writes beautifully about the paradox of effort and effortlessness in the practice of mindfulness meditation. He describes how many people sense that they cannot meditate because what happens when they pay attention to their breath is not what they expect, so they don’t feel like they get to the place they are expecting to go.  But meditation is a practice of non-doing, of not trying to get someplace else, but just being with where you are.  This “non-doing” is not to be confused with “doing nothing.”  Consciousness and intention are required to be present with what is.

“Non-doing simply means letting things be and allowing them to unfold in their own way.  Enormous effort can be involved, but it is a graceful, knowledgeable, effortless effort, a ‘doerless doing,’ cultivated over a lifetime” (Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are).

Meditation is a way to practice the cultivating of effortless effort, teaching us to be aware and accepting of whatever is present in the moment. But the goal of this practice is to be better able to bring mindfulness into each moment, into each activity, into each relationship of our daily lives.  Being with what we are doing right now, without attachment to what will come next or what has happened before, allows us to experience this effortless effort, or what some have termed “flow”.

Here are some reminders I use to help me accomplish my goals with more ease in the EFFORT:

Energize yourself by remembering or revisiting the enthusiasm that got you started. “Enthusiasm is the mother of effort, and without it nothing great was ever achieved.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Follow through on your intentions, even if you are way behind the timetable you thought you were on.

Focus on one part at a time, so that you can make forward progress without a sense of great or endless effort.

Organize your project into a sequence or grouping of small parts or tasks. Write the pattern down, or draw a picture, that can remind you of the progress you are making as pieces of the project get accomplished.

Repeat your intention, perhaps in the form of an affirmation, often.  Keep reminding yourself of your purpose: i.e., “I am exercising to improve my overall stamina”; “I am clearing out this closet to make room for a fresh, more stylish wardrobe”.

Take your time.  The operative word here is “your” time.  Do not compare your progress with what others are doing, but with the power of your own intentions and goals.  I have often held an intention for years, while feeling unready to begin acting on it.  Then, one day, I feel a subtle shift into readiness and I begin action with an ease and steadiness that always surprises me.  This is how I understand taking “my” time.  What is your pattern with successful action?

Be not afraid of going slowly;
be afraid only of standing still.

Chinese Proverb

 

~  Action On Purpose Challenge  ~

1 –Pick one project or practice that you feel stuck or stalled with.  Write down your intention for this project or practice:  What it is, how you plan to accomplish it, why it is important to you.

2 – Apply the EFFORT scheme above:  Energize, Follow through, Focus, Organize, Repeat, Take Your Time.

3 – Observe what helps you ease into the effort, and what stops you in your tracks. Let go of an attachment to particular results as you ease into working on some aspect of the whole.

4 – Keep breathing and smiling!

Develop a Daily Practice

“We learn and grow and are transformed
not so much by what we do
but by why and how we do it.”

Sharon Salzberg

Developing a Daily Practice

Many people I have worked with express a yearning to engage in a spiritual practice of some sort, a regular activity that will help them grow into their deepest purpose. At the same time, many express a belief that they do not have the time, the discipline, or the worthiness to begin. What they often overlook is that they have already begun! The yearning itself is an awakening, the beginning of their journey. Acknowledging the yearning to themselves and others is another important step. A daily practice that honors this yearning each day can provide a steady and nourishing anchor that allows the awakening to grow and deepen over time. When beginning a new spiritual practice, allow yourself to take small steps so you can savor the process.

What do I mean by a practice? A spiritual or growth-fostering practice includes three elements: intention, regular repetition, and presence. It is the intentional development of a habit through regular repetition, while bringing ourselves to each repetition with freshness and an open-heart. There are many intentional habits or rituals we have already developed, such as brushing our teeth, making lunch, or driving a car. However, in these examples, we tend to be present only as we learn how to do these activities. As the activity becomes habitual, we are able to do them without much attention at all. It is the element of presence, the fresh attention of mindfulness, which makes an intentional practice into a growth-fostering or spiritual practice.

Some common forms of practice include prayer, meditation, dietary practices, chanting, yoga, tai chi, dance, social action, artistic endeavors, and communing with nature. Communities of worship provide opportunities to practice with others regularly. The variety of practices suggests that there are many roads to growth and the deeper expression of purpose. In developing your daily practice, pay attention to what you feel drawn to do. You may want to revisit a practice learned in childhood – bringing a fresh meaning and intention to the practice. You may also be drawn to try new practices you have had little exposure to.

Intention

The intention we set as we enter our practice each time is a powerful guiding light. What is important for you to develop in yourself, and in your life? What are you seeking? Our intention can be held in our hearts, envisioned in our minds, or spoken as an affirmation (see the article on Affirmations). Intention is also something we become more aware of as we look within…we discover the intentions that are already motivating us that we were perhaps unaware of. So in our practice, we both attend to our intentions through observation, and intentionally hold certain intentions in order to strengthen them.

One of my early meditation teachers often spoke of the significance of intention. Through committed meditation over many years, he suggested, there is the potential of becoming an enlightened being, or a monster, depending on the intention or ideal that we hold in our hearts.

Repetition

How often? Regularly! I suggest a daily repetition because so much of our lives are structured around a 24-hour cycle. Of course, there are many practices that would be difficult to make daily ones. If one attends a community of worship as a practice, this is more likely to be once or twice a week than every day. Still, finding a way to honor our deepest intentions each day can have a life-altering impact! Linking your practice to another ritual that is already well established can help, such as meals, waking up, driving to work, going to bed, etc. Here are a couple suggestions for simple and powerful practices that can be done at least daily:

  • Pause before eating to get in touch with your gratitude…for life, nourishment, family…for whatever you feel grateful.
  • Write down one affirmation that expresses your deepest intentions, and read it aloud every morning upon waking. Quietly contemplate your affirmation/intention for a few minutes after reciting it.

Presence

Being wholly present and fresh for each repetition is perhaps the most important, and most challenging, aspect of an ongoing growth or spiritual practice. Mindfulness practices, like mindfulness meditation, are designed to uncover the ways we move away from the present, and to strengthen the capacity to be in the moment without judgment or attachment. Once we can recognize and return to moments of mindfulness, we can bring them to any repeated activity and turn it into a spiritual practice: mindfully brushing our teeth; mindful driving; mindful eating.

Finally, as you contemplate your spiritual practice, remember to start small. The desire or yearning to develop, or renew, a spiritual practice is the seed within you that has already awakened. Now you can find a way to gently water it each day, a little at a time. We do not need to sit in meditation, or kneel in prayer, or do yoga for an hour every day to have a spiritual practice. Many do, but you will find that they began with a yearning too, and then a few moments of practice here and there, and eventually developed a more regular and sustained pattern of practice over time. Taking a class or going on a retreat is very helpful in deepening and supporting your practice, but cannot replace the process of remembering and honoring your deepest aspirations, in whatever form, in your everyday life. Better to spend one moment in mindful presence while doing a mundane task, than to spend hours in repetition of practices without being awake to the present.

“We need to remember that where we are going is here,
that any practice is simply a means to open our heart to what is in front of us.
Where we already are is the path and the goal.”

Jack Kornfield

~ Action On Purpose Challenge ~

1 –Create a daily practice that you feel honors a valued intention or spiritual ideal. Start small; you can always expand it if you want to later. Describe your practice in writing on an index card or in your journal.

2 – Make a commitment to repeat this practice daily for a predetermined period of time. I suggest 1-3 months at minimum.

3 – Link the practice to a time of day or activity that you do every day, to help ensure your regularity.

4 – Share your commitment with a trusted friend or loved one, and ask for their support. You are welcome to email your practice description to me…I would be honored!

Creating Space

“Clutter accumulates when energy stagnates and, likewise,   energy stagnates when clutter accumulates.”

Karen Kingston

 

Creating Space: Inside and Outside

Every new endeavor begins with making the space for it in our lives.  Sometimes we have a dream or vision of what we want to accomplish, but must first clear the space in our already crowded lives to make it happen.  The young farmer in the film, The Field of Dreams, illustrates this well when he believes in his vision of creating a baseball field in the middle of nowhere, so that baseball greats from the past will come to play on it.  Encouraged by his now-famous motto, “build it and they will come,” he first must clear space out of his cornfields, which are the major source of income for his family.  This was necessary to make room for his dream to be brought to life.

Other times, creativity springs from the momentum of clearing out clutter, letting go of old ideas, objects, or habits that are now acting as obstacles for the flow of creative juices.  Have you ever faced a creative deadline, like writing a paper for a class, and found yourself cleaning the house or organizing your closet, instead of writing the paper?  Perhaps procrastination is not the only reason for this…perhaps the urge to clear space is a trigger for the creativity needed to write the paper!

Creating space by clearing clutter is relevant in many dimensions of our lives. I discuss examples from four dimensions here:  physical space, time, relationships, and our internal experience of ourselves.  I hope these examples will inspire you to consider other ways you want to create space in your life…

Creating Physical Space

Creating physical space doesn’t need to be done in the large, theatrical dimensions of the movie example above!  For me, clearing space to concentrate on a particular project can mean simply clearing off my desk of all the papers and other distractions.  Then, I place on the desk only those materials that are directly relevant to the project at hand.  Creating space doesn’t need to mean clearing all the clutter from the room, or the entire house, or building an addition onto the house to create the perfect space envisioned in your dreams.  It could, but it can also be as simple as clearing off the extra chairs in the dining room so that guests can join you for a meal.

Sometimes we can create the environmental space we need by moving ourselves to it…we go to the woods or the park to find fresh air and nature; we go to a house of worship to find vast space and quiet; we go to a gym to have the space we need to exercise.  Creating or bringing ourselves to a physical environment conducive to our needs is key.

Creating Time

Creating physical space is not the only way we may need to make room for something new in our lives.  Hand in hand with the environmental space is the dimension of time.  We must make a time in our lives for what we want to create.  On our calendars, our tangible representation of time, we “block out the time” to focus on what is important to create in our lives, and to resist the pulls of other distractions.

Creating space for something new requires a time and a place for it.  This is not enough – but it does create the conditions for something new to grow.

Creating Relational Space

Relationships need space to be nurtured and to grow, so they do not get cluttered with outworn habits and stagnate.  In my therapy work with couples, I am always reminded of the importance of making space for the relationship: a unique dynamic, energetic creation of the joint efforts of the two partners.  Creating space for each individual in the couple is also important, but more easily remembered.

Environmental stress – such as caring for children, aging parents, financial or work demands – can usurp the “we” space in a relationship.  When this is more than a temporary imbalance, the relationship is being asked to withstand greater stress while being denied the nutrients it needs to stay strong and healthy.  The conflict which can emerge becomes a kind of clutter which both reflects the stagnation, and reinforces it.  Entering couple’s therapy is one way couples find to both create space and time for relational growth and clear away some of the clutter.  How do you nourish your relationships?

Creating Inner Space

A final way to think about creating space is within ourselves – in our own minds and being.  Sometimes multitasking is necessary, and we can even enjoy the challenge of juggling many things at once.  Indeed, technology is increasingly tempting us to do more than one thing at a time, such as talking on the phone while driving, surfing the web while using other computer programs, etc. A recent study, however, suggests that multitasking could actually be doing us more harm than good.  People who spent time stopping and starting tasks took 2-4 times longer to complete them.  In addition, brain scans showed juggling tasks reduces the brain power available for each.  Over time, stress hormones from multitasking can damage memory centers in the brain.  Clearing the space to focus on one task at a time, especially on a new or complicated task, results in both better efficiency and memory.

Various practices of concentration, or of mindfulness, can help to create internal space.  In concentration, our attention is so focused on one thing – the candle flame, our breath, a mantra, music, gardening – that other distractions simply fall away.  Our minds are focused, without being cluttered.  Some call this state of concentration “flow”.  In mindfulness practice, we become aware of the constant activity of the mind.  Instead of getting caught up in or attached to the endless potential distractions, we allow them to float into and on out of our inner space like a gentle wind or flowing river.  Rather than increasing our internal clutter, mindfulness nourishes acceptance and spaciousness to grow.

Clearing space in your life – whether physical space, time, relational space, or inner space –doesn’t automatically result in a new idea, program, or creative work.  It does, however, provide the conditions for these to emerge. Is there something you want to grow in your life: Writing, entertaining friends, meditation practice, exercise, making music, other activities?  Try beginning by creating a space for it in your life by clearing out what will get in your way.

 

~  Action On Purpose Challenge  ~

Determine where you most need to create space in your life, and begin to clear the clutter away.  Here are some ideas:

1 – To clear clutter in your home or office, pick one room, or one part of one room, or one surface…and clear it entirely of everything except what you want to see there.  Take a photo of the space you created. Then, for the remainder of the month, make sure you pause to look at that space every day to enjoy it, and feed the desire to keep it clear of clutter.

2 – Create some sacred space in your calendar.  Block out time to do something that really matters to you.  Draw a box around it in your calendar, and let nothing encroach on this time.  (If something urgent does come up, which happens, be sure to move the box to another place in your calendar.)

3 – Create some special relationship time with a significant other.  Set up a time, go to a mutually pleasant place, and agree to enjoy being together and resist discussing any areas of contention or responsibility for the allotted time.  Have fun!

4 – Begin, or reinvigorate, a meditation practice, taking the time to sit quietly, still the mind, and discover the vastness within.

 

“Breathing in, I see myself as space.
Breathing out, I feel free.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Breathing: Available Now

“If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip,
it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.”
Andrew Weil, M.D.

Focusing on the breath is both an ancient tool for enlightenment and a modern healing practice. Since we are always breathing, the opportunity to work with our breath is ever-present. This powerful tool has many practical applications. Here three ways to consciously utilize the breath are highlighted: to calm and relax ourselves; to nurture mindfulness; and as a metaphor for life.

Calming & Relaxation

Breathing is both an automatic physiological process, and one we can easily learn to regulate at will. Cultivating a habit of deep, smooth and rhythmic breathing has been shown to positively influence the heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, and digestion. Most of us naturally breathe in a deeper, more rhythmic way when our bodies are at rest, or asleep.

Since you have more control over exhalation, focusing on the outbreath can be a good place to start. To deepen your breathing, use the muscles between your ribs to push the air fully out of your body. The inhalation that follows will be fuller in response. Place your hand on your stomach while you breathe. If your hand moves outward with each intake of breath and inward as you breathe out, you probably have it right. Take a full 4-5 seconds breathing in, pause briefly, and then breathe out for at least 5 seconds. Pause and repeat for several minutes. Think only of your breathing. If it’s hard to concentrate, you might count the seconds as you exhale: one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand, and so on. Focusing on your exhalations a few minutes each day helps you learn to breathe more deeply.

Have you ever noticed that when you are stressed or anxious, you start to breathe in a quicker, more shallow fashion and can feel ready to “jump out of your skin”? You know the expressions: “can’t catch my breath” or “waiting to exhale?” Yoga teachings have long indicated that the breath, energy, and mind are linked, and that calming one will calm the other two. As you develop control over your breathing, you can begin to return to this deep breathing at times that you feel anxious or overwhelmed, bringing about what Herb Benson termed “the relaxation response.” This is a particularly useful tool in any performance situation, when dealing with conflict, or as an aid to concentration when fatigued.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness can be described as an active, open awareness in the present moment, with acceptance of all that is experienced. It is the state of being awake, free from the habitual patterns and distracted delusion we often exist in. As our capacity for mindfulness grows, awareness expands until all experiences can be found in the present moment, as each moment is a doorway to the infinite.

In practicing and developing mindfulness, it is useful to have a focus to direct our attention to in the present moment, and to bring our attention back to when it wanders away (which it will, again and again). The breath is a wonderful tool for this purpose, and the central one for many types of meditative practices. To practice mindful breathing, we simply pay attention to the experience of the breath moving into and out of our bodies, right now. We can awaken ourselves to the present moment very quickly, with just a few mindful breaths. Taking the time to string many of these moments together, breath by breath, is what the practice of mindfulness meditation is all about.

Metaphor for Life

For me, the breath also serves as a metaphor for living. We do not have control over our breathing completely. We cannot stop breathing, nor continue to live if our breathing ceases. Still, we can choose to enjoy our breathing, to be aware of it and grateful for it, to practice deep and calming breathing, and to use it as a tool to influence other aspects of ourselves in healthy ways. So with life, we do not have control over the realities of suffering, illness, aging and death. Yet, we can choose to fully live the life we have right now.

“For breath is life, and if you breathe well
you will live long on earth.”

Sanskrit Proverb

Action On Purpose Challenge

Practice the deep breathing training described above for 3 to 5 minutes twice daily. You will improve your ability to settle yourself and increase your confidence in applying this procedure. To learn more about breathing techniques, check out Mindful Breathing or Relaxation Response.

Use this method of focusing on your breathing for 1 to 2 minutes any time during the day when you need a moment of relief. Instead of tensing up in heavy traffic or waiting for an elevator, try a balanced breathing break. A few deep breaths when you sit down to a meal, before you begin to eat, can help you enjoy the food more and aid digestion.

Already able to calm your breath at will? Try the mindfulness practice of simply paying attention to the breath moving in and out of your body. Don’t try to control the breath, or judge your breathing…simply be aware of it. If your mind wanders, bring it gently back to the present moment of your breathing. Here are my favorite words to focus my mind:

Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

Affirmation: A Foundation Tool

An affirmation is a strong, positive statement that
something is already so.”
Shakti Gawain

The use of positive affirmation is one of the most versatile and powerful tools you have to strengthen, clarify, and inspire you toward your purpose. Our inner lives are actually full of affirmations: positive ideas we believe and accept as true. Of course, we are also full of fears and denials: those things we reject or cannot accept. Use of affirmation turns our attention toward the positive things we know to be true for us, deep down. The conscious use of affirmation helps us to adjust and rejuvenate the lens through which we see ourselves and the world…and that can make a tremendous difference!

In the service of motivating yourself and increasing your confidence to take action, choosing to affirm who you are, just as you are now, is primary. Making an inventory of what attributes, capacities, skills, or traits you already have is key. Count your blessings. Be aware that these are often things you take for granted, and so may be less visible to you at first glance than the attributes you want to change! “I am a loving presence.” “I am confident on the dance floor.” “I am a competent and creative employee.”

As you develop confidence in affirming who you are now, the next step is to affirm your capacity to grow. Here your affirmations will target those areas that you don’t feel so great about by affirming your capacity to change: “I can be a patient parent.” “I can change my diet in healthy ways.” “I can speak my mind at the office.”

Finally, once you feel secure in your belief that growth and change are possible for you in these target areas, then you can begin to affirm what you desire to become…your goals. “I will feel good about myself today.” “I will improve my grades this semester.” “I will be successful in love.”

A truly powerful affirmation combines an aspiration for the future with the truth of the present into a simple, meaningful statement. You are affirming that what you aspire to be is already present within you. I like the image of watering the seeds of what you want to grow within…acknowledging that the seeds are already there, and that nourishing them will help them to develop. What are the seeds within you that you want to see grow?

Guidelines for taking action with affirmations:

Pick a focus.
What is it you want to affirm in yourself or the world? If new to using affirmations, I advise picking a strength you can already identify in yourself. If you feel confident in your strengths, you might choose an area of your life you want to strengthen: your health, your financial success, your loving nature. Is your aspiration more global – that peace is possible, that hope endures, that abundance is unlimited? Identify what is within you that you want to affirm today.

Generate a list of 3-5 affirmations that speak to you, right now. It is important that an affirmation has meaning for you, and says exactly what you intend it to. For this reason, I usually advise people to craft their own affirmations. However, many find that an affirmation others have used can speak to them in profound ways. If you are new to using affirmations, or you are feeling uninspired, try reading various affirmations to get a feel for them before crafting your own. A library, bookstore, or Internet search will lead you to a wealth of examples of positive affirmations. In crafting your own affirmation, you might want to use a simple format such as, “I am a (insert adjective) (insert noun).”

Here are a few examples in this form:

I am an incredible artist.
I am a firm and patient parent.
I am a powerful advocate.
I am a dedicated exerciser.

Or experiment with the form, as in:

I welcome success into my life.
I am growing healthier every day.
My life is filled with love.
Generosity flows through me to others.

Choose one, simple affirmative statement. Stay with it for a period of time, perhaps a month, to really allow it to take root in you. There are so many wonderful affirmations to choose, but skipping from one to another doesn’t allow the kind of unfolding that a consistent, daily practice can nurture.

Write it down. Whether it is an affirmation you have crafted, or one you have heard or read somewhere, write it down in your own handwriting. By writing it down, you are creating a tangible, physical representation of your affirmation in the world. Whenever you see it, it is an external reminder of what it is you are affirming. So put your affirmation where you will see it often! I like to write my current affirmation on an index card and place it prominently on my desk. Others may put it on a mirror, where they eat, or on their computer. How about using the first letter of each word of your affirmation as a password…so you’ll have to recall it every time you log onto your computer?

Give it Voice. Literally, give it voice by reciting it out loud often, at least daily, for a period of time. How about a month? For many it is best to pick a particular time to recite it…while driving to work, or opening your planner, or preparing your breakfast.

Observe what happens over time as the affirmation grows and takes root in you.

Action On Purpose Challenge

Using the steps above, come up with a short list of meaningful affirmations. Then, choose one, write it down, and say it aloud at least once a day for the next month. Observe the impact, over time, of affirming your truth.