Monday, April 28, 2008

Feel and Release

I’ve just returned from an afternoon at the hot springs. While soaking in the mineral waters was gloriously relaxing, it was the sauna that had drawn me. I’d had a stressful few weeks--nothing major, just the usual life stuff. But rather than feeling and releasing, I had allowed it all to build up. I was holding it, carrying it with me through my days and into my nights. When that happens, there is nothing quite like a sauna to help me let go. I MUST release when I’m sitting in temperatures over 175 degrees, pores seeping sweat and toxins!

Of course, a better idea would have been to let go daily or, better still, moment by moment throughout each day. To do so is, actually, the way we humans are wired. Anyone who has raised a child knows the process. Something occurs, and the child’s emotional reaction--whether delighted, angry, frightened, or sad--is immediate. Because children feel things with such intensity, the emotion is also huge. It becomes the whole world--until that emotion is spent, that is. When it’s been felt and expressed, it is also naturally released. The incident is left behind. The little one moves on.

Children are merely the prototypes for how we all oughta experience the world, no matter our age. Of course, our repertoire for managing our emotional lives must mature with us, but if we want an immediacy of experience, the ability to feel authentic emotion and release it is essential. Feel, release, move on. If blocks are erected that impede this process, our capacity for a rich experience of living becomes stunted.

I’m working with marvelous human being, Beth*, who was raised to be the heart of her family. Her Piscean temperament seemed to have combined with various family dynamics to enlist Beth as the one who felt all things deeply. In a way that was quite confusing and overwhelming for her, this process included experiencing the emotions of others, intuiting that for which she had no conscious understanding. In our previous work, Beth had attained a deep healing, having disengaged from a dynamic that placed upon her an untenable burden. However, she remains a woman with deep reservoirs of emotion, and this capacity continues to be a rich gift she brings to the world.

Recently, Beth has been struggling with the gradual but unmistakable loss of a partner to a debilitating disease, and she uses her sessions to attend to emotions that often take second place to the demands of full-time caretaking. During a session last month, Beth conceived of a force she referred to as ‘an Angelic Wholeness’. She envisioned this entity coalescing a foot or so in front of her. In addition to the connotations of guidance and support that Angels have come to represent, Beth also sensed that this Presence was a willing repository for her painful emotional material.

As she worked with this image over the next few weeks, Beth discovered two caveats. First, she needed to feel the emotion fully herself. Next--and for Beth this was the challenging part--she needed to let that feeling move through her, releasing it into the welcoming arms of this Presence.

While Beth is the woman who gave me the image I now share with you, the process is one many of us have experienced ourselves, albeit somewhat less poetically. Our emotions need to be felt. We also need to hold them lightly enough, without the grasp or the wallow, that they-- and we--are allowed to move on.

Sometimes we avoid emotions, especially the ones that make us feel most vulnerable. Other times we become ensnared by them, and struggle as we may, can’t seem to break loose. While some of us gravitate toward one or the other of these poles, most of us tend to spend at least some time vacillating between them. Emotions may be shunned due to our fear of getting sucked into their vortex, leading paradoxically to an emotional intensification that eventually swallows us up. We are pursued and captured by the very emotions we thought to thwart. Unfortunately, the intensity that we feel when we’re finally nabbed tends to confirm that feeling is dangerous. And so, the process repeats, again and again.

Despite the unworkability of this dynamic, ya can’t blame a girl or a guy for trying! Who wouldn’t want to avoid that which is painful? However, such experience is the stuff of life, and so, to avoid it requires an avoidance of life itself. We begin to shrink, living much smaller than is possible.

To avoid emotion goes against our nature. We simply must feel, since we are feeling creatures. This process of feeling is also part of our innate healing mechanism. When we set out to deny it, powerful symptoms develop--anxiety, depression, substance abuse--to name but a few.

Our emotional lives are a river, healthy if continually fed with new rainfall and allowed to flow freely. When we tamper with either end of this process--try to deny water an entry or dam up its release--our river becomes ill. It may slow to a trickle, develop foul and stagnant pools, or press the barriers we erect and occasionally overrun the banks.

Life is a tricky business. Like Beth, we don’t always have a chance to tend to our rivers. But such tending is a worthy and necessary endeavor, which brings with it the rewards of a healthy, functioning emotional ecosystem, continuously replenished and cleansed.

May your river run freely this day and all days, from the wellspring of the headwaters to its release into your own Angelic Wholeness.


Loanne Marie

*In this and all my blog entries, whenever I refer to an experience with a specific person, know that the individual has been consulted and has given written permission for me to publish my thoughts about their journey. Know, too, that I have changed identifying information, given the person the opportunity to review my entry before posting, and offered the individual the pleasure of choosing her or his very own blog name.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Integrity of Spirit

I heard a news story this past week* in which the current Pope’s concern about a “dictatorship of relativism” was discussed. Pope Benedict XVI is worried that, without set parameters, people will be led into questionable spiritual territory. It is tempting to dismiss such concerns, especially when placed against the historical evidence of harm caused by what could be termed ‘dictatorships of orthodoxy’. However, I think to do so would be to ignore a point worthy of consideration.

Readers of these blogs and my website will find ample evidence that the Pope could have been referring to me--should he be aware of my existence, that is! I have routinely encouraged folks to find what works for them, to trust their intuition when considering various spiritual paths, and to use their own experience as a way to judge the personal worth of any of them.

As I’ve written these things, though, I’ve been aware of at least an edge of uneasiness. We humans have proven beyond a shadow of any doubt that we are capable of self-deception in the name of the spiritual. Is anything that feels intuitively right or helpful to someone certain to be good? What checks exist to keep any of us from veering off center?

I think these questions bring us right up against a messy reality. There really are no guarantees, whether one leans toward relativism or toward orthodoxy. An inherent tension exists and always will between freedom and security, and it is apparent just about anywhere one looks in the human experience...we delight in the freedom to eat what tastes good, while needing to attend to the health implications of those parents, we seek to allow our children the freedom to explore while protecting them from harm...we train for careers that provide financial stability, but hope to feel inspired by them and to have a rich personal life at the same time....and politically, we attempt to balance individual freedoms against the needs of the larger community.

Spiritually, there has always been a tension between the need for a personally relevant and engaging spirituality and the benefits to be gained from rich spiritual traditions. Errors have occurred at the extreme ends of both sides of this continuum. Some have gone against the teachings of their faith when they felt personally led by God to engage in genocide and to murder homosexuals or those performing abortions. On the other end, religious institutions have codified slavery and acts of torture and murder themselves, and have used their influence to amass wealth and power.

Of course, those of us closer to the middle of this continuum err as well. Many have allowed their spirituality to become emaciated while outwardly adhering to the trappings of their faith, while others give only lip service to a search for an active personal spirituality while in reality challenging themselves not at all.

There really are no guarantees. In traditional psychology, there is recognition of the tension between the unbridled impulses of our Id and the rule-based requirements of our Superego. Mature humans develop a structure to mediate between the two: the ego. While these terms are not used very often these days--and in spiritual circles the word ego has taken on a decidedly different meaning--they do speak to the fact that it is our responsibility to know ourselves well and to maintain a dynamic harmony between structure and freedom. This responsibility extends into all areas of our lives, including the spiritual.

If a choice needs to be made, I will obviously come down on the side of freedom. I find disturbing, for example, the ‘soft intimidation’ that censures or marginalizes priests who advocate liberal views, such as the ordination of women or liberation theology. I assume most Catholics would support the Pope on any view, as long as he provides a sound rationale.

The free exchange of ideas does not strike me as dangerous to, but essential for, a vibrant spirituality. I believe most of us can be trusted not go traipsing off the path of sanity into the brambles of spiritual extremism; I suspect that those who have this tendency will either gravitate toward religions that keep them in check, or will find justification for their zealotry elsewhere.

I am not, however, suggesting a blanket, anything goes approach to the spiritual quest. A mature spirituality is hard work, and we would do well to institute some safeguards that will serve to keep ours robust and sane. To that end, we must question ourselves and allow ourselves to be challenged by others. It is, of course, wise to talk with those we trust about our beliefs and our doubts. However, we also need to seek out those with whom we disagree, and truly listen to their point of view, allowing ours to deepen and perhaps shift a bit in the process. We must challenge ourselves should we ever find our beliefs at odds with established spiritual guidelines, and we would do well to actively seek the wisdom of several traditions, honestly grappling with what fits and what doesn’t--and asking ourselves why.

Living with integrity is a demanding endeavor, and self-deception is always a possibility. The best we can do, I think, is to work toward making self-deception less likely. I believe most of us have an innate righting mechanism that can assist us in recognizing when we’ve veered off the path and help us get back on it. But it is our responsibility to listen to these cues and to use them to return to center.

Life is messy, and being a mature, responsible human being is a challenge indeed. There’s simply no escaping that, wherever we come down on the question of relativism or orthodoxy. It is our obligation to guard against extremism, blind obedience, sloppy thinking, and plain ol’ laziness as we seek a rich and meaningful spirituality that will allow us to give something back to this world of ours.

May your spirituality be rich, fulfilling, and balanced. And a thank-you to Pope Benedict XVI for prodding me to explore this issue.

Blessings all!

Loanne Marie

*Pope's Softer Approach Surprises Many Theologians, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Morning Edition, April 15, 2008 

Monday, April 14, 2008

Narrow Straw or Deep Smooth-Sided Aqueduct

There was a quote popular in the burgeoning spiritual movement of the late sixties that went something like, “Life is a feast and most of you are starving yourselves.” The truth of that resonates still, although a different metaphor comes to me these days. Despite the fact that we are surrounded by immense beauty, unbounded vitality, and profound love, we often sip these delights unaware and through the narrowest of straws.

Here’s how I conceptualize it. Each one of us exists in this world due to the gift of an indefinable energy. This animating force is infused into every cell of our bodies and each smidgeon of our spirits. It is always there, forever available. And yet, this substance that fuels our consciousness is most often hidden from it. Being the stuff of life, it is omnipresent and so, unfortunately, easy to ignore. As we take this immense gift for granted and instead focus our attention elsewhere, we allow the conduit for this life force to become puny, with just enough flow to sustain a meager life. We become stunted, experiencing a mere reflection of the richness we could have, the fullness we could be.

A main task of soulful living is to enlarge the channel. Here arises the image of an ingress for an abundance of that indescribable life energy--a deep, smooth-sided aqueduct. Rather than take the available bounty for granted, we build a channel worthy of such a substance. Rather than be content with a paltry flow, we choose to enlarge our capacity to partake of it.

But, how do we transform a tiny straw into a sturdy waterway? A good question for each of us to which we likely already know the answer. We each have at least an inkling of what brings us that experience of soul. For most of us, the difficulty is not so much in the knowing as in the doing. The trick is to value that intuitive guidance enough to follow it. We may need to override a dismissive tendency, or a belief that we can attend to our soul’s needs only after everything else is done. No, it needs to be a priority if we want to live an authentic life, wide open to the Sacred.

The ways to craft or enlarge our aqueduct will vary, given that we’re each uniquely wired. We may find what we need in the natural world, artistic endeavors, prayer, tending to the needs of others, meditation, church services...the list goes on. However, it is not enough to paint a picture, traverse a path through the deep woods, or sit in silence. One must create a stillness that is receptive to the flow. One must consciously and intentionally open. One must welcome the gift.

Opening is the key. The particular activities that enlarge our aqueduct are simply those things that encourage us, propel us, into openness. The lovely thing about this truth is that everything we do, if approached with a welcoming attitude, can become an avenue for the Sacred. When the Sacred, which is always present, meets our openness to it, which we can cultivate, then things really begin to happen. When that free will of ours is turned toward Spirit, a switch is thrown and a process of transformation is set in motion that seems to expand exponentially.

This metaphor grows stronger for me as I use it in meditation. When my aqueduct is wide open, I am filled with a hearty tide. As I become consumed by some variation of my personality’s minutia, I feel the channel of my consciousness narrow--only to expand again as I recognize the constriction and return to receptive awareness.

This image assists me, too, when my energy wanes during a busy day or when I get unreasonably annoyed or dismayed by life’s not conforming to my expectations. If I can remember then to consciously exchange my unintended straw for an intentional aqueduct, I immediately--after a few deep, soul-filling breaths anyway--feel better. Not totally filled, since I’m still comparatively new at this, but better.

Our part is to create, tend, and nurture the aqueduct, and then welcome the river it carries. The river does the rest. That’s when things start to happen that I can only begin to comprehend--a cleansing, a deepening, a clearing away of negativity accumulated over a lifetime. I suspect it is this internal healing process that accounts for the transformation so many of us experience following a conscious opening to Spirit.

The flow is there; it’s just a matter of how deep, wide, and smooth our channel to receive it...and how welcoming we are of the healing waters that wash through it and into us.

May your channel be deep and wide,


Loanne Marie

Monday, April 7, 2008

This, Too, Shall Pass

A few weeks ago, I gave up meditating on my zafu. It seems that my various body parts have aged at different rates, with my knees being at the front of the pack! The simple fact is that these two joints are much happier when I meditate sitting in a chair. This is just one of the reminders that, at age 52, my body is moving forward as planned on its trajectory toward dissolution.

I don’t find that fact morbid to acknowledge. If there is any truth to the assertion that we are spiritual beings having an earthly experience, it would seem that remaining cognizant of the transitory nature of our lives is, in fact, essential. The changes that come with age can thus become important reminders that everything, including oneself, will pass away.

It is quite a common human experience to become a bit flummoxed when one’s body begins to change. We all know the confusion adolescents often feel as puberty grabs hold and carries them off into adulthood. The process of physical decline that becomes apparent in mid~life and accelerates into old age is often disturbing as well. The fact that these changes carry us toward death adds a unique flavor to the challenge and puts us right up against what we really feel about the cycle of life.

I used to say, only somewhat facetiously, that I had no problem with getting older, I just never expected my body to change. It’s easy to acknowledge in the abstract that we’re all going to die. But when we see evidence of that fact in process through the aging of our bodies, it is another thing entirely.

The changes that come with age are simple reminders that we will not be long in this world. We can greet them with angst and do our best imitation of a poor sap in the throes of an unconscious mid-life crisis~~doing battle with the inevitable or attempting to avoid it through numbing or distracting ourselves with vapid new forms of entertainment. Or we can use these realities to nudge ourselves into a greater awareness of Spirit.

As the process of aging becomes irrefutable, many of us begin a period of evaluation. Are we living as we feel called to live? Does our life accurately reflect our core values? What aspects of our experience are working for us, and where are we holding ourselves back? What changes are we ready to make?

Approached with wisdom and intention, this mid-life questioning can bring a rich and vital reorientation, essential to allowing our inner spark to continue to shine brightly. As the process extends further, however, a subtle change may begin to take place. We may no longer simply reevaluate our life, but begin the process of letting go of it, or rather, letting go of the parts of it that are extraneous to soulful living. We can pare down, bit by bit, moving closer to that which is essential, to that which is true. The deterioration of our physical form can, if we let it, be the catalyst for this shift.

Sometimes growing older feels like a continual process of letting go~~of expectations, of illusions of control, of loved ones who move away or precede us across death’s threshold, of egoistic plans that show themselves finally to be empty of heart, of the self-image and schemes we’ve spent the first half of our lives creating, and yes, of our attachment to our physical being. This process accelerates in old age, and it seems wise to me that it does. During this time we are moving closer to the point of letting go completely~~of this body, this identity, this world. If we’re lucky, we might arrive at our death free of all but a rich and vibrant spirit.

I have a 98-year-old friend who talks with me about spirituality. I didn’t meet Jeanne until she was 82, so I don’t know what she looked like in her younger days. However, during the many silences that weave their way through our conversations, I gaze at her face and see a beauty I feel certain has grown deeper over the years. Yes, her body has aged~~her eyesight and hearing are failing, the condition of her lungs makes the simple act of breathing a challenge, and her once strong dancer’s body is now mostly confined to a wheelchair. But Jeanne radiates a loveliness and grace that has not been diminished by age. Her dancer’s soul remains and has grown more radiant, I suspect, as she has let go of much that is superfluous. In those moments of silence that envelop us, I see that Jeanne has relinquished more than physical weight. She has jettisoned much of what is unnecessary, and continues to discard more as she threads her way toward death.

The image of a hot air balloon comes to mind. Ballast is the material that provides stability to these vessels; throwing it overboard allows the balloon to rise to greater heights. I find this a lovely image for the process of conscious aging. Having become steadier within ourselves, we are free to discard what has now become simply extra weight. Thus, we soar higher...and higher still.

The physical changes of aging are simple facts speaking of what is true~~our time here is limited. If we’re wise, though, we will recognize these facts as the attention-getters they seem designed to be. It is important to take loving care of these bodies, our constant companions, so they can continue to support our living. It seems imperative, though, to also perceive the message behind the aches and pains, the hot flashes, the memory issues, the lowered energy levels. We will be movin’ on down the road relatively soon; given the possibilities of illness, natural disaster, and accidents, that time might come sooner than we think. It, therefore, seems essential that we not forget where we’re going, how we want to get there, and what condition we’d like to be in upon arrival~~whenever that might be.

I don’t mean to minimize the challenges inherent in such an endeavor, either for ourselves or as we watch our loved ones die or struggle with difficult illnesses. This afternoon I will attend a funeral of a dear man, dead in his early 60s from a virulent cancer. I love two women, recently widowed much earlier than expected, and a third who is now placing her husband in a nursing home due to advancing Alzheimer’s. As a psychotherapist, I understand that grieving and railing against the inevitable process of death and loss is a necessary undertaking. But when the anger is spent and the tears shed, where are we? What do we have? An acceptance that this is the way of life: birth, blossoming, maturity, decay, and death. Our emotional reactions will not change one thing about this succession, just bring an honest acceptance of it. These things will come to pass, whether or not we greet them consciously. And in that conscious greeting are gems that remain hidden should we turn our backs.

And so, my knee joints are giving out. They are simply at the forefront of an inevitable physical decline. Their deterioration brings with it an opportunity to practice letting go. Now, I let go of my beloved zafu, of my attachment to the image of sitting serenely (or not!) upon it. And as I do so, I realize I am flexing my letting-go muscles. There will likely be an untold number of letting-gos between now and the final one. Hopefully, by the time I arrive at my death, I will be well-versed in the practice, so that my ultimate departure will be a celebratory event that I am able to welcome with grace.

This, too, shall pass away~~whatever this might be, whenever that passing might come. So, here’s to greeting the inevitable signs of aging as reminders that our time in these bodies is limited. May we ultimately greet each one with warmth and another slight shift toward Spirit.


Loanne Marie

PS. There will be no change in this blog’s name. From the Chair, just doesn’t have the same ring!