Sunday, July 9, 2017

Let There Be Magic

I read fantasy fiction. There, the secret’s out! This professional woman in her early sixties curls up, during lunch breaks and on many evenings, with tales of fairies and dragons, heroic quests and enchanted kingdoms.

Near the end of my current book, The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks, Wil Ohmsford confronts the fear that has kept him from accessing the power of the Elfstones, power needed to combat the evil that threatens the land. In this pivotal moment, Wil realizes his fear was not “of the thing that haunted…his dreams, or of the Demon that hunted Amberle and him south from Arborlon…It was his fear of the magic.”

Fear of the magic. Something in that phrase grabs me and won’t let go.

In our own epic journey as a species in this world, many things frighten me…hate, greed, and the harm inflicted upon the Earth and our fellow inhabitants, to name a few. But could I also fear the magic?

The magic I’m referring to is not, of course, contained in Elfstones or legendary swords. It is the magic of the human spirit, imbued with love and aligned with a greater force for good. But am I afraid of that magic? I don’t think so. If I’m truthful, though, I often forget about it. And sometimes, even when remembered, I don’t fully trust it.

The obstacles facing us are, indeed, formidable…and mostly of our own creation, born of spirits and psyches out of balance. Things can seem rather grim. Dismal. Hopeless. When I’m snagged by such reactions, fear has me in its clutches for sure. Magic seems a distant thing at best.

As I hear of another hate crime~~against a vulnerable individual, the Constitution, or the Earth itself~~I have a choice. To what shall I give my energy? I can certainly lend it to fear in its various guises~~dread, anger, apathy~~and thereby strengthen fear’s grip on the world. 

Or I can heed Sharon McErlane’s words from her book Casting The Net. “Let your hearts open,” she writes. “Let compassion well up in you and then serve…with your hands, your voice, and your listening. But most of all, serve with a loving heart…This is all you need to do. This is everything.” 

Every spiritual tradition offers such sentiments, as well as practices to align our hearts with that greater good. The choice, though, is always ours.

Perhaps that fictional line stuck with me so that I might confront the fact that I don’t always trust Love, with a capital L, that unfathomable essence at the heart of all things. It also offered me a choice to trust anew.

So once more, I give myself fully to the magic and offer it safe passage into my world. Like Wil Ohmsford with his Elfstones, I too say, finally and again, “Yes!”


PS. Be sure to read the comments...there are many today...and feel free to leave your own! Blessed be!!!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Living The Full Catastrophe

In a talk on mindfulness and psychotherapy, Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the most respected researchers in the field of mind~body medicine, makes the following statement. “We are dealing with the full catastrophe of the human condition, from intense beauty to intense madness.” 

While he is speaking to psychotherapists who witness daily human qualities both amazing and agonizing, Kabat-Zinn's words fit for us all. Life is, indeed, a mixed bag. Joy and sorrow, delight and hopelessness, our highest aspirations and moments of wretched selfishness…all coexist, woven into the braid that is our experience of living.

In the late 70s, as Professor of Medicine at UMass Medical School, Kabat-Zinn began studying the effects of mindfulness practice on chronically ill patients, folks for whom traditional medicine could do nothing more. Having studied meditation himself, he was curious to see if these practices would be of benefit to such patients. 

After nearly four decades of study, consistently replicated by others, the answer has been an emphatic yes. Mindfulness has also proven effective for conditions such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and eating disorders.

The practice consists of activities that bring us to the present moment, simply as it is and without judgment. When we engage life in this way, even the most debilitating conditions and situations soften and become more manageable. 

The sense of well~being that results, though, is not merely subjective. Research has demonstrated changes in brain structure and response, such as increased activity in areas of the brain associated with positive emotions, improved focus and memory, and an increase in the size of areas associated with emotional regulation. 

Moreover, the benefits of even a few weeks of daily mindfulness practice have been proven comparable to those received from psychiatric medications and psychotherapy. And it soothes, too, the familiar stresses of a modern life. 

So, wanna try it? Of course you do! Read my words slowly... you now become aware of your body. Tune into how it feels in this moment, hungry or full, tight or relaxed, agitated or calm. (Pause)
Let your awareness come now to your breath. Note the sensation as your chest rises and falls, as your lungs fill and release. Feel each breath fully from start to finish. (Pause)
Become aware now of the sounds that surround you, offering your attention to whatever rises out of the background stillness. Settle even more deeply into this moment. Without judgment, know it simply as it is. (Pause)

You’ve just had a taste of mindfulness, which is truly so much more than the term implies. Open awareness might be a more apt description of the experience. With practice, we become better able to lay down our many and varied preoccupations and concerns to attune simply to what is.

In this way, as we live “the full catastrophe of the human condition” in our own lives, we are able to more easily access the beauty. Hidden though that beauty may be, it is always there, waiting patiently for us to arrive.

May we each find that patient beauty, the underground river that flows softly through our lives.



P.S. The full catastrophe quote above is a play on a line from Zorba the Greek, which you can see here~~

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sunrise Meditation

I rise early, dress quickly. Birdsong greets me before I even open the door, a joyful noise from wee friends compelled, as am I, to greet the morning.

I hurry up the hill, anxious for a view of the eastern sky. It looks clear, but as I make the rise I see a series of clouds extending ladder~like from the horizon, the perfect scaffolding for a spectacular sunrise. As I reach the lake, a first blush of color has just touched the clouds closest to the Earth. I know, though, that this is a mere hint of what is to come.

My pace is brisk, interspersed with the short bursts of speed that are, I read somewhere, particularly good for cardio health. Yet I suspect that this landscape~~sky, mountains, fields, lake~~infuses my heart with a greater vitality. The color soon brightens and deepens both until magenta, hot pink, and peachy light streak the sky. It is breathtaking. 

And then I see him. The great blue heron, that granddaddy of birds, stands on sun~baked soil at the lake’s edge, shoulders hunched in his grey cloak, long spindly old~man legs supporting his weight. The game we play never changes. I hug the far side of the path, trying to pass by without disturbing him, shy granddaddy that he is. After years of effort, I won the game for the first time last week.

He will not give me a second win. He rises now, silently, unhurriedly, huge wings pumping slowly, even serenely, as he crosses to the other side of the lake, where his morning fish~filled meditation will not be disturbed by an earthbound human.

Old Man Heron, however, is an integral part of my own meditation, as are the colors reflected in the lake’s still waters, the surrounding mountains piled with snow, and the swing of my legs as I turn now toward home.

Meditation comes in many forms~~sitting on a cushion or chair, worshiping with others in temple, church or mosque, being swept away in moments of intimacy with a loved one. Of course, all these things can be undertaken without full presence, with no sense of awe or awareness of the precious. What a waste! 

Whether a result of intelligent design, sheer chance within the stunning process of evolution, or~~my personal favorite~~some glorious interplay between the two, it is astonishing that we’re here at all. What an opportunity, to be alive on this small planet twirling its way around its star, in one galaxy among more than a trillion others. That really is worth showing up for, isn’t it?

So we practice attending. We practice awakening. We practice simple presence. In just this way, we hope to most fully experience the time we are given, however long that might be.

And with gratitude overflowing, we lovingly give back what is ours to give.



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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Windows and Walls

In an article in Sufi magazine entitled The Secret Kingdom is Everywhere, Mark Nepo writes, “Each moment that touches us is a window to the vastness of life.”
We’ve all had such moments, times when we’re pulled out of our small concerns to stand in awe before that which is so much greater than ourselves. To live consistently in such moments, though, is not easy. Our minds seem intent on carrying us anywhere but here. This afternoon’s tasks. Yesterday’s argument. Last night’s splendor. Tomorrow’s worries. 

Even with bodies still, our minds are restless, wriggly things. This is why some folks engage in regular meditation practice, time set aside to quiet on the inside. In meditation, we intentionally sit before the window Nepo refers to, the one that opens onto vastness.
Nepo has not, however, exhausted the metaphor. He notes that the spiritual journey is “about the relationship between our walls and our windows.” If windows open us to wonder, walls close us down. While walls come in many forms, each shuts us away from the vivifying essence that permeates the present moment.
So we practice stilling ourselves, employing various techniques to calm our scuttling minds. And we open to what is…to this moment…and this one..and this next one. Until, that is, we’re swept away again by an onrush of thoughts. While beginning meditators are often frustrated by the mind’s dogged busyness, seasoned veterans usually gain at least a grudging acceptance of the process.
“Trying…to keep our moments of love, mystery, and wonder from going back into the unseen depth of life,” writes Nepo, “is like trying to keep a whale from re~entering the sea once it’s breached the surface. Better to have windows that face the sea.”
We can’t compel the sacred. We can’t demand grace. We can’t even force a change in our own attitude. All we can do is turn to face the sea, intending an open window, offering a heart inclined toward receptivity. We can also remind ourselves, with unflagging regularity, that our walls are illusion. Unfathomable vastness is the enduring reality, and it stretches to infinity…and beyond.
As we remember ourselves into this larger view, our orientation spontaneously shifts. We recognize that the secret kingdom Nepo refers to in the title of his article is not so very secret after all. It is simply concealed by our many and varied walls, puny and insignificant things when seen against the backdrop of eternity. 

Remembering this, we become more inclined to let those walls come a tumblin’ down. And, as Nepo writes, “When the walls are down, the opening is everywhere.”
Everywhere. The not~so~secret kingdom is everywhere. May we each open to it, in whatever ways fit our disposition and our lives, now and repeatedly throughout our days.

Leia Marie

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Still, Like A Cactus

I am in the Sonoran desert, standing beside a 30~foot saguaro. Its accordion~like skin, plumped a bit from recent rains, is gouged by age and desert woodpeckers looking for a safe place to raise their young. Nine arms rise from the solid trunk and are silhouetted against a clear, deep blue sky. As saguaros tend not to sprout such appendages until after their seventieth year, this cactus is an old soul indeed. 

Without branches to sway in the light breeze, it stands absolutely still. This stillness, though, seems more than a simple lack of movement. It also does not seem confined to this one cactus. Stillness is woven through this place. 

An informational plaque at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument says this about the desert: “The plants and animals here are almost always waiting. They wait for rain, wait for night, wait for transportation, wait for spring.” This is what I sense, an almost palpable sense of waiting. Time flows at a different speed here, slowed down, elongated. In comparison, my own movements seem frenzied, wasteful, silly.
The path we’re hiking has taken us to ridgeline. But for the occasional birdcall, all is quiet. I want to drink it in. I want to slow. I find a flat rock beneath a lovely palo verde tree~~ named for the distinctive greenish tinge of its bark~~and I sit.

My gaze travels down a hillside filled with the reaching arms of a community of saguaro and their organ pipe cousins. While prickly pear and barrel cactus have been in bloom since we arrived, the flashy, crimson flowers of the spiky ocotillo are new. Before the rain, this cactus seemed more a bundle of dead sticks than a living thing, biding its time.
I close my eyes. Though my breathing slows, this patient ever~waiting desert highlights the busyness of my mind. As if on cue, a memory more than 50 years old rises up.  

I am holding Cindy, my younger brother’s hamster. She vibrates with energy, whiskers quivering, pink nose ceaselessly sniffing the air. I feel the wild racing of her tiny hamster heart beneath the soft, golden fur of her chest. Even when held securely in my hands, she is always searching, always busy, seldom at rest.
My awareness returns again to the desert. Held within this arid landscape, this place of waiting stillness, I am Cindy, heart beating rapidly, searching and sniffing endlessly. The image makes me smile.
We are each being held. Some feel themselves held by the hands of God. For others, the present moment~~this exquisitely unique one, right here and now~~does the holding. But held we are.

We can settle back into that holding, relax into it…as I do now amid the saguaro and organ pipe, the ocotillo and prickly pear. For this moment at least, my inner movements match my outer ones. I am still.

Knowing myself held, I let go into that holding. And it is good.

Leia Marie

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pulling Back the Veil

A reader asks, “But how DO we choose love in the face of hate? How can we feel a genuine caring for someone who is behaving despicably?” 

There are, of course, no easy answers to such questions, and we each must make our own choices, moment by moment. Yet we need not move forward blindly. Models abound. I’m not speaking here of the prominent men and women who’ve lived out these challenges publicly, crafting wholesome responses to the baser expressions of human nature. No, the models I’m referring to are more ordinary and much closer to home. If we’ve been lucky, they have lived within our home. 

What allows a parent (on a good day) to remain calm and caring in the face of a toddler’s tantrum or an adolescent’s rebellion? Understanding the child’s efforts to mature~~ whether in exerting her or his will, or wisely managing a plethora of impulses~~helps. That parent, though, is also bonded with the child. There is love at the start. By maintaining that sense of connection within a context of understanding, the parent’s responses are more likely to be loving and constructive.

So how do we find that bond when someone, perhaps a stranger, utters a racial slur for example? By recognizing that we are united already, through a rich and shared common experience. Being human in this world is not easy. We come with strong passions that are often difficult to manage. We have each been wounded, and those wounds affect our behavior and give rise to fears that are easily fanned.

We all behave badly at times. While I don’t use racial slurs, I have certainly been insensitive to the effect my words have on others. And I, too, can be unkind, even destructive, when I’m threatened or angry. These are common human failings. Some of us are more conscious than others, even more refined, but we’re each ignorant in our own way. Remembering this, we can more easily be generous with others, recognizing in their foibles hints of our own.

My current favorite quote, from Adrienne Maree Brown, is this: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” As the darker aspects of human nature are being laid bare once more, we can hold one another tightly…and with a generosity of spirit.

While we do need to intervene when someone is behaving harmfully, we can do so from a place of camaraderie. In pulling back the veil of separation, we can remember the truth of our profound connection. We can then respond out of that experience of oneness. In other words, we can act out of love.

To choose love, we must love. It is that simple. Not easy, mind you, but simple.  

Love, my friends!

Leia Marie

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Love Is Our Essence

Human nature is a mix of light and dark. Our capacity for compassion bumps up against a callousness of spirit, generosity competes with stinginess, and an urge toward harmony can succumb to an appetite for discord. 

Yet, are light and darkness given us in equal measure? Do we stand in the center of these poles, being called with the same intensity by each? A cursory look at human history could certainly lead to such a conclusion. In fact, some contend that our baser inclinations are stronger. But when we look more deeply, another conclusion emerges. Love’s voice is the more authentic, and its primacy is woven throughout our being.

The clearest evidence for this view lies in our biology. Numerous studies confirm a plethora of positive effects that arise when we allow ourselves to be guided by the better angels of our nature. An attitude of kindness, for example, strengthens the immune system and increases levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, associated with feelings of well~being. The same benefits are also experienced by recipients of kindness. 

What’s even more exciting, though, is that the boon extends as well to those who observe kind acts. A Harvard study, for example, found that merely watching a video displaying acts of kindness led to a marked increase in salivary immunoglobulin, an important component of  the immune system. Other proven physical benefits of kindness include lowered blood pressure, decrease in stress hormones, improved sleep, chronic pain relief, and increased muscle strength. 

But the gain is not, of course, only physical. We each know from personal experience that attitudes of love, harmony, forgiveness, and belonging simply feel better. An evolutionary biologist would say this is because these qualities ensure the continuation of the species. While not disagreeing with that view, others would suggest that living in love is in keeping with our essential nature and is, therefore, necessary for optimal human functioning.

But how DO we live in love within a world that ever offers opportunities for strife? Though spiritual traditions offer guidance, there are no easy answers. We are conscious human beings, growing in our ability to use our free will wisely. We must take the raw material life offers and choose, moment to moment, our response.

We are biologically healthier when we choose love. We feel happier when we choose love. Our thoughts flow more creatively when we choose love. And when we choose love, our spirits align with the teachings of every faith tradition on the planet.

We may, indeed, stand between poles of light and dark. Yet, perhaps what calls us lies beyond these simple divisions which, as human concepts, are assuredly limited. Perhaps it is a love beyond all understanding that calls us.

May we open our hearts to that love. And may love be our gift in return, this day and every day. Amen.

Love, love, and more love! 

Leia Marie