Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What is Tonglen?

I sort of stumbled upon Tonglen as a practice when I was reading a book by the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. My twelve-year-old son chose it from among the books at the Northshire, our local bookstore, and put it in my Christmas stocking last year. It's called Comfortable with Uncertainty, which is really relevant to me, as I suspect it is with most of humanity, because I have never really been "comfortable with uncertainty." This has to do, I know, with fear. So the second part of the title of Chodron's book is "108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion," and something that I learned in its pages is that both of these ways of being (compassionate and fearless) can be cultivated through Tonglen.

Tonglen is a meditative practice. The word Tonglen essentially means "sending-and-receiving," and it has to do with allowing ourselves to receive, or sit with, what is painful, grievous, or harmful in the world. Suffering exists. The Buddhist dukkha. Indeed. So to sit with it, with all of the emotions surrounding it, breathe it in, we connect with it...in ourselves and in others. Then sending, with the out-breath, we exhale, we send into our circle of compassion all that is healing, peaceful, and positive. When we start, we might be alone in our circle of compassion, but through the practice of Tonglen, that circle can grow...and grow...until it encompasses the whole world! The universe.

Tonglen is a way of cultivating fearlessness and also compassion in our lives. Often our first impulse is to move away from someone who has sustained an inconceivable loss. But the older I get, I find myself leaning in to these people. I find myself less fearful and less tentative. It has to do with being willing to receive what aches in them and knowing that my compassion, sent innocently and without judgment, sent simply with my intention, with my breath, is adequate. I don't need to "say (or even do) the right thing." I just need to be willing to share in their sadness, their loneliness, their grief.  Compassion is always adequate. It is, in fact, what heals us. Not only does it connect me to others in an authentic way, but it cultivates in me a kind of courage I know I want.

I want to walk this Earth and connect with others fearlessly. By practicing Tonglen, we train ourselves to do this, and at the same time we remember our own compassion. We remember how to love without condition. We remember that what we have suffered and have seen suffered is nothing new--"There is nothing new under the sun," intones the philosopher in the Book of Ecclesiastes. There are new faces, new stories, new shapes of things, but the suffering and the pain are universal. They are ancient. But so is the love, so is compassion. Through the practice of Tonglen, we can open ourselves to these two fundamental truths and practice connecting with others and with the Divine that inhabits us all.

If you'd like to listen to a discussion I recently had with Reverend Paulette Pipe on the subject of Tonglen over the airwaves, just click on the link below. In the broadcast, we chat for about 15 minutes on the topic, and then I lead a guided Tonglen meditation, which is about 12 minutes long. Paulette's radio show, "Touching the Stillness," is a rare find and I am honored to have been her guest.

Radio Interview with the Reverend Paulette Pipe: "And Unwrapped Gift" on "Touching the Stillness"

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Wholly New...

I settle in to write the story. Hang its bones with flesh, fat, "miraculous organs." I wrap winter around me like a blanket--white snow a buffer against all sound, all activity. I am this story. I learn to love the winter. Love the cold that leaves me leaning into these interiors, these warm pockets of living. I lean, too, into my language, each syllable a gift, a "new arrival" that means the story grows. The story goes. It becomes me.

I look around me and there is this difference: I have finally learned patience. After yearning so long, just like that. I arrive at stillness. My longing is a soft undercurrent, no longer a raging river tearing at roots and tumbling stones as it spills itself headlong toward the sea. Oh. What sweet respite from wanting.

I learn to sustain this light, let it burn down slowly, the thin and enfolding flame of a candle. "I can see for miles, miles, miles," he croons. Indeed, the distance is great.

I determine to craft, draw in the lines of the lungs, the veins and arteries. The heart itself I will endow with muscular pulsing. Life. I will line the flesh with marbled fat, just enough, and enclose it with the largest organ of all. When I stand it up, it will breathe, and I will recognize it as my twin. Beauty I never believed in.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Bonsai Soul

I have begun to understand the soul as much like a bonsai tree...one's higher self, God within as it were, as a sort of bonsai artist. I have learned that bonsai artistry is a lifelong commitment...to clipping and shaping, watering and monitoring--light and soil and air. Bonsai tree growing, then, involves all of the elements, even fire in that it is from the belly of the artist that the flame of passion arises and from that fire that each intention lifts itself and takes the shape of action: pruning, root reduction, potting, defoliation and grafting.

The tree of the soul grows from source material--a cutting or perhaps a seedling--not from a genetically dwarfed or altered tree but rather from the real deal. The regular stock and seed of the full-sized Tree in all its glory. Source material indeed.

The purpose of bonsai is twofold: contemplation (for the viewer) and the mindful exercise of effort and energy (for the grower). I realize then, that each action I take in the effort toward understanding, nurturing and directing the growth of my soul is another way I attend to that tree, a perfectly miniature version of its Source.

I therefore know each individual as such an artist and each soul as the thing that grows as a result of  perfect intent. Left to its own devices it would become unruly, grow beyond its bounds, or else diminish to the point of disease or even perishing.

I consider the implications of this and decide that I can only be a contemplative viewer of the bonsais that surround me. As for my own bonsai tree, I must attend to it minutely, each limb, each tiny leaf a reflection of my care and the way I hope to grow it. I must love it up, the way I am loving up my children. And I must trust in the power of my love to make it worthy, finally, of its Source, of being a sliver of that light in this world. An island of serenity in this life.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Seed Talk

What matters is these five women, holding space for one another--angels on earth, angels in the ether of E's heaven.

"This could be heaven," she said matter-of-factly, looking around the circle, sort of assessing us before reasserting, "Yeah, you could all be in my heaven." We laughed but were inwardly honored, without speaking it, by the notion. By E including us in such a place in her heart.

What matters, then, is this tower and the seeds we have planted here. They rain down from the sixth floor like petals or snowflakes and settle in the rich soil beneath us.

Each day we have gathered here in earnest. The sixth floor of the tower at Awaken Whole Life Center. Together, with pens in hands, layers of trepidation and restraint shed for the opening, the unveiling of our own personal truths, each of them nestled into the nest of this larger Truth. Satya.

What matters then is a village. People who are trying, really trying to be whole, good, light. People whose practice it is not to judge but to open themselves one limb, one petal, one thought at a time to what is possible in the world.

It took me a while to realize what made this place so special. It was, all around me, the collective 'essaie,' the effort to be good. The intention of each person who walked there--the chefs, the bookstore clerks, the spa staff--to be kind to one another. To see each other clearly and come from a place of acceptance for each interaction, whether with strangers or friends.

What matters then is the miracle of a dog. A boy with words in his heart. A mother willing to give him the spoon that feeds him.

N, you are so beautiful in your love. It is, we could all see immediately, without condition. It is for everyone you encounter, everyone with a hurt or a need or a hope. How lucky your children are to have such a strong presence of maternal compassion in their lives...one who is rooted in her feminine lineage but not bound by it.

What matters then is a formidable woman who embraces a girl--forlorn in a foreign land, rejected by those who would love her, confused by the incongruity of culture, family, propensities and lives that enveloped her in eighteen short but enduring months.

What an honor, P, to be among the midwives of this amazing birth. Your story will unfold itself before your eyes. All you have to do is "show up" to write. This story wants to be told by you; it picked you, as I believe a child chooses its parents...I can't wait to see all the ways it will grow!

What matters then is an ageless woman with a love for life that supersedes all fear, all inhibition, all self-consciousness. A woman who, after 87 years, continues to evolve, grow herself, attend to the business of blooming.

Thank you, E, for modeling sheer gratitude for life and all it brings. For reminding us that we are constantly and ever evolving, and for giving us so much to look forward to!

What matters then is a mother of six who springs into the autumn of her life in beauty, in joy. She is a fountain, she is a source of life in and of herself. She, too, seeks to blossom heavenward.

C, whose 'peasant feet' root her to the earth. Ground her in her present and give her the steadiness of heart and step as she moves through a life with the intention of becoming what it is in her to become...never forget that what you are already is beautiful and worthy of every good thing.

What matters then is a woman cupping the heart of a man in her warm hands. Her own beats like a sparrow's--quick skittering rhythm hidden in her breast as she breathes in his brokenness, exhales what would heal him.

T, I wish you could have fully grasped the amount of admiration and appreciation carried in the hearts of each of the members of our group...for you, friend. For you.

This time together, here, in a seven-story tower, we have leaned in to one another. It has been a time of intrepid openness and unfettered self-expression, each woman moving toward a light that she herself placed before her. Each one holds the space toward this expansive motion and shared evolution. We know ourselves as in the process of becoming, but also as already embodying that perfect thing toward which we strive. Time is inconsequential in the mapping of our intent.

This weekend was the synthesis of souls, intentions, efforts, but also the synthesis of my own gifts and offerings. We are the "seed group." We acknowledge it aloud. We know that it will never be like this again and this we speak, as well. "We are the 'good old days,'" E asserts, having most certainly looked back and known herself like this in other settings, other circumstances over the course of her 87 years. She grins broadly, and we know it to be true. "Seed Talk," we called this meeting...Sunday evening, the last of our retreat. Indeed. Seeds and talk and love and the cultivation of this fine thing that has already begun to grow in the garden of our collective consciousness.

What matters, then, is my own effort to tend to this garden of unruly but fantastic flowers. And to trust in the process. There is a way to give it all and be left full to overflowing. Be a gardener, Kim. Be a fountain.

**Thank you to Margaret Robison whose untitled poem inspired the refrain of this post: "What matters then..."

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Art of Being Still

I have sometimes thought that I had nothing in common with my mother, content to raise her children, keep our tidy house, put food on a maple-wood table. My mother who never heard the call of distant countries or foreign cultures but instead hunkered down and laughed about being an "Okie," though each step she took distinguished her as "other" than what her Oklahoma Dustbowl lineage might define.

In California, she watches the sea from the shore, her feet firmly planted on East Cliff Drive, arms wrapped around her body against the chill of North Pacific breezes. My mother, resigned to working in the same tiny medical office for over 20 years, all the while anticipating a time of rest in retirement. Slowly working her way up a pay scale and growing in the esteem of the doctors whose insurance billing she governs.

I have spent my adult life in a steady progress away from this kind of stillness, always moving, always driving in the direction of the unknown. Driving seaward, lusting for the adventure of ocean swells. Winds of change. Only now, in my 42nd year, the year that for my mother held the wedding of her daughter and the diagnosis of breast cancer, do I begin slowly, slowly, to learn the art of stillness. To know the difference between still and stuck.

I see now the strength in making a choice and carrying it out over time. Being very still and waiting out times that don't measure up. Nurturing hope and indeed action for incremental change, rather than flying to the dramatic: abandoning your post in the face of a picture of life that is incongruous with the picture in your heart.

Looking back over my own story, I consider counting the number of times I have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, fled from a place that was still becoming "home." Created the need to rebuild, start again in a new place under new circumstances.  What has been the draw of utter and complete upheaval? Have I never known moderation?

But there is no point in doing this. No point in trying to imagine what might have grown had I ever had the perseverance, the patience, to nurture something akin to a garden. In fact, I have come to see gardening as the symbol of the kind of rooting of the self that I still don't really know how to want. The kind of rooting of the self that I believe I will evolve to find myself understanding. Even desiring, one day.

In the meantime, I will practice the art of being still in Vermont. Because my children love this place in which I have begun to learn it. It is the place that held up a mirror for me to see my mother's features in my own brown face. Her expression of steadfastness. Her constancy. These endow me with a kind of beauty I did not have before now but which was always in her, though I did not understand its origin. They provide me with an anchor. I drop it here among the carrots and the lettuces. I find comfort in the tautness of its line, as the waves of my life lift me up and away from it. But the line holds. I stay. Still and not stuck.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Thank you, Vermont

The rain begins with the commencement of school--an impressive concussion of thunderstorms that lasts for two days. I notice that the leaves in Snow Valley have already begun to let go of their summer green, though not yet infused with the dazzling palette of autumn.

The air is cool during the rain, heavy and hot during the moments of stillness. I find myself serene and knowing this place as a kind of home. For all my resistance, I do like Vermont--in spite of its being a part of New England, which always feels stifling and accusatory, if only for its history and the vestiges of the puritanical sensibility that gave it its place names, its conservativism, its general fear of pleasure.

No, I find I can forgive Vermont its geographical association with New England (though I still joke that I think I was burned at the stake in my last life--besides, if that's true it had to have been southeast of where I now reside). Plus, Vermont's "hippies" and rednecks defy the standards of her Massachusetts and Connecticut neighbors, making me feel less like a fish out of water.

I find I can embrace Vermont for its verdant hills, for its sparrows and chickadees. I can embrace Vermont for its blue lakes nestled in the blazing fall foliage, too, but mostly I begin to embrace Vermont for the joy it brings my sons. I can even love Vermont for the way it has adopted them and absorbed them into its snow culture.

I find that after 20 nomadic years I could possibly learn to be still, and I know that Vermont has taught me that. There is undeniable gratitude here and a fondness for the seasons, which I could never have anticipated. In Vermont I have learned to be home.

*I can't in good conscience not admit that I have borrowed a morsel of language from Ray Bradbury in this piece. I first saw the word 'concussion' used to describe a storm in a short story of his called "All Summer in a Day." Thanks, Mr. Bradbury. Love your work. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Imagine Yourself a Writer, Part II

My interview last week with the Reverend Paulette Pipe on her radio show "Touching the Stillness" inspired me to put down in writing a navigation of my happy discovery that suffering is not a prerequisite for great writing and that the most important aspect of what we create as writers is not that it distinguishes us as separate from others but rather, that it connects us to them and highlights what is shared among us...

Something that plagued me for many years as a young writer and teacher was the idea that suffering and art go hand in hand. I had the idea that only misery and grief could generate good writing, and historically, there are so many examples to support this. The “tortured artist” is not a new concept. I had this fear that I could never achieve peace and happiness in my life and still write meaningful poems and stories. It was some comfort that in my periods of misery, self-loathing and grief, I could come up with some very powerful poems, but ultimately, I wanted to be happy. And I wanted to be a writer. So much of what I knew about writers supported the argument that these two conditions were mutually exclusive.

Theodore Roethke, arguably one of America’s greatest poets and writing instructors, once said, “I can’t go on flying apart just for those who want the benefit of a few verbal kicks. My God, do you know what poems like that cost?” It was true. In my own experience, each poem, each crown of sonnets, each villanelle, had been born of some devastating sensation or experience. They exacted a very real cost in that the requisite suffering took its toll, one that didn’t necessarily, and certainly did not permanently, get erased or even compensated by the works of art so exalted by others. Roethke went on to exclaim, “They’re not written vicariously: they come out of actual suffering, real madness.”

I feared, too, that inherent in the poetic sensibility was a kind of instability and even this “madness” Roethke talked about. I wanted to write, but my fear that what made me a writer also constituted inherent flaws in my mental state began to overwhelm. It helped when I started to write more prose, more fiction. I would eventually move away from wrenching the personal material from my gut for the poetry I had been so committed to writing in my twenties and early thirties, and I would start to invent characters. It would feel safer, more stable, and finally I would all but forget what had previously felt like an irreconcilable conflict….but it did not happen all at once.

I began to deepen my yoga practice. I began meditating regularly, exploring stillness, sitting with my quiet self and simply being. These practices brought me profound peace, and I began to find that the sort of fissures in the heart, caused by suffering and causing a kind of leakage of consciousness, were not the only way I could access what lived and moved in my “dreaming place.” It was one way, and indeed I had haphazardly dredged up the contents of my “dreaming place” in this way for years, dragging them over the coals of my own torturous uncertainty, through the darkness of my melancholy, trying, as it were, to tend to wounds that always surprised me with the keenness of their sensation. I would often later craft these images, this language, into poems that would then get published in a literary journal or magazine, but the cost. “My God,” the cost.

Through my practice of yoga, which led naturally into meditation, I began to change. I began to heal myself. I began to find my centre. To know and love stillness, which landed me smack in the middle of the present, where I found I could let go of every fear, every ache that had ever plagued me. Not by resisting it, but by acknowledging it. Absorbing it. Breathing it in, letting it be transformed in me, and then breathing it out as peace. As gentleness. As love. This, I learned, was the practice of Tonglen. It is a Buddhist practice that, roughly defined, means “giving and taking,” or “sending and receiving.” In the practice of Tonglen, we breathe in not only our own suffering, but also the suffering of others, the universal hurt that differs only in the stories that encapsulate it, and we breathe out what we believe will give relief: serenity, human connection, joy, confidence. In this way we heal ourselves. In this way we heal the world.

So where did this leave me as a writer? Could I exist as two people? The elevated, joyful yogi, and the tortured poet? Or could I somehow integrate these aspects of myself, allow the “torture” to be transformed in me, and let it feed my writing? Would my writing become flaccid, undisciplined, springing as it would from a place that was wildly happy and content? It was a risk, I felt, but this softness of heart, this boddhichitta,  or “awakened heart,” was not something I was willing to give up. I was realizing my true nature, it seemed, and I was not willing to accept that this meant that I would no longer write. When I began to try, I felt in some ways that I had little to say in a poem. The poems just did not come. I knew, though, that writing is like child-rearing, and as soon as one says, “I always do this,” or “Whenever I do that…,” the maxim just formulated becomes null and void by a new behavior, a changed and wholly unpredictable variation in the pattern. With this in mind, I did not get too worried.

Instead, I tried my hand at fiction. This was new for me. By meditating and navigating my way consciously into that “dreaming place,” instead of waiting for the membrane between my conscious and subconscious thought to tear painfully, I found that I could give myself access to all the wildness of my imagination without the suffering. I could begin to generate language, images, and whole stories in a healthy way. I found that my writing became richer and more intricate, and certainly more accessible to others, since I was no longer skulking about in the semi-obscure language of my secret longing.

Characters began to arrive at my proverbial door, and I began to welcome them happily, weaving them in to the stories that germinated somewhere inside and found their ways to the surface, like gardens. I felt only partially responsible for them, and yet I had the desire to cultivate them, and this effort, this loving time invested in them, gave me ownership of what felt otherwise divinely gifted to me. I had discovered, it seemed, a new way to create. I had also begun to realize, that this experience was not unique to me. People love to think that they are unique, special in some way, and it is through no fault of our own that our egoic self is so intrigued by the feeling that we are doing something that no one else (or very few others) can do. I had to let that go. I’m not special. Not in this way, at least.

EVERY person is a writer. EVERY person has a “dreaming place” that is unique to herself, and EVERY person can learn to access what is there and to bring it onto the page. We can also ALL learn to craft that material into poems, stories, essays… It is limitless, really, what we can create and how we can, through our creation, connect with others. Why do we orient ourselves early on toward asserting ourselves over others? There is room in the world for infinite expression, infinite art, and ultimately, infinite empathy. How about that as a goal of art? To unite?

I do believe that many artists throughout history have ‘gotten’ this. Albert Camus, for one, who said in his banquet speech upon accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, that “often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he has felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others.”  In Camus’ words, “the artist forges himself to the others, midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from. That is why true artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge.” Gospel. Seriously.

The more that I practice yoga, I see that I/we can achieve union, as it were. Between body, mind and spirit; between our selves and others; between our subconscious and conscious minds. I see that it is possible to access my creativity, indeed my “dreaming place,” through peaceful contemplation. Through the softening of my heart, the opening of my self to the infinite possibilities of my own imagination, I can create, and this connects me with my fellow human beings. And I see that with a little guidance, we can all do this…and experience the joy, healing and liberation of speaking our truths, whether through real or invented characters.

I have made it my mission to provide such guidance and to help other people, people who desire to be both happy and creative, to find their way through this labyrinth of human experience. I love teaching yoga, meditation and writing. What better way to combine these things than in a Lotus Wheel Retreat? I invite you to join me for the upcoming retreat at Awaken Whole Life Center in Unity Village, Missouri (click the link below for more info). And in the meantime, may your spiritual path be well lit, and may you cultivate your own creativity through daily practice, even if it is to sit down and write a single sentence each morning. Your stories, your observations, have a place in this world, and they connect you to others in a way that means everything.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Imagine Yourself a Writer....

I often begin my discussions on creative writing with the idea that Wallace Stevens had of “the Dreaming Place.” I believe I first learned about this from Pat Schneider during my Amherst Writers and Artists training over fifteen years ago. I remember being a fairly young writer and teacher at the time, arriving in the idyllic town of Amherst, getting settled in to my room at a farm house belonging to a woman named Clara, and heading off to learn from the master.

I loved everything about that training: Pat’s easy-going approach, her sincerity, the wide range of ideas shared for generating material, and Pat’s staunch belief that anyone can write…and should. It confirmed that I was onto something with my idea that Percy Bysshe Shelley, for one, was full of something unsavory when he defined poets as “spirits of the most refined organization…hierophants [or interpreters] of an unapprehended inspiration.” I have always secretly felt (as appealing as it can be to be part of something exclusive and elite) that writing was not something reserved for an elite group, for  “those of the most delicate sensibility and the most enlarged imagination.” No, I had an inkling that every individual was a writer, a potential story-teller and poet, and that the only thing that distinguished one who called herself a writer from one who did not was the desire to be that thing. One is a writer because one desires to cultivate their story-teller/poet self and, perhaps most importantly, because one is willing to put in the hours of practice it takes to really craft her work.

So this “Dreaming Place,” it exists in every one of us, and access to it is our birthright. It belongs to us. It is the field of one’s imagination, one’s thoughts, tame or wild, animate or inanimate, squawking or humming; all of it is there in the wide open space of one’s “Dreaming Place.” It is through early criticism, the poor reception of a story, perhaps or the red-pen markings of a well-intentioned teacher, that we begin to bar our own entrance into this place. Finally, I think, most of us forget the way.

Happily, though, the memory is always there, latent perhaps, but present, and with a little effort, we can retrace our early steps to this place and remember our creative selves. We can grant ourselves not only access to this place, but also permission to fish things up from it, record them on a page. This is the stuff of our dreaming, it is the way we remember our writer selves, and it is the way we can say something new. No, as emphatically declared in the biblical Ecclesiastes countless times, “there is nothing new under the sun.” But there are new ways to say everything. What connects us to others and, paradoxically, asserts our individuality, is the story we tell. The poem we write. At the end of the day, if we want to write, we can.

The techniques I learned at that little training in Amherst paved a way for the writing circles I lead now, and over the years, the experience of working with budding writers from all walks of life and of all ages has deepened and bloomed into something quite lovely. I have sort of made it my business to guide people in this process, and I have to say, it is one of the more rewarding ways to spend my time.

The other very rewarding way I spend my time is guiding people in yoga and meditation, both as an expression of the self and as a way to listen. Through the meditative movement of yoga and the stillness achieved in deep relaxation, I believe we can visit our “Dreaming Places.” We can connect with our own imagination, our wildness, the pictures and words that populate our thought, and we can gain insight into our own creativity. If I visit my “Dreaming Place” regularly, the way into it becomes more familiar, less intimidating, and easier to navigate. The speed with which I can reach it, and draw from it for my writing, increases…to the point that when I sit down to the page, there is little to restrict the free and easy rummaging, sifting, recording and crafting of the material it offers me.

If you have peace with this whole process, if you trust it, you can know your writer self. You can bring her to the fore and indeed embody her. If it is what you want, whether to forge a new life path or simply to find the wherewithal to write one particular story that you have it in you to write, you can certainly achieve it.

As for the yoga part, you do not have to be able to twist yourself into a pretzel, and I will not make you chant “Om Namah Shivaya” (unless you want to, that is!). You just have to arrive with the willingness to breathe, move your body a little, set an intention to yoke body to mind and both of these to spirit. If you would like to attend to this integration of the self, through yoga asana, meditation and yes, writing, you might like what we are up to at Lotus Wheel.

This is what my Lotus Wheel: Creative Awakening Retreats are all about. I hope you’ll visit the website for information about the upcoming retreat at Unity Village this October (click link below). This retreat is limited to 30 participants, mostly to keep the writing circles to the intimate size I like them to be, so be quick! It’s filling up! I hope to see you there…


*Both quotes in this essay come from "A Defence of Poetry" by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which was first published posthumously in 1840 in Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

'Twas the Night Before the Frendly Gathering....

After our morning yoga and a little work, I leave Timber Ridge around noon each day, and each day it is a little bit different. Today, the day before the Frendly Gathering, this place is wild with energy, color, bodies and movement. Everyone has a place to be, a tool to wield, an area to clean or decorate or transform for festivity.

Drinks are piled into coolers and bins for the volunteer staff, and vendors start rolling in, their bright wares swinging from hooks and shelves in vans, or stuffed into hatchbacks. Tents are being erected left and right, and the sound crew arrives to start preparing for the parade of bands that will grace these stages starting with the pre-party tonight.

The Burton crew is busy preparing their ‘lodge,’ which looks like a teepee with two long awnings sprawling away from its central structure. Camera crews move among the workers, documenting each interaction Jack and Danny have: someone needs a screw gun over at the skate ramp. Did the Beats Antique merchandise arrive? Where is the yellow tape measure? That toilet in the men’s bathroom is clogged again. It’s less than glamorous, to say the least.

And yet, Jack and Danny thrive on it. This is their karma, it seems, the work that they offer up to the world to create this amazing three-day festival. Gray clouds, swollen with rain, threaten to open themselves and dowse us all, as they have every day, but never mind. There are things to do. “Everything’s better with mud,” someone quips cheerfully. Jack tugs at the hair protruding from beneath his hat and reminds himself to breathe. It’s stressful, running all this, and he and Danny have watched this thing double each year. Anticipating over 2,000 festival-goers this time around, they bolster themselves for numbers but not chaos.

The Frendly Gathering is just that: it’s Frendly. More and more people are coming to understand exactly what that means. The adjective “Frendly” denotes anything that cultivates a positive, peaceful, nonjudgmental exchange among people. That exchange involves mutual respect and revelry in equal parts, and in my experience over these past three years, it just might be a magic combination. “The boys” work tirelessly, as do their female counterparts in charge of every administrative detail, and each night they play. Hard.

And in the morning, as the sun begins to warm the hill that is the backdrop for the Frendly Gathering, they face that hill and do a little yoga. Their commitment to mindfulness and entering each day with positivity and intention is evident in the discipline they have to show up here on their mats first thing every morning. They choose yoga over an extra hour of much needed sleep, and I watch the tension and the sleep, still tangled in their hair, unravel and spill away from them with each asana, each “long, slow exhalation.” Their bodies uncoil from their couple of hours of restless sleep and open into the Frendly vibe that gave rise to this whole thing in the first place. As they move, stretch, balance, they remember. It is good.

“The day has been officially launched,” is the closing comment that someone always makes, Jack or Danny or Luke, and it’s true. From there we flow out onto the landscape of Timber Ridge and engage in the karma that will yield an entire festival of this Frendly feeling.

Everyone will feel it, for sure, because it comes from such a real place. These guys are the real deal, and the people they have garnered to them to help launch this thing, they’re the real deal, too. I am honored to be even a small part of this thing and to watch as it grows…to birth not just a three-day party, which it certainly is, but also a movement. The Frendly Movement.

Smile. Breathe. Connect. Hug someone. As one walks through the archway from the Main Stage area up toward the Woods Stage and the mini-ramp, they are reminded to do all of these things. Each Frendly action is prompted by a hand-painted sign that punctuates the colorful field of feathers and mobiles hanging from above. This ornate archway framed by branches ushers one into the next enchanted realm of the Frendly space….in the direction of the VewDew Board demos, Wellfleet oysters, the Frendly skate ramp and yes, the DJ Nest. Ah. It’s time.

The Frendly Gathering is about to be launched.  I’ll see you at Timber Ridge, Frends!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

To My "Frends" at Timber Ridge

I sit and talk you through a visualization. You 13. I arrived with 13 brand new composition books and threw in 2 or 3 recycled ones for good measure, but I see now that you are the 13 who were always going to be sitting here, listening to my words and generating your own.

Gratitude rises like a wave dragging its belly across coral reef, so that it pitches skyward and gives the sensation of pleasure--I skitter across the face of the wave. I smile, though there is always the seed of fear, always the knowledge that not every gift is received with love. I give it anyway.

In your varying degrees of interest and investment, you listen. You close your eyes. You meditate. Write. I am awed by your willingness. Your positive orientation toward every new thing. This openness, this trust, is what encourages me to keep tending the soil, keep caring for this group so committed to caring for this thing--this vibrant, growing, pulsing, alive thing that has the potential to heal the planet.

When you share your writings, I am humbled. By your guilelessness and your frankness, by the beauty of your stories and impressions, but mostly by the way you express your love. By the way you trust this group. You send the gift back to me a thousandfold, and I am blessed. Thank you, Frends. Mahalo nui.

See you at the Gathering...

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Birth of a "Frendly" Movement

I sit down at a tall table near the back of the Red Fox Inn and Tavern with Jack Mitrani, pro-snowboarder and entrepreneur extraordinaire.  These are Jack’s stomping grounds and just getting to our table takes a fair amount of time, as everyone wants to greet him, talk to him, hear of his latest adventures. As always, Jack takes the time to attend to each of them, equally happy to share in a moment of connection.  I find quickly that this is why we are meeting today. Connection.

It is written in Jack’s earnest expression, in his exuberance as the topic opens up in our conversation, as he opens his laptop and we begin perusing the schedule for his upcoming Frendly Gathering. Jack is all about it: connection. The Frendly Gathering is in its third year. A three-day festival of people connecting with one another…through music, hiking, yoga, food and fun. The thing is evolving before my eyes, and Jack’s grow wider and more alive as we discuss how he can cultivate what is already blooming through this visionary event. It is an event that seems to be spilling out into a Movement of sorts. I find that this was always the intention.

Jack opens a document on his computer screen. It is the Frendly Manifesto, a four-page statement containing the ten core values of the Movement, the biographies of the four individuals who have dreamed this thing into being, and an articulation of their vision. Their vision is simple but ambitious: draw people together in love and “frendship” and promote human connection globally. Jack’s cohorts are equally impressive:  pro snowboarders Danny Davis, Kevin Pearce and his own brother, Luke Mitrani. They are the “Frends” who started the headphone company that has become a wild corporate success but more importantly, together these young men have formed a union that involves a contagious kind of camaraderie. “There’s no ‘I’ in Frends” is their motto propounding selflessness and inclusivity.  Looking at Jack’s computer screen, I notice that these words are an integral part of the articulation of the Frendly value system.

And then there’s Jack. Somehow, this twenty-four year old rock-star athlete and public personality sees a bigger picture…and his place in it. We begin to talk about this connection and its role in the Frendly Movement—people talking with one another; sharing through language, sound, revelry; people truly listening to one another, to their words and their music, and connecting in a meaningful way. We talk about what often hinders this kind of connection: judgment, exclusivity, fear. These obstacles can be diminished, we agree, through uniting people in mindfulness and friendship, and this is what the Movement is all about.

Yes, he nods and laughs, because we are connecting through our shared desire to foster this kind of experience in the world. We talk about technology and social media as the tools that can enable this kind of connection but which are often mistaken for the connections themselves. No, we agree, people connect face to face. In real time. In real places. They laugh together; they touch, whether that’s a handshake or a hug; and if the music is playing, they dance. Enter the band lineup. Wow.  From the electronic menagerie of Paper Diamond and Conspirator to the folksy hometown heroes of Twiddle and Gold Town, to the amazing Kat Wright and her Indomitable Soul Band, the artists who will be performing at this event run the gamut.

Jack and the boys have put together a music lineup that has something for everyone. Using multiple stages and rotating the crowd from hour to hour, the Frends crew have choreographed the revelry of the many “frends” who will gather that weekend to connect over the course of three days and nights. As one band finishes on the main stage, the people cheer and gather their blankets and coolers to move to the woods stage. There is happy chatter and a palpable buzz of fun and camaraderie as they make their way to the next venue. And of course there is the DJ Nest perched high in a tree and sending moving lights along the wooded dance floor into the wee hours. It really is visionary.

I point out that Jack and his Frends are in a unique position to truly have an impact on the world—their generation in particular, but certainly their scope of influence does not end there. Jack is already nodding his assent; he seems to know intuitively the responsibility and yes, the opportunity that is inherent in being in this position. Perhaps the most endearing quality in Jack is his humility, also a Frendly value, and combined with his charisma, there is no limit to what he and his cohorts can do. 

People listen to these guys. They watch their hilarious antics on Frends Vision, they watch them competing or hear them announcing at elite pro-snowboarding events, they follow Frends on every manner of social media, and when Jack and Danny put out a Tweet that “some of us are meeting up for a game of kickball in Burlington,” they show up to play!

The result of our meeting is an agreement, and I know without asking that this is the business Jack is in right now…going around and making agreements with one and all who share in this vision. Making agreements to cultivate this fabulous garden of “Frendship” that is already growing. Agreements to tend that garden lovingly, whether it is by offering time, energy, resources or talent. They are agreements to hold sacred space for the Frendly Movement, which already has a foothold here in Southern Vermont. It was born in the gorgeous green hills of Timber Ridge, and its stewardship is led by four extraordinary individuals.  I’m in, I say, and I, like so many others who share those values with Jack and “Frends” will be there…at the Gathering and for the long haul, because this is where the healing of the planet and its people begins: human connection. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Almost 42...and Magnificent

“And at once I knew…I was not magnificent.” This is the line of the Bon Iver song that played in my head again and again as I moved through 2012. It was something to do with turning 41 and looking about, forlorn that I had not become, achieved, bloomed in ways I always thought I would by then.

I recognized it as the unique privilege of my kind—upper middle class American—to be discontent with my present circumstances, though there was nothing inherently imperfect about them. I recognized it as a variety of ingratitude, beautiful as my family was and healthy, happy, thriving. But I didn’t have the discipline to resist it. It was a longing for—not youth, but perhaps the orientation I had then: everything ahead of me, every door open, life inviting me to bloom into all the ways one can be. 

After a few months of this melancholy (which waxed and waned, of course, with the little joys I was still privy to), there was a choice to be made. I could either indulge this fairly contrived (albeit palpably felt) sadness, or I could turn my face to the sun, flower that I was. I could drink in its light and keep processing, transforming it into my own perfect energy, letting it grow me into the thing that I must certainly still be in the process of becoming.

41 or not, I was still growing, still learning, still blossoming. Healthy, whole, surrounded by love and family, I knew myself as more than magnificent even now, midway somehow to something I could not fathom. I knew myself as perfect and dazzling in that divine light and separated from the magnificence of the rest of humanity only by the thin membrane of imagined separateness. And so I dissolved it. In my mind’s eye I dissolved that fine veil that was always of my own creation, and I let myself merge into the current of all life. All beings. All earth. All language.

It was the way I saved myself. The way I extended every deadline I had ever imposed on myself. The way I learned to glisten again. It was not magic. Not anything special, really. Just a shift. In my belief about myself and the world I inhabit. In retrospect, it sounds so easy. It was not. And yet, it was possible. It took time, and it took a conscious effort, and I did it.

I still hear the song occasionally, and auditory memory makes my heart ache in the familiar way, but only for a moment, and then it passes. It goes the way of the self-doubt and disappointment I let go of. I’m nearly 42 now, and the sense of possibility is very much alive in me. My own children grow and change before my eyes, my marriage settles in to the stretch of twenty years and the sense of home that was always so elusive to me before, and I—I become quite fearless.

It’s not that I fear nothing. Those haunting fears of loss will always exist, as they must for every one who loves. But I move in a way that defies them. Refusing to let my lesser fears define me, I no longer wonder about my own worth in the face of the passage of time. I am, as I have told so many students they were over the years, perfect. Not in my words or my deeds, try as I might, but in my intention. And that is the magnificent. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Tonglen of a Jewish Mother...Again and Again, Tonglen.

"But the man who had found could approve of every single teaching, every way, every goal; nothing separated him any longer from all the thousand others who lived in the eternal, who breathed the divine."~Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha

I always return to Michelangelo's Pieta. So exquisite in its falling grace, the near collapse of beauty into grief...but it holds. Just. Sustained by the perfection of intent. By the acknowledgment of ancient surrender manifest in the present moment...where all the things they ever agreed to culminate in this: the death of the body. Gratitude for thirty-three years together in flesh and bone--mother and son walking the earth and whole. Whole.

Her left hand falls open--languishing gesture of receiving even this: what aches, what saves. Her child, her love, draped across her own body like a pale garment. Her head is bowed just slightly, eyelids flagging--half mast in her languor. Oh. It aches. It drains. It is what she said yes to. And she would say yes again and again for the time that she had, the time that he belonged to her and to this earth.

Baby boy grown into this: gentlest of men, compassionate lamb. Her eyes scan his body, pause at the light beard, the girth of the ribcage, line of hair below the navel. When? When did he become this? When did he shift from the infant gumming a crust of bread to man, generous with his whole life and willing, willing to give it away. To leave this fragile shell to fall away from her like a veil unraveling.

Her right hand, the giving hand, still clasps his body beneath his arm, striving toward the heart, but her own heart spills open there beneath her gathering garments. Even now, she knows to breathe her grief and to send away from her not bitterness but love. Exhalation of gratitude and light. Tonglen of a Jewish mother. Again and again, tonglen.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Tonglen. I learn that this is the practice in which I have been engaged for some time now. Without even knowing what it was or that it had a protocol and a name, I have been involved in the Buddhist practice of tonglen. Pema Chodron, the American Buddhist nun and writer, defines it simply: "when anything is painful or undesirable, breathe it in." But why? Why would we lean in to suffering, sadness, pain?

Though I didn't let it derail me, I have over the years wondered about the source of my interest in exploring volunteering with Hospice, reaching out to people I know have experienced tremendous loss,  teaching yoga to cancer patients, or even writing a book like Inertia. I knew it was possible to interpret these interests as morbid or even masochistic, but they felt too right to judge in this way, so I have pursued them...allowed myself to lean in to "what aches, what saves."

Funny, that little quote is from a poem I wrote almost ten years ago--before I began this unwitting tonglen practice. In a time when I was fervently resisting pain and sadness, protecting and shielding the soft spot of my boddhichitta, or tender heart, which had in recent years become fearful and incredibly vulnerable through having become the mother of two beautiful boys. Even then, I seemed to have a sense of the parallelism between "what aches" in the heart and "what saves" us in this lifetime. I knew intuitively, without even processing it cognitively, that these two things were one and the same. It was evidenced in my poetry, but I had yet to open myself to what that meant.

"In tonglen," Pema Chodron says, "we become willing to begin to expose this most tender part of ourselves" and doing so "tells us that there are people all over the world who are feeling exactly what [we're] feeling...the story lines vary, but the underlying feeling is the same for us all." In tonglen, one breathes in what is dark, painful and full of sorrow, and one breathes out, literally sends out in an ever-widening circle, that which is light, joyful and full of hope. "If you can know it in yourself, you can know it in everyone" and in this way tonglen is a practice that awakens our sense of kinship with all beings. It widens our circle of compassion while at the same time helping us to cultivate fearlessness.

It's a beautiful practice. We lean in to what hurts us: anger, disappointment, self-loathing, jealousy...we breathe it in, absorb it through our pores, and "use [this] poison as an opportunity to feel our heart, to feel the wound, and to connect with others who suffer in the same way." Yes. And we send into the world, with our breath, everything that is light and divine and full of happiness. These things are infinite by their nature. Radiating them like this in no way depletes our own abundance of light; instead that light is perpetuated and strengthened through this practice of sharing and extending the wish to help.

Tonglen. What beauty in its purpose. To cultivate fearlessness, to connect ourselves profoundly with all other beings. To know our own sorrow, acknowledge it and name it and sit with it, rather than acting out or repressing it. In practicing this, "we gradually begin to realize how profound it is just to let [that sorrow] go, not rejecting [it], not repressing [it]. We discover how to hold our seat and feel completely what's underneath all that hopelessness and despair...We find that there's something extremely soft, what is called boddhichitta. If we can relate directly with that, then all the rest is our wealth."

I sit with this idea of tonglen. I meditate on how it moves in my own heart and know it as the perfect expression of compassion. Empathy. It helps me to understand these 'interests' of mine and inspires me to follow them where they may lead. I am indeed practicing tonglen. It makes me brave. It lights my way.

**Thank you to Pema Chodron whose book Comfortable With Uncertainty my son Taiaroa chose for my Christmas stocking this year and from the pages of which all quotes in this post (with the exception of "what aches, what saves") are drawn. And thank you, Taiaroa, for such a wise choice. Namaste, my love.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Retreat...ruminations and invitations

The retreat blooms out of the braiding of my myriad interests, my love, my experience. My desire to share what I am learning and what makes me whole. A teacher of one kind or another for so many years, it is my way--I gravitate toward sharing, guiding, lifting each beautiful lesson into the light.

I have learned a little about softening into the thing that hurts the most, the thing that makes me most fearful. I begin to open to my own knowing and to my own ability to heal, both emotionally and physically. I learn how to move my body, breathe, create space so that there is harmony inside and there is nothing to detract from my healing.

I learn, too, that "writing is a form of prayer" and that each word I send into the world is perfect in its imperfection, like a little boat carrying my intention across a vast sea. Each one of them lovely and unique, representative of what breathes me, what lives and grows inside. I learn that it is healing to tell my story and also to be still. Attend to body and mind in that stillness. Breathe.

I learn to cultivate my creativity, because what grows will also wither and die if not nurtured. I learn that there is something to learn from every person I encounter, no matter who they are, and if I do not recognize that thing, the failure is my own. I learn that I must "let go" of things sometimes, but also that I must "let come" what wants to arrive to me, must not harden myself against it by clinging to the form I expected it to take.

So many sweet little lessons still blossoming like a million wildflowers on a green hill. What better thing could I do than call other, like-minded individuals together to share in that beauty? To explore and to face fear and to attend, gently, gently, to the body and mind...together. And all of that in such a sacred space as Cold Moon Farm in Jamaica, Vermont.

I invite you to consider how things might align, fall softly into place, for you to get away for four days to participate in the Creative Awakening Retreat at the Cold Moon Farm. We'll be doing yoga, breathing, eating delicious, locally grown and produced foods, writing and sharing. It will be a time for looking within and also of letting the petals of our creativity fall gently open. Lotus Wheel is the name of my new venture. It is fitting. You are invited.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

To My Students...Past, Present and Future

This is my hope for you, dear ones. That you live creatively, happily. That each moment constitutes a present worth remembering. That you find what makes your heart beat most wildly and dedicate your life to doing that thing. It is so much easier said than done--so much interferes with the perfect intention to live in a mindful, meaningful way and feed the soul--may you find your way clear of what muddies those beautiful, lucid waters, and may you know those things worth doing, worth pursuing, when you see them. May your choices allow you to grow into the best versions of your luminous selves, and may you experience, above all, profound love.