In the Moment

There’s this sense I get that being human is somehow incongruous with our spirit.  It’s as if we are caught in this perpetual tug-of-war between what we are, and where we are going.  As humans, we are awash in emotions, urges, ideas.  We want things, and we want to be things.  At the same time, we are most comfortable when we just are, without striving, planning, or strategizing.  At times, it can be an unnatural juxtaposition of motivations.

zen gardenWe are told that being “in the moment” is what we should strive for, but the demands of our careers, our relationships, and our own scattered lives defy us in this goal.  We are forced to plan, living in the future.  We are held accountable for our actions, dwelling in the past.  To not do these things is to miss out on the essence of being human.  Our current state of existence has its requirements.

However much we have to gain from navigating our humanness, we know there is something beyond that.  On some basic level, we recognize that we are here to love one another, to learn and grow.  But it’s just so damn hard.

Truly living in the moment is difficult to do, isn’t it?  We are told we should meditate, center ourselves.  It’s a nice concept, and when we accomplish it, we are satisfied.  This is what I am supposed to be doing, we think, but so often we fall short.

We judge, ourselves and others.  We intend to live spiritually and to love one another, but the “other” just seems so unlovable a lot of the time.  It’s a constant struggle.  Humanness versus spirit.  Integrated versus fragmented.  Yes, there’s a lot for us to learn, mired as we are in our human condition.

Learning to be in the moment, to be with ourselves, is a painful process, fraught with setbacks and awkward and unwelcome moments of self-revelation.  Most of us have not been taught these skills, by our parents or in school.  Self-awareness is something many people don’t have the tools or the motivation to achieve.  It simply doesn’t seem accessible, and is dismissed as some sort of new age nonsense.

One healthy way to accomplish the mind-body connection is through rigorous physical activity.  While mountain climbing, for example, we are completely in the moment. We don’t know what the next foothold is going to be until we get there.  We have to live in the now: vigilant, expectant, aware.  We are in our bodies and focused, readying ourselves for whatever comes next.

Use of alcohol or drugs can be another shortcut to the state of mind we all instinctively seek, a “quick way” to marry body and spirit.  Right or wrong, all judgments of these behaviors aside, they put us in the moment.  It may not be healthy for our bodies, but spiritually we are seeking.  The stereotypical drunk drapes his arm around his friend in a sappy sweet gesture.  “I love you, man,” he slurs.  But it’s the truth.  Egos set aside, we love one another, unabashedly.  That’s part of being human.  We worry about the details, but beneath it all is love.  And we are looking for ways to love one another.  We don’t think we are, but we are.  It’s really that simple.

Romantic relationships are another shortcut to spirituality.  Think about it – the physical, and the spiritual.  We are connecting on both levels when we are in a romantic relationship with someone.  It’s inherently gratifying – our humanness and our spirit, both in sync.  Maybe this is what being human is all about.  It certainly feels that way when we are in love with someone.  Nothing else matters except that connection.  When we are with another person romantically we are wholly in the moment, and regardless of the ramifications we feel compelled to pursue that connection.  All the sex addiction, all the infidelity…perhaps it is just an attempt to reach this sort of truth.  This marriage of body and spirit.

So,  what I’m suggesting is this: all of us – whether we are Buddhist monks, adulterers, marathon runners, or junkies – share the same goal.  It is an aim that is uniquely human and, at its most basic level, honorable.  We want to join our humanity and our spirit.  I’m not saying there is a right way or a wrong way. I’m not even sure that any of us get there in our lifetimes.  All I’m trying to say is that we are trying.  And maybe that effort – that is the thing the matters.  Maybe it is enough.

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Old Friends

We all need quiet in our lives.  We must sweep off the table and make space for it.  My life’s work dwells in the quiet spaces between things – of that I am certain.

When I was little, I had plenty of quiet.  We lived way out in the country, in the middle of an apple orchard, and I was always alone.  I had no siblings, no neighbors with kids, no playmates.  What I did have was an active imagination, and I was a voracious reader and so I enjoyed robust adventures of my own conjuring.

friendsStill, I thought I was lonely.  I built tree forts and yearned for a friend – a Diana to my Anne (of Green Gables) – to come climb with me.  We would giggle and tell secrets.  She would know my heart and understand me without a word.

I thought I was lonely, and maybe I was, with only an aloof cat, the mute companionship of a sweet-natured dog, and the rough-barked apple trees.  But as it turns out, along with the tree houses, I was also building something else.

I was building a relationship with myself.  I asked myself questions and listened to the answers.  The trees were my companions, the tractor-torn clay of the earth.  I ran barefoot and my feet became tough and impervious to rocks.  I ate plums and mulberries – and apples, of course – warm from the tree.

When I started school, I was confused by the complexities of interactions with my peers.  Many of them were abrupt, judgmental, inconsistent.  I began to see relationships as troubling, unsatisfying, and hurtful.

I have been blessed with some very dear friends in my life, but a true and durable friendship, as many of us know, is an uncommon thing.  That Diana to my Anne – that “kindred spirit” that L. M. Montgomery spoke of – I don’t know that I’ve ever quite found her.  Unless…

Unless I am that friend, to myself.  When I think about it, this dialogue that has continued for well over 30 years, this old and comfortable knowing of myself that goes deeper than words, has served me well ever since my childhood, when such self-companionship was forced on me through my isolated circumstances.

When I’m alone, undistracted, and able to really be with myself, it’s like a visit with an old, dear friend.  I thought I was waiting to meet her, but maybe she’s been here all along.  She’s been waiting in the quiet spaces between things…and she is always there for me.

Going Through the Motions

Can we do things without really doing them?

I’m not trying to be abstract.  It’s a valid question.  Behind this question is another: Is good enough really good enough?

I believe that we can do something with so little conviction that the results are as bad as if we hadn’t done it at all.  Maybe even worse.

Take my gums, for instance.  At my latest dental checkup, the hygienist whined that my gums weren’t that great in a couple hard-to-reach areas.  When I described my oral care routine and asked what might have caused the problem, she replied that it might be my “flossing technique.”

After that, I paid attention.  It was true that there were some places where I jammed floss between my teeth but didn’t really work it around.  I was going through the motions of flossing, but it was lazy flossing.  And it wasn’t enough to keep my gums healthy.

I have never been a person who can get away with laziness or shortcuts.  If I don’t give my full effort, there are consequences.  Going through the motions, it seems, really isn’t enough.  I have to go “all in,” living life (and performing all its minutia, it seems, even flossing) with care and intention.

And if I’m punished by oral care lectures (or worse) when I fall short, conversely I’m richly rewarded when I do put forth the effort.  The lesson is clear: How we do things does matter.  Perhaps even more than what we do.

Living a creative life requires…sleep?

The other day I picked up my pen and began my daily notebook entry.  I write two pages in my notebook every day whether I feel like it or not, even when it seems I have nothing to say.  If my mind wanders, I just write what bubbles to the surface.  I don’t worry if it’s brilliant, original…I’m simply putting pen to paper.  It’s my jumping-off point, a place to begin.

What came to mind on this particular day was dinner…namely, what’s for dinner.  I’ll swing by the store on the way home, I wrote.  I need cottage cheese, juice, etc., etc.  Then I stopped myself.  There I was, in my special writing space, the time I have Is sleep necessaryset aside for myself, for my creative work, and I was using it to make a shopping list.  Even though I give myself permission to write whatever comes to mind, I have hopes of directing my creative energies a little more effectively than that.

The truth is, sometimes I feel too tired to be imaginative.  More immediate concerns crowd my thoughts, thoughts of work and dinner.  “Too tired to be imaginative” is probably an oxymoron, though – imagination is second nature.  Or first nature.  Daily living is an imaginative act when one examines it closely.  Our lives are poetry…we even think in metaphor.

What takes self-discipline (and therefore energy), then, isn’t creativity itself.  It is taking the initiative and setting time aside – real, substantial time – to focus my thoughts.  I don’t mean a rushed two pages scribbled in my notebook while I’m waiting for someone to return a phone call, in which I’m so preoccupied all I can think about is what I will make for dinner.

It’s about intention, and being tired impairs my ability to perform this essential step in the creative process.  When I am spread too thin and/or haven’t had enough sleep, it’s easy to become consumed with work and such vital concerns as what to feed my family.  Those things are necessary and need attention, but a creative person has another set of needs to be happy and contented.  In order to live a fulfilling life creatively, we must make choices that promote emotional and physical well-being.  That can be difficult to do when tired.

Worse yet, when I am tired, I don’t really care much about my creative welfare.  Tunnel vision takes over, and I only feel capable of dealing with one thing at a time.  I lose my ability to see the big picture.  I’m hungry.  I need to eat.  My thoughts get pared down to basic necessity.  I’m not worried about writing the Great American Novel, or the next poem, or the next entry in the Naked Notebook.

So maybe the first lesson in nurturing our creativity is this: go to bed.  Go to sleep.  Stop trying to maximize every minute of every day, and instead focus on getting those eight hours, or seven hours, or whatever is needed to see beyond what’s for dinner and achieve the state of mind needed to create.  Conserving energy and making space in our busy lives is how we make ourselves available to “the muse,” whatever that is, whenever it comes.

It seems we don’t need a reason

Today I have the time to write, but there isn’t anything I want to write about.  Not my fingertips, sore from heavy garden work in Mom’s leather gloves.  Not my yard, lovely and filled with promise.  Not my dreams, uncomfortable and seemingly empty of meaning.

train b&wThere’s nothing to write about, not the same old things or anything earthshattering and new.  The same people, the same work.  The same face in the mirror.  The same train whistle in the not-too-distance, on its way to somewhere.  I don’t even feel particularly curious where – I, who used to gaze up at the sliver of a jet traversing the blue and wonder to what faraway place all those people were headed.

These days I don’t wonder much about things.  There are so few answers that satisfy.  Even a material answer doesn’t satisfy the big-picture question that underlies all things – why?  Any of it?  Why worry?  Why accept?  Why try?

Yet we always worry.  We strive for acceptance.  We can’t help but try.  The fact that we do is underscored by a certain hope, an innocence.  It defies logic and is at times impractical, but still, there it is.  There’s no way around it.  To hope feels right.

Tapping Into Abundance

The universe has no limits, but we humans like boxes.  We think we need them.  We are uncomfortable with limitlessness.  In our minds, everything is finite.  When someone tells us we can have as much money as we need or want, just for the asking, that we can create our own reality by visualizing, we reject that idea.  “It can’t be that easy,” we tell ourselves.  “If it were, everyone would be rich and successful.”

I saw the movie and read the book The Secret.  A lot of what was said there resonated with me, although it has been said before.  Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization, published decades earlier, suggests that many of the same concepts are true and offers many of the same techniques as The Secret, with more depth and specificity.

I believe that much, if not all, of what is suggested in those books is possible.  At first, though, I didn’t want to believe it.  Why did I reject the idea that the universe will support total abundance in my life?

I don’t think I rejected the idea for the same reason many people do.  Many people (the proverbial masses) engage in what I call “paucity thinking.”  They believe there is not enough to go around, that we have to “get ours before someone else does.”  This is not very useful thinking.

What if there were truly plenty of everything, enough to go around and more?  Many indicators suggest there is plenty.  True abundance can be found at every turn.

Since I don’t buy into this “paucity thinking” model, why did I initially shy away from The Secret’s suggestion that anything I want can manifest?  To me, it seems the book does not address a key component: the synchronicity needed to manifest our desires.  I believe that what we want must be in accordance with our true purpose as an individual (or one of our true purposes, since each of us may well have many).

Each of us has innate gifts, and I suggest we are morally and spiritually obligated to put them to their “highest and best use,” to borrow a real estate term.  We don’t have to; we could sit on the couch and drink beer all our lives, but in exchange the universe probably wouldn’t give us much more than an unhappy, purposeless life.  We could visualize all our desires to our heart’s content through the haze of a drunken stupor: driving a Lamborghini; owning a mansion in the Hollywood hills.  But it probably wouldn’t happen because there we sit, swilling down beer and watching reruns of Two and a Half Men.  We wouldn’t be using our “God-given” talents for the greater good.

That is the ingredient left out of The Secret.  It’s our job to discover our special purpose (no, not like Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk) and do it.  That’s how we tap into the abundance.  That’s the doorway to the limitlessness of existence.

I’m working on it.  I’m not drinking beer on the couch.  I’m using my gifts so that I can lead a purpose-driven, fulfilling life.  And though I don’t care much for Lamborghinis, I can think of a few things I’d like to own and accomplish.  When that “little voice inside me” says no, you can’t, I order it to stand corrected.  Yes, I can, I counter.  And why not?

For more thoughts and writings by Jennifer, visit her website at jenniferphelpswrites.com

Why we look, and what we hope to find

This morning I am walking the dogs.  I take a different route, just a small deviation from my regular lopsided figure eight, a short trip down a side street.  I want to walk past the house where the murder took place last week.

We’re all rubber neckers, I think as I wind my way down the mossy sidewalk beside the pink and white oleanders that bloom in front of the house.  These are actually their oleanders, trimmed before it happened. There is a crime scene inside, and outside the grass is cut and the sprinklers are going on timers. As if its inhabitants went to the store, or to the lake for a day of boating.

I question my own motives – why do I detour down the street to see the quiet house where something awful happened?  Will someone notice me strolling by, a way I usually don’t go? People might think I have an unnatural interest in the misfortune of others.  Do I?

I don’t think so. I think I’m like everyone else, wanting to catch of glimpse of that place.  It is the place where what we think we know and what we believe we understand meets the unknown, the unfamiliar. It’s the departure point, the place where the ocean meets the sand. There’s some overlap in that moment when the surf slides up the beach, some commingling. A little sand gets caught up in the ocean; a little salt water sinks into the sand. But then the ocean retracts, pulls back into itself. The beach is still there, but it’s different. It looks the same, but microscopically it’s changed.

That’s how it is with a murder, or a car accident, or someone who has fallen grievously ill. They are on that shore, touching that deep unknown. It’s lapping at their feet, or maybe they’re already deep in it, caught in the undertow. And we want to see it, as if witnessing their struggle, their transition could help us understand.

It doesn’t. What we are left with are only our perceptions, which defy understanding and utterly confound us when we try to express them with language. The house looks the same, but it isn’t. How can that be?  We are left saying absurd, typical things like, “I just can’t believe it,” and, “How can things like that happen to such nice people?” As if there is some moral balance sheet in the universe; I have decided that if there is, it doesn’t follow our logic.

My mom recently died. I feel the urge to attenuate that statement because it seems to shock people. They want to hear softer terms, like “she passed away,” or my least favorite, “she passed.” The truth, to me, is better, however stark it sounds. She died.  She was alive, and now she isn’t.

The first thing I wanted after my mother’s death was the shirt she was wearing when she died, soft and worn like only an old T-shirt can be.  It had been washed along with the bedclothes.  I found it and brought it home.  First I put it on, but that didn’t feel right, either.  I just wanted to be close to where she is now, wherever that is.  The shirt held her body as she made that transition.  Maybe somewhere in that shirt, I felt, was the answer.  That place we want to witness.  That empty house with blooming oleanders, sprinklers ticking in the yard.

Mom’s shirt hangs in my closet.  I don’t want to wear it, but I do want to see it.  “Mom died in that shirt,” I tell myself when I look at it.  It’s still just a shirt, just like the murder house is still just a house.  I could give that shirt to someone and they could wear it, never knowing it held her last breaths, never knowing that shirt is my shore, beyond it the ocean, never knowing that is the shirt that bore her out on heaving waves.

I don’t know where she is, but I know where she departed from. I guess that’ll have to be enough.

Poetry as Spiritual Practice

I have been known to say that poetry is my religion.  By this I mean that through the writing and reading of poetry, I feel connected to the creative force that dwells within all of us.  What that is, I think, is quite individual – each of us experiences God, spirit, or what we consider divine wisdom, in a different way.

I’m pretty sure there is a poem in this photo, though I have yet to write it.

As I mature and my spirituality deepens, I find that poetry and writing still bring me that feeling of connectedness, but only to one facet of the spiritual experience.  Poetry gives a voice to emotions.  It is a way to be with feelings, images, experiences.  There is no need, in poetry, to extrapolate or draw conclusions (though many try to do just that – not a useful approach to poetry in my opinion, either for the reader or the writer).

When I write a poem, it is usually about an emotionally charged subject.  If I am working with an image – a leaf, or a rusty truck, or an open door – it represents something much more than the simple, everyday object I’m describing.  That mundane and familiar thing is a stepping-off point, an opportunity to go deeper.  In writing poetry, I’m not wallowing in my emotions or being hysterical; rather, I’m settling in and examining.  I’m seeing something clearly, both for what it is and what it represents.

Spiritual practice as a discipline is much broader: it is holistic; it is looking forward, integrating, improving, and being.  Poetry is simply the truth, the being.  The seeing what is, and trying to find the right language to say it.  That is all.

Being Mindful

I’m trying to live intentionally.  By this, I mean I’m working on being “in the moment,” mindful of my thoughts and actions.  I say “working on” – mindfulness is not easy for me.  I can be very distractible, prone to nervous habits like nail biting.  Although I no longer bite my fingernails, it’s a good example.

It’s impossible to be a nail biter if one is mindful.  Activities like that are things we do when we are unaware, preoccupied with stressful, anxiety-provoking thoughts.  I suggest that no one sits down and says, “I’m going to bite my nails until my fingers bleed.”  Rather, they gnaw away while thinking of something entirely unrelated, then look down and say, “Oh, darn.  I’ve done it again.”

Think of all the elements of our daily routine that we do mindlessly.  It’s staggering.  Not all these things are bad things:  We unplug the coffee maker.  We lock the door on the way out.  We brush our teeth.  Often we can’t specifically remember doing any of these things.  We presume we did because we always do.  It’s habit, routine.

Habits are useful and make space for lots of abstract thinking.  While I’m mindlessly making breakfast, I’m envisioning a flyer I’m designing for a client’s business or working on a poem I’ve been turning over and over in my mind, smoothing it out like a tumbled stone.  I love multitasking; it accommodates both my busy mind and my busy life.  Sometimes I wonder, though: does it make me more productive or just distracted?

Multitasking involves doing at least one of the activities at hand by rote (i.e., mindlessly).  Is this really a good idea?  Or is even the smallest activity, like making toast for breakfast, worthy of my full attention?

I’m not suggesting standing in the kitchen and watching the toast as it browns, thinking of nothing but toast and its toastiness.  I don’t think I could do that.  But perhaps I could be in the kitchen, thinking about breakfast, puttering over the dishes or browsing cookbooks while I wait for the toast.  This might not be wasted time, and it might prevent trips to the refrigerator where I open it and entirely forget what I was looking for in the first place.  Sound familiar?

I believe there is much more value to mindfulness than we give credit in our overachieving society, where children are rewarded for perfect attendance and adults are encouraged to “power through” fatigue, illness, and tragedy.  What if how we do things were as important as how many things we accomplish and the nature of our achievements?

Maybe there are no small moments, and maybe the spaces between things are as important as the things themselves.  Yes, maybe there is something to be said for doing things – even small things – deliberately, intentionally, one at a time.  And doing them well.

Processing Grief: Acceptance

(June 17, 2012)  It is nearly the summer solstice.  I love these summer evenings when the sky glows almost unnaturally into the late hours as if lit by a neon city glow just beyond the horizon.  When the temperature outside feels the same as my skin, I seem to be melting, dissolving into the warm night air.

This year, though, I greet the passage of time a little reluctantly.  Each day takes me further from my mother.  When the weather is almost exactly like a day when I remember seeing her, speaking to her, I can imagine we have just been together.

But now summer is here.  Mom is gone, and the days don’t even resemble the days that she was in.  I can’t imagine us together now.  I am writing a new history, and although she is in it, her role is quite different.  She is not mother, tyrant.  She is not mother, supporter.  She is not mother, I-wish-she-would-be-less-self-centered-and-place-more-emphasis-on-family.  She is a mother of memories, of tearfully discovered pictures, of family members’ sometimes tiresome monologues.  Mom, gone.  What is that?  I am finding out, day by day.

It’s not like when I was little, and I would think about my mother dying and cry and cry.  Just the thought of her being gone registered in my body, a terrible hopeless ache that I couldn’t bear.  The reality of her death is a different kind of sadness, one that is at once awful and bearable.

Even when she was sick, I knew I could bear this.  I was almost certain I would be asked to.  I applauded her efforts at wellness – she never gave up, and I never gave up on her.  But intuitively I did not believe she could be well again in this life.  I believed she would succumb to the cancer.  I don’t feel guilty about this.  My thoughts did not make it so, just like many prayed for her and those prayers did not change the outcome, either.

Cancer is a process that does not care one whit about our wishes or our dreams.  It is simply a biologic sequence of events that, once taken hold, is extremely difficult to eradicate.  Is this tragic, wrong?  It seems that way when it is happening, but no.  It just is.  I have no blame, no anger.  Just the sort of acceptance that is needed to face things I cannot change.