Pro-this, Anti-that: In a Divided World, I’m Pro-Compassion.

Photo by Cathal Mac an Bheatha on Unsplash

I won’t let my heart be divided.

The pain of divisive words has been eating at me. So many of the words being used in the mainstream media, social media, and what has become of our common discourse are lit up with disrespect, fear, and hate. The us vs. them rhetoric is hurtful to my heart.

And it should be hurtful. Because it’s not healthy. When something’s not healthy for us, our body and psyche will afflict us with pain, to signal to us that something is wrong.

Is the hateful language hurting you too?

Language of divisiveness—left vs. right, or pro-this vs. anti-that, for example—is not the language of the people. It’s not a product of our lived sense of one another as fellow human beings. It’s propaganda.

Employed by ruling and elite classes to manipulate the narrative, divisive language is wordplay designed to pull us apart, by those who benefit from our division.

These days as we navigate the pandemic, for example, the words “anti-vax” and “anti-science” strike sadness in me every time I hear them. I don’t believe those words genuinely define anyone. I do believe those words (and many others, on both sides of the political debate) are being used as tools to turn people into labels.

When we minimize others to labels, it’s easier to dehumanize them. When we dehumanize others, it’s easier to care less about them. And when we care less about each other, those who wish to divide and conquer us have just had their job made much easier.

I won’t allow divisive words to stop me from caring.

Whichever side of an issue we’re on, there’s going to be someone on the other side of it. That doesn’t mean that person is bad, or evil, or wrong. They may be wrong, in fact. But we don’t need to allow media, or government, or influencers, or friends and family convince us of what is right or wrong, simply by virtue of their authority (or proximity). Because they may be wrong. They may not have all the information. And they may be lying.

If we believe divisive words out of hand, we fall prey to othering: the belief that another person or group is the problem, or the source of our pain. But when we’re divided along ideological lines, it’s not you making me hurt, or me making you hurt. It’s division that’s hurting us both.

The “other” is not the enemy. If there is an enemy, the enemy is the othering.

So what to do? It’s hard to know where we stand, when we don’t know who to trust.

That’s why I’m pro-compassion.

In a world so riven with “pro- vs. anti-” ideology, compassion—recognition of the other as a feeling being who also suffers—is a balm to the heart. Compassion for the other is a unifying power, pointing us toward common ground to ease our collective suffering.

If I’m pro-compassion, that means I’m incapable to dehumanize you for your beliefs, because compassion is a humanizing force. If I’m pro-compassion I won’t hate you, because compassion understands that hate breeds more suffering, not less. Compassion is born from a primordial connectedness that exists innately within us, long before the labels of the outside world begin to subdivide our minds. Compassion comes from wholeness.

See, your ideological beliefs don’t tell me who you really are.

You may define yourself as pro-life or pro-choice. Neither of those stances tells me whether you’re kind. You may call yourself anti-racist or anti-fascist. That doesn’t tell me whether I can trust you with my heart. You may say you’re pro-gun or anti-censorship; that doesn’t tell me whether you’re willing to seek common ground with me.

But if you’re pro-compassion, whichever side of an issue you’re on, I feel safe with you. I know you’ll see me as human. I know we can work together. You may lean right and I may lean left, but if we center compassion between us, part of us is already on the same side.

I’m not saying that compassion is easy. On the contrary, I think it’s often easier to hate than it is to be compassionate.

But I am saying that compassion makes us free.

A popular verse by Rumi comes to mind:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Being willing to meet in the field beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing doesn’t mean there is no wrong or right. It doesn’t mean we don’t have opinions. It doesn’t mean we don’t take a side, or fight for what we believe in. And it doesn’t mean we’re admitting weakness or defeat.

It simply means that we recognize the weakness of defining ourselves by our differences.

When we allow ourselves to be defined by opposing labels, we become trapped in those definitions. Division stokes more division. And from inside that box of wrong and right labels, we can lose sight of what “the right thing” even is.

But when we step out into the field beyond wrong and right, we free ourselves from that box and see clearly. We can turn around and witness the suffering going on “inside,” and feel compassion for those who are hurting on both sides. From that place of clarity, the last thing we’ll want to do is add to the harm. From that place, we can work for solutions that heal.

In this divisive world, I refuse to let my heart be divided.

I won’t allow myself to be lit up with disrespect, fear, or hate. I won’t let manufactured or normalized stereotypes break my connection to you. And I’ll do my very best to define you, not by any label, but by your humanity.

In a world that’s rife with us vs. them rhetoric, we can be pro-compassion. We can come together in the field of shared needs and put down roots of connection in the face of those who would divide us. That is a radical act.

So, I’m on my way out into that field. Whichever side of whatever thing you’re on, I hope to see you there.

Maybe together we can begin to heal our hurting hearts.

*

Elephant Alert! An edited version of this article is available on Elephant Journal at this link.



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We are All Indigenous to Somewhere.

A journey to Ireland brought me closer to my worldly roots, and in the process, reminded me that I am always rooted…wherever I may be.

*

Spending time in Ireland, so close to the lands where my own ancestors would have lived many centuries ago, is healing.

Where I grew up in the American West, it feels right to honor and name the indigenous peoples of that place, and respect the spirits of their ancestors however I can. Knowing that I am from that place but not “from” there, I love and tend that dry and sun-glazed land the best I can, trusting that somehow I know what she needs.

For human and nature are one in soul, no matter the place we meet.

We are all indigenous to this planet. There is no human being who is not rooted in some ancient place.

But it’s healing to be in a place where the indigenous spirits and ancestors are my own. Where my toes are familiar with the moss, and waves crash over rocks making music that fits the curve of my ear. Where even the birds seem to be speaking my language.

This old tree I passed every day during my time in Ireland caught my attention. Like me, she is rooted in this place. Unlike me, she has never lived anywhere else. So I listened to her. What does she know that I’ve forgotten?

I believe that when we honor our own story and walk in the wildness of our own ancestral lands (even if only in our hearts), all land becomes more sacred. ✨

*

This post inspired me to record podcast Episode 11, “We Are All Indigenous,” available here.



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You can’t own me: a lesson I learned from water.

Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash

There’s a ritual I practice every Sunday afternoon.

It’s a humble, worldly ritual. Yet it connects me with the spirit that moves all life in a way that nothing else can.

Every Sunday, I water the plants.

Growing up, I never considered myself a green thumb. I didn’t know much about caring for plants. But when I inherited a carload of houseplants from my biological mother after she died, I knew I would have to learn.

In the decade since my mother’s passing, I’ve grown into an adept and attentive waterer. Once a week I circle around the house, stopping from room to room, tipping a longnecked metal watering can into the vessels of houseplants that make their homes in nearly every window.

As I go, I stop to admire and tend to each plant. I pinch off dying leaves, adjust stems and saucers, rotate pots to accommodate for seasonal changes in light. I stand on tiptoe and wiggle my fingertips into the soil of hanging baskets—have I watered enough?

As water settles through soil, I circle back a second time to each plant, topping off the water for those who need more, seeking the sweet spot that lies between giving enough, but not too much, for everyone to thrive.

*

My weekly ritual reminds me that water is a commons.

In sociopolitical language, commons are public resources shared by the collective. Spaces where everyone can gather and give and take freely. Experiences owned by none and available to all.

Parks and trails, sidewalks and streetside benches are commons. So are mountain views, the ocean’s edge where all can bathe, and the shade of ash trees on an urban parkway. Air and sunlight are commons. So are the night sky and the stars.

Land was once a commons. But since we modern humans have the hubris (and the real estate contracts) to claim we “own” tracts of earth and the life upon them, the concept of land as a commons has been largely lost.

Yet we remain humbled in the face of water.

We cannot own water, no matter how much we try.

We can use water. We can channel it, contain it, freeze and thaw it. We can fight and kill for it, and we can pollute it. We can even steal it. But we can never own it.

Water slips from our fingers when we try to grasp it, evaporates should we try to encircle it, deluges us with rain showers on its own schedule. It shapeshifts from solid to liquid to gas, and cuts canyons through solid rock. It cleanses all the world with its healing vapor manifest as rain. And there is nothing we can do about it.

Nor should we want to.

Science tells us that our bodies are 70 percent water. Without water, we’ll dry up and die.

Experience teaches us that water is necessity. She quenches our thirst and blesses us with resilience, flexibility, and flow. Blood is water. Tears are water. Water is our every move.

And spirit tells us that we are part of water, and she is part of us. We dance in a relationship of reciprocity, we the containing vessel and she the prism that reflects the rainbow. Water does not belong to life, and life does not belong to water. We belong to each other.

Body, blood, breath: water is a bridge between the commons of the world, and the commons of the spirit.

*

When I inherited all those houseplants from my mother, I also inherited six cats and a dog.

The cats were accustomed to drinking their water, not from a standard-size cat bowl, but from a 5-gallon plastic bucket in the corner of the kitchen. The bucket was much bigger than needed. Yet for six cats, it somehow seemed the right size.

Amused, I watched the cats not only drink from the bucket, but wade their paws through it, peer curiously at their own reflections, and scoop it over their whiskered faces to drink and groom themselves. Touched by this activity I couldn’t bear to take the bucket away. I kept it and renamed it the “swimming pool.”

Each week, the swimming pool got a little grimy with use and needed to be emptied, scrubbed, and filled with fresh water.

It didn’t take long for me to recognize the opportunity: transfer settled water from swimming pool to watering can and repurpose it to feed the plants.

And thus began the ritual of feeding all the home’s life with one bowl.

It didn’t take long for me to sense that I was operating my own microcosmic version of the water cycle. What in the macro would be transformation from ocean to clouds to rain, in my cozy little house was mirrored as tap to bucket to watering can. And behind both the phenomena of transmutation whispered its magic: water becomes air, becomes ether and the world of the unseen.

And so, my task of watering began to take on a timeless quality, a sense of participating in something ancient. In my ritual of care I was no longer simply watering plants and scrubbing buckets. I was tending to the perennial cycles of life.

And not only tending, but participating. After all, don’t I also need water to survive?

*

Over time, I’ve learned that different plants like to be watered differently. The calathea loves to have water poured over her broad-striped leaves like a waterfall, dripping from her curves and edges to fill her saucer below.

The jade plant tells me when she’s had too much water: she shrivels up a single leaf and drops it onto the rocky soil beneath her.

And when the lily has had too little, she droops her leaves sorrowfully, one eye open to make sure I’m paying attention.

Aren’t we humans like this too? We all need the same basic elements for survival. Carbon and oxygen. Nutrients and sunlight. A place to spread our roots and call home. And water.

We, like the plants, each need these elements in different measures, more of one or less of another, depending on our nature. And we ask for them in different ways, too.

It’s humbling to know that we humans have a deep, shared need for water, something we don’t own and can’t control.

But it can be a joy to awaken to the shared blessing of interbeing: something that no one owns is something that belongs to all.

Water gives herself to the lily and the jade, as she gives herself to the songbirds in the morning birdbath, the sloppy grin of a dog paddling in the river, or the squeal of a child splashing in a mud puddle. And me, running barefoot and laughing into a rainstorm.

In interbeing, we get to be simply one more part of nature. We belong.

*

Recently I’ve added a closing step to my weekly plant watering ritual.

When the watering is done and the bowl is scrubbed and all have what they need, I pour myself a glass of water, and drink.

The life of the world is in a dire state. The planet needs us humans to care about the commons of life, from the forests to the oceans to the thawing tundra. The web of interbeing spans the globe like ocean water, all our fates suspended within it.

The need can seem so big that we may feel incapable to help, or unsure of what to do.

This is where mother water can be our teacher. In her generosity, she nourishes us all, each in the place we are, according to our need. And in quenching our common thirst, from plant to animal to humanimal (us), she reminds us how intimately we’re all connected.

Never does she stop to ask whether the task is too big.

Ironically, in a time of great collective need, it may be the smallest of tasks that teach us how to heal.

What if we could sink into that great need, and feel our place in it? What if we could ask from there what small thing we have to give, and give it?

One small thing doesn’t solve every problem, but it does help us show up as part of the solution. We can start with what is close at hand. Give to each what is needed. And know that should we cease to grasp, and let our gifts flow, there will be enough for all.

From that place we might remember our great power as one essential drop in the great ocean of spirit that moves all life.

I remember, and I pick up my watering can.

*



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Birds and Dogs. {poem}

Photo by Chanan Greenblatt on Unsplash

I face the bathroom mirror…

I face the bathroom mirror
Standing silent
Listening to the sounds outside my window.
Birds chirping, dogs barking
Breaking through the peace
That hangs heavy in the summer air.

Meanwhile, somewhere far away
On the other side of the world
Bombs are dropping.
Someone like me faces her bathroom mirror
As explosions shatter the peace
Outside her window.

She will scream
And grab her children
And run.

Meanwhile, 
I twist my hair into ringlets
Wondering what if
Instead of lazy summer sounds
I heard bombs 
Exploding outside my window?

I try to imagine the horror
But I cannot.

I can imagine wild horses' hooves
Pounding over dry mud.

I can imagine the roar of a great dying tree
Split open by the wind.

I can imagine the cry of the eaglet in the nest
Unable to fly, falling to his death.

I can imagine many things 
I’ve never heard or seen.

But I can’t imagine 
The horror
Of the bombs.

You may say I can’t imagine it
Because it’s never happened to me. 

But maybe I can't imagine it
Because it's something that should never be.

How fortunate I am, I think,
To hear only birds and dogs.

*


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Rest is Radical.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing.

Lao Tzu

In the month of July we enter into the time of Idir Ait, the in-between, according to the Irish-Celtic tradition. At the summer solstice, the sun stands still on high. The days are long, and life slowly ripens, in this midway time between spring planting and fall harvest. July saunters in lazily and falls across our laps with a popsicle in her hand. Work has been done. Work can wait.

My mother’s family of Nebraska farmers takes advantage of this time, to take a breath. They park the tractor and combine in the shed, and get out on their fishing boats. They shine their hot rods and drive into town, pay visits to neighbors, chat away long evenings over glasses of iced tea and lemonade.

I ask myself how I can find such rest amidst the traffic and sirens and over-scheduled bustle of my city life. Then a goldfinch lands on my fence and sings to me. Work has been done. Work can wait.

Rest, like herbal tea or cool water, can be a medicine for this season. In the space between the wild unfurling of spring and the ripe urgency of fall, midsummer invites us to make like the sun, and rest.

Our culture might try to convince us to disregard rest as a privilege, or a luxury. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In this society that depends upon our constant movement to keep its machine running—and rewards us for it—rest is a radical act.

Nature allows herself to rest when the sun is high; we can follow her lead. Everyone has a right to rest. Work has been done. Work can wait.

Dandelion Seeds. {Poem}





Dandelion.

She catches my eye
Poised quietly among the irises,
A tall and spindly star of seeds.
Wild among the cultivars,
She’s a quivering silver sphere
Among the docile lavender blooms.

I bend down and pluck her,
Gentle, careful not to shake her
Lest her seeds come loose
And cascade onto the lawn.

But something in this feels wrong.

I look at dandelion,
And she looks at me,
And I consider my choice.

When I was a child I would have
Blown this little flower to smithereens
—in a good way—
Without even thinking twice.

Rushing to sweep her off her feet
I’d wave her wildly in the wind,
Smiling eyes to the sky
Watching her seeds take flight
On the breath of the day
Off to far-flung reaches and unknown seedbeds
Where she could take root and grow.

But now, all grown up, I hesitate.

“But, this is a dandelion!” I think to myself.
“If I blow it, seeds will spread all over the place, and next year
the whole yard will be full of hundreds of little yellow flowers!”

She hears my thoughts and whispers back,
“Isn’t that the point?”

Dandelion waits,
The breeze tickling her seeds,
Wondering what I’ll do.

Who taught me to think this way?
I didn’t come with these instructions.
Where did I learn
That a perfect plot of manicured grass
Is more worthy of protection
Than the lavish, wild diversity
Of nature’s aliveness?

What is more important…
A lush and radiant lawn,
Or a lush and radiant life?

I breathe in, and blow.

Dandelion opens her wings
And farewells herself upon my breath,
Tumbling into her destiny.

Inside me, a little girl smiles.
She’s the one who once ran ahead
To spread the seeds.
No one had to teach her
That lips are made for blowing,
And dandelion seeds
Are made to fly on the wind.

And the funny thing
About all this is,
I don’t even care about lawns.

*

Photo by Sarah Mak on Unsplash



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For the Tomboys: Let’s not Become just another Archetype of the Patriarchy.

Photo by DANNY G on Unsplash

Our world doesn’t need more girls trying to be boys, or women trying to be men. The world has enough men already. What we do need is the archetype of the strong woman.

“Is that an upside down cross you’re wearing?”

I looked up from my instrument as I prepared for first period band class. A girl I’d never met from the grade below stood above me, curiously studying the silver pendant hanging from my neck.

I shrugged. “Yes, that’s what it is.”

We were both stating the obvious. There was no mistaking the symbol hanging from my neck: a three inches long, sharp-angled, inverted cross flashed defiantly over the black backdrop of my heavy metal T-shirt.

“Why do you ask?”

She smiled. An open, genuine kind of smile I didn’t see often back in those days.

“I’ve just never seen anyone wear one of those before. It tells me you must have a different point of view, that maybe you think deeply about things.”

She tilted her head, waiting for my reply.

And she captured my attention then. Her flowing, multicolored skirt swept the floor, just high enough in front to reveal her Birkenstock sandals, with long, auburn hair flowing over a floral, woven top. In one hand, she held a clarinet. With the other, she reached out to me.

“Hi, I’m Jen.”

I smiled back and shook her hand. She felt open, not closed like me. She felt light and warm. Not like me: cool on the surface but screaming hot on the inside.

I wondered where a girl like her came from.

~

As a young girl, I emerged early, much to my mother’s dismay, as a tomboy.

Despite Mom’s tireless efforts to dress me in flowered jumpers and tights, I preferred bare feet and shorts. She enrolled me in ballet lessons and showered me with Barbies; I rejected them in favor of model cars and construction sets.

On school nights, I writhed on the couch as she yanked my hair into curls and pinched them to my scalp with bobby pins. On weekends, I learned to cook and bake, weed the garden, and fold the laundry. My job, I was told, was to help the house run smoothly.

My younger brother was held to no such standards. He was perfectly happy—and allowed—to spend his free time climbing trees, making mud pies, and setting things on fire.

I was well aware of the patriarchal double standard that restrains girls and rewards boys in our culture. And not just because of my brother.

I’d heard women on TV talk shows complaining that while they felt diminished by society as they grew older, men their age were considered distinguished. I learned, via weeknight sitcoms and ladies’ coffee-table conversations, how our culture shames women for embodying our sexuality, yet celebrates men for doing the same.

I watched my mom get up early to make breakfast, drive us kids to school, work nine-to-five, and come home just in time to make dinner and put us to bed before crashing to her own mattress, late and exhausted.

I saw my dad come home from work, crack open a beer, and watch TV until the credits rolled on the Johnny Carson show.

In a culture that pitted men and women against each other in a social hierarchy of power, it was clear to me who was winning.

~

In fourth grade, my mom finally gave up fighting my fashion sense and allowed me to choose my own clothes. I dropped the dresses for corduroy pants and polo shirts. I grew out my bangs, bought myself a BMX bike with my paper route money, and never looked back.

No one told me to do these things. I wasn’t trying to please anyone or be anyone. It was my natural way.

But I quickly found that my “natural way” carried with it some excellent perks.

In response to my outward changes, grown-ups and even some other kids now started rolling their eyes at me. “You’re such a tomboy!” they chided.

On their faces were smiles of quiet approval.

When I dropped ballet in favor of a skateboard, people smiled and shrugged their shoulders.

When I asked for a toolbox instead of a manicure set, my request was obliged with a wink.

I realized that the tomboy in me not only felt more natural, she earned me a reprieve from the pin curls, the dancing lessons, and the boring dollhouse play sessions with the neighbor girls. She gave me railroad tracks and dirt trails and fishing for water skippers on my belly by the ditch. In contrast to the constraints of girlhood, my tomboy gave me freedom.

It didn’t take me long to heed the signs and lean hard on my tomboy for the benefits she gave me.

What had been merely a preference for pants became a strict mandate of no dresses. My simple delight for dirt over dolls gave way to a self-imposed requirement to avoid anything girly. No pink. No purple. No unicorns. And…Absolutely. No. Crying.

I saw some of my classmates insulted for throwing “like a girl” during sports, and I took it upon myself to learn to throw “like a boy”: harder, faster, farther.

When I realized I didn’t have a good throwing arm, I stopped playing.

I loved to sing, so I auditioned for the school choir, and was thrilled to be accepted to the chorus. But when I learned I’d been assigned to the girls’ chorus, I promptly dropped out.

My masculine had taken over as a self-reinforcing identity, locking out the feminine from my life like an annoying little sister.

At the time, I suppose, I was fighting to be free.

But in the process, I was quitting things, dropping things, and shrinking my sense of self. I was becoming not only less free, but less me.

~

By the time I met my new friend Jen in high school band class, I was fully ensconced in the patriarchal worldview of masculine power supremacy.

There was no fearless maiden archetype in my world, no warrior goddess, no wise crone to inspire me toward a higher vision of the feminine. No heroine but perhaps Wonder Woman, who fought the bad guys with long fingernails and large breasts and wore a swimsuit to work. That would not be me.

But when I started spending time with Jen and other girls like her, my eyes opened to another side of feminine power. Free spirits confident in their femininity, those young women were just as strong as me in body, mind, and soul. Yet unlike me, they had not learned to prop up their power on the masculine.

Those girls, even the boldest ones, weren’t afraid to cry. They could throw the ball however they wanted and just enjoy it. They could wear pants or dresses. They could be tough, or kind, or both. And anyway they did it, they were free.

Jen was right about me when she met me. I did think deeply about things.

I’d begun to witness the sorrows of our world, and they hurt me deeply. I was aware of the sociocultural power structures limiting the freedom of me and my peers. I knew our ability to live fulfilled lives would depend on resisting the suffocating directives of religious, state, and corporate power.

The upside down cross that had caught Jen’s attention was a symbol of that resistance. It wasn’t meant to be satanic. It was meant to question the status quo.

I refused to be owned by organized religion, to have my values and choices defined by an archaic, hierarchical power structure. I refused to be controlled by “the man.”

But what I had not seen is that by empowering myself solely with the masculine, I had let myself be owned by “the man” in the form of a related and just-as-dangerous hierarchy: the patriarchy.

Now I saw it.

I saw that the unchecked masculine energy I’d cloaked myself in for my own freedom was the very impulse making the world around me so unfree. Military and war. Aggression and cold logic. Objectification and commodification of nature, beauty, and life itself.

I saw that by feeding the masculine and starving out the feminine in my world, I’d not only become controlled by the man, I’d become part of him.

I was pissed.

I wanted my feminine back.

But the damage had already been done. Because after so many years of practice, when I wanted to sing, I couldn’t.

When I wanted to jump in and play ball, good throwing arm or no, I couldn’t.

And if I wanted to cry? Forget about it. My tears had forgotten how to flow.

~

Our world doesn’t need more girls trying to be boys, or women trying to be men. The world has enough men already.

We don’t need more competition, aggression, or masculine warrior energy.

What we do need is the archetype of the strong woman.

The earth goddess and the protective mother. The fierce warrioress and wise grandmother. The torch lighter, the well keeper, and the fearless truth teller. Maiden, mother, and crone.

The world needs whole, wild, unapologetic women. Women strong enough to be independent, yet smart enough to know we can’t do it alone. Women strong enough to fight, yet wise enough to know what’s worth fighting for. Women strong enough to push back against the patriarchy without becoming part of it.

A strong woman understands that tears cleanse the window of the heart and clarify our vision.

She understands that the power of jumping higher or throwing farther is nothing compared to the power of standing our ground.

And she knows that the power of a woman does not come from co-opting the masculine, but reclaiming the feminine, in a culture that has bullied our mothers, daughters, and sisters for millennia.

The masculine is not the enemy. And men are not the enemy.

All of us, of every gender, contain both masculine and feminine within.

The trouble comes when the masculine is allowed to be a parasite, feeding on the feminine, considering her at best a weakness to be devoured, and at worst, an enemy to be destroyed.

When this happens, all of us—of every gender, race, and species—are the victims.

And we get what we have now: a world rife with people who’ve lost touch with their hearts. A world of people putting personal gain over the welfare of the whole. A world of people who can’t cry.

~

It took many years for me to undo the damage done to myself while living as an archetype of the patriarchy. But it was meeting Jen, a girl confident in her worth just as she was, that started me on the path.

It turns out I never needed to change who I was to be free. I only needed to change what I valued, in myself, and in others.

To this day, I still consider myself a tomboy. I still love bugs and dirt more than dresses and pin curls. (Who wouldn’t?)

But I’m second-guessing whether I even want to use that word “tomboy” anymore.

Because if there’s any chance that calling a girl a tomboy will estrange her from her feminine power…well, I don’t wanna be that gal.

So I say, by all means, let’s play in the mud. Let’s climb trees. Let’s definitely set things on fire. And let’s wear our symbols of resistance with pride.

Let’s just remember what we’re resisting, and why.

Let’s celebrate every little girl for the fullness of who she is: masculine, feminine, and everything in between. Let’s give her the loving approval she needs to embrace her innate, authentic power, whether it manifests as race cars or rainbows.

And if we see a girl (or woman, for that matter) who’s lost her sense of her own sacred power, let’s reach out a hand and give her a smile, and a warm and open hello.

Warm and open—and strong.

(Thanks, Jen.)

~

This article is also published on Elephant Journal at this link.



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What if Nothing had a Name? A Practice in Connection without Words.

Photo by Shahzin Shajid on Unsplash

Dear reader, this includes practical exercises for reconnecting to our native powers of being and knowing. No time or desire to read the whole article? Jump down to the practices at the bottom of the page to get to the practical stuff. And may it of benefit.


The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Tao Te Ching

I find an open spot on the gymnasium floor and roll out my blanket. Arranging myself silently among a room full of fellow students, I sit up straight in respectful attention as the teacher takes his seat.

I’ve come to learn from this respected yogi and mystic, a wise elder who has spent a lifetime in devotion to the ancient yogic path. I’m fortunate to sit at his feet, even for just a morning.

We’ve gathered in the echoing hall of a sports gymnasium converted to a classroom for today’s lecture. Surrounded by bins of balls and nets, tumbling mats stacked aside rows of empty bleachers, every slightest sound bounces in sharp relief from the walls and rafters.

The master speaks.

“Why are you here?” His voice rings through the air like a bell.

“Have you come here today because you want to wake up? Because you want to know the truth?

Maybe you expect to receive a mystical insight, words of wisdom that will open your eyes and give you the answers you seek.

He smiles and raises his eyebrows.

“I tell you now, there will never be any words that can give those things to you. Because truth is something that no word—from me or anyone else—can express.

He lifts his eyes and surveys the room with receptive awareness. Resting his gaze on the wall behind us, he gently raises his hand, and points.

“What is that?”

We students shuffle about, unhinging our crossed legs and cranking our necks to look behind us for the object of his attention.

I follow the pointing finger to a spot high on the brick wall behind me, and there I see it.

“Basketball hoop,” I whisper to myself.

Others speak the words aloud. “It’s a basketball hoop,” “Basketball hoop.” “It’s a hoop, man,” someone offers, in a voice warm with amusement.

“Yes,” the teacher nods. “In English we call that a basketball hoop. That is the word we use to label it. Now. What is it, really?”

No one makes a sound.

*

When we are just babies, our consciousness newly awakened to the world, our parents begin teaching us the words for things.

Red. Blue. Dog. Cat. Sun and Moon. Mommy and Daddy.

This is all great fun for everyone. We humans have a proclivity for naming things. It’s one of our natural ways of learning the world. Our childhood brains soak up words like dry land drinks in the rain, and the world unfurls its magic before us as we begin to know its names.

We learn a word—red—and the fiery color of blood and roses blooms into life all around us. The tiny child points and bounces on her toes with delight as she spies her newly christened color, perhaps in a box of crayons or woven into the winter parka of a passerby. “Red!” she exclaims with joy. “Doggie!” “Moon!”

Naming the world organizes our lives, makes sense of things, and brings us joy.

But what if nothing had a name?

I recently interviewed Taoist teacher Solala Towler for the Wake Up, Human podcast. We talked about about words, and names, and whether human language can ever fully reveal the true nature of things.

As Solala reminded me, shamans say that in long-ago times, we humans could talk to the animals, and the animals could speak back, in a language we both understood. They say we could talk to the plants and rocks and streams, learn their stories and their songs. They say we lived in communion with all life, with no need for the likes of human words.

If this is true—if there is a language deeper than words, one that connects our soul to nature’s song—where has it gone? How did we modern humans lose this native power of communication, the unspoken language of life we once knew by heart?

It happened, the sages say, when we started naming things.

In the Tao Te Ching, the foremost book of Taoism written some 2500 years ago, the author-sage Lao Tzu addresses the folly of naming.

The very first line of his timeless work on the Tao, or the Way of the Sage states the impossibility of expressing truth through words:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The story goes (as Solala reminds me again) that Lao Tzu didn’t want to write his teachings down in the first place. He was connected with the lineage of the Wu—the shamans, women, and storytellers of ancient China, who would have passed their knowledge orally from teacher to student, and never through written words. He likely believed, as did the modern shamans who admonished early western anthropologists for insisting on taking notes about everything: “No, don’t write the stories down! If you write them down you imprison them.” But he was prevailed upon so he did write the Tao Te Ching. But he was careful to begin his work, in the very first lines, with the reminder not to take the words for the truth.

The Buddha expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “My teachings are but a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t mistake the finger for the moon.”

Are our words just fingers pointing to a greater truth? Have we forgotten that there is a difference?

*

I once read a book by the white South African author and explorer Laurens van der Post, in which he recounted stories of his time living among the Kalahari Bushmen in Southern Africa during the 1950s. In one memorable story, Laurens told of sitting around a nighttime fire with a group of Bushmen, under a vast expanse of star-filled night sky.

As they chatted and shared tales of their day’s adventures, one of the Bushmen casually remarked how beautiful the stars sounded that night. The others nodded in agreement. “Yes, yes. The music of the stars is beautiful tonight.”

The modern and civilized Laurens chuckled at the comments, thinking the Bushmen were making a joke to trick him.

He responded with something the likes of, “That’s very funny, pretending to hear music of the stars. Of course, the stars don’t make a sound, yet you are trying to convince me otherwise. But I will not be fooled.”

The Bushmen laughed as well. They in turn thought that Laurens was was playing a joke on them. For the deeply-connected Bushman, living in full immersion with nature, that the stars could sing was a given, a fact of life. The very idea of stars without music was ludicrous to them.

After some back and forth and no small amount of confusion, Laurens and the Bushmen together realized something shocking. The Bushmen really could hear the music of the stars. Laurens really could not.

In that moment all the men in the circle fell into sadness. The Bushmen felt sorry for Laurens because he couldn’t hear the sound of the stars. And Laurens felt sorry for himself, because he understood that something precious had been lost. He was devastated.

I share that sense of devastation. I have never heard the stars. Yet I sense that we have the capacity to hear them, and so much more. I believe the shamans who say we have the ability to speak the language of the animals and the trees, to understand the primordial language of life. I believe that life sings to us, whether we can hear it or not.

I ponder my own loss of hearing, and I wonder, if we do have this capacity, is it truly lost? Or is it still alive and latent within us, biding its time, waiting for us to remember?”

During my conversation with Solala, it occurs to me that understanding the power of naming might be key.

I wonder, if it’s true that we separate ourselves from other things by naming them, what if we could separate ourselves from naming?

I decide to try it.

*

Experiments: the Practice of Not-Naming

The sages say that by naming things, we lose some of our connection to them. By building boxes with words to describe things, we separate them from other things; we separate them from ourselves.

So what if we were to try not naming? Might we, in the absence of names, find a doorway back to our original self—the self that knows things as they are, and not how we have labeled them to be? Might we hear, see, or sense something new? Or something old, remembered again?

Below are some experiments for remembering.

*

Practice 1: See it before you say it.

Practice connecting before the words come in.

Sit in front of the object you’d like to comprehend, aim your gaze toward it, and close your eyes. Sit silently for a few moments, and focus on your breath, or perhaps the sounds or sensations around you; just get present in the moment. When your mind feels quiet and your vision empty, open your eyes, and focus on the object before you. What do you notice the very moment the object enters your awareness? What is there before words come in to label it?

There may not be any earth-shattering message in this. There does not need to be. What we’re looking to practice is just the instant of connection, the flash of recognition before the name. See if you can experience it.

Practice 2: Forget what you know.

While going through the passes of daily life, practice contemplating things you’re familiar with, but pretending you don’t know their “names.”

Consider the flame of the candle. The pot in the sink. The shoes, as you tie them to your feet. Look, listen, as though you are seeing them for the first time. Pretend you don’t know what they are. You only know that they are.

Instead of “brushing your teeth,” there may be only movement. Instead of “music on the radio” there may be only sound. This does not need to be hard, or forced. It is just a practice of getting to know things without the words we’ve superimposed upon them.

Practice 3: Encounter the new without a name.

Though we know the names for many things, there will always be new things that come into our lives, things we haven’t yet experienced. We can use such fresh experiences as an opportunity to engage without words.

When encountering something new for the first time, approach it without asking what it is. Maybe it’s a flower you’ve never seen before, or a bird you’ve never heard. A new model of car that drives by. Or a cloud in a formation you’ve never noticed. Resist the temptation to ask, “What flower/bird/car is that?”

Instead, simply drink in the experience of newness, without asking the name. You may be taught something even better, which you would never have thought to ask.

Practice 4: Your name is just a name.

I have an old friend who used to introduce himself, “My family calls me Pancho…nice to meet you.” I appreciated this reminder, every time I heard it, of what he meant to express with his choice of language: his being was not to be equated with his name. Our identity does not depend on words.

I’ve tried Pancho’s strategy, but find I can’t say “My family calls me Shannon” without chuckling, or at least feeling compelled to explain my choice of words. So I go for a softer approach. When I introduce myself, instead of defaulting to, “Hi, I’m Shannon,” I go for, “Hi, my name is Shannon.” That’s all the reminder I need to touch in with the part of me that has no name.

Try it. This exercise may or may not make a difference to the person you’ve just met, but it can make a big difference to your consciousness.

Practice 5: Rest your mind on things that don’t have words.

Our world is so full of words that it can be hard to get away from them. How can we expect to practice connection without words, if words are everywhere we look?

Practice getting away from it all. Get away from the word, written or spoken, and into a place where only the language of the unspoken is known. This does not require a vacation to the mountains or the beach, or a silent retreat. It does require removing our attention from words, and making an effort to be present to that which does not require them in order to be known.

Lift your eyes from the page or the screen. Look around your everyday space and give long, loving glances to anything that has no words on it. Perhaps consider a blank wall with nothing on it. Better yet, witness your own starry sky. Listen to music without words. Touch the items close to you and feel their quiet textures. Open to receive the kindnesses that can only be bestowed upon us by a word-silent world.

*

Back in the gymnasium, the master breathes deep into his belly, lowers his hand to his lap, and continues.

“We must never confuse the name of something with the truth. We must ask ourselves in every moment, with everything we experience, what is this thing, when answering only to itself?

“For everything has a life, a truth of its own, before we apply a name to it. Nothing depends on human words for existence. What we happen to name a thing is never what it really is.”

“When we understand this this, only then will insight come. Only then will our consciousness open. Only then will truth transform us.”

The master nods his head in the direction of the wall.

“Now, I want you to look at that basketball hoop again. But before you do, you’ll need to close your eyes and clear your mind.

“Turn in the direction of the object, such that your eyes, when opened, will fall upon the object with fresh awareness.

“Now, close your eyes. When you open them again you’ll notice that there is a moment, a fleeting instant, of apprehension without words. A flash of recognition where the consciousness sees the object before the mind catches up. For consciousness is faster than the mind.

“In that instant, that thing has no name. In that moment there is no “I” and no “thou.” There is only consciousness, experiencing itself.

In that moment, when there is no word to describe, in English or any other language, you may understand.

He tips his head back and laughs heartily. “And then the mind will arrive and tell you it’s a basketball hoop, and the practice will be over for today.”

“Remember,” he winks. “Naming is not the same as knowing.”

I turn my body toward the wall and aim my gaze toward the hoop. I close my eyes and clear my mind in meditation for several minutes, until my thoughts are as empty as they’re going to be. I open my eyes, no expectation. There is a flash. And for only an instant, I see it.

A split second later the intellect steps in dutifully. “Basketball hoop,” it instructs me, surely trying to be helpful. But it is too late. I’ve already seen it. I’ve already made the connection.

The yogi was right.



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Why are We Sleeping? An Essay on Disconnection.

Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash

Are we sleeping? And if so, how can we wake up?

Dear reader, thank you for dropping in on this essay, which I pour my heart into in an attempt to describe the epidemic of disconnection.

As explained on the about page of this website, the intention of Wake Up, Human is to explore the ways we humans have become disconnected from our native ways of knowing, what we have lost, and practical knowledge and wisdom for coming back into wholeness.

The intention of this essay is to explore the epidemic of disconnection as the root cause of our ‘sleep’ and reconnection as our opportunity to ‘wake up.’

This is a long form essay, and due to the length of it, I will be publishing it partially and adding to it bit by bit. I’ll drop in the first segment below, and add to it as time goes on.

For anyone not the long form essay-reading type, I’ll post the article’s key points below: a summary of the content without the deep dive. For an audio related to this discussion, check out Wake Up, Human podcast, Episode 2.

Otherwise, I’ll see you on the inside…



Essay on Disconnection: Key Points

  • We humans have forgotten how to use our inherent human powers—powers such as intuition, keen awareness, and sensory communication with the natural world. The sands of time, along with the destruction of our own indigenous cultures, have erased ancient forms of knowing from our shared memory.
  • We’ve been conditioned away from our natural inclinations toward wholeness via modern ideologies of progress, individualism, and cultural superiority.
  • We’ve been distracted by the alluring comforts of technological advancement and placating materialism (and encouraged to do so by decades of targeted advertising and media propaganda).
  • Our psychology is susceptible to negative biases, stereotypes, and fear-based reasoning, which, if continually and unnaturally stimulated, can short circuit our inner knowing.
  • We’ve been manipulated by powerful economic and political interests, and the institutions and systems built to serve them, to remain in such states of fear and separation…for a very long time.
  • This state of disconnection estranges us from our own wisdom, and our place in the interconnected web of life. This estrangement leads us to objectify the natural world, and thus, become able to rationalize the ways we destroy it.
  • This is not the way it has to be. By recognizing our state of disconnection, we gain the ability to address it. We can dismantle the rationalizations that allow us to destroy ourselves, each other, and our home. We can wake up into reconnection, and grow together, and heal.


An Essay on Disconnection.

What are our essential human powers?

Historically, we humans were more attuned to the natural world than we are today. We lived in deeper connection with the rhythms of nature and communion with other forms of life.

Inheriting this attuned sense of knowing as a birthright, our ancestors were able to see, hear, and feel the essence of reality more clearly than we do today. They lived in a state of interconnectivity with the natural world that has largely been lost in our modern distracted and fragmented world. This sense of connection enabled them to survive in harsh and sometimes dangerous environments, but it also allowed them to live full and harmonious lives in tune with the rhythms of time and place.

From indigenous and wisdom traditions that shine light on our historical and spiritual beginnings, we understand that our native state of being is receptive and communal, our inner and outer lives harmonized to our natural surroundings and the lives of other beings around us. We understand that our species is but one instrument in a planet-wide symphony of life.

If we consider our species as but one voice among many, it might worry us at first that in such a worldview our species would become less important or valuable. But this is not true. In fact, the more we understand ourselves as one facet of a greater whole, the more we can tap into the the vast shared capacity of that whole.

Rather than living for ourselves and solving problems by ourselves, we can access all of nature’s combined intelligence as our guide. The more we discern our role, and our power as world citizens, the more impactful we can be.

The wisdom indigenous to every one of us is capable of this understanding: to communicate across time, space, and species boundaries. To be guided and helped by nature. To know the truth of who we are and what we are capable of. To leverage our remarkable creativity and intelligence to collaboratively transform our physical world, for the benefit of all.

These are our essential powers.

*

We’ve largely forgotten our essential powers—
but they are not lost.

We “modern” humans are less embodied than our ancestors, living more in our heads and less in our hearts. As modernization has urged us forward across thousands of years of historical terrain, we have developed our thought and reason at the expense of our intuition.

In our march toward the mental and mechanical, we’ve forgotten how to use our inherent human capacities—powers such as intuition, awareness, and sensory communication with the natural world. In doing this, we have disconnected ourselves from ways of knowing that are essential, and might even seem magical to our rational scientific minds.

But these powers are not lost to us. They are still alive within us, albeit perhaps deeply buried under lifetimes of conditioning. They are tools that evolved along with our bodies and minds, to help us understand the world, and our place in it. Such tools still belong to us, as our birthright. For those of us who wish to reawaken and use them, is it still possible? I believe it is.

Through good fortune and perhaps grace, we continue to have access to a multitude of living traditions that carry the ancestral threads of our collective being, leading back over many centuries, to the source of our ancient knowing.

We also have access to millennia of written records of mystics and sages who have pondered the deepest questions of existence, and come to conclusions instructive for both their time and ours.

Finally, within each one of us lie dormant the seeds of our innate human powers, seeds that when watered with the light of our attention are ready to sprout to life and direct us toward the full expression of our essential nature.

We need not become anything new. We only need to open to what we already are, and reawaken the great power that sleeps within us.

To the extent we can do this, we may find ourselves once again able to perceive our interconnectivity to the whole: dormant, yet ready to come powerfully alive in us, and reawaken to the truth we have always known:

When we harm one thread in the tapestry of life, we harm us all.

*

How we got lost: the epidemic of disconnection.

I believe we’re suffering from what naturalist Jon Young calls an “epidemic of disconnection.”

In our species’ centuries-long push toward scientific and economic progress, favoring individual gain over collective evolution, we have isolated ourselves within our own self-centered experience. Focusing on expansion (of knowledge, territory, power, etc.) above all else, we have leveraged our significant creative-intellectual powers to advance our own interests.

Through scientific and technological advancements, we have increased our knowledge, extended our capacities, and firmly established ourselves the most secure, comfortable, and powerful species on the planet.

However.

This advancement has come at a cost. For our growth has been so impressive, progress so enticing, comfort so bewitching that we have largely become content to advance our own interests at the expense of the rest of the world.

We humans have always looked out for our own kind. Self-protective instinct within one’s species is not new, nor is it wrong. Focus on collective welfare is a survival mechanism that has helped us thrive for hundreds of thousands of years.

What is new is that modern humans seem to have forgotten that the collective welfare of our species depends on the collective welfare of the whole.

Ironically, in our unbridled push to secure “our” well-being, we have taken self-interest of our species so far that our collective action now focuses on the individual human to the extent that it threatens the very fabric of the world that holds us.

Thus, we now favor human needs over the needs of non-human animals and the natural world, to the extent that we routinely destroy and commodify nature to advance our interests.

We favor our individual addictions to comfort over the needs of other humans who do not have as much as we do, even when our comforts are frivolous and others’ needs are basic.

And astonishingly, we often favor our addiction to expansion, our desire for more, faster, and better, even over our own inner peace and health.

The upshot is that we seemingly have no trouble destroying our own earthly home, our own species, and our own personal well-being in the name of progress.

*

The symptoms of disconnection.

Thus we exhibit symptoms of the epidemic of disconnection: estrangement—from the natural world, the suffering of other beings, and the importance of our own physical and mental survival.

This disconnection, while it portends to offer us security against the wild world, has left many of us so-called “advanced” humans in a state of desperation and hopelessness. Why?

Because we are part of the wild world.

We are meant to be wild.

Ahh, we intuit that something important is missing from our lives. We feel incomplete. We struggle to find happiness in the trappings of the modern world, with all its distractions and comforts, and we fail.

Time escapes us and slips through our fingers; we feel we never have enough of it.

Health escapes us; we suffer en masse from ailments with unknown causes, and succumb to modern diseases we’re unable to cure with modern methods.

Understanding escapes us: our science and reason promise to give us all the answers, yet information overload, without connection to true knowledge, leaves us with more questions and less insight into what truly matters.

And peace escapes us. We long to know our place and purpose in life, yet find ourselves overwhelmed by too many choices, unable to discern where we belong.

As all these searches come up empty, in our sense of lack we continue to look for more, to fill the gaps in our hearts that know they are lacking. Pulled in multiple directions by the dizzying array of “opportunities,” we may result full of experience yet devoid of meaning, or falling into depression, sickness, and overwhelm. We sense the lack of security in this; the comfortable rug has been pulled out from under our feet. And we are back where we began, running on the treadmill of daily life, too busy to ask ourselves what is wrong.

Separated from our inherent wholeness, it is not surprising that we feel incomplete.

We have become the hungry ghosts of Buddhism, ravenous beings suffering from endless desires that can’t be fulfilled, compulsively feeding ourselves to soothe an emptiness that only grows larger the more we try to feed it.

Why do we let ourselves live this way?

To be continued…

*

You Darkness, from which I come, I love you more than all the fires that fence out the world. Because the fires make a circle of light so that no one can see you any more. But the Darkness holds it all. The shapes, the animals, the flames and myself… I have faith in the night.

Rainier Maria Rilke, Translated by Robert Bly

	

We Are All Radical.

Photo by Jyotirmoy Gupta on Unsplash

We are all rooted in the same source. But sometimes we forget we have roots at all.


Shortly before the recent US presidential election, amidst an incoming flurry of political calls, emails, and text messages, I received a text from a progressive organization I’ve been following for years.

“By voting in this election,” it said, “we can send the radical right to its rightful place: the ash heap of history.”

I closed the text and sat quietly for a moment, thinking. What end does that serve?

The night before the election, I texted a friend of mine on the far right of the political spectrum. “No matter who wins,” I typed with my thumbs, “I pray we won’t fall into violence, and that we’ll treat one another with respect.”

His answer: “No matter who wins, I pray the radical left will take control over their minions who are rioting and hellbent on destroying our country.”

In a country where peaceful demonstrators for racial justice have been labeled “radical leftists,” and law abiding pro-police advocates dismissed as the “radical right,” we would be visionary if we ask after the origin of the word “radical,” discern where our current use of the word is leading us, and decide whether we want to continue using it in this way.

The core definition of “radical” follows, from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

– of, relating to, or proceeding from a root; growing from the base of a stem

If we consider the roots of plants as a metaphor for our polarized political climate, we might visualize the following: two different-yet-vital plants unfurling their flowering tendrils combatively toward one another, roots wildly rippling toward opposite horizons in unbound ideology.

But this is not how plants work, and this is not how life works either.

A plant cannot survive with roots exposed to the open air, however furiously it may fight.

Deep Roots, by Ruth Palmer

A plant survives by sending its roots down and in. It pierces and plunges its energies deep into the earth (wild darkness of the living earth), extracting its nourishment and protection from the soil.

A true, living root reaches for the center. The center of the earth.

We could take a cue from our plant brethren, and dig our roots deep, lest we dry up and die.

Instead we cry “socialist” and “racist,” and any word to dehumanize one another, convinced that if we could only remove our opponent from the game, our precious way of life could be saved.

But that is not going to happen. No side is ever going to “win.”

For like the dancing polarities of yin/yang, the political right and left are not opposing forces, but comingling halves of a whole. We contain each other, support each other, and illuminate each other’s truths.

There is no light without dark, and there is no right without the left. This is universal law.

Gravity. Seasonality. Cycles of life and death. Fallow times and fertile times. Brightest light. Darkest night. Clay and sand.

All of it is needed.

We need other people, people who are different from us. We need the push and pull of opposition to evolve. Other people—and their opposing views—are gifts of self-realization, soul-opening portals into the full experience of being human.

Coursing beyond the obvious association with plant anatomy, the definition of “radical” also includes the following:

– of, or relating to the origin: fundamental

In our culture we call someone a fundamentalist when they hold to their ideology so strongly that they become unwilling to entertain any other belief system as having merit. Such people may grasp their version of truth so tightly that it becomes the only truth that exists, or at least, the only one that matters.

It’s clear how the term “radical” has become commonplace to describe people who hold strongly to the edges of their parties’ ideologies as fundamental truth.

But these words are not innocuous descriptors in our discourse; they are loaded guns.

When political leaders use the term “radical” as a means of othering, we must see that for what it is: weaponization of language.

When we succumb such othering ourselves, we must realize that by labeling someone a radical we dehumanize not only them, but our own selves, in the process. By separating other people from their humanity, we lose the connection to our own.

When we fall into calling someone a “radical” for holding fast to their beliefs—a belief that is different than ours—it may also be a sign that we are holding onto our own beliefs too tightly.

Either way, we fall into the trap of powerful interests that benefit from us hating one another. If we allow our perceptions to be programmed by divisive labels, our thoughts run the danger of appropriation by factions on both sides who would use them to divide and conquer us.

And I don’t know about you, but I refuse to be programmed to hate.

That is why my vision is a future without a radical right…or a radical left.

My vision is to live into a new definition of “radical,” based upon another meaning that is already part of our lexicon, just a few lines down in the Merriam Webster list:

– favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions

A radical, in this definition, is a person who is dissatisfied with the way things are, and willing to work far outside the box to change it.

If we choose, we could see our so-called opponents as radicals like us: rooted in our convictions, deeply pained by our current state of affairs, and ready and willing to fight for something better.

According to this definition, we are on the same side.

To be clear, there are people in our society being “radicalized” to become hateful and violent. But using “radical” as a derogatory label for those with diverging opinions from ours does not lessen the potential for dangerous radicalization. It heightens it.

And of course, there are many things worth fighting for. But if we spend our energies fighting one another as enemies, we’ll have precious little left for fighting to heal our collective wounds.

I didn’t respond to either of those text messages I received during election week. They sunk further down in my thread and I refused to give them any more of my energy.

But the metaphor of the plant stuck with me. And from it emerged a vision.

What if, as members of opposing sides, we defined ourselves by our extremes and our roots?

What if we dug in our roots, not along divergent lines of right and wrong, but down and in, tumbling over and under and toward one another in a dance of intertwining destiny?

And from there, what if we were so extreme to dare think we could rise together toward the radical changes we seek—and dearly need?

We might send our roots so deep that one day we would finally tap into that place where we all began, the place we meet: we are all human.

From there we might spread our shoots and branches from seedbeds diverse, reaching so high and wide, and stretching to such extremes, that the furthest edges of our leaves might one day touch each other in surprise recognition.

We’re all rooted in the same source. But sometimes we forget we have roots at all.

My vision is that we will remember our shared roots, and that one day there will no longer be a “radical right” or a “radical left” in our public discourse. There will only be the radical we.

“They” are not our enemies. “They” are not the left or the right. They are the other half of us.

*

This article originally appeared in Kosmos Journal at this link.



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What will you do with your “One Wild and Precious” new year?


Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

This invitation from Mary Oliver is a beautiful question.

It is also way too much pressure.

It is true that life is wild. It is true that life is precious. And it is true that we only get one. One.

The fact that we only get one life makes it all the more wild and precious!

Does this make anyone besides me feel terrified and excited at the same time? Like every choice I make has the potential to make or break my future, and potentially the future of the planet?

In our society of too many choices and impossibly ample opportunities, we all know it is not so easy to know what we want “to do” with our lives.

This is nothing against Mary Oliver. She writes to inspire, and rightfully begs us to take this one opportunity seriously.

But what if we take it too seriously?

A year ago, when a new year dawned and I once more pondered what I want to do with my life, I yet again teetered on a fine line, between making a bucket list of the ten thousand things I want do, vs. doing absolutely nothing.

I want to do it all—isn’t that what our culture trains us to want?

But overwhelmed by the prospect of the next fork in the road becoming the determining factor for the rest of my life, I don’t want to get it wrong.

The question is too big for me to handle.

So this year, rather than paralyze myself or give up, by good fortune or grace a thought came to me that would help me parse the too-big question into smaller pieces.

It’s a new year. A year. It’s not a new “rest of my life.”

What if I only had to decide what I want to do with this one, wild, precious, singular, 365-day year?

Now that is a question I can handle.

As the year began I asked myself the question, What do I want to do with this year?

Who do I want to be at the end of it?

What experience do I want to have?

What do I want to contribute?

Turns out, these were all variants of the same question.

And the answer came: I want to write.

I’ve always loved to write. It brings me joy. I am decent enough at it. So I thought, I may be able to say something that would mean something to someone, or help someone.

Or maybe not. But I was pretty sure I’d enjoy trying.

I knew I needed to clarify that “want to write” intention further into a singular goal, a specific, clearly-defined keystone goal, as our en vogue time management and habit gurus have christened it.

A keystone goal is a foundational touchstone that holds the rest of our goals together. It’s a focal point that keeps us on track in our chosen direction, rather than enticed off-road onto the ten thousand tracks of distraction and overwhelm. It’s an exercise in specifics.

So I asked myself to get specific.

Q: What would it look like, specifically, to devote myself to writing this year?

A: I’ll write something new every two weeks.

Q: How will I keep myself on task?

A: Well, I’ll need accountability. I’ll tell someone I’m going to do it. And I’ll go one step further: I’ll promise to post it online.

Ok, that starts to feel a little vulnerable. But it’s only a year. And it’s only writing.

So I decided to set up a blog to write. I got a website, with my name as the URL. I joined a writing course, with fellow students and mentors supporting one another in our writing. And I embraced the goal-achieving equivalent of a silver bullet: an accountability partner.

I told my AP, with all the nonchalance I could muster, “I’m going to publish 24 articles this year. Two per month, for twelve months.”

He said he would hold me to it. And the race began.

One article went out and up. I shared it on Elephant Journal, and it got promoted as an editor’s pick. Inspired, I wrote another. And another. One article got bumped up to a curated section on Medium. Another got accepted for publication by Kosmos magazine. I kept going—kept my “butt in the chair,” as the irreverently helpful Steven Pressfield would say in The War of Art—and pressed on.

Sometimes it took two weeks to write an article; other times it took two months. A few times it took one or two evenings of wild inspiration bubbling forth from the open veins of my psyche. But the timelines evened out, and about every two weeks on average, I was able to extricate some word-filled creation from my depths and splatter it into the digisphere and tick it off my list: one more piece of writing in the books.

Impressed with my progress, I started thinking beyond the writing. What do I really want to write about? What about those causes and communities that are so important to me? What if I wrote a little less about how to make a tasty golden milk elixir, and instead began weaving my life lessons and hard-won experience into a more thoughtfully designed tapestry of meaning?

I’ve always had plenty I want to say, but here I was, saying it on purpose, and on plan. Re-energized by the fresh consideration of the recurrent themes of my life’s wanderings, a shape began to take form within the shadowy waters of the still-emerging year.

I gave my website a name.

I gave her a project, and a personality.

I started filling her in.

And by the end of the year, I had explored my life in writing from twenty-four different directions. I built a body of writing, and shared it with others, exposing my vulnerabilities and growing braver in the process.

I set a new foundation under my feet, reopened old doors of thought and inspiration, and remembered what I have always stood for. Then I reached out to people who stand for the same things, and continued my learning.

Courses. Mentors. Deeper exploration of self. A vision quest in the wilderness. A journey to the upper and lower worlds, all spurred on by my urgent desire to become more fully me. I struck up a new apprenticeship with my soul. And on the other side, I found a richness I had been looking for back in the day, in those scrawled-upon notebook pages filled with rambling bucket lists. Ever elusive, such riches would never have been found in to-do lists pieced together with other people’s dreams.

The year rolled toward it’s end. I settled in to a rhythm, not only of writing, but of becoming more like myself. I asked someone I’d met, someone who stands for the same things I do, if they’d like to record a conversation with me. And voilà, a podcast was born.

A podcast? Ah, well now I’ll need to learn some new software, make myself some graphics, figure out the best microphone to use, and find the best closet in my house to convert to a recording space to drown out the neighbor’s hot rod and the cats’ random meows.

Bit by bit, I learned.

I checked in with my accountability partner. I posted my writing on social media (not my style). I stretched far outside my comfort zone as my “simple” goal led me to explore into complexities I hadn’t expected.

I grew further into the person I want to live with as we walk together through this wild and precious, terrifying and exciting life.

Some tough things happened last year, the year before this one.

I had tried to get myself a step up in life by taking a data science course, and after an excruciating six months of pounding my head against that wall (and spending a lot of money I didn’t have), I realized that I hated data science.

I lost a precious, beloved friend to a meth addiction. I regretted and negotiated and held on to what was long gone, leaving my heart bloodied and my soul exhausted, to no avail.

I rambled and cried, and punched the sky in anger. I tried to choose one path or another, again finding myself lost in tangles of questions I couldn’t answer. Man, I thought I had some of this figured out years ago, but I still have no idea what to do. I sat to meditate, kept up the sun salutations, languished on long road trips searching once again for my peace, and then lost the bliss as soon as I opened the front door.

But this year? I just wrote.

What would we do if we really only had one wild and precious year at a time to live?

What if we couldn’t do everything with it?

What if there were no such thing as a bucket list? (Hint: 50 years ago, there wasn’t.)

What if we gave ourselves the gift of making just one choice for this year, a list with just one item on it?

We might find out that we are braver than we thought we were.

We might find out that we do know how to choose.

We might find out that we have a cornucopia of possibility inside us, and if only we stop trying to sort through the possibilities outside us, we might find our own voice within us just chilling, twiddling its fingers, waiting for us to catch up.

Mary Oliver is a blessing of a poet. Her poem, “The Summer Day,” ends with that question that so perplexes and titillates we modern masses of lost souls desperately searching for our “purpose.”

What will we do with our one precious life, really?

That same poem begins like this:

Who made the world? 
Who made the swan, and the black bear? 
Who made the grasshopper...

I marvel at the simple grace of Oliver’s poetry. I wonder along with her about the source of life and wisdom, the infinite intelligence that weaves through all being, the creative impulse behind all blessed choices.

Then I take a step back, and ask myself, who made my sandwich?

By golly, it was me.

The year has once again turned, and this week another spin of the wheel begins.

Lao Tzu teaches in the Tao Te Ching:

The worldly man learns something new every day. The man of the Tao forgets something every day.

I’m ready to forget everything except what this one next year calls me to do.

Meantime, I buy a bottle of champagne. “Pop.”

I’m celebrating. Not the beginning of a new year, but the end of a year just ended and fully, simply lived. I feel no need to look forward to another year of infinite possibility. I’m looking forward, instead, to a year of bare and beautiful minimums, some colorful, unexpected twists and turns sprinkled in along the way, and a pinch of accountability thrown in for good measure.

I do know the size of my plans for the coming year: they’re big enough to hold just me and and one elegant, simply-dressed goal. We will dance a couples dance and sing a folksy duet in rotation around the seasons of the year. And when that new year grown old draws to a close, the two of us will pop another cork and drink.

There is a place in life for the big questions. I live in that place most of the time. But it is a place we can get lost in. If we don’t allow ourselves to live in the smallness of things once in a while, we may ironically become so lost that we end up smaller than we ever meant to be. Being too small easily leads to being too overwhelmed by life, and there’s a darn good chance from there that we’ll never be comfortable making another big decision ever again.

This is the year I kept it small (but not too small). And I won.

So I say celebrate what you’ve made, what you’ve achieved, who you’ve become! Life needs us to push ourselves, to evolve.

But don’t make it too big. The world is big enough already.

Just make it the right size for you. And you may find that your small, simple calling ever so quietly expands to fill the whole world.

What is it I will do with my one wild and precious and just-the-right-sized new year?

What is it you will do?

Life is waiting for us to decide.

*

This article also appeared on Elephant Journal at this link.



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Words are Actions too: our Stories make our lives Matter.

Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 from Pixabay

The old man and I sat facing each other in the light of the morning sun.

Steam danced over the rims of our teacups, swirling through sunbeams and bouncing off the round wooden table between us. 

I was young, not much over thirty. He was decades older, just inching into his seventies. We talked together as unequal colleagues, he the mentor and distinguished professor, I the apprentice and developing leader. He had hired me to help run his organization, an idealistic training center for young activists. 

Lounging in the wicker chairs of our rented office, we sat reviewing the galley proof of the professor’s latest book, mining its chapters for talking points and teaching opportunities. 

It was a beautiful book. Ripe with wisdom gathered from a lifetime of academic study and lived experience, seeded with stories that eloquently captured its points, woven throughout with threads of practicality and purpose.

I saw it as an impeccably written guidebook from a master in its field. It was, in my mind, a gift to the world. 

But the old man that day was not seeing the gift. 

As he fingered through the pages of his masterwork, his hands slowed. A pained expression overtook his face. The sun creased shadows into his furrowed brow.

He reached across the table and took my hand, a shaft of light striking his silver wristwatch as his blue eyes welled with tears.

“My dear,” he said, “I fear that I have failed.” 

I sat up, fully present.

“Failed?” I shook my head slightly. “How so?”

Shoulders heaving, he pulled in a long and careful breath, as if drawing together the edges of a tender wound.

“I have failed,” he said, “because my life has been all words, and no action.”

“I’ve written a great many words in my life,” he continued, “and spoken many more than that. I’ve lectured enough words to fill a great library with thoughts and ideas.”

“I believed, when I began this journey many decades ago, that I could change the world with a sharp intellect and a pointed pen. But now I’m nearing the last chapter of my life, and I can’t say that with all my words I’ve changed anything at all. In fact, I’m not sure my presence in the world has truly helped anyone.”

“My life, I fear, has been a waste. And I’m running out of time.”

He squeezed my hand tightly, and a tear whispered over the wrinkled curve of his cheek.

I opened my lips to protest, but no words came out. 

This articulate gentleman, whose intellect had paved road maps for social change, whose words wove disparate spiritual and historical sources into tapestries of modern relevance. I knew he had changed lives with his words—he had changed mine. How could he think that he had failed?

As I struggled to pull my thoughts together I was swept back in time, from my spot at the sunlit table to a memory etched upon the hourglass of my own life story.

*

I got the call on the clinic phone. Seven-thirty a.m., first call of the day. On the line was a technician in the lost and found department. She had just arrived to work to find a cat screaming in his cage, distraught, in obvious pain. Could I help?

Of course, I would try. 

It was the early shift at the animal shelter where I worked, and I was the morning on-call veterinary technician. I hung up the phone, grabbed my medical pouch and rushed across the parking lot toward the lost and found annex. 

Inside the building would be at least one hundred homeless dogs and cats, locked inside barred cages and awaiting their fates. Having been dropped at the shelter by good Samaritans, some of the animals would shortly be reclaimed by relieved owners. Others would be adopted into new homes. The rest would not make it out alive.

I could hear the wild cries of a cat in distress long before I reached the door. 

The technician showed me to a corner where a handsome tuxedo cat, white-whiskered with a shining black coat, sat howling to the roof of his metal 2×2 cage. He squatted uncomfortably in his tiny litter box, hind legs shaking with exhaustion. I knew immediately what was wrong.

“Hi baby,” I spoke to him softly as I flipped open the latch on his kennel. “You’re in a bad situation. Let’s see if we can make you feel better.” 

I pulled him gently from the cage, litter box and all, and carried him to the examination table.

Placing the box on the scuffed tile floor, I lifted the cat tenderly as flecks of dry litter fell from between his toes.

As I cupped my hand under his belly he let out an exhausted cry, and I felt what I expected: the tight hard ball of his bladder, so full it was about to burst.

His urinary tract was blocked.

The cat desperately needed to release his bladder, but his urethra was blocked by calcium crystals, leaving him unable to urinate. As he struggled to relieve himself the pressure could only increase, causing him tremendous pain.

“Shhh.” I stroked his head. “We’ll take care of you.”

While the kennel tech held the cat securely atop a clean towel, I pulled an extra-large syringe from my pouch and fitted a needle to its tip. I steadied the bladder between my fingers, pierced the needle through the belly wall, and released the plunger.

Red liquid surged into the body of the syringe. Blood. A sign of a severe blockage and a life-threatening condition.

The instant the trapped fluid flooded the syringe, the pressure on the bladder released. I continued to pull and the cat’s weight sunk into the table as his muscles relaxed.

Belly heaving, with his last bit of energy, the turned his golden eyes to look up at me with what I swore was an expression of gratitude. By the time I pulled the needle out seconds later, his head had flopped to one side and he’d passed out from relief.

As I stood over the limp animal, I felt my own cascade of emotion as relief washed over my body. Had this cat not received help today, I thought, he likely would have been dead by tomorrow. His bladder would have ruptured inside his body, flooding his system with deadly toxins and poisoning him from the inside out. I had almost certainly saved his life.

But it was the next thought that came to my mind that would be a gift to last a lifetime:

No matter what becomes of me, I will never think my life has been a waste.

*

Thank God for that moment with the cat.

Ever since that day, my life has been graced with a buffer, an inoculation against any fear or dismay that may have subsequently arisen in my heart at the prospect that my life would not matter.

Why am I so grateful for this? Because I am also a person of many words. And words don’t always feel like they matter.

On the one hand, we humans are made for words. We are storytellers. With our large brains and penchant for language, we have the ability to pass knowledge from one generation to the next, to reveal the wild landscapes of our inner worlds, to teach and learn life’s lessons, via nothing more than sound expressed through our lips.

But we are not made only for words.

We would not survive if we talked about escaping danger, yet never ran from it. We would die of thirst if we told stories about water, but never drank. The hand must pluck the berry from its stem before it can be eaten. The bread must be made and the shelter maintained, the harvest preserved for the winter, or there is no life to speak of in the spring.

We thoughtful and lively humans are clearly built for both words and actions, comingling in an ancient dance of mutual support and balance.

In bygone times, this was better understood. In ancient Greece, for example, poets and philosophers were revered in equal measure to athletes and statesmen. In indigenous cultures even today, storytelling elders are respected for their words and their wisdom, as much as young warriors are beloved for their strength and bravery.

The myths and stories of all our native cultures are themselves manifestations of this balance. They are most often stories of action, yet only because they were carried forth on timeless threads of language may we drink of their wisdom today.

There is necessity for both word and action in our world. Indeed, each of us is a unique combination of both elements, and our calling is to live into them, as a gift to our own time and place.

But our modern culture, with its definition of success measured upon the well-oiled machines of productivity and progress, has neglected this balance. We have forgotten, in our rush to achieve, build, and expand, that strength needs wisdom and action needs words.

Thus the most skilled wordsmiths of our day are often judged relevant only according to the number of books they are able to sell in the marketplace. Our greatest thinkers, often relegated to eking out livings in the halls of academia, are required to crank out assembly lines of papers in peer-reviewed journals to prove themselves relevant.

Even you and I are admonished not to sit around talking about things, but to “do something with our lives.” Even as activists for balance and harmony, our identity and our value is chained to our ability to be the change. Simply being ourselves is no longer enough.

Maybe that’s why my dear professor friend was afraid that he had failed. His fear might suggest less about him and his words, and more about the false dream of the modern world so many of us are swimming in: that the value of who we are depends on what we do.

The result is that a man may come to the end of a long life of meaningful contribution, and yet believe he has done nothing that matters.

*

So what to do? How to make our lives matter, if not according to society’s dream, at least to ourselves? Do we trust the ripples of the word, if words are our particular magic? Or do we push ourselves into action?

I think we have to do both.

The wonderful thing about actions is that we receive feedback immediately when we do something meaningful for ourselves or another being. The ripples we send into the world through our actions return to us like boomerangs. For better or for worse, we reap what we sow.

To be sure, words can hit their mark and bounce back like boomerangs too. Our terms of endearment, affirmations of support and understanding, compliments offered, shared expressions of grief, grand pronouncements and great works of written art, create our lives as we speak them. Expressions of gratitude and thanks can powerfully transform a moment, a day, and a life.

Our words can even mirror to another person the value they give to the world, perhaps allowing them to be more secure in knowing that they, too, have made a difference.

So if someone has made a difference in your life, tell them.

If they have made things better for you, thank them.

If you have witnessed them say or do something that matters, remind them.

Because it is easy to forget.

But there is another powerful play we can make with our words, one that binds words to actions and ripples their combined weight into the world where they can make magic:

We can tell our stories.

Sharing our stories connects us to the social world and acts upon other lives, as the stories of others act upon our own, in a dance of reciprocal meaning. Story telling is meaning making. Stories we share become living memories, breathing our past experience into future flight across space, time, and culture. Through the telling and the receiving, we discover the universal themes that connect us all. We heal, we learn, we remember we are not alone. We remember that we matter.

In fact, that’s what I’m doing here: telling my story.

Because I woke up this morning, and in my half-awake state I started to worry whether anything I have done has mattered, whether my life has been worth anything at all.

And then I remembered that cat.

So I say, embrace the word. Use it, send it far and wide, and wield its power as a tool for connection and transformation. Especially in this rapidly-connected world, where our collective reality ripple-shifts across the planet at an instant’s notice, you never know whose life might be transformed by the gift of your words.

And in the case you ever have the slightest doubt whether your words have struck gold, step outside your door and do a real, tangible, kind act for someone or something else, something beyond yourself, something needed in that very moment and within your power to do. Do something that changes someone’s life, with a big, fat ripple that no one—especially you—can deny.

I expect you will never have to doubt again.

*

Back at the sunlit table, only moments had passed. I squeezed the old man’s hand in recognition, then turned to reach behind me.

From the threadbare arm of the lounge chair along the wall, I picked up a book I had laid there just that morning, before our meeting. It was my personal copy of another book this very professor had authored, a book written early in his career.

Dog-eared and underlined, creased and stained, the book was an unsightly mess, marked up along its side with colorful tabs and bookmarks I’d inserted among the pages to remind myself of what mattered.

I plopped the book on the table, sunlight illuminating the pockmarks in the wrinkled cover, and nodded my head to its bulky form like welcoming an old friend.

I had found the book years before, on a shelf in a used bookstore. Since then it had directed my attention, led me to new discoveries and relationships, and impacted my thoughts and actions for years. It had, in fact, through meandering twists and adventures, eventually led me to this very moment, seated at the well-worn table of the very professor whose words made it all happen.

“Well, I can’t speak for anyone else,” I said. “But I can say that all those words of yours certainly made a difference to me.”

I rotated the book to face him, turned open the front cover, and displayed handwritten words I had scrawled on the title page with looping letters in blue ball point ink, so many years ago:

“This book changed my life!”

The old man and I locked eyes and smiled. Then in unison, we spoke sound into form upon swirls of sunbeams, in a shared expression of the healing power of the word.

“Thank you.”

*



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The Wake Up, Human Podcast is Alive!


I’m pleased to announce the inaugural episode of the Wake Up, Human podcast.

Like Wake Up, Human itself, this podcast is dedicated to reawakening the essential powers of the human being.

Podcast episodes will examine the ways we humans have become disconnected—from our innate wisdom, from each other, and from the natural world—and explore practical strategies for returning to wholeness. We’re waking up together.

In each episode, I’ll be interviewing people whose lives embody, reflect, or inspire this important work.

Drop in for information and inspiration to help us reconnect and heal ourselves, our relationships, and our planet.

The first episode is up!

Podcast Episode #1 has just gone live, and I’ll be sending it out immediately following this announcement. The episode can also be accessed below, as well as at the new podcast link on the WUH website.

Note that the podcast is not yet live on Apple Podcasts, Google, etc., but will be soon, and when that happens I’ll provide subscription links on the main podcast page.

This project is a labor of love that has been months in the making. I hope you’ll enjoy and benefit from what’s inside.


Episode 1: The Mythic Resistance with Tonja Reichley

In this inaugural episode of the Wake Up, Human podcast, I talk with Tonja Reichley, an herbalist, ritualist and author in the Irish Celtic tradition. Our conversation centers on the theme of the mythic resistance: exploring myth as a tool for reclaiming our place—and our power—within the often confusing matrix of modern cultural and social identities.



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We are All Indigenous.

Reflections on Native American Heritage Month as a Non-Native to this Country

Image: Wikimedia Commons

“The only certainty is that nothing is certain.”

Fortune Cookie
Listen to an audio recording of this article here.

I sit at a Taoist meditation gathering, legs crossed, balanced on a plastic folding chair.

My Qigong teacher has just given a lecture on the Tao, and I expect now to sit in silent meditation and take in the familiar sound that always ends these nightly talks: the music of the gong.

“The gong” is what my teacher calls it, anyway. What I call it is a crystal singing bowl. The diameter of a beach ball, it’s a half-cut oval of frosted white glass that rings when struck and sings when stroked. When a musician sits down to play the bowl, gliding a wooden dowel around its outer edge in unbroken spiral after spiral, the crystal begins to sing. It starts quiet and scratchy, and builds to a crescendo of expansive song so loud and wide that it penetrates the air of the room and and cancels all other information inside.

The loudness of the gong silences everything in its wake.

The music of the gong is one of my favorite sounds. It’s a mystical sound, a sound seemingly from another world that somehow crosses into this material world and touches spirit to ground. Its ring expands through space like dust of a galaxy, enters my ears, and rings into my brain, echoing and bounding inside my skull. Every time I hear it, the song cuts through my consciousness so completely that it clears away everything in its path: any residue of thought, any dust of impure emotion.

I’m left afterward contemplating pure sound, hearing it recede, feeling my own self floating halfway between worlds. I myself feel momentarily both in this world and in the world of the unseen, the gong having transformed even my own energy into sound. I am left clear, renewed, with a sense of seeing and hearing again for the first time.

The clarity lasts for a few minutes, maybe a few hours. Then, inevitably, whatever is inside my psyche and experience will begin dropping its litter into the pristine fields of pure mind, and my neural highways start to become congested again. Life traffic builds up and starts honking.

I once told my teacher, “I love the sound of the gong. It opens me up like the sky.” He replied with a nod, “The gong is a great teacher.”

Tonight, back on my plastic chair, I once again await the gong. But tonight it doesn’t come. Instead, the voice of my teacher reaches into the dim light of the room, announcing that instead of meditation, tonight we’ll be gifted a unique presentation from some special visitors.

In November, we celebrate Native American Heritage Month in our country. As I ponder the meaning of that celebration, I think of a comment I heard recently from philosopher Noam Chomsky, remarking on a review of a book by someone he calls a “major American historian.” He said, the book’s author mentions that when early European explorers came to the Western Hemisphere there had been approximately one million native people living up and down the length of the continent. But the historian was far off in estimates of the true population, which Chomsky says would have been closer to 60-70 million.

Why the discrepancy? How did a historian miss 59 million-or-more people and instead only report one million?

Answer: by failing to count the millions upon millions of indigenous people of those lands who were killed—by disease, famine, and war—in the wake of the European settlers’ arrival. Why were those people either not counted, or dis-counted? Did the European settlers (or historians) of that time not see those many millions of people? Did they see them, but not see them as people? Did they see them as people, but following some narrow-eyed convention of the day, presume the native people of the Americas literally did not count? Or, did they see it all and just decide to cook the numbers to hide any blood that might be on their hands?

Back at the Taoist center, the special visitors arrive.

The troupe from the Centre for Indigenous Arts enters into the space. They slide in like shadows, silent, barefoot, carrying feathers and drums and strings of twinkling lights. Surrounded by statues of Kuan Yin and Taoist warriors, red and gold brocade yin-yang adorned tapestries, the indigenous dancers sit in a circle on the floor with branches of pine and juniper at their feet. They begin to chant.

The Taoist seekers of ancient times aligned themselves with the natural world. Taoist mystics climbed mountains to heaven, divined their destinies in numbers and geometries, shape-shifted into animals, contorting their bodies into deer, tiger, crane, and monkey. The energy lives on in this room, now. The indigenous visitors breathe their own offering to the space. The drum sounds, evoking bear, buffalo, eagle, and wolf.

A voice speaks from the darkest corner. A woman’s voice—strong, settled, confident. She gives a prayer in an indigenous language, a tongue my ears don’t understand. She shifts to English for a moment, calling on the ancestors for protection, honoring them, and thanking them for all life. She prays for the waters, the sky, the rocks. She prays for the people, to be at peace with one another and with all our relations, to live in joyful communion with nature and spirit.

Just as I wonder whether this woman might be asking too much of human beings, she utters something clear and wonderful that catches my attention:

“We are all indigenous.”

She repeats it again, and again. We are all indigenous. We are all indigenous. We are all indigenous to this Earth.

“I am indigenous to this land. And so are you,” she says. “I am indigenous to these waters, and so are you. I am indigenous to this soil, and a child of Mother Earth, and so are you. All of us—all of us—are indigenous to this world. We belong to it. It is our home.”

She continues, “If we are to find peace with one another, we must understand that this planet is our mother, and we are all brothers and sisters. We were all born from the same womb. There is no such thing as my land and yours, unless we say it is so. And if we don’t care for the land as our mother, if we don’t care for our shared home together, we are in danger of destroying her. Please, join with me.”

The room falls quiet. The only light comes from strands of twinkling bulbs strewn across the floor, and their reflections in the many mirrors that circle the room. Blue and white sparkles surround us all like stars. For a moment, a shared understanding fills the room that we are all one, of the same mother, praying under the same sky. And then the dancing begins.

I understand there’s a danger in making the statement, “We are all indigenous.”

It would be naive at best, and inflammatory and disrespectful at worst, to make this claim thoughtlessly. The land we call the United States was native land for hundreds of generations before any “modern” European set foot on its shores. And I admit, only because it was a native woman who spoke those words—“We are all indigenous”—did I feel some sense of permission to repeat it, as though it was anything I should possibly be allowed to say.

As a woman of European ancestry, why do I feel I need permission to say such a thing? Where does that come from?

I have an herbalist friend who is Irish by blood. Sharing the ancient ways of the Irish warrior goddess is her life’s work. She teaches herbal classes rooted in Irish traditions, healing, and spirituality. She leads a mystery school of indigenous wisdom in the tradition of ancient European mystery schools.

This friend, who lives in the United States, far from her ancestral home, wrote once that she sometimes feels like a woman without a land. She knows she doesn’t “come from here,” yet here is where she is. And she must dig some roots where she is, yet knowing that someone else long ago dug here first, and still holds the ground sacred.

So this wild-skirted woman plants one foot in this land, and the other in the rhythms and seasons of her lost home. From here she teaches the trees of the Celtic year: Hawthorne, Ash, Birch, Willow. She shares recipes passed down through the generations of mothers and daughters before her. She weaves her stories, not beside the warmth of a peat fire on the rocks of the Irish Burren, but through the smoke of burning mugwort in the arid mountain west. Wherever she is, she must tell her stories.

I can relate to this. As a woman with a bloodline threading back to the British Isles, just the names of the Celtic trees tug softly on something inside me, calling me out to sea. They speak longingly, “You know us. We are yours. You are ours.” Yet, I was born here. Where do I belong? What does it mean to be indigenous to a place when inside me flows the black blood of forested island lochs, while I was birthed through my mother, from my mother’s mother, on the sagebrush lava flows of the high desert? In both places I feel equally at home.

It would be untrue to say that we are all indigenous to this land. Each of us has roots in some land. We can call ourselves indigenous to somewhere. If this land is not the land of our recent ancestors, we can find beauty in that recognition, and take care to honor the indigenous heritage of the place we are.

And if our roots were uprooted from somewhere else, somewhere far away, we can grieve for that loss of place. Maybe we can have compassion for others who suffer the same loss.

Recognizing that we are all indigenous to this earth, sisters and brothers to each other and all of creation, is not meant to ignore the pain of genocide, the devastation of colonization, or the loss of self and identity that comes with separation. We live in a world of borders and nations, a world that has split people from their native lands in many places, many ways. This is our reality. We can’t go back and undo the damage that was done, not fully, despite reparations and best intentions.

So I wonder, couldn’t the words “we are all indigenous” be words of healing? If we are all indigenous to this planet, and all in need of a home, could that understanding be a source of empathy, a path of reconnection for those who have lost connection to their lands, all around the world?

I would be interested to know what others think of this idea. Because to me, it brings peace, hope, possibility. What would the world be like if we could all know that we are already home?

Back to the sound of the gong. I am not Chinese. I am not indigenous to any Taoist tradition. Yet the gong sings to me, empties me, fills me with wonder. I can only assume the gong does not discriminate, that it offers its song of clarity to all of us equally, wherever we may be from.

My intellect is not certain of any of this, because my intellect is afraid of being seen as a colonizer who does not have a right to say such things as “we are all indigenous.” I’m not certain about my land, about my permissions. I’m not certain what my place is, my place to live, my place to speak.

But my heart is not afraid, and I trust my heart.

I am certain that I am indigenous to this planet, and I am certain that you are too. I pray for the day none of us feels like a woman without a land, a man without a land, a child without a mother. We should never need to feel that way, not when we are all already home. I pray that is something we can work on together.

So, no gong tonight, but still some clarity. Another good teacher, and teaching that will echo through my consciousness, in a different way, for more than a few hours.

A tall and strong native woman emerges from the darkness of the corner, and enters into the circle of light. It is her voice I heard in prayer. Silver hair flows over her shoulders and cascades down to her hips. Her skirt is laced with leather and fiber. Feathers adorn her hair. She dances a spiral, hands high in the air.

Dear wise woman teacher, thank you for speaking your prayer. Thank you for giving me permission to stand tall in this land with you. Thank you for sharing your strength with me so I can confidently say, “I am indigenous to this world. We are all indigenous.”

*

This article was originally published on Elephant Journal at this link.

I Voted. {Poem}

I voted today.

I dropped my heart into the ballot box
And cast my vote for the world I want to see.

I voted for country over party,
And planet over country.

I voted for everyone, and their dog.

I voted for the ancestors,
And the dreams they prayed we would fulfill.

I voted for the children,
Carnivals and innocence and joy.

I voted for the elders,
Soft wisdom, busy hands weaving webs of time.

I voted for the Divine Feminine
To rise again and take her throne.

I voted for the moon.

I voted for owls and crows and croaking toads
And ancient forests teeming with life.

I voted for the Great Spirit 
To guide us toward our rightful place
At the feet of the sacred,
Through the gates of conscience,
That we may find our way back home.

And of course, I voted for love.

Now what to do
But wait for the ballots to be counted?

Meanwhile, rivers roar, bones rattle,
Past and future ages hold their breath.

They are waiting to see
If our hearts will reawaken...
Eyes open and ears pricked forward,
Songs on the tips of their tongues,
Ready to welcome us back to the chorus of life.

I voted today.
I voted for you and me, free.

I voted that we'll make it
Back home together, alive.



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Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.

Photo by Yogesh Pedamkar on Unsplash

This article is one in a series of profiles highlighting “wayfinders”: individuals whose work explores, supports, or suggests the means to reawaken the essential powers of the human being. Each segment includes a brief introduction to the person whose work it highlights, a short reflection, and links for the reader to explore more deeply.

I profile these wayfarers, in part to share the work of people I admire, and in part to ease my troubled soul. Studying the work of inspiring kindred spirits gives me hope. It reminds me that I don’t have to do it all. So much has already been done, by our ancestors and our contemporaries, that none of us need light our own way into reconnection. We only need to add our voices to those already speaking, remember what we already know, and live our own unique contribution into the world.

Wayfinder: Wade Davis

Wade Davis is a Canadian ethnographer, photographer, and filmmaker, and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. A passionate student of native traditions and plant medicines, for decades Mr. Davis has studied and lived in diverse world locales, documenting the cultural practices of peoples who maintain their connection to their lands, languages, and ancestral roots. His list of accomplishments and contributions is too long to list here, but can be found, along with his body of work, at www.daviswade.com.

“Wayfinder,” the title word that anchors this series, was inspired by Mr. Davis. His book, “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in a Modern World,” is an exploration of our innate human wisdom as expressed through the world’s indigenous cultures.

Davis celebrates such cultures as unique and relevant expressions of human knowing, valuable not only for their own sake, but for the benefit of all humanity. According to Davis, earth-based or ancient-rooted cultures do not represent primitive or underdeveloped versions of the human being. On the contrary, they are the water bearers, trustees of the deepest wells of our species’ embodied wisdom about the world, and our place in it.

Those of us enmeshed in the busy rush of the “modern” world must understand what will be lost if we continue our current path of annihilation and assimilation of native cultures into our ever-expanding worldwide monoculture of sameness. The work of Wade Davis, and others like him, can make us stop and question. What does is it mean to be human? And what really matters in this life?

Reflection.

What follows are my reflections, incorporating ideas and quotes by Mr. Davis. If there is anything inaccurate or poorly explained, please assume the error is mine.

We, who sit in our manufactured chairs atop chemical-laden flooring, drinking from plastic cups and eating from take-out containers, forget we once slept in tall grasses on ancient beds of soil. We, who sequester ourselves away in walled-off buildings and computer-aided separation, forget we once lived our lives in the open air, walking barefoot, free of possessions, speaking the language of nature.

What’s more, we’ve forgotten how important that soil, that air, and that language used to be to our physical, mental, and spiritual health. We’ve forgotten the deep communion with the elements that birthed our bodies, minds, and native wisdom.

There are other cultures that have not forgotten this. And we need them.


“Other cultures are not failed attempts
at being you.”

Wade Davis

Modern culture does not have it all figured out.

We modern, fast-moving, tech-addicted and progress-craving humans are not the only culture.

We are not the best culture.

We are not the culmination of culture.

The human family is not a hierarchy. There is no better human, lesser human, more advanced human, or more savage human. There is only human.

Science has undeniably confirmed: “We’re all cut from the same genetic cloth.” Outward appearances—skin color, ethnicity, cultural and social norms, religious and spiritual beliefs—are no more relevant to our humanity than a thin layer of dust covering a fine piece of furniture. Wipe it away, and beneath the dust lies our unity, one solid and dignified thing of beauty.

One culture is not smarter, more successful, or more important than any other culture. Intelligence, success, and importance rest in the eye of the beholder. What we think is smart is only a thought. What we perceive to be successful is only our perception.

We may visit another culture and laugh at them for not knowing. They may laugh at us for the same reason.

Our culture is not better than other cultures of the world. And it is not worse. It is simply one way of being.

Humans are a technological species. We make tools and we create meaning—all of us.

Our technology is not better than the dreaming technology of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In fact, in the rush to perfect our technology, we may have forgotten the reality of the dream.

Our unbridled urge toward progress is not better than those native peoples’ urge to stand still and hold up the world. In fact, in our rush to progress, we may have forgotten how to be still.

In our mastery of the written word, we may have forgotten how to speak the language of the trees—and the animals, the stars, the moon. We may be missing the messages life has for us. From the point of view of nature, we may have even become dumb: unable to see, hear, or speak the language of all things.

Yet we cry to the heavens, and read self-help books and google for answers and join intentional communities and go fly fishing and take vacations to the beach, and try our darndest to answer the question: what is the meaning of life?

It is no wonder we are losing access to the answer.

In the wake of ecological destruction, economic expansion, and epidemic devaluing of the ancient in favor of the new, our wise old cultures are dying.

Not only have we lost the memory of our own resilience, though it rests within our very bones; but we are now destroying the ability of our indigenous brothers and sisters to be resilient in their own intelligent, wise ways.

In this, we all lose.

By preserving the knowledge and health of native communities, we enrich the entire human race. When we respect them, we can learn from them. When we lose them, we lose a piece of our shared humanity.

Do we really want to know the meaning of life? Do we want to put all the pieces back together? If so, we must stop destroying, not only the carriers of the knowledge of life, but the very knowledge itself.


“Culture is not decorative. Culture is what allows us to make sense of the world.”

Wade Davis

All people—and all cultures—are equally valuable.

I am not more valuable because I speak English. You are not more valuable because you speak Spanish, or Hindi, or ten other languages.

I am not more valuable because of my skin color. Neither are you.

My genius did not come from my education. It is not reflected in my test scores, or my ability to do math problems or write clean code.

Your genius did not require you to grow up in New York or London, or on a farm, or in a spiritual community or in a musical family.

Our genius was born into life with us, and through us, before our first breath.

Every human being is genius.

The fact that our culture might have more material wealth than another culture is not a sign that we are more advanced. Claiming such would be like stealing bread from our neighbor, and arguing that we’re more advanced because have two loaves, while our neighbor has none.

No, we are not more valuable because we “have” more. There are cultures with no incentive to accumulate anything. How do they measure value? By relationship.

One way to measure value is not greater or lesser than another. It’s just a manifestation of culture.

But it also suggests a loss. What have we lost by forgetting there are forms of value not measurable by money and achievement? What have we lost by forgetting there are other ways to succeed?

Every culture is a strand in the interconnected web of life. All human beings are brothers and sisters of a shared creative consciousness. We live in symbiosis with all life, interdependent upon one another, human and non-human alike.

Except, some of us honor the forests as our brothers, and some of us cut them down. Some of us honor non-human animals as our sisters, and some of us farm them in factories and wrap their meat in plastic.

This is not a difference in levels of advancement (though, the trees and animals may disagree). It is a difference in priorities.

Our way to solve problems is not the only way. Nor is it necessarily the right way, or the best way. What do we forfeit by denying there are other solutions?


You only know where you are
by remembering how you got there.

Wade Davis

We are all endowed with innate knowledge and power.

The ocean-savvy sailors of Polynesia understand how to navigate the vast waters of the Pacific without a map. It is not that they rely on the stars to guide them, though they could if they wished. Rather, they call the land toward them by riding multiple currents at once, reading the pattern of directional flows that surge beneath the hulls of their boats. They discern their throughline in the matrix, and follow it home.

These sailors are wayfinders.

They find their way not by GPS, but by dead reckoning.

They find their way across vast expanse of ocean, using only the power of their memory, and their finely-tuned perception.

And as Wade Davis reminds us, arrival by dead reckoning requires knowing not only where we want to go, but also where we came from. Our origin.

We modern humans have become quite good at entering location data into an app, tapping “start,” and trusting technology to guide us to our destination. And that is fine—nothing wrong with efficiently mapping a tidy route. We don’t need to hold in our consciousness all possible global coordinates to get from point A to our doctor’s appointment.

But if we superimpose such common shortcuts over the matrix of our lives and trust them to light our way, we may find they are not so efficient.

When we live only for the moment, chop time into boxes, instantly gratify desires, or throw away perfectly good things when we don’t need them anymore, we lose sight of the inherent value of the whole.

Practice such “efficient” living long enough, and we can unwittingly come to give more attention to our gadgets and to-do lists than to learning the wisdom of our ancestors, or preserving the natural world for our grandchildren. If we get too efficient, we may lose our grip on our sense of place, and become lost, without a definitive meaning or purpose to guide us.

Maybe we’re already lost.

How will we find our way, if we forget where we came from?

We can ask guidance from those who have never forgotten.

For we have not forgotten it all yet, but we may be close. Every culture we destroy, every landscape we tear asunder, every language we dismiss as primitive and allow to die, snips one more thread of connection that binds us to our history, our native wisdom, and the possibility to heal our world.

Not only do our threatened cultures risk the loss of their lands, languages, and ways of life, but in that loss, our entire species risks losing the memory of who we are.


“Change is not a threat to culture.
Power is a threat to culture.”

Wade Davis

The power of preservation is in our hands.

All cultures are myopic. We naturally focus our lives around our own needs and the needs our family and community. No need to beat ourselves up for valuing and caring for our own. But we would do well to recognize our near-sightedness, and adjust our lenses to make room for other points of view.

For when we live as though “we” are more important, implicit in that belief is that “they” don’t matter as much.

When we become convinced that our cultural narrative is the right one, and others wrong, ours good and theirs bad, where does that lead us?

If taken to any length, we fall from cultural superiority into cultural imperialism, the imposition of our culture upon another, and creating structures of inequality to maintain our superiority.

If taken far enough, it leads us to the edge of ideology: the belief that our story about life is more important than life itself. What happens when ideology trumps life? War. Genocide. Destruction. Assimilation. Trails of tears.

Native and indigenous cultures are not “destined to fade away” with time and change, or to be “understandably” replaced by modern alternatives. No. Culture is stronger than that. Cultures die because we let them.

And when a culture dies, what goes with it? All the ways that unique manifestation of humanity knew to be alive: reality as they described it, history as they remembered it, the essential powers they knew to use. Their wayfinders. One more strategy for making sense of our human journey, the great mystery, and our place within it, is lost.

When we cancel cultures, we cancel other truths. We cancel pieces of ourselves.

We can’t afford to cancel any truths right now. We need them all to survive.

But good news: if we are the agents of our own cultural destruction, we can also be the facilitators of cultural survival. What is in our power to destroy is in our power to save.

*

Those beds of ancient living soil still await, beneath the concrete foundations of our modern lives. They call to us and offer to remind us where we came from.

Step outside. Walk barefoot on the earth. Let her electrons energize you from the ground up. Lie in the dirt. Learn to be still and listen. Find out what is important to preserve life on this planet. Preserve it.

For if we do not, we may find ourselves out to sea, with no wayfinder to guide us home.

We may forget what we already know, and have to start over again to remember it. Or worse yet, we may forget, and never even realize we’ve forgotten.

So let us remember now, and recover all we can of our shared human heritage. May we listen to the stories. Preserve the languages. Nurture the cultures. Learn from the wise ones. May we support our indigenous brothers and sisters to live the wisdom of their ways. May we humbly learn from them, and generously offer them the best of our knowledge. Thus, we will rise together.

We get to make the choice: preserve, or perish.

What will we choose?


“Understanding the lessons of this…will be our mission for the next century.

For at risk is the human legacy—a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination. Rediscovering a new appreciation for the diversity of the human spirit, as expressed by culture, is among the central challenges of our time.”

Wade Davis

Resources:

The website of Wade Davis
Link to the video that inspired this piece



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Black, White, or Brown: the Power of Stories can heal us all.

Photo by Aung Soe Min on Unsplash

The opposite of criminalization is humanization.

Van Jones

The wounds of the human psyche are locked inside untold stories.

In the circle on folding chairs sit twenty men of different ages, backgrounds, and life histories. Some lean forward in expectation. Others sit back, arms crossed over chests, or rocking back and forth on the rear legs of their chairs.

Dark and light skins share the circle, different dialects and accents. Asian. Black. Latino. White. Distinct from one another on the surface in myriad ways. Yet they have one thing in common: they’re all serving time in California state prison.

Strewn about the scuffed tile floor in the center of the circle is a colorful array of images, photos laser printed on letter-sized copier paper. The corner of one page covers the edge of the next, and every imaginable subject peeks out from among the messy layers.

Still shots of buildings. Men and women working. Wild and domestic animals. Children playing, street life, nature scenes.

Moments ago, the group’s facilitator shuffled these images across the floor like an oversized deck of playing cards. Now back in the circle on his own folding chair, he surveys the group of men with his eyes as he speaks.

“Look carefully at these images and consider them. In a moment, each of you will choose one picture, one that represents your life in some way. You’ll choose something that feels meaningful, something that says something about who you are, where you come from, or what you believe.”

As he speaks, the men in the circle begin to scan the images at their feet with curiosity.

“Feel free to stand and walk among the pictures. Lean down to have a closer look. When you have chosen one, pick it up and carry it with you back to your chair. When everyone is seated, we’ll go around the circle, and each of you will have a chance to tell the group what that photo means to you.”

I am sitting in the circle, on my own folding chair, scanning the floor with consideration. I, too, must choose a photo.

My eyes sift through the jumble of images, taking each of them in as a potential representation of my life. A stand of pine trees encircling a mountain lake. A hunter in camouflage, equipped with rifle and bright orange vest. A snapshot of Notre Dame cathedral framed by spring blossoms in a hundred shades of rose. Which image speaks to me?

I settle on a close-up photo of the face of a crying baby. I walk to the center of the circle, pick it up, and hold it to my chest as I carry it back to my chair.

*

Entering the prison this morning was an exercise in contrasts. Outside its drab and windowless cement walls, at the edge of the parking lot, lush green hills rose into mist-shrouded skies. The morning sun illuminated barbed wire enclosures connecting observation decks manned by armed guards.

No man inside would dare attempt to cross this porous boundary to the outside world. Yet, jackrabbits pass with impunity through gaps in the chain-link fencing, nibbling unconcerned on clover flowers and wild grasses. Yellow-billed magpies stand sentinel on steel fence posts, eyes scanning the horizon over the heads of inmates, as the men shoot hoops and trade cigarettes on the asphalt below.

I crossed the boundary between the free world and the caged as a volunteer with Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), a grassroots, volunteer-run conflict transformation program.

To make it to the “inside” this morning, my co-facilitator and I passed through a metal detector, the barbed-wire gun tower barrier, three sets of double doors, and two guard stations. Along the way I surrendered my ID and backpack in exchange for an emergency buzzer before being escorted toward the workshop classroom.

As we approached the room, a female voice met our ears from the next hallway over, her exasperated commands soaring over the rumble of male voices of the workshop-bound inmates.

“What did I tell you yesterday? Don’t touch that! Get back in line!”

As the guard saw us round the corner she straightened and smiled sweetly, escorting us into the room where we would spend our day, the final of three, with the men. I entered the room with nothing but my buzzer, my worksheets, and my bag lunch.

*

AVP workshops draw on the shared experience of prison inmates to “examine how injustice, prejudice, frustration and anger can lead to aggressive behavior and violence.” In our private space, facilitators and inmates together flow through experiential exercises, role plays, storytelling and games to explore both the roots of conflict, and our inner power to transform it. The men and women who graduate the program leave with practical and potentially life-changing skills for resolving conflict without resorting to manipulation, coercion, or violence.

For three days, we’ve sunk deep and wide into shared experience with these men. We’ve stared uncomfortably into each other’s eyes. We’ve played games, acted ridiculous, and laughed together. We’ve struggled, closed off, and opened again.

We’ve each given ourselves a new name by attaching to our first name a flattering adjective that starts with the same letter: Handsome Hank, Brilliant Bob, Generous George.*

In the process of it all, we’ve learned things we didn’t know — about each other, and about ourselves.

On the first day of these 3-day workshops, the men don’t look at each other much. They enter the room with cautious glances, tracking for others who share their own racial or ethnic backgrounds, separating themselves into groups according to those who look like them.

The men have signed up for the workshop by choice; they come because they’re sick of living the coercion and fear of prison life with no sense of agency to transcend it. They’re here because they desperately want something different. Yet upon arrival, mistrust flashes in their eyes.

This is self-preservation. The constant threat of violence between racial and ethnic groups in prison quickly teaches every wise man to self-segregate to the safety of his in-group, for the sake of his life. Stepping across that line, even accidentally, could mean humiliation, injury, or death.

So it is that these men who’ve shared the same physical space inside windowless prison walls, sometimes for years — or decades — are nonetheless strangers to each other. As they tell us, they arrive to our gathering knowing as little about each other as they do about us strangers from the outside.

But by day three, the atmosphere is calm; the edge is off. The group is integrated around the circle, and men of different colors intermingle, joking or leaning in for deeper conversation. We all know each other by first name now, and “first adjective” too.

Outside the room, divisions are real and necessary. But in this room, divisions have been recognized as part of the problem.

*

The exercise begins. One by one, each man lifts his chosen photo from his lap and faces it toward the group. From behind the images they tell their stories, describing scenes and dreams and memories from their lives. Each image becomes a paper-thin portal through which one single life story shines forth.

As each man talks, the others listen with attentive presence. Arms uncross and chairs settle down to all fours. Sometimes the listeners nod. Sometimes they affirm. “Yeah.” “That’s right.” “I hear that.” Sometimes they shake their heads in disbelief or lower their eyes and just take it in.

“I picked the picture of this man standing on a porch, because he looks like somebody’s dad. It made me think about how I grew up jealous of my friends who had dads to look up to. I don’t know what that’s like. My dad was never around.”

“I chose this picture of a grocery store, because it reminds me of the one my brother worked at when he got shot dead coming outside after work.”

“I picked up this picture of this cute puppy here, ’cause he just looks so damn happy. All I ever wanted to do is be like a puppy. Happy.”

A Latino man chokes back tears, wishing out loud he would have made his mom proud, instead of breaking her heart.

An Asian man wishes he would have known then what he knows now: all the money or power in the world isn’t worth even one human life.

A Black man bows his head and restarts his story three times. “I can’t undo the past,” he says, “but I can change the future. All I want is to get back home again and hug my son, and teach him to be a better man than me.”

All eyes settle on the next man in line: Curious Cliff. A white man with sandy gray-blond hair who looks to be somewhere in his fifties. Stocky, slumped down in his chair, he has said little the past two days. Silence hangs in the room as the men wait for him to speak.

He takes a long time to raise his photo.

When he does, the page reveals an image of a small blond boy, no more than eight years old, holding a fishing pole in one hand and a line with a foot-long fish hanging from the other. The boy’s ear-to-ear smile shines pridefully into the camera.

“When I was a boy…” Cliff begins, and his voice trails off.

Again, silence. He sighs, sits up straighter, and words begin to flow in a soft southern accent.

“When I was a boy, my dad and my uncles used to take me fishin’. They took me out on the river and taught me how to bait a hook, cast a line, and reel it in. I got pretty good at it. My dad and them, they were good teachers.

“I picked this photo because it reminds me of a happy time when life seemed easy, before things got complicated.

“I was gonna say that if I could, I’d like to go back to that time and start over. I wanna spend the day fishin’ on the river, and get a fresh start, and forget about this god-awful place.

“But…” his voice cracks.

“I been listenin’ to your stories around the circle, and all the hardships y’all have gone through, and then I thought of somethin’ else to share.

“See, my dad and them, they didn’t just teach me how to fish. They also taught me how to hate.”

He takes a slow, deep breath, and continues.

“When I was a kid, everyone around me told me that Black people were bad. They told me Black people weren’t like us, they weren’t as good as us. They told me Blacks were only gonna bring crime to our town, that they weren’t nothin’ but trouble for us white folks. They told me our country would be better off without ‘em.”

“But now I know they were wrong. I mean, I’ve known it for a long while. But I been able to kinda ignore it, ’cause in here, you know, the Blacks and the whites don’t talk. I been talkin’ to only white people my whole life, even in this damn prison.”

Until now, Cliff has been speaking with his eyes locked to the floor. He stops for another breath and raises his head, face flushed and brow furrowed, to look at the rest of us in the room.

“Truth is, that little boy in this picture didn’t hate anybody. He wasn’t prejudiced. He was taught to hate, by other people who hated, people who shoulda known better.

“I’m not sayin’ that what I did to get myself in here wasn’t my fault. I made all my own decisions.”

Tears well in his eyes, and the little-boy image shakes tenderly as his hand begins to tremble.

“But I see that what really brought me here was hate. It was somebody else’s hate that I took on as my own. And I don’t wanna hate anymore.

“I don’t wanna hurt a single person, no matter what color they are, for the rest of my life. I know that every man in this room is a good man, a real man with his own story, just like me. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”

He crumples forward, stocky shoulders heaving, and begins to sob.

For a moment all the room hangs suspended in the heaviness of the moment. All is silent but for the soft cries of this man and the ticking of the clock on the wall.

Then from the left, someone reaches over and places a hand on the crying man’s shoulder. A Black hand. It belongs to Jammin John. Surprised, Cliff looks up through tears and the men lock eyes. “I’m so sorry.”

“Bless you,” John says to the suffering man. “Bless you, brother.”

*

We hear from the inmates that AVP graduates come to see their in-groups differently than other inmates; they share a wider sense of solidarity.

Upon graduation from the program, each participant is gifted a small lapel pin, gold plated with black enameled letters: AVP. The graduates are asked to visibly wear their pins on the shirt collars of their workman’s blue prison “uniforms.”

The result is that on the basketball court, in the lunchroom and throughout the common areas, the pins symbolize not only a shared experience, but a shared understanding. Men who’ve completed the program see the pin on the lapel of a fellow inmate, and they know. They know that man, too, has sat in circle, laughed and struggled and opened. He, too, has shared his story.

It is the pin they see now as a sign of brotherhood, not just the color of the skin.

At the end of the day these men will graduate the program. They’ll bump fists, shake hands, embrace. They’ll tell each other before being escorted back to their cells: Brother, I’ve got your back.

Cliff will be smiling for the first time in three days.

*

Back in the classroom, we continue moving around the circle. Eventually, it comes my turn to speak. I lift my paper outward toward the group.

“I chose this crying baby,” I begin, “because it reminds me of how lucky I am to be alive.”

“When I was born, my mother was only 15 years old. She could have chosen not to have me, but she didn’t. She was teased and ridiculed for being pregnant so young, but she was tough, and she stuck it out and gave me my life.

“She decided to put me up for adoption. She wanted to give me a better life than she thought she could give, so she surrendered me to the state as a trustee.

“I was passed as a newborn from the nurses and doctors to the county adoption agency. I was cared for by surrogate mothers in one foster home after another, social workers who fed and nurtured me until a permanent family could be found. They gave me a temporary name — “Baby Heather” — so I could be identified in official documents by something more than a number.

“They wrote notes about me in my log files, like ‘Today Baby Heather drank 8 ounces of milk,’ or ‘Baby Heather woke three times in the night.’

“I came into the world helpless to care for myself. It was only the kindness of strangers that kept me alive. By the time I was placed with my adoptive family, my fate had passed through the hands of countless people I will never know. Every one of them gave me a gift I can never repay.

All this makes me want to pay that kindness forward, since I know I can’t pay it back. It’s love that gives us life, but it’s kindness that keeps us alive.

“The system is so bad sometimes. I see all the terrible things we do to each other. But there are good people, too. And I owe my life to good people. I hope, in some way, I can thank the world enough to be worthy of that gift.”

I place the picture back down on my lap, and look around the circle. A couple of men nod their heads. One puts his hand over his heart. I know I have been heard.

*

“The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”

Audre Lorde

How do our stories shape what we witness in other people? How does witnessing the stories of others shape our own?

We humans are storytelling creatures. We find meaning in the experience of life, but also in the telling of it. It was relatively recently in our species’ history that we shifted from operating as chiefly an oral culture to a written one. The power of spoken story stirs something deep within our bones, as much a part of our being as our DNA.

Maybe that’s why we can be healed by sharing stories.

I’m not suggesting that we can listen to someone’s story and magically erase centuries of dehumanization, or decades of psychological trauma.

But whereas social norms often teach us to armor up against the “other,” to shield ourselves from the “enemy” for our own survival, I suggest that the the real enemy is dehumanization.

Our racist, industrialized system of mass incarceration is but one outgrowth of the dehumanized culture we live in: a culture that values profit over people. A culture of objectification and commodification, when what we need is connection. A culture of retribution, when what we need is restoration.

In such a segregated and separated world, wherein powerful interests manipulate our shared narrative to maintain us in competition and conflict with one another, storytelling can be not only an act of healing, but an act of rebellion.

Injustice is dependent on indifference. We can unlearn separation and dehumanization, and challenge the injustice that comes from it, if we take time to share our personal stories with others. A story shared lifts the veil of generalizations, re-humanizes both sender and receiver, and reveals the priceless kaleidoscope of shared human experience that lies beyond.

*

The first time I visited the prison, I worried whether I should have come.

I had witnessed the transformative power of AVP as a facilitator in our outside community, and wanted to help share it with inmates on the inside.

But I feared I didn’t belong within the prison walls, that my presence would be unwelcome by the men inside. I was uncertain how I would be received, a young white woman entering a world of mostly black and brown men, likely with radically different life experiences from my own.

I entered conscious of the “white savior” mentality, wanting to avoid at all costs bringing naive or privileged helping energy into the shared space. In my desire to be helpful, I worried, was I forcing my good intentions into a place they didn’t belong?

But over three days of stories, tears, and laughter, I forgot my fears, just as the men forgot so many of the differences between them.

In our time together my sense of the men as “inmates” faded quickly, and by graduation I had come to know them as individuals: Abel, and Jerry, and Mike. I learned their names. I had seen them. And they had seen me too.

As our group packed up to leave the final day, with smiles and respectful nods, one of the older gentlemen approached me and shook my hand.

He said, “You know, when this thing started, us guys were talking. We wondered, why are these people coming in here from the outside? How much are they getting paid to do this?

“We thought you must have an agenda. But when we heard you were volunteers and you actually came just because you want to help, well…I just want to say thank you. Sometimes it feels like the whole world forgot about us. Thanks for coming, and showing us that someone on the outside still cares.”

Here I had been worried about intruding into his world, desperately wanting to be seen as respectful. And here he was, just grateful to be seen.

*

The wounds of the human psyche are locked inside untold stories. Like men locked behind bars, they long to be free.

But I wonder, how many opportunities for connection do we miss by assuming that reaching out is not wanted? How many times do we hold back, questioning the value of what we have to give? And how many times do we not tell our stories, because it seems there’s no one to receive them, or because we’ve come to believe that no one cares?

In the depths of despair, isolation, and dehumanization, where rivers of pain cut so deep, we know that simply saying sorry isn’t enough.

But we also know that healing has to begin somewhere. If there’s no invitation to speak and witness— to apologize and forgive — there can be little movement toward healing.

On the other hand, when there is that invitation to speak, there can be movement. Every personal story shared is an opportunity to shift the direction of our collective story, from separation toward wholeness. 

In sharing, we submerge ourselves together in the healing waters of our shared suffering. The more bravely we share, the more likely we may one day emerge together into the transformed light of a new world.

We are all different on the outside: light and dark skin, different dialects and accents and life histories. We are also different on the inside, each psyche and spirit a vast, unique interior world unlike any other.

But two precious things we all hold in equal measure: our humanity, and our stories. We are all human beings, however imperfect in our expression. We all have stories to tell. And the one can help us remember the value — and the power — of the other.

What story waits to be told by you?

*


This story is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Matchett,
1957-2020
Beloved facilitator and mentor,
Alternatives to Violence Project, California


*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the people represented in this story.



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5 ways John Lewis Changed the World—without burning out. (And we can too.)

“Take a long, hard look down the road you will have to travel once you have made a commitment to work for change. Know that this transformation will not happen right away. Change often takes time. It rarely happens all at once.”

John Lewis on protesting in Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change

We want change.

All of us who fight for a cause we believe in, urgent for a world more compassionate and just, know how important it is to work for change. We also know it’s hard.

It’s hard to sustain the fight.

We live in a world that is so broken, in so many ways, that there is seemingly no end to the depth of change that is needed. Our planetary home is awash in the negative repercussions of unbound greed, monumental inequality, normalized interpersonal and structural violence, and extreme ecological and psychological destruction.

There is work to be done everywhere, and the work is rarely pretty. Healing what is broken requires us to face — and feel — the ugliness of the world, even as we work to transform it.

Passion only gets us so far.

When we first become passionate to work for a better world, our passion itself can make us strong.

Fueled by the fires of passion, we can push through pain, frustration, and threats of failure that lurk in the shadows. We can push past cynicism and apathy, and throw off their threats to derail us. When we lose a battle, we can laugh in the face of naysayers, batten down the hatches of our rattled hearts, and carry on. Passion is a potent tool.

But long time spent navigating a broken world can, over extended time, begin to undermine even the toughest spirit. Facing down ugliness repeatedly, our hearts can become so bruised and tender that our passions, formerly a source of strength, can begin to hurt us from within.

Standing in witness of violence, cruelty, or the incessant destruction of that which we love, our passion can shapeshift into anger or hatred, and begin to burn us from the inside.

In the experience of continued loss or seemingly insurmountable opposition, our passion can wither into desperation or despondency. What once fueled us now smoulders within as lost opportunity, overwhelm, and hopelessness.

Whatever form it takes, once passion is compromised into self-harm, we can lose our will, and our way. We must find another source of power.

It is worth asking, then, when we encounter individuals who have fought and won tremendous, protracted battles before us, how they achieved their victories.

How do some people weather a lifetime of challenges, continuing to fight long after others faded into the shadows? How do they keep their inner fires lit for a lifetime, without burning out in the process?

We would be wise to look to civil rights icon John Lewis for answers.


The conscious activism of John Lewis.

When John Lewis died in July at 80 years old, he left behind a legacy of commitment to social justice that spanned six decades of work as an organizer, activist, and lawmaker. Sometimes called the “conscience” of the US Congress for his steadfast adherence to nonviolence and moral high ground, Rep. Lewis’ loss was mourned by presidents and peacemakers, activists and lawmakers, in multiple ceremonies around the country. His work, and his life, had changed the world.

Lewis’ story reveals how a brave and soft-spoken man, his sensitive heart broken by the injustice of his world, rose from humble beginnings as the son of Alabama sharecroppers to become a towering figure of nonviolent change.

Serving as a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the young Lewis helped organize the 1963 March on Washington in lockstep with Martin Luther King Jr.

An original freedom rider, and leader of the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, he played an instrumental part in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

And when his life chapter of grassroots activism transformed, his calling shifted, and he served over 30 years in the US Congress.

Whether sitting in protest demanding desegregation of Nashville lunch counters, or sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives demanding legislative action on gun control, Lewis’ objective was to change not only laws, but hearts and minds. In this way he worked tirelessly for both outer and inner transformation, from his youth until the last days of his life.

I’ve long been inspired by Rep. Lewis, not only for the ideals he fought for and the success he achieved, but for the man of conscience he was. I’ve often considered how he was able to sustain his lifelong struggle without giving up, taking moral shortcuts, or turning bitter.

This is an important question to answer, because of course, the work of Rep. Lewis is not done. We generations who survive him have inherited his legacy — the legacy of all our ancestors who devoted their lives to leave us a more just and equal world. And with that inheritance comes the responsibility for our generations to carry that torch into the future.

The world is still broken. And the work of healing is now ours to do. We can’t afford to drop the ball.

Below I humbly offer five lessons we might take from Lewis’ lifelong journey of conscious activism, to fuel us in our own fight.


1. He sacrificed for what he believed in.

“Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice.”

John Lewis

When the young John Lewis followed his heart to join in the nonviolent activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., he did so under threat of great violence.

He knew that joining the freedom struggle was dangerous. As a young Black man in America, participation in any act of civil disobedience would mean putting his body — and his very life — in harm’s way.

Beaten unconscious by state troopers with billy clubs when crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, to demand voting rights for Black Americans, he did not let the damage to his body stop him. He left the hospital, head wrapped in bandages, and vowed to continue the fight. He was 25 years old.

This wasn’t the only time Lewis put himself in harm’s way for his ideals. He did it repeatedly during his long career. Arrested, jailed, and beaten, insulted and harassed, again and again, Lewis showed great resolve in his ability to sustain blows, physical and psychological, and continue to stand tall on the rebound.

Far from weakening him, Lewis’ sacrifices made him stronger — in his resolve, and in the eyes of the world. Each “defeat” he faced with dignity planted seeds of greatness in him, as an activist and a human being. Each time he took on the dehumanization of others by standing in his own self-worth, he inspired others to his cause.

It may seem counter-intuitive at first, that in sacrifice we become strong. But when we decide from the outset that we are willing to give up our own small desires for the sake of something bigger, that decision empowers us. Unified in our higher intention, our priorities become clear, and trivial concerns fall away. We cease to be split by competing desires, or depleted by the short-term ups and downs of our individual lives. We are energized by wholeness.

From wholeness, sacrifice becomes not suffering for its own sake, but a taking on of the suffering of that we wish to transform — whether that be human, non-human, or ecological suffering. Our own suffering through sacrifice can not only open others’ eyes to our cause, but can also deepen our connection to the purpose and meaning of our fight.

This is not to say we should sacrifice our own welfare, that we should not care for ourselves along the journey. We must give ourselves time for rest and recovery, even taking long breaks when necessary. If we succumb to exhaustion, we are no good to ourselves, or anyone else.

But there is a difference between self-centeredness and self-care.

Self-centeredness focuses us on our own small needs and goals, and blinds us to the greater need around us.

But self-care, far from being a selfish act, is an act of service to the whole. Caring for ourselves makes us strong for ourselves and for others. It keeps us clear and focused, on what we are doing and why. And when the time comes to sacrifice, it will be energy, not exhaustion, that fuels our choices.

Most of us will not have to face such imminent danger in standing up for our convictions as John Lewis did (though many of us will). We may or may not ever be called to put our body or life on the line for our cause.

But our willingness to sacrifice our personal interest, or even just our immediate personal desires and preferences, for the long-term welfare of all, will nonetheless serve us well. The power of self-sacrifice links us to the combined power of all life, the resources of which are inexhaustible. It feeds us not on our own individual energy, but the energy of the whole.

Question for consideration:

What sacrifice could I make that would, paradoxically, empower and strengthen both myself and my cause?

2. He practiced what he preached.

“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Though Lewis was willing to sacrifice his life for the cause of freedom, he would never, not for anything, sacrifice his integrity.

John Lewis walked softly upon a life path that was, as he said, “the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence.” A nonviolent warrior, he achieved change not by force or competition, but by standing up to violence with nonviolence, responding to fear with love.

This was not a simple task, nor an obvious one. Nonviolence was both a strategy he studied and a lifestyle he practiced, which led him to a disciplined understanding of human nature and social transformation.

He knew that justice taken by violence is no justice at all. Justice taken by violence doesn’t normalize justice; it only normalizes violence.

Lewis knew that in order to gain respect, one must give it. That to demand fairness, one must offer it. He held himself to the same ideals that he demanded from others: civility and dignity, even in the heat of conflict.

That is why Lewis was not only fighting to change laws — though that was imperative — but also to change the way people think. He wanted to change society, but he understood that meant individual people within society must change, too.

By choosing principle over mere strategy, Lewis gained another power: the power of integrity. With his principles rooted in modeling his own values of peace and justice, he paved himself a solid foundation that could not be shaken by short-term losses, fleeting emotions, or strategic machinations of the crowd. He did not suffer the weakness and instability of hypocrisy that takes so many of us down.

Think, activists demanding respect, while refusing to respect others.

Think, politicians paying lip service to ethics and values while acting unethically, in their politics or their lives.

These kinds of incongruencies weaken us and make us less effective, not only in attracting others to our cause, but in achieving our ultimate goals.

In contrast, Lewis’ alignment of inner values and outer actions merged into one focused arrow of intention that could not be blown from its target. Unified in word and deed, he was both efficient and effective. The more efficient we are, the longer, and deeper, we can go.

In light of his great integrity, one might disagree with Lewis on policy, but could not disagree with his goodness as a man. Thus he became a living, powerful expression of his own message.

Question for consideration:

In what aspects of my life could I become more integrated in thought, word, and deed? How might that make me more effective in my work?

3. He stayed in the game.

“If you don’t do everything you can to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once. You have to give it all you have.”

John Lewis

When Lewis jumped headlong into the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, he could not have known how long the struggle would last. It turns out, it would be a long game.

Yes, there would be victories early in his fight. Desegregation. Civil rights legislation. The passage of the Voting Rights Act, etc. But Lewis didn’t stop there.

He wasn’t in it for one win, or even one season. He was in it for the achievement of a grander vision: freedom, equality, and indeed the liberated soul of his country. No less than “a more perfect union” was his goal. Thus he worked tirelessly, not for the passage of one law, but for the payout of our country’s original promise: that all human beings are “created equal,” and will be afforded equal rights and dignity.

Lewis had signed up therefore, not for a single bridge crossing, but for a long march to freedom.

Because he knew his was a long game, Lewis could be patient. But his patience was not a passive patience that sits back and waits for justice to come. It was Lewis, himself, who decried such passivity in his speech at the March on Washington. “We do not want our freedom gradually,” he said, “but we want to be free now!”

No, Lewis was not patiently waiting. But by virtue of his long vision, he could be patient in his actions.

Knowing his momentary place in a long fight for the hearts and minds of America, Lewis could afford to follow a long-term strategy. He could be deliberate, disciplined, and persistent. His wide vision expanded his sense of time, and he could afford to see each action, not only in light of its own effectiveness, but also as a step along a much longer journey. He could view wins and losses not as complete in themselves, but as ups and downs on the journey in a much longer march to victory.

Because of this, he was not stopped by setbacks, nor placated in victory. He knew there was always more to come.

In his slow-burning resolve to stay the course and march forward as long as needed, he could keep his torch lit and carry on. Yes, he wanted things to change now. But in the case that they did not, he would — and could — keep on walking.

None of us know, when we begin a fight, how long the fight will last. It is our commitment, and not our timeline, that truly anchors us to a cause. John Lewis signed up, for as long as it took. That was both his anchor, and his opportunity.

Question for consideration:

Regarding the fight closest to my heart, am I in it for the short victory, or the long march? How might I tap into an active patience that could fuel me toward both my immediate goal and my ultimate vision?

4. His vision stretched beyond his movement — and his time.

“Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year. Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”

John Lewis

Not only did Rep. Lewis stay in the game, he knew he was playing a game that stretched far beyond his own moment in time. He understood that his movement was but one playbook in a league of many colors and a season spanning centuries. His life lived in loving protest was but one voice in a generations-long conversation.

This wide vision expanded his sense of community.

Lewis understood that the fight for justice does not stop with the fight for civil rights for the Black community, though that fight was his urgent imperative.

He understood the importance of movement building, but also movement linking. He never hesitated to speak in support of kindred contemporary candidates and causes, believing, as King did, that “a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Thus, his courageous activism did not stop with passage of the voting act, or the excruciatingly long (and still continuing) dismantling of Jim Crow, but expanded to become a passionate cry for peace and equality in all its necessary forms. His sense of justice spanned the globe.

In the last days of his life, Lewis wrote a letter to future generations, which he requested to be published on the day of his funeral. In that letter, he draws parallels between his own experience of the “unholy oppression” and “government-sanctioned terror” of both his time, and ours.

In that letter, he urges those of us who survive him to work “with other movements and supporting other causes, learning from history, learning from each other,” and asks us to “continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”

This urging us on is a sign of hope.

Hope is not the vain wish of the disengaged, or the weakness of a dreaming fool. It is a sign of vision and imagination.

It is a sign that we can see beyond current struggle into the wide-open potential of the future. It means we believe in in personal agency and the power of choice.

To live for a future beyond one’s lifetime, to fight for things to be better even though we may never witness them with our own eyes, to cheer on the next generation toward that end, necessarily means that we believe a better future is possible. Some might say it is the very definition of hope.

Fueled by his wide and hopeful vision, Lewis had the reserves to march on when things got dark, truth and justice obscured in the midst of the fight.

What would it be like if each of us could live inside a vision this wide?

On one hand, it might take some pressure off. We could realize that it does not fall on our individual shoulders to win the whole war, or accomplish the complete transformation of society (as if that were even possible).

On the other hand, it would demand from us a greater responsibility for our choices. It is not only today’s battles we win or lose with our actions. The success of future generations depends on us doing our part, now.

Question for consideration:

What might I do differently if I engaged in my work as though my role were not an end in itself, but rather, one scene in the long and interconnected play of life? What might I contribute to my cause, now and in the future?

5. He sourced his strength from within.

“When you lose your sense of fear, you’re free.”

John Lewis

It would be possible to judge the achievements of John Lewis at face value, and assume his impact came from his “outer strengths,” those apparent on the surface: tenacity, courage, commitment.

But as suggested above, it was not his surface-level capacities, but the developing character behind them, that fueled Lewis on his long march. While he was a man of great achievements, the things that made him great were not achievements at all, but inner seeds of spirit and conscience that transformed his passion into purpose.

Lewis’ courage was not brute courage, but the moral courage of a man on a mission for love.

His activism was sacred activism, fueled by his belief in the dignity of the human being, and the faith in the human family to rise to its highest potential.

His purpose was not merely to win, but to win hearts and minds to the side of love.

Guided by an internal beacon, his resolve would not be swayed by fear, threats, or setbacks.

Of course, he planned his strategy. But then he acted with his heart.

Lewis would not put all his confidence in the physical world to empower him. He pulled his strength not from the limited energies of body and mind, but from the endless reservoir of spirit. For it was not his body that held him through the frightening times, the quiet times, the frustrations and the victories. It was his soul.

No specific religion or faith holds the bar as the definitive guide to spirit. Spirit is not religion; it is simply that power, peace, and freedom that enter us from beyond the visible world when we offer ourselves in service to the greater good, to all life.

To work from spirit is to cease depending on the approval of others for our value. To work from spirit is to be immune from the threats of others levied upon us to manipulate, weaken, or destroy our will. The inner strength of spirit is akin to the deepest roots of the tallest tree we know, a grounding influence that holds us steadfast yet allows us to rise above the tumultuous storms of life.

If we have big dreams for change, we would do well to start planting seeds of inner strength, and digging our roots in deeply now.

Question for consideration:

Is my internal beacon weak or strong? Are my roots shallow or deep? What sources of inner strength might I tap into, in order to sustain myself better over time?

Honoring his legacy…

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America.”

John Lewis

However imperfect we still are in the fight for equality and freedom, however much work we have yet to do, the world is a different place than it was when Lewis began his lifelong march for justice.

Our country, still far from achieving its ideal, has nonetheless progressed undeniably in our struggle for “freedom and justice for all” as a result of what Lewis, King, and others achieved.

Through his vision and his actions, John Lewis changed the world.

What final insights might we take away from the life of Rep. Lewis that we can apply to our own work for change? How can we honor the legacy of Lewis, and all our ancestors who have entrusted us with the work of continuing the march?

It is easy to look at a person who has changed the world with their achievements, and think they must be extraordinary, they must have abilities we do not, that we could not do what they have done.

We might look at John Lewis, beaten and bruised yet returning to fight, or serving 30 years inside a messy and contentious congress without sacrificing his integrity. We might doubt that we could do what he did.

But we should not think that his achievements are beyond us, that we can’t reach those same heights with the resources we have at hand.

John Lewis may have been a great man, but he was also an ordinary man. He came from humble beginnings and found his path by following his heart toward truth.

It is not merely what he did, but the way he did it, which cemented his success. It is not the particulars of his story we need to emulate (though they are instructive), but the consciousness he brought to them.

Any one of us can do the same thing.

It is not the particulars of our own story, but the consciousness we bring to them, that makes us who we are.

I hope that with this list, I have elucidated that what made John Lewis great was not something special about him in particular, but something special about each one of us: our ability to create our own character. We need not depend on money, or influence, or education, or anything worldly to empower us. Those things may be helpful, but they are not required for us to make a difference.

What is required is passion. Passion, tempered by understanding.

In his lifelong struggle for justice, Lewis never lost his passion. But neither did he let it rule him.

On the contrary, he used his passion as a tool, an inner flame to illuminate his journey. He tended to it carefully, like a well-maintained fire, resisting the temptation to throw gas on the flames and set the land ablaze.

Lewis clearly understood that passion alone cannot achieve the the great work of social transformation. But passion, when combined with sacrifice, integrity, commitment, vision, and spirit, can change the world.

In this synthesis, Lewis had discovered the source of sustainable activist energy: when our engine is fueled by wholeness, we don’t run out.

We do not need to be John Lewis to change the world. We only need to be exactly who we are. Each one of us already has the tools, available information, and power within us to transform our future, should we choose to use that power wisely.

Question for consideration:

What will you choose?


In memory of John Lewis | February 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020

I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe… I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.

John Lewis

A Lesson from Cacao on the Sweet & Bitter of Life.

Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”

Stephen Crane

*

We silently take our seats in the circle, and the meeting of hungry souls convenes.

Soft lights twinkle from the corners of the white-walled room, the faint scent of copal hanging in the air. The setting sun glows through the whitewashed antique windows of the historic brick building. Gray wool blankets pad the floor beneath our legs and feet.

It’s been months since the world shut down, separating us from neighbors, community, and the connective joy of shared entertainment. This opening is long awaited. No masks, no sanitizers, no fear.

Cups are passed from hand to hand around the circle. An oily, brown residue clings to the insides of white-speckled pottery as the dark liquid waves and settles.

Cacao. Theobroma, melted chocolate in water, transforms into a thick and muddy-rich concoction with ceremonial intention.

As the crystal bowl in the center of the room sings a tone poem in every shade of green, lips to rim, we drink in the brew. A sip, and a slight cringe at the bitterness. Another and another. Eyes open slightly and peek into the cup, wondering how much is left to drink.

Cacao is traditional plant medicine, born from the coursing blood of the Amazon and imbibed for millennia in a sacred Mesoamerican ceremony. It is not a treat. Chocolate, known for its sugary sweetness, in this form goes down bitter. A bitterness that surprises the tongue and puckers the cheeks.

But a surprise: the energy it leaves behind is sweet.

Faintly sweet, an aftertaste that lingers on the tongue with a surprising, unexpected softness. What’s more, a sweetness even more subtle begins to bubble up from within—a calm and reassuring effervescence of loving life force.

It’s a paradox of constricted opening. The dry-mouth bitterness of cacao expands our hearts physiologically, as it opens wide the circulatory highways that pulse the lifeblood throughout our bodies. Spiritually, it relaxes our awareness into a more expansive receptivity to…whatever is.

What first appears to be one thing, becomes something else. Bitter becomes sweet. Opposites overlap themselves in our experience of cacao—like they do in life.

After sitting in the silence of pounding rhythms of stretched skin drums, we end the ceremony with a prayer to Ixcacao, Mayan deity of chocolate. We pray to the four directions, to the divine feminine and divine masculine, to Mother Earth and Father Sky, Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon.

The prayer ends: “We thank you. We honor you. We say goodbye.”

“We say ‘goodbye’?” That’s surprising.

This is a year of loss. Loss of freedom. Loss of health. Loss of security. Loss of certainty. Loss of lifetimes of cascading claims of innocence.

Loss of life.

We struggle, fear, and grasp. We fight, close our wings, look down at our feet while trying to make new plans. We suffer for the not knowing of it all.

But as is our nature, we also count blessings. Stories of neighbors helping neighbors. Relief at being given a chance to finally breathe. The merry-go-round stops just long enough to prove what it is possible when does. In righteous anger, with renewed faith, we extricate fragments of light from the crumbling remains of “normal.”

The narrative of this year is duality. On one hand, there is pain. On the other, opportunity.

Like the Mayans, who understood that both light and dark are needed for life—for anything—to exist, we intuitively understand that pain does not manifest without opportunity. Bitter does not manifest without sweet.

The Mayans did not see light and dark as good and evil. There is no biblical judgment, no casting out of the underworld, in their cosmology. There is only the question, what grows where?

Maize reaches toward the sun. Cacao thrives in the shadows. Both sun and moon give life. Light and darkness are but different kinds of medicine.

We feel the truth of this in our bones. We drink in the stark bitterness of life, for something in our soul knows there is sweetness at the bottom of the cup. This is not an untethered, naive hope. It’s a deep-rooted knowing of the way things are.

This is why we extract the blessings from times of pain. We twist our painful reality until the juice of joyful recognition oozes through our fingers. We are creatures of duality, born into a dualistic world. We are spirit and soul, light and dark, and one half cannot survive without the other.

It is another kind of survival instinct, perhaps, to reject what is bitter in life. To spit it out. To stir honey into the cacao before drinking, to sweeten the taste.

But the duality inside us knows that this will solve nothing.

We are made to desire the sweet. The sweetness of life enlivens us, captivates us, and beckons us toward the full expression of our love. But we are also made to walk upon the rocky bitterness of Earth, to learn its lessons and grow in discrimination. If we are to attain the fruits of our desires, we must struggle up through the tangled roots of dark experience and get our stockings snagged along the way.

Adjusting ourselves away from bitterness does not bring us sweetness. It only stops us from climbing.

Perhaps it runs counter to our mind’s modern programming, but our heart knows that it’s by leaning into bitterness that we merge into sweetness. The blackest, most fertile soil is the remains of centuries of bitter decomposition. The seedbed of life is death.

We think that when we find a little bit of sweetness in our lives, we must hold on to it, keep it close at all times. For if we don’t anchor it tightly to our chest, life may cruelly snatch it away from us when we’re not looking.

But the very nature of sweetness is that it does not stay. It comes and goes, and there is nothing cruel about it. Sweetness, like sugar, is made to dissolve.

We know this by experience. The more we try to hold what is sweet, the more we become fearful to lose it. And fear is the death of sweetness.

On the other hand, if we can resist hoarding the sweetness in our lives, and instead simply love it as it kisses our cheek and runs off into the bushes, our hands and hearts can stay open to receive more. Our eyes can open wider to the beauty around us, and suddenly we are free. Freedom is spirit’s constant gift to the open-hearted.

Sweetness comes from letting go. And letting go is bitter. That is the bittersweet nature of life.

In losing our freedom to move about, we learn to adore our freedom. In losing someone we love, we learn to see our most mundane moments together as excruciatingly beautiful. In losing our security, we come to appreciate the caress of a single soft blanket, warm from the dryer, as though it were woven of pure sunlight by the gods themselves.

Even this lovely and lively old building, itself the remnants of an old pharmacy, with crumbling brick and glossy-sealed concrete floor, is a repurposed loss.

Once there was love and vibrancy here, customers bustling about with prescriptions and purchases and neighborhood chatter. Then there were padlocked doors, dust falling on old furniture, and the quiet passage of time. Outside the walls passed the death of ancestors and birth of new generations. And now the space opens again, to drums and singing bowls and the sweet shadow signature of cacao in ceremony. What first appears to be one thing becomes something else. The cycle continues.

We thank you. We honor you. We say goodbye. 

The circle closes, and we place our empty cups in the wicker basket by the altar at the center of the room. We fold our blankets and stack them inside the wooden chest in the corner. The twinkling lights hold the space behind us, as we carry our open hearts into the expectant evening.

Bittersweet. The word contains all the pain and promise of life. In the phonetic English language, often disconnected from the roots of its meanings, so many concepts are difficult to describe. But we are gifted with this word, one that comes complete with a self-contained, dualistic meaning, a two-headed arrow of contradiction that points us toward healing in a contradictory time.

In a bitter year, we can drink in the truth of this word and let its dryness linger on our tongues. We can let it dissolve within and awaken us, as we feel our pulse quicken and our hearts open to what comes next.

We may find some comfort in knowing that the bitterness has already begun to trickle down our throats. We can then become curious about the aftertaste.

What sweetness waits to grow from the fertile soil of these dark days?

*

This article originally appeared on Elephant Journal at this link.

Stuck in the Past or the Future? Meditate yourself into Now.

Photo by Şahin Sezer Dinçer on Unsplash

In the chaos of modern living, meditative practices are not “extras.” They’re essentials — for the activist, the seeker, and the everyday human just trying to stay sane on the ‘hamster wheel’ of daily life. May this practice help you stay strong, and keep your bearings in the storm.


Past & Future Meditation

~ in guided audio with text to follow ~


“Past and Future Meditation” addresses the tendency our mind has to be somewhere else — anywhere else. It teaches us to recognize and let go of thoughts that lure us into another time, entangling us in past memories or future fantasies.

Past and future thoughts distract us, and keep us from accomplishing the work we want to do in the world. Living outside the present moment is an energetic waste, keeping us from using our lifeforce for what is needed from us in the moment. Past and future ruminations also generate negative thoughts, such as regret and worry, which inflict unnecessary suffering upon us.

By re-centering ourselves in the present moment, we regain our power of attention, and find that we are free, flexible, and capable to achieve what we set out to do. Unencumbered by past and future mind clutter, we can stay focused on our intended path and, ultimately, create our most conscious life. In addition, by avoiding the suffering of past and future mind states, we generate fewer negative thoughts, thus increasing our balance of well-being, with positive effect on ourselves and others.


Past & Future Meditation

Background and Intro begin at 0:00 | Meditation begins at 3:30

~ Audio Text ~

When we sit to meditate, it is common for our mind to drift from the focus of our meditation. In our attempt to quiet the mind, we are continually carried away by memories, fantasies, anxieties, plans for the future, and general mental chatter.

If we observe the contents of this drifting mind, we’ll likely see that in general, the distractions that arise are one of two types: thoughts of the past, or thoughts of the future.

When we are pulled from the present moment of our meditation in this way, our psyche is in movement. Our attention is pulled in one direction or the other: past or future. Alternatively, when we are in the present moment, practicing awareness and observing what’s there, we see that we are no longer moving; we are still.

This past and future meditation can help us recognize the phenomenon of being swept back and forth by the opposite polarities of time, to observe any helpful patterns in that movement, and to practice returning to the timeless present moment, again and again.

In this process of repeatedly connecting with the present-moment self, we come into closer contact with our true nature.

For our true self is not the self we used to be or wish we were. It’s not the self we hope to be or fear we might become. Rather, the true self is simply who and what we really are. It is alive and accessible, always, in the present moment. It is a self worth sitting still for.

*

~ Instruction ~

Sit in a comfortable position, with your spine straight, and the top of your head pointing upward to the sky. Relax the body using your chosen method.

Close your eyes, and focus on the breath entering and leaving your body for a few moments. Feel your chest rise and fall, moment to moment, with your breath. When you feel your breath even out and calm, bring your awareness to the present moment.

Feel yourself here. Take in the sounds around you. Smell the air. Feel the warmth, or coolness, or humidity, or dryness of the air on your skin. Take some time to simply receive.

Resting in your senses, now bring your focus to your conscious mind. Notice what it feels like to be here at this moment, mind feeling, hearing, body breathing, the mind a clear mirror of your sensory experience. No thought of past or future. You are only here, witnessing.

Focus on this moment, the present here and now. No other moment matters.

As you continue to breathe, be aware of what this moment feels like. Settle into it and just be. There is nowhere to be at this moment, nothing to do, except to practice receiving with the senses. This is what you came here for.

Set aside the items on your to-do list, any worries or responsibilities you’re carrying right now. Remind yourself that all those things will still be there, waiting for you, when the meditation is done.

Sit quietly for a few minutes, just being in this moment, with no care for what has happened in the past, or what may happen in the future. Notice what it feels like to simply be here, in this moment, now.

If at some point you notice that the mind has carried you away into a thought, stop to notice: what are you thinking about?

Take some time to look at the thought. See if you can pinpoint the thought in time. Is this thought about the past? Is it about the future? No need to look any further into it. No need to ask questions. Just notice: does the thought concern the past, or the future?

Sit quietly again, until another thought arises. Then look at the contents of the thought, and notice its place within the unfolding tapestry of time.

It may be helpful to name the thought, to orient it in time.

Is it a memory? That is the past.

Is it a plan for tomorrow? That is the future.

Something you wish you had said? That is past.

A hope for things to change? That is future.

And so on.

Each time a thought presents itself, simply notice which direction the mind has taken you. There is no need to follow the thought, or dig into it further.

If you like, you can make a mental note, saying to yourself, “past” or “future,” according to where you have found yourself in time.

For instance, if you find yourself feeling anxious about something that might happen tomorrow, or next week, or next year, you can mentally label that thought “future.”

Then without any problem solving or judgment, let that train of thought go and return to the present moment.

At some point, you may notice a thought that doesn’t seem to be either past or future. It could be a thought about the chair you’re sitting on. It could be a sound outside the window that calls to mind an image — a bird, or a car. It may be a thought about the person sitting next to you: “I wonder what they’re thinking about…”

In that case, notice that you’re simply responding to the moment. Thought can arise in the present moment, too.

If something has come to mind that you feel is important, make note of it. Once again, remind yourself that it will still be available to you when this practice is over.

Then come back to your breath. Check in with your senses. Feel the place your body connects with the floor, or the chair, or the earth. Breathe. Sit quietly.

If after a time, you notice again that the mind has moved away from the present moment and into a thought, observe it. What is the thought about? Is it about something that has already happened? Or something yet to come?

Notice which direction that thought has taken you, make a mental note of it if you like, and then gently bring your attention back to this moment. There is no past, no future here. There is just you and your mind, present together in this room.

It is always now.

Continue this practice for a time that feels comfortable, perhaps five minutes, perhaps twenty. Take the time that is beneficial for you. The intent is not to fight the mind, or tire yourself out, but to practice long enough to observe the direction your mind wants to take you in today. Tomorrow, it may be different.

Shortly we’ll bring this meditation to an end. Before we do, take a moment to observe any patterns your mind may have followed during this practice.

Notice, when your mind drifted away, did it tend to carry you into the past? Did it repeatedly pull you toward the future?

Did you sometimes drift to the past, and other times to the future? Was it sometimes hard to tell the difference?

You may also ask yourself, is there a certain direction, past or future, that feels more comfortable to you? Is there a direction that feels more common to you usual way of thinking?

Does one direction feel more emotional than the other? Does one direction feel more peaceful, or more interesting?

With childlike curiosity, make note of where the mind has taken you today. Marvel at the power of the mind to carry you through time. Marvel at the power of your mind to bring you back into awareness, back into the present moment.

Finally, notice that you are not the thinking mind. The thinking mind is only one part of you.

You have been sitting still during this time of meditation. Your body has been here. Your consciousness has been here. But the mind has been moving.

The mind is not who we are, but a tool our consciousness can use for perception, sensation, and awareness. It is also a tool for remembering the past, and imagining the future.

Each time we return to awareness, we train ourselves to use the tool of our mind. With practice, we can point our mind backward when needed, to learn from the past, or forward to prepare for the future, and become present again when we choose. We learn to drive the mind, rather than be driven.

In past and future meditation, we learn about our mind. And we learn about our true self beyond the mind. It is a gift.

*

Returning to the room, take a deep breath, feeling the breath enter your body, and breathe out slowly and consciously, feeling the breath gently leave you. Repeat the breath, breathing in, breathing out.

Continuing to breathe deeply, gently move your fingers and your toes, and feel the sensation of being here, connected to your physical body, in this moment. If you like, you can thank your mind for teaching you today.

Also if you like, you can ask your mind, body, and senses to stay present with you as you step into your day.

When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes and come back to the room.

Thank yourself for taking the time to come to this practice. May you receive benefit from this time in presence, and carry, with it new insight, into your life.

*

Thanks for reading! If you liked this article, please visit my contact page to be updated on my future work (including my new project, Wake Up, Human). I’d love to be in touch with you.