It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way

“Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
The above quote is Cassius philosophizing to Brutus while they both struggle with the meaning of their lives in their complaints against their Boss – Caesar. (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act I, scene 2)
Soon and often in our lives we come upon “harsh” realities we feel obliged to maintain. No one ever asks for help who is in balance with the objects of their lives and their ability and willingness to sustain them. It might be a job or a relationship, the need of better resources – a new car or children’s schooling. The desire that gets us off kilter keeps us there. We institutionalize it, we become its slave.
In this scene, as in much of Julius Caesar, the plotting and the complaints against Caesar grow to the culmination of his death, and his former cohorts becoming murderers.
In the squeeze to perform and promote what have become our desires – no doubt changed from our first wispy fantasies – we put ourselves in the crucible of those desires and let them take us over. Often without a clue as to how we got here. We feel “fate” has led us or our “nature,” sometimes we blame a parent. This is suffering for sure.
There is always some exterior modifier to point out our lacks – we were born this way, at the wrong time, to the wrong culture. I used to tease my “well bred” mother when she would complain about my actions that I had been given the wrong genes.
But really – let’s get gritty – what can we do? Once we feel overwhelmed, panic riding us, solutions beyond our grasp, what are we to do? This is the most irritating part – it was for Cassius too – because it isn’t the lottery or the new car/husband/wife. It isn’t the dictator or even the next helpful book/workshop or prescription. It comes right back to, “not in our stars but in ourselves.”
How and what we align ourselves with dictates how our lives unfold. A choice here, a path or road there and we have momentum going for us. Is it a flood or a stream, a wind or a storm. What’ll it be? What will you have, what choice will you make to determine your course? And what will it take down the road to correct it if you need to? Murderers have a much harder row to hoe than the one of us who says, “oops, sorry.”
What’s your story? How do you feel?


IMG_0432It is just a week since Liam and I went on our last walk in the circle of the field Paula and I made for an infirm Tashi some years ago.
I wasn’t aware of anything much, going out as usual, gathering of dogs and me, a leash for Guinnie, no particular clothes – it was a beautiful warm fall day – we marched around the path’s circle, each in our own world sharing the gorgeous morning.
Open to all, I felt enchanted by the change of season, the enormous gift of sky and temperate weather, I turned around to repeat the circuit and was transfixed by the breathtaking view of Indian Mountain with her colors lit. Twenty steps later, Guinnie pulled the leash out of my hand, I turned behind to see Cho, Jules and then Guinnie, heads to the ground where Liam lay. The colors of Liam, always racing through the grass, on the path ahead and behind, were still. My mind could not grasp what I saw as my body reached him, my arms easily pulled him up and we all headed for the house.
In coordinated and purposeful motion we all reached the door, went in, my friend Rosie was here, I called, she drove me to the vet – not ten minutes had passed when I felt his breath gone and we were still a minute away.
I realized not one sound had come from him. He, so heavy in his life, so wiggly with promise and devotion to the next minute, was still and light in  my arms.
Incredible to me how fast change can come to life in death. How full and empty, weak and strong is the moment as it passes. I am always aware and at the same time dumb of change. I talk about it, teach it, this morning a week ago I got a lesson about it, with it, through it. My heart is full and empty, some human confusion in the empty bed and lap, the unseated place, the now extra dishes. When he was a puppy he would bury himself in toys or pillows or bed covers and we would ask, “where’s Liam?” I am asking that now, and every day he tells me a little more, teaching me, loving me from his place, just as always.

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“I have a question about passion”

I am often asked, “how do I recognize passion,” “how will I know what I want to do.”
It is easy for most of us to know that we like one food and not another, cold vs. hot or sweet, sour and the host of life’s daily choices. What I hear getting mixed up is how to separate out the not-so-fun stuff from “life’s bliss.”
Does the “dream” job entail no suffering? Is the “best” relationship without stress. Are children always positive – or negative. Most of you would say, “Of course not!” because (you’re not stupid) you know everything comes with a compromise.
But getting to the nitty of life’s choices can get gritty. Choices are bound up in habit. Habit is a mental construct we’ve agreed to over and over. The whole idea behind a habit is that we don’t think about it. Often we don’t think about anything leading up to it or past it.
That’s great when it comes to reflexes. Not so great with choices. Being an evolved human means we have choices as well as habits – not to mention the whole of our life which is lived without thought at all: digestion and all those great support systems we have without a moment’s conscious regulation.
I harrow the ground of the mind with meditation and mindfulness for the simple reason of free will; our birthright and our slipperiest slope.
How to separate passion from indulgence? Not simple, but here’s my take.
Passion is momentum. It keeps you going whether you want to go or not. If you are looking to follow bliss you will need to keep it going. Most of us get bored with the trinkets of life – days off, no demands – the touchstone of our hearts is where passion lies and it can be slightly different for each one of us.
What doesn’t vary is the momentum of what we do. I have a button that says, “entropy never sleeps.” What that means to me is that if I get caught in a downward spiral it will take discipline to get back up. To the extent that I have a chorus of angels calling my name and cheering for me, I will get on track. And to that same extent, how I have treated myself – discipline/indulgence (I need some of each) – will prepare the process.

But, mind you, we are always on a track – which track do you want to be on?

My Teacher Says

A Teaching by Narayan Helen Liebenson

Reading the papers and listening to the news these days is not for the faint of heart. We may have the perspective that terrible events have always happened, but because of 24/7 media, we are just more informed. Even so, it may be difficult not to react with helplessness, fear, and grief. How can we stay connected to the pain in this world and engage in beneficial ways without becoming caught in emotions that paralyze?
Some yogis try to avoid reading the news because it is all too much. Personally, I’ve never favored this approach, other than when on retreat or when the intention is to disconnect from electronics for a given amount of time. For me, even during the time many years ago when I was hitchhiking around the country, I usually found ways to read the paper. Maybe my mind during that period left much to be desired but I still appreciated being in touch with the wider world.But how to read? Mindfully, of course! You already knew that. Mindful reading, viewing, and listening means awareness of reactions rather than becoming lost in reactions. It also includes awareness of motive. Are you connected or merely provoked? Is attention to the news an addiction or entertainment — or is it a vehicle of connectedness, an invitation to offer metta and compassion to the very real people being read about?One approach to practicing mindfulness while we read or listen to current events is to include attention to the body and the breath. Aware of the belly, aware of an ache in the chest, aware of numbness, tension, temperature. This is difficult in the beginning but becomes easier as we engage with it. Staying connected to the body keeps us connected to the here and now and allows something other than mere reactivity to take place.

By merely reacting, we join the crowd of frustration and fear. By reading, viewing, and listening mindfully, aware of the body, there is a deeper engagement with what with is being received, as well as a growing strength of heart to respond with greater wisdom and compassion. In this way, even if we are “faint of heart”, we can participate more fully in this world of profound pain and also, always, this world of deep inspiration and beauty — the ten thousand sorrows and the ten thousand joys.

 Narayan is one of the teachers at Cambridge Insight Meditation Society. I am a founding member and in the eighties I was happily in her “Old Yogis” (time meditating, nothing about linear years on the planet) group until I moved away. If you have a chance, it is a great and wonderful place of respite. 331 Broadway, Cambridge MA


Are You Home?

We are unique and we are many. Easy to say. Easy to see.
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We see ourselves in the mirror – photo above left – and we see ourselves in our lives – photo above right.
The “real” picture is both, of course, and most of our life is spent dealing with the emotional seesaw that fits us or doesn’t in our lives.
Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with a certain 20 month old that is my granddaughter. She has no difficulty with proportion and context. She is actually lucky that way. So many of us have huge interruptions at her age, and often those who do have life-long battles with self and context.
Her mother, my daughter adopted at the age of ten, has plenty of past disruptions. We’ve been talking about her path and realizing the power of her feelings – crying for one – and its benefits. I remember her crying unconsolably during the first months while we were still in Nepal waiting to come here. She remembers crying so much when my beloved greyhound Zoe died a few months after we were all home.
My granddaughter shows the benefits of crying better than anyone around right now. She howls with frustration, sits red faced and teary for minutes before letting go and joining the life around her. What a great and inspiring wonder of resolution she is.
I took the photo of the flower because as I walked by I realized it was the only thing of its kind in the midst of grasses and clovers and many small green-leafed things of which I have no idea.  So struck was I by its satisfaction to be what it is in a sea of difference. Nothing stopped it from being its fullest self, making its stamens and pistils, its color and fragrance. It wasn’t wilted from being alone, it didn’t take on extra responsibility for being the only representative – I can go on and on as I explore my own feelings.
But I’ll stop here, let you explore your own feelings. How do you cry? When? What happens? How do you love yourself? Are you home?



Did You Hear What Aristotle Said Recently?

Oh Bummer, I’m living in the past!

But here, for your edification (and mine), it is:
He said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an action but a habit.”

The “action” you want to make habitual here is applicable to thoughts, words we say, things we look at/notice, turns we take.
“The road less traveled” is one of the roads that does not lead where we want to go – unless we go there. Simply, if you want to win the lottery you must buy a ticket.

What we do over and over again we tend to space out. Do you notice what you say to yourself over and over? You may not be paying attention but, rest assured, your body is. You may not even notice when you feel defeated in a tiny moment. Your body does. And its memory is infinite and merged into your psyche and, dare I say it, your personality in such a way that we all may notice and you may not.

How much can your dog or horse or cat, your boss or best friend, the guy who cut you off or who helped you in the supermarket – tell. About you?
We leave shards of ourselves around, like DNA falling all around us. You can’t help that and you can’t help or be responsible for what other people see or think. What you can do, and hope you do it well, is be the person you want to be, the person you don’t mind being when everybody’s looking. You do that a lot and you’ve got a habit. A good habit. Congratulations!


Your Word, My Word

Every day begins with a word. It ends with a word too. Sometimes the one leads the other – it can be either the last or the first. Sometimes just knowing what the word is and who it belongs to are the keys.

This may seem nonsensical to you until you listen to your thoughts as well as what you say. Where did that come from? You might ask if you are listening? A voice from the past, or one masquerading from the future – always in  the past! Words formed in the mind and not spoken are as palpable as any spoken. It is being more and more known that our body language is more powerful and to the point than the words spoken by us are.

Such a powerful connector is mind to body, and so clear, that we cannot fool the most sensitive beings around us – animals, plants and insects – as to what are our true intentions.

We too are on the list of sensitive beings. Those among us who do not include ourselves among the listeners do not fool our minds, but we are fools.

Who are you?


What Would You Do?

I was out to lunch with a friend the other day and we overheard two women at the next table talking about the men in their lives. We got very quiet ourselves and did a lot of eye contact, but not enough to giggle or anything untoward like that.

The two women were both very well put together – probably in their forties or early fifties. I noticed after listening for a while that neither had on a wedding ring – not that that makes a whole lot of difference anymore but it carries my story along because choice is easier, you’ll see what I mean in a minute.

The one to my right was saying how wonderful her life is now that Joe (not the name I heard her say) is in it. While she was speaking the other started twisting her hair and her mouth did a funny wrinkle – as far as my peripheral vision, which is always good at the eye exam, could see.

To my right I heard about Joe. He is dedicated, fixes dinner when she comes home late. Their shared house is really special, so much nicer than when she was alone in it. He hasn’t been doing all the other things he and other lovers did before. He’s always there when she needs him, he works at home, how nice that is. He volunteers for her favorite charities – how refreshing that is, no one ever did that before, including him when they were together before.

I check in with my peripheral to see how her mouth is and the state of her hair. It’s all a bit tighter, but nothing to worry about yet. The 54 year old boyfriend is still being explored with joyful bullet points when I feel an energy pull peripherally and note the friend has stopped twisting and her mouth is set. I look at my friend and see total engrossment.

“Has he paid back the money he borrowed?” I hear from the peripheral. “How is it going with the daily expenses you mentioned to me last time we had lunch?” “What about…” I see a stammer, eyes narrow and blink to my right. More than anything I feel the wall come, the confusion, the flight of purpose. I want to create a distraction for her, I want my water to spill, the waitress to come, dogs to bark.

There is silence at both our tables and I fear my friend and I will be exposed in our reverent listening, our solemn hush. But their silence is so emphatic that when my peripheral begins to speak again, we can all listen without restraint, so intent are they on their own world.

“When I was growing up,” she said, “I heard about women who kept men. I didn’t understand, and in our age the lines are blurred. I can’t tell who is supposed to pay for what and what anything means. But I’ve been your friend for a long time and I feel like I know you and I know I love you. It’s hard for me to see you with Joe and get the crusts of love he offers you. It’s hard to see him take advantage of you and it’s hard for me to see your goodness and neediness and openness. Maybe if you were less of a person. Maybe if you were a schmuck I wouldn’t care so much. But I love you and I can’t stand to see you like this.”

By now we were not the only ones listening. The woman to my right stood up, I think she was crying and I know her face was red. She left. My peripheral, by now, friend, put her hands to her face and sobbed. She left a few minutes later.

I’ll probably never see either again but I know I got a lesson. I notice I think it’s easier to leave a relationship with marriage at its base. But I also know that a marriage is the relationship we have with our self, our needs, our visions and, yes, our illusions. The slightest of relationships is as sticky as our illusions. We cling or let go or let be as we relate to our self.

What is your lesson? Is it better not to say anything and keep your friend. Or would you risk all and speak up in the hope of being heard?


You May Never Know What’s Eating You

It has long been both my assumption and very clear to me personally that there is no gold in mining the past for anything that will “cure” whatever distress is lingering in my daily life. That is not to say that where something disturbing me comes from cannot be useful, it’s that I don’t think it’s necessary.
In fact the more I am exposed to quantum theory and the research coming from the genetic dynamics we are heir to, the less I am inclined to lean on the past for anything but storyline.
I want to share with you this article I found recently as I think it speaks to so much clarity we could have using strategies in the moment without the concomitant muddying of waters gone still.
Reminds me of the teeshirts I have seen proliferating – Keep Calm and Carry On or variations which satisfy the makers’ intentions.

Phobias may be memories passed down in genes from ancestors

By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent   @The Telegraph

Memories can be passed down to later generations through genetic switches that allow offspring to inherit the experience of their ancestors, according to new research that may explain how phobias can develop.

Scientists have long assumed that memories and learned experiences built up during a lifetime must be passed on by teaching later generations or through personal experience.

However, new research has shown that it is possible for some information to be inherited biologically through chemical changes that occur in DNA.

Researchers at the Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, found that mice can pass on learned information about traumatic or stressful experiences – in this case a fear of the smell of cherry blossom – to subsequent generations.

The results may help to explain why people suffer from seemingly irrational phobias – it may be based on the inherited experiences of their ancestors.

So a fear of spiders may in fact be an inherited defence mechanism laid down in a families genes by an ancestors’ frightening encounter with an arachnid.

Dr Brian Dias, from the department of psychiatry at Emory University, said: “We have begun to explore an underappreciated influence on adult behaviour – ancestral experience before conception.

“From a translational perspective, our results allow us to appreciate how the experiences of a parent, before even conceiving offspring, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations.

“Such a phenomenon may contribute to the etiology and potential intergenerational transmission of risk for neuropsychiatric disorders such as phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

In the study, which is published in the journal of Nature Neuroscience, the researchers trained mice to fear the smell of cherry blossom using electric shocks before allowing them to breed.

The offspring produced showed fearful responses to the odour of cherry blossom compared to a neutral odour, despite never having encountered them before.

The following generation also showed the same behaviour. This effect continued even if the mice had been fathered through artificial insemination.

The researchers found the brains of the trained mice and their offspring showed structural changes in areas used to detect the odour.

The DNA of the animals also carried chemical changes, known as epigenetic methylation, on the gene responsible for detecting the odour.

This suggests that experiences are somehow transferred from the brain into the genome, allowing them to be passed on to later generations.

The researchers now hope to carry out further work to understand how the information comes to be stored on the DNA in the first place.

They also want to explore whether similar effects can be seen in the genes of humans.

Professor Marcus Pembrey, a paediatric geneticist at University College London, said the work provided “compelling evidence” for the biological transmission of memory.

He added: “It addresses constitutional fearfulness that is highly relevant to phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders, plus the controversial subject of transmission of the ‘memory’ of ancestral experience down the generations.

“It is high time public health researchers took human transgenerational responses seriously.

“I suspect we will not understand the rise in neuropsychiatric disorders or obesity, diabetes and metabolic disruptions generally without taking a multigenerational approach.”

Professor Wolf Reik, head of epigenetics at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, said, however, further work was needed before such results could be applied to humans.

He said: “These types of results are encouraging as they suggest that transgenerational inheritance exists and is mediated by epigenetics, but more careful mechanistic study of animal models is needed before extrapolating such findings to humans.”

It comes as another study in mice has shown that their ability to remember can be effected by the presence of immune system factors in their mother’s milk

Dr Miklos Toth, from Weill Cornell Medical College, found that chemokines carried in a mother’s milk caused changes in the brains of their offspring, affecting their memory in later life.

Everyday Choices

“When you are more aware you can make better choices.”

Deepak Chopra said that in his book, What Are You Hungry For? But anyone can say that, has said it. Your mother or father probably told you that. They may have substituted other words – older, more one thing or another – but basically it’s a simple thing to say and very true.

Not simple to do. It’s one of those moments in my practice – or with myself – when I say something really obvious and they say or I say, “Oh I know that!”

Yes, but what can you do about it? That’s the question, and the follow through pretty much determines how you feel about your life.

What is “awareness?” We all talk about it a lot but defining it in the moment is another thing. The nasty word “discipline” comes to mind. We all think we are disciplined until we really look, then, if we are lucky, we can see the cracks of where we could be better, where life can teach us something maybe without hitting us over the head.

Start with joy, love, fear, a feeling of peace. Their presence or absence and how much and how often. You can go a long way just watching your life according to those feelings.

Emotions cloud the feelings sometimes with justifications, sometimes with resentments or envy. Those pretty much take the equation to a much lower level and as long as we dwell in “I’m better than or worse than,” the fear we live in will be masked by jealousy and hubris and all their relatives and cousins and the truth of who we are will elude our grasp.

In the moments of willingness to take a risk, to take time off, not check something, take a breath, we let in what’s real for us – or it knocks at our door and to the extent we are comfortable or not, we make excuses or see a thing as what it is.

Our lives are changing all the time – our thoughts wiggle around like the microscope slide of pond water. We are never still, even as we are completely still in our human viewpoint, our bodies are oceans of activity. Our thoughts send neuropeptides all over our bodies. Our hearts have more receptors for emotions than our brains, every organ we recognize (and those we don’t) is listening to us, eavesdropping on our every micro moment. Even thoughts we don’t recognize ourselves as thinking are heard in our body in their fullest voice. What passes through the conscious mind is picked up by the unconscious with full comprehension.

The reason meditation is so impressive an avenue for change and positive growth is that it is channeling the unconscious, the part of us not so involved in our outside world of fame and misfortune. The unconscious has, from our sentient inception, been aware of our every thought and move, has received all the input that our cortex was not mature enough to take in and is processing it as I write. The more it can be counted in any decision-making process we embark on, the smarter we can be.

Finding well-being doesn’t happen by itself. It isn’t lying in wait for you ready to pounce. You must receive it. Your motion of looking, seeking, opening – the door, the box, the mind – is a way of saying you’re ready, you are not too full or empty to take more in. Awareness isn’t like food of which you can have enough, it’s a quantum field, expanding as you fill in and inhabit its spaces.

There is a story about what’s important. There is a jar, water, big rocks, small rocks and sand. Maybe you’ve heard this, bear with me. The jar is your everyday life, the choices you make in every minute, and the big rocks represent what’s the most important to you, the smaller rocks, yes, you get it – and the sand, the sand is all the phone calls to return, facebook posts, emails and so on.

Many of us put the sand in first on an everyday basis. We say something like, “oh, they’ll (our loved ones, family, friends) be there, they always are.” Or, “nobody cares anyway so what difference does it…..”  You get where I’m going.

So with the jar full of sand, there’s no room for the rocks, or you have to choose really carefully. What to do? When I have the visual, it’s perfectly clear that you’re going to get nowhere with the sand first, it just doesn’t work. So I take it out – because if I start my day with things like emails, I’ll have a lot of sand in the jar and a few little rocks and maybe a big one on a good day.

When I put the big rocks in first (I’ve chosen ones that fit), and then I place the smaller ones, maybe shake the jar a bit, then I put the sand in. It all fits! And I can add the water, which will make everything happier and more workable.

In practical terms what that all means is I put my oxygen mask on myself (big rock), I take care of what is important to me every day – more likely than not it’s just an attitude (very big rock), not something you’ll see me grinding away at. Keeping the long view (big rock), looking at the nitty (what I have to do to get where I want to be – part big & little rocks, sometimes involves sand) of life not so much as gritty but as supporting the long view. If there’s something I’m doing I find frustrating or painful, hopefully it will be in support of a brighter, more aware future me. If it isn’t, I hope I can let it go. Just as I let this lily be the next thing it’s going toward.