A friend told me a few months ago he was broken. I responded that he was not broken. Something about this exchange has been nagging at me and I've been pondering it ever since.
I believe my friend was right. I believe I was right, too.
How can we both be right?
Many wisdom traditions teach of two selves. The false self and the true self. The false self is constructed by us, with the help of parents, friends, society, culture, and religion. Also called our ego or identity, it begins with our name given to us by our parents and we join the process as soon as we can say the word "mine." Over a lifetime we build a "me" who has a name, gender, preferences, roles, titles, style, accomplishments, degrees, jobs, bank accounts, aspirations, goals, possessions, and beliefs.
We wear this identity like a shell. It can be beautiful, impressive, heavy, complex, intricate, delicate - everyone's shell is different.
But we all - to various degrees - come to believe we are the shell. Because our world, particularly the Western world, is oriented around qualities of the shell and values the shell so much, we learn very early that this is who we are. We spend much time and energy making sure the shell is good enough.
And this is mostly ok. It's a necessary aspect of how we operate in this world.
As we travel through life our shell accumulates life's winnings but also weathers many storms. Sometimes the experiences along the way are so intense that the shell cracks. Some cracks are so big that we feel broken. And we are broken, or rather, the shell is broken.
Since we've believed for so long (our entire lives up until that point) that we are the shell, of course we suffer when it cracks and breaks! The pain of this can be so acute it feels like dying.
Experiences like serious illness, injury, losing a job, losing your money, death of a loved one, divorce, crimes, injustice, war; these are some of life's most vicious storms. And then there are the insidious storms, the ones that imprint upon us beliefs that we are unworthy and unlovable: abuse, neglect, deceit, betrayal, criticism, comparison, shaming, blaming to name a few.
Few of us come out of these storms feeling triumphant.
My friend felt broken. In the world of shells, he is.
But we are not of the world.
Who we really are, our true self, cannot be constructed, changed, improved, diminished, or broken.
Being in the world, but knowing you are not of the world, changes everything. This is where we arrive once our shells have been broken enough that we know for sure who we really are.
Who we really are is already whole, already perfected, already given. We are born into the world as this. The problem is that we forget.
Knowing this, remembering this, is the gift life is offering us. But arriving there is not usually easy.
Over the ages it’s been taught in virtually all wisdom traditions that when we push against life, we suffer, we break.
It turns out that suffering has an important role to play in our lives, although we would rather not suffer and certainly not choose suffering, it can be the door through which we find a truer us - bringing us closer to discovering our true selves.
Knowing that a gift lies on the other side of suffering and trusting that an intense, painful situation can refine us is easier to read about than actually experience. It does require a step of faith, a step outside the comfort of our shells, and a belief that we really aren’t going to die!
Most of us have invested decades building our shell. Even if it’s way too heavy or not a good fit or making us sick… our shells provide a great degree of security and protection - because it’s known. We like what we know. Even if we really hate what we know.
Many live their entire lives inside the fortress of their shell. Repeating the same thoughts and experiences day after day. The implications of this are profound.
It’s very difficult to be vulnerable and open our hearts to others when are are living inside a fortress. We tend to limit our experiences and who we are willing to relate to. We believe we have all the answers and aren’t willing to open our minds to new thoughts or ideas. We judge others on the state of their shells. We keep life out.
When we stay comfortable with the ever-repeating known, we lose opportunities for authenticity, compassion, connection, adventure, and joy.
But out beyond our shell is where the magic is.
It just might take going through hell to get there.
And life, because it wants you to have the gift it’s offering, will keep giving you opportunities to get there.
There’s a saying, “what you resist persists.” Resisting change, pushing against life, continuing to suffer without going through transformation will simply bring you more of the same - and more urgently. And probably more painfully.
The journey of knowing who we really are, our true self, is where we are arriving - and we always are arriving. We never fully arrive because while we are still in the world we will always carry our shells.
We arrive at knowing who we really are with shells broken open.
This is good news because the more broken we are, the more the light of our true self shines through, helping others, blessing others. That same favor is returned to us; we can be blessed from the light that can find its way to us through the broken places.
Our true self is something beyond words but has been described as our soul, love, truth, light, home. Qualities of our true self are unbreakable, unshakable, indestructible, infinite, boundless, unified, already perfect.
Arriving there is heaven while we’re still on earth. It’s coming back to, remembering, who we really are. A homecoming.
Yet it’s not a place or a thing at all. It’s a state of being. One you can keep arriving to through receiving and experiencing all life is offering, going all the way through hell when you find yourself suffering, letting the shell of you crack and loving it as it is. And perhaps even resting in knowing you - the real you - cannot be broken.
I struggle with the word God. But I don’t care for any of the other words that you can use in place of it. Like Universe, Source, Divine, Life Force, Energy Field, Collective Conscious, Creative Intelligence, Big Guy.
Words are limiting. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman points out that the verbal brain processes 40 bits of information per second while the non-verbal brain processes 11 million bits per second.
That which exists as Seen and Unseen, Creator and Creation, the Sum of All Totality, the Source of All that Is, can’t be funneled into a word much less contained there.
That would be like putting a hurricane in a teacup.
As I lay in bed this morning listening to the rain and wondering why I was awake at 3:38am, I took advantage of the quiet time and did the things I do as my personal devotion and daily practice. I meditated, checked off my gratitude list, repeated my affirmations and then in the warmth of the silence I said, “Thank you, God.”
And it felt right. It felt good.
Because God is good.
It does not matter what word you use. What matters is that you sip the raindrops from the teacup and know there is always more.
We are works in progress. All of us. There is no perfection, only impact and progression. Life is the most precious gift we have been given so it behooves us to make the most out it. Having said that, if our health is out of whack due to our lifestyle choices, it is difficult to live our lives to the fullest. We have the resources and the power to take care of ourselves and it begins with the awareness that we are worthy of this gift called life.
If you don't believe you are worthy please trust me - YOU ARE WORTHY of living a wonderful, magical, beautiful life. And you can. I know sometimes dreams seem unreachable. If you have dreams that your current path is not taking you towards, might I suggest something? Work on your inner eco-system. Learn to meditate and begin a daily meditation practice or start a foundational nutrition program. Both will reset, rebalance and restore you from the inside out. When the inner world transforms, everything - EVERYTHING - changes. Dreams look doable. Life gets exciting. Everything gets better.
The only way I can claim this with confidence is that I have done the work myself. It took patience and a lot of kindness towards myself. And a hearty dose of faith. It took taking a risk (or three) and it took support from family and friends. Mostly, it took time. I'm glad I did it when I did rather than waiting for "someday." Each day now is a new day to enjoy my life and share my love of life with others. I am not perfect, my life isn't perfect, but it's perfect enough - and I've got to admit it's getting better all the time.
I've also got to admit that I am one who kind of cringes when I see people constantly posting on social media about how great their life is... "look at me, look at me, look at me... my life is so great... blah-blah-blah." But the great thing about that is when I see others living an awesome life it makes me feel like I can do it, too. So... what does YOUR awesome look like? Treasure that dream and then dive inside and start working on it from the inside out.
On Episode 31 of the Mama Bear Dares Podcast, Tesi and Leslie interview meditation coach and mother of two, Angie Sands. Angie delights the co-hosts with her calm spirit and incredible bank of knowledge about the age-old practice of meditation. The women discuss how the act of meditating has impacted their emotional lives and the way in which meditation impacts the development and maturation of the human brain. It's a fascinating conversation about a topic of curiosity for more and more moms in the trenches of parenthood.
Also on this episode, Leslie and Tesi have fun exploring a new segment inspired by Angie called MAYBE IT'S MEDITATION during which they discuss the impact of meditation on their every day lives. Am I calmer in line at the grocery store? Are the clouds really that beautiful? Does meditation literally make my skin glow? The co-hosts wonder just how far meditation can take a person, and they want to hear from you about your own experiences or apprehensions! Finally, after a fruitful conversation with Angie, we hear about her current obsessions in the OBSESS SESH. For complete show notes, visit www.mamabeardarespodcast.com/daretolisten.
Other topics discussed:
How do you live from the heart? I have been practicing this way of living for several years and can tell you that it’s an ongoing process filled with trial and error. Sometimes it’s like walking through a dark room with your hands stretched out in front of you doing their best to feel their way around. It takes a healthy dose of curiosity, courage, and faith. Living from the heart has terrified me and led me to places I never imagined I would go. Today I find myself experiencing new levels of awe and wonder, and have arrived in a place where life has become an ever-unfolding gift full of surprises. For me, this is the greatest reward of living from the heart. It is never boring. And, in my experience, my heart has never led me astray.
My initiation into heart-centered living started with a fully ensconced mind. Oh, the mind! It is a clever thing. Our minds are data centers that have been capturing and cataloging information since the day we were born. Our minds are as knowledgeable as the data that feeds it, so when it comes to designing a life the mind prefers to work with what it already knows. It has a tendency to affirm itself over and over and to lead us into cycles of the ever-repeating known. This is safe and comfortable. It’s a good system for getting things done. However, it can drown out the voice of the heart. The mind’s voice is loud. The heart’s voice, at least for me, is very quiet.
A few years ago, in a moment of stillness brought on by pure dysfunction, my heart got through to me. “Learn to meditate,” I heard it say. I scoffed at the idea. The voice was a whisper and it again urged me. “Learn to meditate.” Still scoffing, and with an added dose of self-righteous disdain, I Googled the word “meditation” in order to prove that what I was hearing was indeed a ridiculous idea.
It turns out that my heart was leading me to a tool that has completely transformed my life. The key for me was getting quiet. My dysfunction was a blessing in disguise. Without it I don’t know that I would have heard my heart leading me to what it knew I needed. Now that I meditate, I am quiet every day on purpose. In that quiet I hear the voice of my heart and move my awareness from my mind, which is focused externally, to my heart, which is focused inward. Inside is where wisdom lies. It’s where love and compassion come from and it’s where inspiration ignites. It is the place from which we can create an extraordinary life by making decisions that resonate with who we intend to be rather than being defined by our mind’s limited understanding. It’s the place where you feel your way through and, with practice, patience, and trust, prove to the mind that everything is going to be just fine.
~ this article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Yoga Iowa.
I am a sucker for those “regrets of the dying” lists that circle the Internet. Imminent death has a way of revealing precious jewels of wisdom, and I always love to hear what wisdom has to say. It turns out the regrets of the dying revolve around one thing: relationships. Whether it’s not honoring their own personal dreams or wishing they spent more time with their kids, the regrets of the dying reveal that relationship with self and others is what matters most.
So why are relationships so difficult to master?
I am not a psychotherapist, counselor, social worker, doctor of any kind, or self-professed relationship expert. I am a meditation teacher who knows a little bit about big subject called Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is paying attention to what is actually happening without labels, stories or judgment. Mindfulness is easy to understand but not so easy to do for more than a few moments, especially in relationships. If we can employ mindfulness within our relationships, we have a shot at mastering them.
The most fundamental and sacred relationship we have is the one with our self. Unfortunately our self is the first person we tend to fail in terms of a mindful relationship. We are quick to judge our self, talk negatively to our self, and withhold love and acceptance from our self. Our attention is everywhere but in the present moment. We are busy grieving over the past or speculating about the future to the point that we aren’t experiencing our life, but rather a story about our life. We have disconnected from our true self and feel lost. This makes us sad, anxious, and unhappy, so we go looking elsewhere for our true self.
One of the places we can look is in relationship with others.
Relationship with others can be the perfect playground for personal growth and discovery. In my experience, bringing mindfulness into relationships fosters rich and meaningful connections and allows space for amazing experiences to unfold naturally. It has the added benefit of reminding me of who I am and what I really want. I get to know all kinds of people, including myself, while having a great time! Sign me up!
But before I practiced mindfulness, I was often triggered by the behavior of others. A relationship that isn’t employing mindfulness is often filled with battles between what is actually happening and what we wish was happening, filled with stories about how things “should” be instead of noticing how things are, filled with scorecards and blaming, and filled with a lack of attention for the other person. These kinds of relationships can result in resentment, anger and victimization and are destined for the regret list.
Putting mindfulness to work in a relationship with our self and others requires three main ingredients: 1) paying non-judgmental attention, 2) communicating desires, and 3) being open to receiving but not attached to outcome. Mindfulness doesn’t eliminate challenges that will inevitably show up. It keeps us from being swept away in the heat of the moment and gives us space to make nourishing choices, not knee-jerk reactions that take us off course.
The mindful relationship mines what is already here in the present moment. It reveals what is most precious to us, so we don’t have to wait until we are dying to discover it.
~ this article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Yoga Iowa.
Our beliefs can sometimes keep us prisoner, as if we lived alone on an island. What is life for if not for connection with one another? I am guilty of living on the island of my mind. I find myself going days without having a meaningful exchange with another person. This is particularly tragic since I am a wife and a mom. How can I allow myself to keep a distance from those I most love, and who most love me?
How painful it must be for my kids to to see me, but not feel the warmth of my attention. When I am living on the island of my thoughts, I don’t even realize I have put an ocean between us. It is some kind of sick irony that when I have retreated, the thing I crave most is connection. Sometimes I even resort to blaming others for the loneliness I feel. How bizarre! Here I am, on the island of my own making and I am pointing a big fat finger at the small crowd who awaits my return on the other shore.
The mind is a powerful lure. It can be very tricky, preying on our insecurities. Mine likes to replay old stories to justify suffering. It likes to imagine a future that brings me all my desires on a silver platter. It doesn’t seem to delight in the moment. My mind likes to review and rehearse. In the present moment my mind doesn’t have a job to do, other than witnessing what is right here and now. Being still and open, bearing witness to what is – this does not come naturally to my mind.
But the present is where life is. Where connection happens. Where love is given and received. Only here – in the moment – do we experience peace, joy, creativity, synchronicity, pleasure, devotion, laughter, play, hugs and wonder.
The mind is a wonderful tool to utilize when it’s needed, but it’s a terrible guide. If I follow my mind I can easily end up on an island. It’s important for me to question my thoughts before taking the bait. The defense against being lured away is simply a choice. I can choose to believe the mind’s tales or I can choose not to. Becoming wise to what happens to me when I make that choice is how I keep myself engaged in my life. Even so, this is easier said than done, having habitually followed my mind’s playbook for so many years.
I circle back to this challenge frequently, still needing to perfect the lessons. Each time I learn again that I suffer when I live on the island of my mind. I learn that I am set free when I pause, take a breath and have the courage to question my thoughts while keeping my boots firmly planted in the now. If I do get swept away and end up on rocky shores, it’s good to know that my boat is just a choice away.
I had an interesting interaction with my Grandpa yesterday. Funny thing is, he’s been dead for almost thirty years.
I was working at my computer, sipping my coffee, when a phrase popped into my mind. It kept repeating itself, “Get out of your head and into your heart. Get out of your head and into your heart. Get our of your head and into your heart.” As I was listening to this phrase roll around in my mind, it reminded me of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She had a phrase, too, “There’s no place like home,” that she repeated over and over while clicking her heels together. Hers was a magical phrase, given to her by Glinda the Good Witch, as a means of transport back to Kansas, her home.
As I thought about Dorothy and her ruby slippers (great shoes, by the way), I remembered that my Grandpa had called me Dorothy back in my pre-teen years. My nickname wasn’t derived from the Kansas Dorothy, but from Dorothy Hamill, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist figure skater from Chicago. Being the fashion forward pre-teen that I was, I sported the famous Dorothy Hamill hairdo in the late 70s. Thus, Grandpa dubbed me Dorothy, and called me that from then on.
Grandpa was a fun-loving, joke-telling Danish man who did crazy things, like let me drive his car before I had a license and steal me away from the middle-school cafeteria to take me out for Maid-Rites. He had a big heart and a beautiful voice that could sing Christmas songs like the angels. I was the first grandchild in the family so that could explain our special bond. Our relationship wasn’t deep or serious; it was more about fun and novelty – like the two-dollar bills he’d hand out or the silver coins. We were good pals.
Grandpa died on my birthday in 1985. I think I was still sporting a version of the Dorothy Hamill hairdo even then. That morning he had been admitted into the hospital, which was becoming more and more common. His smoking habit had caught up to him, and his heart was failing. I went to school as usual, but as soon as I got there something felt different. I was filled with a sense of dread, and it wasn’t long before I was pacing the halls unable to sit in class. I got permission to use the phone in the school office, and since this was way before cell phones, I couldn’t reach my parents to ask what was going on. I flipped through the phone book and dialed each and every hospital listed in the Des Moines, Iowa, Yellow Pages.
“Is Al Knudsen there?” I would ask each faceless stranger on the other end.
Finally I got my answer. A receptionist informed me that yes, he had been admitted, but added, “I’m sorry. He has passed.”
I found out my Grandpa died, as I stood in the office of the middle school, by an invisible stranger at a random hospital on my fifteenth birthday. I, and my Dorothy Hamill haircut, forgot what happened next. The only memories that surface are of someone shuffling me out of school, putting me into a car, and then singing Amazing Grace at his funeral three days later, on Valentines Day.
Over the years I have questioned these events, wondering why it all happened like it did. “Grandpa would’ve felt so bad that he died on your birthday,” my Grandma still says to this day. And why in the world did the hospital receptionist inform me of his death – over the phone? Was it some kind of weird mistake?
How did I sense that he was dying, even before I knew any of the details about his condition?
Over the past three years of practicing meditation, I have come to realize that we are all connected. The many coincidences I have experienced, I now accept as synchronicities. Circumstances that seem like good luck I now attribute to a strong intuition. When I call my mom and she says, “I was just thinking about you,” I am no longer surprised (although it always delights me). When I read something that speaks directly to me in a moment of need, I am filled with gratitude. I believe that on a subtle level, we are interconnected to everything in the universe.
I am continually learning how this works. A lesson for me lately has been realizing the key to experiencing interconnectivity lies in keeping an open heart. The message I heard yesterday, “Get out of your head and into your heart” was clear instruction, indeed, since I have been wrestling with what steps to take next in my life. My know-it-all mind likes to analyze all the options and I wind up overthinking. It’s a bad habit, like my Grandpa’s smoking – that blocks the wisdom of the heart.
I have been blessed with seeing my Grandpa again in dreams – many times since he died. He’s always smiling a big goofy smile, and sometimes we dance. I wish I could talk to him and ask him the big life questions or just laugh at one of his jokes. I feel he would have something important to tell me, something I need to know that would change everything.
Yesterday perhaps he did.
Three years ago I hired a life coach. It was an easy decision for me at the time because my life had come to a screeching halt, and I was desperate for help. Without sufficient health insurance, I sought out a certified life coach because I was turned off by the red tape required for a traditional counselor. I didn’t tell anyone about my decision, not even my husband, because I was embarrassed that a life coach would not fit my life story. I hadn’t shed the old, crusty layers of who I thought I was, and although it was unfair of me to assume my friends and family would judge me or disapprove of my actions, that’s what you do when you don’t know who you are.
I learned a lot from my life coach. It was perhaps the very first time I turned the flashlight around and pointed it at myself. Thinking back on our sessions, a major take-away was the coach’s pithy phrase, “Do less, be more.” She wove it into most of our conversations and to be honest, I had no clue what she meant by it, but I nodded my head anyway. It has taken years for me to understand and embrace this concept and integrate it into my life. And it’s a powerful one. Putting this concept to work has changed my perception of everything and everyone; it has re-written my story, and even better – allowed me to drop my story altogether. Well, mostly.
At the same time as working with a life coach, I also learned to meditate. This, too, I kept on the down-low, only telling the people who absolutely had to know. Meditation is what taught me the meaning of my coach’s phrase.
My meditation practice, in and of itself, is an exercise of doing less. Simply by sitting twice a day in meditation, I am practicing this very concept. The meditation method that I practice and teach is effortless. There is no effort involved, no concentration, no trying to quiet the mind or have certain experiences. In fact, the less I do, the better it works. It’s something I go over again and again with my students because it is the opposite of what we are conditioned to believe. To most people, it even seems to defy logic. We live in a “do more to be more” culture. It is a deeply ingrained mistake of the intellect – one that meditation helps us to reset.
The paradox is that we already are everything we are striving for.
This weekend I taught a group of new students to meditate. The night before the class I was struck with inspiration about happiness and decided to open the class with an evocative statement, “I am happy all the time no matter what.” Right away I could feel the resistance from my students about the notion of permanent, abiding happiness. They were skeptical that even if I could be happy all the time, it couldn’t happen for them.
We looked at our pre-conceived notions about happiness and realized that happiness, because of our misunderstanding of it, gets a bad rap. Happiness is defined as “the state of being happy.” It is a state of beingnot a result of doing. However, we commonly associate happiness with something we earn when our goals are met or our kids are well adjusted. Happiness seems to be outside of us and for most people, it is chased with great gusto. If and when it is caught, it may not last forever; so we hold on tightly because this thing called happiness is elusive and transient – we think.
What I have come to realize – a tangible result of my meditation practice – is that happiness resides within me. If there are times I don’t realize this – and yes, there are those times – it’s because I’ve turned the flashlight out “there” to look for it.
Coming to this understanding is the journey of self-realization. It’s the unwinding of the concept that everything we want to be we must earn or achieve. It’s letting go of the notion that you’ll be happy when… when you land the job or have a certain amount of money or meet that special someone.
It’s finally looking within and meeting ourselves in a tender embrace. It’s taking our self by the hand, and bringing the fullness of who we are into the world. It’s an inside-out approach, not outside-in. It is living from within, from the rich wellspring of who we really are. And it’s from here that we best love and serve others.
That’s why I can say I am happy all the time no matter what. If I forget, I go within – and remember.
This morning my daughter was tasked with making her lunch to take to school. Normally I help with this, but today I was in a hurry, needing to get ready for an appointment. I put all of the items she would need on the counter and instructed her on what to do: get a tortilla, put in a little of this and a little of that, warm the wrap, roll it and then cut it in half and put it in the container. Easy. Ten minutes later I call down to her and tell her it’s time to get dressed and brush her teeth because we only have a matter of minutes before we need to leave for school, to which she replied, “But I’m not finished rolling the burrito.”
“How long does it take to roll a burrito,” I wondered? Apparently, if it’s my daughter, it takes at least ten minutes. And before you scoff at that, know that there is a perfectly good and logical explanation – she was watching a YouTube video on my iPhone about how to make a rainbow cake while she was constructing the burrito. It all makes perfect sense now.
We, being the multitasking, do-it-all, go-getters that we are, think we can do more than one thing at a time. And yes, we can – but not very well. In fact, researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that our brains can only focus on one or two things at a time. Other studies show that multitasking actually causes stress. The more we do (or try to do) simultaneously, the more stressed out we become. The more stressed we are, the harder it is to do what needs to be done, and we start to struggle. The more we struggle, the quicker we deplete our energy and start to sink – drowning imminent. Not a pretty picture, is it?
It seems counterintuitive but the reality is that when we do less, we accomplish more. This goes against our conditioning that the more we do, the bigger the payoff. According to Newton’s third law of motion, for every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction. According to Gary Zukav, in his book Seat of the Soul, this means: “you receive from the world what you give to the world.” If you are putting all your frenetic, fractured attention out there, that’s what you get in return: a lot of undone projects, a mess of tangled ideas with no evident outcomes, an unwrapped burrito, and a half-watched YouTube video. Where is the satisfaction in that? It’s much more effective to put your full attention on what needs to be done right here and right now. The rest can wait in line.
For many of us, doing one thing at a time is a major shift in how we operate. It’s a habit that is literally ingrained in our brain. Fortunately, meditation is a practice that trains your brain to focus on one thing at a time. When we practice meditation every day, the landscape of our brain physically changes; the part of the brain that controls attention and focus grows larger. The part that triggers stress and anxiety grows smaller. Meditation calms our nervous system and teaches our attention how to stay in the present moment where our life is happening and where we can make good choices.
This morning I jumped in and saved the day with my mad lunch-packing skills, and we were out the door in the nick of time. Luckily for my daughter, she has her mom to snap her attention into focus when necessary. Otherwise she’d be nourished only by the lesson she learned from this morning’s multitasking failure: rainbow cakes on YouTube don’t fill up the tummies of fifth graders.