Life Ain’t for Wimps

Not for Wimps

When I first got the news that Hurricane Nate was going to pummel our southern shores this weekend, my head reeled.  I felt like one of those inflatable punching dolls that pop back up as soon as you knock them down only to get another blow to the head.

“Holy Mackerel!”  I said, right out loud.  “What next?”

What was next, it turned out, was a vivid memory of Uncle Ron’s stern, booming voice informing me in no uncertain terms that he had studied the Bible extensively and could assure me there was no such thing as a holy mackerel.  I felt roundly chastised at the time and took great care never to mention the fish in my uncle’s presence again.  It took me years to realize he was teasing me.

I always smile when I think of Uncle Ron.  His deep voice may have been intimidating, but he always had a twinkle in his eye.

Maybe that’s why the phrase “Holy Mackerel” came to mind when I pondered the stream of mind-boggling events that’s been confronting us lately.  It was to remind me of Uncle Ron and how he taught me that fear could be a foolish response to life’s confusions.  You see, my Uncle Ron was a learned man, possessed of great intellect, humor and wisdom.  If I hadn’t interpreted his voice as threatening, I might have had some interesting and enlightening conversations with him.

And so it is with life.  News of fires and earthquakes, hurricanes, terror acts, and floods can be frightening.

Or not.

Life ain’t for wimps.  It comes with its bruises and blows.  But it’s we who decide whether to respond out of love or out of fear to what’s happening in the world around us.  Choose fear and you could be cheating yourself out of a great conversation with life.  Choose love and you open the door to unlimited possibilities.

Author Anais Nin wrote, “Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage.”  And courage is nothing more than keeping on even in the face of fear.  We come equipped to survive, so we respond to threats by going into full-alert mode.  And that’s a good thing.  If a tiger’s coming at you, you want to notice it and get the heck out of its way.  But once you’ve done that, or have determined it wasn’t a tiger at all, you gotta switch back into love-mode even if you’re still charged up with adrenalin and suffering from knocking knees.   There’s always something beautiful out there that you can do.  Pick a flower.  Smile at a stranger.  Pet a dog.  If you just cower in a corner because somewhere in the world tigers roam, your world gets awfully small, and you with it.

But get back out there and love, baby, and pretty soon all that energy that was fear converts into amazement and gratitude and a willingness to engage in life, whatever it brings.  Look at it and whistle, “Holy Mackerel!” at its string of surprises.  Then get yourself some mustard and have that fish for lunch.

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How I Beat the Swamp Monster

Overcoming Negativity

Yesterday I fell into a pit of ornery crabbiness.  It was sticky and thick, and if I had to name a color, I’d say it was a dark and ugly grayish-green.  Sort of like the scum on the edge of a smelly swamp.

(Oh!  I hope you weren’t eating, were you?)

I struggled against it all day.  I hated it.  I kicked at it and yelled at and grumbled and growled.  But no matter what I did, it clung to me like some kind of rubbery slime.  It was awful.  And I was really ticked off, because, you know, I’m Ms. Happiness and I’m not supposed to be in such a state at all.

I tried all kinds of things to free myself from it, and just when I’d managed a breath of fresh air, Whap!  Another glob of it would come flying at me and spread all over my mood.

It was quite late in the day when I heard a little whisper in the back of my mind say, “Remember the music.”  I’ve been doing a little research on the effect that different musical tones have on us, both physically and mentally.  What was that wavelength I’d heard about again yesterday?  Oh, yeah.  528 Hz.

I entered the phrase into YouTube’s search and found a huge list of videos that played meditation music based on that particular frequency and picked one at random.  After about 10 minutes, I noticed that the air around me was soft and clear.  The light was, too, and all the colors were beautiful again.  It was as if some gentle cosmic fan wafted a cleansing breeze across the landscape of my mind.  I was relaxed, and open, and floating on a sea of contentment.  My sense of humor returned and I laughed at all the misery I’d put myself through during the day, acting like some little kid having a tantrum.  In my mind, I reached out to that crabby little self I’d been all day and gave her a big, soft hug.

“It’s okay,” I told her.  “Everybody falls into bad moods now and then.”  She wiped her tears and smiled at me.  Then I imagined that we put on some music and danced together, holding hands.

You know, the impact of sound frequencies on us isn’t some airy-fairy gooledegook.  It’s very real and the subject of some interesting research.  Sound waves alter our brains and our biochemistry.  Some sounds can heal, and some sounds can harm—even those beyond the range of our physical hearing.

Think about the way a person’s voice varies with the emotions being expressed.  The same words said in different tones can convey entirely different messages.  We can sometimes distinguish between a lie and a truth by the quality of voice in which it’s told.

Anyway, I wanted to turn you on the 528 Hz tone.  Just in case you find yourself wallowing in a pool of sticky negativity.  It will lift you out, clean you off, clear your mind, open your heart and set you free.

And even if you’re in a great mood to begin with, it will mellow you out and add some extra sparkle to your day.

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Awareness in Fuzzy Bodies

Awareness

I was at the creek the other day, a stream whose width and depth varies with the amount of rainfall that works its way down from the hills.  Rain has been scare here for a bit, and except in its deepest hollows and grooves, the creek was nearly dry.  I like it when that happens.  I can walk on the exposed slabs of shale out to center of its bed for a whole different view of the surroundings than I usually have.

Because of the dry weather, leaves have already been tumbling down and they blanketed the shale and floated in the water, their rusts and golds shining like coins.  I had to pick my way carefully to the center, watching where I stepped.  When I reached my destination, I stopped and looked around, enjoying the view and breathing in the fragrance of the autumn air.  Then, when I looked down again to take another step, I laughed in delight to discover a white, fuzzy caterpillar on one of the rocks.  What a long journey he had made to arrive there!

He seemed in no hurry.  He had paused at the rock’s edge and, like me, seemed to be taking in the view.

That’s what we’re here for, I thought.  Just that.  To take in the view.

If you let the events of the world be your focus, the view can look frightening.  We’re dealing with so much chaos on so many fronts right now.   I imagine the sudden heap of autumn leaves can look pretty chaotic to a caterpillar, too.  But here was this little one, peering at it all from his perch on the rock, seeing it from a higher point of view.  And I must say, he seemed quite at peace with it all, even though he was in the middle of a creek bed where water rushed in rivulets between the rocks and fallen leaves three times larger than he was challenged his path.

I think he was a teacher, a wise, enlightened being in caterpillar form.  Fear was alien to him.  From his point of view, everything was simply phenomena.  He didn’t label it good or bad, safe or dangerous, kind or cruel.  He didn’t tell himself stories about it, or try to figure out if he deserved it or not.  He simply took in the view and traveled on.  He was nothing but pure awareness in a fuzzy body, and he knew it.

We’re not our bodies, or our thoughts, or our feelings.  Those are just phenomena, too—things that we perceive.  We’re much larger than that.  We’re more spacious and free.  We’re the awareness itself, in fuzzy bodies, come for the joy of taking in the view, the kaleidoscopic dance of sacred energy.  No matter what the view is.  No matter how chaotic the moment may seem.

That’s what the caterpillar told me.  Take in the view, and travel on.

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The Parable of the Oyster: Compassion’s Power

Pearl of Compassion

Harry was an oyster who lived an ordinary oyster life.  He bobbed around the floor of the sea, pushed here and there by its currents, happily sucking phytoplankton and algae from the water as it passed over his gills.

One day, a tiny chunk of something hard and rough made it inside his shell.  Caught there, it was quite painful, given the softness of his interior.  If he had been a human, this irritating fleck might have been something like a cruel word hurled at him, or a wound caused by an accident or even by an unexpected change in circumstances.  But for Harry, it was a rock-hard particle and he didn’t like it at all.  It hurt.

He focused his attention on it, fully feeling the pain.  It was awful, with a sharp, burning quality.  and all he wanted was for it to stop.  While he focusing on it, he happened to think that this must happen to other oysters, too.  He was not alone in his suffering.  Many, perhaps thousands, of other oysters were feeling this exact pain.

That thought made his oyster-heart fill with compassion that such was the fate of so many of his kind. He breathed in the pain for all the oysters that were afflicted, and when he breathed out again, his breath carried his compassion to all the others, and his wishes for them for relief from their suffering.

In and out he breathed, taking in the shared pain of all the oysters, and breathing out compassion for them.  And as he did this, the pain he felt became more bearable somehow.

Several minutes (which is a long time in an oyster’s life) passed before he noticed that his oyster-body had responded to his compassion by wrapping the irritating chunk inside him in a smooth, lustrous coat.  He returned to his breathing, just in case his compassion was easing the pain of his fellow sufferers as well.

Weeks later, Harry shared the story of his experience with an oyster-friend of his.  “That explains it!” his friend exclaimed.  It turned out that he had ingested a painful particle as well.  He had struggled against it mightily, but it only dug more deeply into his soft oyster flesh.  Then one day, something in the water seemed to whisper to him, “You are not alone in this.  Be kind to yourself and patient with this irritation.”  It had seemed a great mystery to him, but now he realized he was receiving his friend Harry’s love.

“Knowing I wasn’t alone helped so much,” he told Harry.  “Somehow it made it all easier to bear.  And I felt so much love for all the other oysters who were suffering that it made me more patient with my own pain.”

Harry and his friend carried their little rocks inside them until the day they died.  And while they were never the same, their compassion coated their wounds with layers and layers of beautiful light.  Their suffering ceased, and they lived out their days in peace.

Much later, a young boy wandered along the shore and came across the shell that had held Harry’s body.  Out of curiosity, he pried it open and, to his great surprise and wonder, discovered it held a luminous pearl.  “Dad!” he cried.  “Look what I found!”   And his father burst into tears at the sight, for the treasure brought a solution to his own brand of pain.

We are never alone in our suffering.  And our compassion for those who suffer as well has more power than we will ever know.

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Harry’s compassionate breathing is a practice called Tonglen.  Buddhist Monk Pema Chodron leads a guided meditation of it here, and describes it in some depth here.

 

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Dealing with Drastic Change

Change

Whether you’re in a natural disaster or facing a crisis of the personal kind, drastic change is tough.  Even changes we choose to make for ourselves bring discomfort.  But extreme and sudden changes win the prize for throwing us into shock.  We find ourselves in the midst of the Big Unknown, and feel disoriented, uncertain and insecure.  Our survival mechanisms flick on.  What’s happening?  What am I going to do?  How will I get through this?

Zen Philosopher Alan Watts says, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

“The dance!” you might say.  “Are you out of your mind?  This is no dance!  It’s a crisis, a disaster!.”

Yup.  That’s what it is alright.  The shock and fear and rage you feel is just the thunder of the drums as the dance begins.   And here’s the magic of it.  You get to choose its rhythms and its moods, its tempo  and all the steps and melodies.

First Steps

Life will, after all, go on.  Even when you can’t begin to fathom how.  And the only way to find out how it will go is to keep moving forward, one step at a time.

Let your first step be recognizing and respecting that you’re in crisis mode.  Our normal response to emotions is to generate stories or recall memories around them.   When you’re in shock and overwhelmed with strong emotion, it’s important to make stories that center around your values and strengths instead of painting the situation as an unrecoverable loss.  Yes, it may be a loss of huge, important parts.  But while the loss itself may be unrecoverable, you are capable of creating a new and positive version of your life as you go forward.

The old saying that every change has within it the seeds of opportunity is true.  Decide that you will adapt and overcome.  Consider the idea that you might not only overcome, but make something incredibly strong and beautiful from this experience in your life.

Instead of being overcome with sadness, let the heaviness of your grieving take the form of deeper, more grateful thought.  Experiment with looking at things from a different perspective.  Imagine you’re that guy over there, looking at you.  What would you want him to see?  Imagine looking back on this in time and feeling proud of how well you handled it.  Play with this as being a dramatic section of your life dance, or as an adventure or a grand exploration.  See what you find interesting about your current status.  Be curious about it and about what you might make of it.

American poet and educator Nikki Giovanni gives us this insight about change:

A lot of people resist transition and therefore never allow themselves to enjoy who they are.  Embrace the change no matter what it is; once you do, you can learn about the new world you’re in and take advantage of it

Isn’t that an extraordinary idea?  You can allow yourself to enjoy who are even in the midst of stepping from a familiar world into a brand new one.   It’s like stepping onto a new stage in this dance of your life and writing its music any way you want.  You decide.  What kind of soundtrack is playing?  How do you want to shape it from here?

It’s up to you.  Isn’t that wondrous?

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You may also find these articles helpful:

How to Be Resilient When Crisis Strikes
When the Future Dies: Making a New Start After Tragedy and Disaster   When Happiness Goes Dark: How to Deal with Life’s Traumas 
When Things Go Wrong: 7 Steps to Regaining Balance

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