Wholeheartedness practice — and a book for you

Last week, I wrote about wholeheartedness, a word that truly seemed to pick me, rather than the other way around, for 2012. On New Year’s Day, my last morning at Kripalu, having accepted my word, I decided that I would simply allow myself to live into it.

Moment by moment, I would try to do the loving thing, whatever that might be. Instead of second guessing myself, worrying about what might happen next, or trying to come off a certain way, I would set my foot down firmly on the side of love over fear. And so, at the risk of being the one who loves more, I sat down and wrote a note to a friend, just to say, “you are important to me.” At the risk of being silly, I emailed my husband to tell him I love him, as much when we’re apart as when we’re together. At the risk of seeming mushy, I let my son Henry know how much it meant to me that he was willing to spend the New Year’s weekend eating brown rice and doing yoga with his mom, instead of hanging out with his friends.

Back at home, I made dinner for the family, lit the candles, held my kids’ hands as we said grace together, and, at the risk of appearing vulnerable, allowed my full heart to overflow. The next morning, Henry and Steve left early for the airport and Henry’s flight back to Minnesota, and I went hiking, arriving at the top of Pack Monadnock in time to watch the sun come up. Standing there alone on the top of a wind-whipped mountain at dawn, overcome by a sense of awe at the vastness and beauty of this world, I also realized that I felt more connected to myself than I have in a long while, a little more at ease in my skin and a little more accepting of the raw intensity of my own emotions.

“Wholehearted,” it seemed, wasn’t really a resolution I had to keep. In fact, it felt more like a choice, one I could make moment to moment, a way of inhabiting my life that feels akin to faith. Faith that life is already good, faith that I already have what I need, faith that I’m enough as I am, faith that things are just fine as they are, and faith that, no matter what the circumstance and even when I don’t have a clue what to do, the loving thing is always my best bet. What a relief. And what a revelation. I kind of thought I’d just invented a whole new concept: Wholeheartedness!

I went home and had breakfast with my son Jack, and then I sat down to write a blog about Wholeheartedness. Within a few hours of posting it, as I read through the thoughtful, generous comments on this site and on Facebook, I learned, of course, that there is already an entire Wholehearted Living movement afoot — and that I’m just one more latecomer to the wholehearted conversation.

No matter. I am happy to be here, thrilled to jump in and learn more, to share what I discover, and to encourage you, too, in the words of Wholeheartedness pioneer Brene Brown, to “let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.”

I have just finished reading Brene’s wonderful book, “The Gifts of Imperfection” and can’t recommend it highly enough. My own copy is full of folded pages and underlined passages.

A passage about courage particularly resonates with me. The root of “courage” is cor, Latin for “heart.” And in one of its earliest forms the word “courage” meant something very different than it does today. Courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling one’s whole heart.” This, I realize, is what is required of all writers. It’s how I want to live. It’s how I want to be in relationship with the people I love. And, well, speaking and writing honestly about who we really are and what we’re really feeling is scary stuff. “Ordinary courage,” Brene suggests, “is about putting our vulnerability on the line.”

Brene’s TED talk on vulnerability and worthiness was one of the top ten TED talks of 2011. Pour yourself a cup of tea, treat yourself to a twenty-minute break, and give it your wholehearted attention. And make sure to visit her terrific blog, Ordinary Courage, where, as it turns out, she writes this week about the word that found her for 2012.

Elisabeth Lesser’s book “Broken Open” is a wholehearted manual for living through difficult times. Given to me by a dear friend two years ago, when I was going through a difficult time of my own, it has remained my go-to book when I need to be reminded that every challenge I face makes me stronger, that suffering enlarges my heart, that a “whole” life includes both light and dark, joy and sorrow, emptiness and fullness. “So often,” Lesser writes, we “tune out the call of the soul. Perhaps we fear what the soul would have to say about choices we have made, habits we have formed, and decisions we are avoiding. Perhaps if we quieted down and asked the soul for direction, we would be moved to make a big change. Maybe that wild river of energy, with its longing for joy and freedom, would capsize our more prudent plans, our ambitions, our very survival. Why should we trust something as indeterminate as a soul? And so we shut down.”

As I struggle to write a book I feel uncertain about, agree to speaking engagements that make my knees shake despite being months away, and wonder what, exactly, my nearly grown children still need from me and how to give it to them, I remind myself that nothing really needs to be as complicated as I make it. I don’t have to change who I am, I simply have to be who I am. I can tune in to the call of my soul. I can live wholeheartedly. I can embrace the gift of imperfection. I can do the loving thing and trust that love really is enough.

I am seriously thinking about creating a Wholehearted Playlist; when I do, I’ll share it. Meanwhile, here’s the song I’ve played a couple of times every single day since January 1, just to remind me of who I really am – and of how a really great song can set the tone for an entire day. Have a listen to Girish’s “Diamonds in the Sun,” definitely my song for 2012.

02 Diamonds In the Sun

What piece of music says “wholehearted” to you? Leave a comment here – or, better yet, a suggestion for the Wholehearted Playlist — and you may win a copy of Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection.” I would love to share her work with all of you, but since I can’t do that, I’ll choose two names at random after midnight on January 16 to receive the books.

Here’s to singing our song in this new year, wholeheartedly!

Wholeheartedness

,“Wholeheartedness.” It’s a mouthful. It’s also the word that has been ricocheting around in my thoughts for a week. The word I keep coming back to when I imagine who I want to be and how I want to live. The word that is surely the antidote for the devouring self-doubt that’s lately been haunting my days and keeping me awake at night. What I suffer with in the darkness is this: My best efforts aren’t enough. I don’t have what it takes to be the mother my two sons need, the wife my husband desires, the friend my own friends deserve, the writer I want to be, the woman I still hope to become.

And in moments of light, when I can quiet the voice in my head long enough to listen to what my soul is trying to tell me, I hear this: It is okay to stumble. You are allowed to fail. Doubt your doubts. (Because in fact you are okay just as you are.) Know that you are worthy of your joy and strong enough to survive your pain. Wholeheartedness is what you’re here for.

I know that’s all true. It’s just that lately, I feel depleted, half-hearted, out of ideas and out of confidence. Not even quite up to the job of being me.

I packed quickly to go to Kripalu for the weekend; there wouldn’t be time for much besides the yoga workshop Henry and I were doing together, but I stopped by my bookshelf on the way out the door and threw a couple of books into my bag anyway, almost at random. And then I kissed Steve and Jack good-bye, climbed into the car with Henry and, for the first time ever, our family split up for New Year’s Eve.

Kripalu turned out to be a good place to usher in 2012. Many hours of yoga with my beloved, first-ever yoga teacher, Rolf Gates. A walk by the lake, particularly tasty kale for dinner, a long silent meditation at midnight, time to reflect on the year past and the one to come, deep sleep, early rising.

I loved the sense of belonging that washes over me as soon as I set foot through the door of Kripalu. I loved being in the very room this weekend that my month-long teacher training was held in last winter; the memories were fresh in my mind, the faces of my classmates easy to conjure. I loved not having to think about what to wear, or what to cook, or what to do at midnight, or how many glasses of champagne I should have. I loved having time in solitude and I loved meeting, at long last, my dear on-line friend Pamela, whose gorgeously written blog Walking on My Hands is one of the few I read religiously. And I especially loved it that my twenty-two year old son was so open and willing to sign on for the ride, to give yoga and meditation a try, to experience firsthand this place that’s come to mean so much to me, and even to spend a weekend as my room mate. I know he did it for me, and his presence at my side was a gift. Henry may be a beginner on the mat, but he is a yogi in spirit.

(My husband Steve was happy to be home alone on New Year’s eve, which is what he prefers anyway, and I’m sure Jack was quite relieved I wasn’t around to tell him to “make good choices” or offer up some other motherly platitudes as he headed out the door to spend the night with his friends.)

Very early yesterday morning, I sat down with one of the books I’d brought along, an odd little volume that’s been sitting, unread, on my shelf for a long time. A brief, unlikely meditation on unencumbered living, “Journeys of Simplicity” is essentially a collection of lists about traveling light: what Thoreau took to Walden Pond, what an 85 year old hermit needed to survive, what an anonymous Celtic woman prayed for a hundred years ago.

My book fell open to page 39, “Raymond Carver’s errand list.” According to Carver’s partner and companion, poet Tess Gallagher, he always lived according to what she calls Carver’s law. It was his practice, she says, “not to save up things for some longed-for future, but to use up the best that was in him each day and to trust that more would come.”

Even as he was dying of cancer at age fifty, Carver continued to write and plan and hope. Just after his death, she found this to-do list in his pocket:

Eggs
peanut butter
hot choc

Australia?

Antarctica??

Hope. Wholeheartedness. Ordinariness. How beautifully these three qualities intertwine in our best, most essential expressions of our humanity. To live is to hope. To live wholeheartedly is to trust that there is always more to come, to believe in the rightness of things as they are, to drink hot chocolate and dream of far-off continents even as you confront the loss of everything you love. It was not lost on me that someone else’s final, heartfelt errand list was the very first thing I laid eyes on as the first day of this new year dawned. The message from the universe seemed pretty clear: live fully, live here, live now. Wholeheartedly.

After two days of meditation and challenging yoga practice I was tired, a little sore, and more than a little raw when our last session began. As we moved through our final series of poses, I could feel the tears gathering behind my eyes, ready to spill. “You know,” Rolf suggested, as we eased down into child pose, resting foreheads to mats, coming into stillness, “it is okay to be vulnerable. In fact a willingness to feel our feelings completely, to show our vulnerability, to acknowledge our own tenderness and confusion, is really what living wholeheartedly is all about. To be wholehearted is to be vulnerable.”

And then, at that moment, a pair of knowing hands pressed down upon my back, smoothed along my spine, and rested there for a long, full minute. An assist in child pose, yes. But also, I’m pretty sure, some cosmic, loving gesture made on my behalf, just to make sure that the mail really was getting delivered: “wholeheartedness.”

The tears I’d been fighting off all weekend came then, tears of surrender and grace and relief. I didn’t have to make a new year’s resolution I couldn’t keep, or choose a word to try to live up to. The word I needed found me, hovered for a while, and landed. What better time than right now, the dawn of this new year, to give up my own unnecessary suffering, suffering that is all about believing I need to be someone other than who I am?

And so, gently and with great love, I say to myself – and to you, too – as we step into 2012: “Live wholeheartedly. Know that your vulnerability means that you’re alive. Remember who you really are. Use up the best that’s in you each day, and trust that it’s enough.”

Yesterday, on a gray, colorless January 1, this rose was a singular spot of color. Someone had placed it on an altar in the woods, and there it lay – exposed, vulnerable to the elements, yet, bravely, pinkly, wholeheartedly being itself, a rose in winter. May we, too, bloom with wholeheartedness in this new year.

Do you have a word that is your touchstone? Does the idea of “wholeheartedness” resonate with you? I would love to know!

The treasure of an ordinary day

It was the softest of mornings, the quietest of sunrises, the loveliest day to step out into. I cherish these September days — the silky air, the damp, sweet scent of summer succumbing to fall. I walked across the wet grass, sat on a rock, and watched the mists drift across the valley, the sky brighten, a single bird soaring high, silhouetted against the sky. Never do I appreciate the beauty of home more than on a day when I have to leave it.

I type these words in an airport terminal, waiting for my delayed flight to Atlanta, where I’m giving a talk tomorrow on “the treasure of an ordinary day.” These invitations still catch me off guard; the idea that someone would think of me as a public speaker, as a person with enough wisdom to impart that my appearance is worth organizing an event around. But I’m learning to trust the people who ask, to gather some thoughts, and to go where I’m wanted.

Of course, I have nothing to offer those who come to hear me speak that every one of us doesn’t know already. The themes are plain and simple: That life is precious. That we already have everything we need. That we can choose to be grateful. To see what’s right in front of us. To be in the present moment. To slow down, rather than racing so fast through our own lives that we miss them.

I also know how hard it is to remember what we already know. If you’re like me, you probably have to remind yourself, over and over again: to notice where you are, to accept what is, to love that. Sitting still helps. Coming to a stop and allowing my busy, wild mind to be at rest is the only way I’ve found to be truly mindful. It’s why, after years of not meditating, I finally do. Walking helps, too. It’s why, although I love to run, I also spend hours each week walking alone on the empty roads near my house, allowing my thoughts to drift and noticing everything there is to notice.

Last week, I spent a few days alone at a friend’s tiny, secluded cabin. There was no internet, no opportunity to toggle back and forth, as I tend to do at home, from e-mail to a friend’s latest blog post to my own stop-and-go writing to the most popular stories in the New York Times. With nothing to do but sit and write, I sat and wrote. With no company to keep but my own, I got back in touch with a deeper, quieter part of myself. With no to-do list to whittle away at or schedule to keep, I felt the expansiveness of an hour, an afternoon, a day. Time became generous.

I tried to carry some of that spaciousness home with me. To remember my own capacity for quiet, focused attention, whether I’m alone in a cabin or standing at a podium in front of a room full of strangers. I can react to events, get carried away by stress, allow myself to be distracted and distractible. Or I can simply do the next thing that needs to be done, with care and commitment and faith in the rightness of things as they are. Without making a fuss. This is the way I want to live. And yes, I do need to keep reminding myself.

The photo my husband took at dawn this morning captures the fleeting beauty of the moment. It says “peace” to me. It’s easy for me to be grateful when I’m sitting in my own backyard, feeling blessed to have these gentle mountains as my neighbors.

Now, held captive in an over-air-conditioned terminal, with CNN blasting away, boarding announcements crackling over the loudspeaker, and the smell of pizza in the air, gratitude is a little more challenging to practice. But it occurs to me that living mindfully isn’t just about sitting and meditating, or about appreciating a beautiful sunrise. The real practice comes when we are called to keep going even when things aren’t exactly going our way. It’s using what’s at hand, and being ok with that. And so time is generous here, too. I have hours and hours to myself, with no place to go and nothing to do but wait for my delayed plane to arrive at the gate. Annoyance, or grace. The choice, of course, is mine. Perhaps the treasure of an ordinary day is always right in front of my nose; all I have to do is decide to see it.

Touch

I am always a bit melancholic as summer gives way to fall, and this year has been no exception. The change of season reminds me that the first anniversary of a dear friend’s death is looming. The boys have gone back to school, I have a birthday around the corner, a deadline to meet, a season’s worth of commitments made long ago that are now upon me.

A week ago, I could feel my own personal dark cloud settling over me like a cloak. And then, almost on a whim, I enrolled in a two-day course on Reiki healing. Last fall, hanging out with my friend Diane, sipping tea on the couch and chatting through the early autumn afternoons, I often found myself wanting to put my hands on her – as if the simple power of touch might somehow bring some small solace to us both. Sometimes, I gave in to the urge and rubbed her feet, or held her ankles in my hands as we talked.

But we are a hands-off culture, and to reach out in this way, human to human, hands to body, almost always means crossing some kind of barrier. We may feel free to talk about anything, but to lay our hands on another person is not something most of us do regularly or casually. For me, the impulse to heal through touch has always been there; what I lacked was any belief that my touch might actually be helpful or welcomed.

Two days of hands-on Reiki and I still don’t know if my hands are of much use to anyone but me. But I have learned this: simply settling into a quiet space with another person and allowing our hands to speak for us, to say to a friend or loved one, “You matter to me,” invites a sense of well-being. There is nothing quite like the gift of time and a loving touch to communicate caring and compassion – that became clear as I took my turn upon the table on Sunday, while my fellow students laid their hands upon my body and invited their Reiki energy to serve the highest healing good. It was so simple. So quiet. So practical. So wonderful.

And you know what? That elegiac case of “the blues” that visits me like clockwork every September has pretty much vanished into thin air. I’m not certain I’m cured, but it certainly seems as if some sort of healing has been going on here. Out for a run, I inhale the soft scents of the late-summer woods and give thanks for the fleeting beauty of the season. Each time I pause and put a hand upon my own heart, I’m almost absurdly pleased to feel it in there, beating steadily away. Laying Gracie out on the bed and laying my hands on her old arthritic haunches, I am filled with gratitude for all the years of walks we’ve shared, for all the mornings she got me up out of bed and out the door. She thumps her tail upon the mattress: could it be that she’s grateful, too? Sliding my palms against my husband’s sore back and breathing with him, I think how lucky we are, to have known and loved and shared one another’s bodies for a quarter century now. “That was nice,” he says, “thank you.” His back may not be better, but we are, reconnected by touch. Out in the garden, my hands at rest on my neighbor Debbie’s shoulders, I watch a hummingbird hovering over the petunias and am struck by the way this tiny, vibrating being embodies words we heard in class: “An invisible but palpable life force energy infuses and permeates all living forms. This energy is infinite, limitless, and pure.” Visiting a sick friend, I can tell she has no energy for conversation. But we can still spend time together in companionable silence as she reclines on her porch, my hands gently cradling her aching head.

I am a beginner, with four days of Reiki experience under my belt. Sitting with my hands cupped in my lap, drawing Japanese symbols in the air in my imagination, whispering strange words to myself, envisioning the highest healing good, I’m not quite sure whether I’m praying or meditating, or just opening myself up to forces already at work in the universe. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe what’s important is simply to live in a state of awareness, and to give ourselves and others the opportunity to take a few moments each day to move back into balance and harmony with our souls, our bodies, our environment, one another.

Never a Dull Moment

Unfortunately, there is still snow on the ground, even though it’s April. Fortunately, a robin convention is underway in my front yard and there are crocuses blooming alongside the stone wall.

Unfortunately, I thought I’d been left off the guest list to a dear friend’s surprise birthday party. Fortunately, it turned out that the hostess had an old email address and was wondering why she hadn’t heard from me — just as I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from her.

Unfortunately, I’d already made plans for that evening but, fortunately, I was able to stop by the party long enough to be part of the surprise, have a glass of champagne, and wish my friend a happy 50th.

Unfortunately, my son Jack and I had a horrible conversation on Friday that kept me awake, tossing and turning all night. Fortunately, he called the next day to set things right, and we both felt much, much better.

Unfortunately, a good friend is facing a frightening biopsy this week. Fortunately, he sat at our dinner table on Saturday night and was reminded how much love and support surround him as he takes the first step on this journey into the unknown.

Unfortunately, none of my son Henry’s many applications have resulted in a summer internship or job offer. Fortunately, he decided yesterday to take a leap and attend a meditation retreat for pianists — a big step outside the box that may take him right where he needs to go.

Unfortunately, the huge brush pile my husband and I were burning yesterday sent a wild spark into the field. Fortunately, friends and neighbors came quickly to our aid and together we were able to stamp out the fire before damage was done.

Unfortunately, I was so sore and exhausted after a long day of hauling brush and tending raging fires that I could barely move my tired body off the couch last night. Fortunately, Steve made his own dinner and emptied the dishwasher and said, “Let’s go to bed early.”

Friends keep asking me: “What is it like, coming back to the ‘real’ world, after a whole month away?” So far, I have no good answer to the question. Life is what it is, what it’s always been. I am who I am, the very same person I was before I had the lovely opportunity to practice yoga and meditation for eight hours a day. And yet, there is something going on here that feels a little bit different.

I think of a book that our family adored when Henry and Jack were small, a book by Remy Charlip called Fortunately, that we read aloud over and over again. “Fortunately,” it begins, “Ned was invited to a surprise party.
Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.
Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded.
Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane.
Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute.”

The charm and appeal of this wonderful picture book is the speed with which Ned’s luck turns from good to bad to good again. He’s up, he’s down, he’s up, he’s down — until, of course, we realize right along with him that there’s no point at all in judging any of the crazy things that happen to him as either “good” or “bad.” They just are, and, at the end of the day, at the end of the book, we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

And that, I think, is one thing I learned in my time away. I can continue to go through life keeping a tally sheet of the “good” stuff and the “bad” stuff, or I can let go of that kind of judging and comparing all together. As I practice simply being present, living in the moment that is right now, I come into a closer relationship with an inner self that is not at the mercy of every thought or fear or perception that passes through my busy mind, but that somehow stands apart, watching, abiding, and holding faith that everything will turn out fine in the end.

My “witness consciousness” is still a toddler, which is to say that this non-judging, non-reacting self is not terribly reliable yet. (That awful phone conversation did send me into a tailspin of worry and frustration, after all.)

Yet, I am growing fond of this quiet, less reactive part of me. I want to know her better, to encourage her presence. Sitting on my yoga mat, allowing my own breath to be a doorway into the moment, I realize how good it feels to place my trust in the rightness of things as they are. “The seed of suffering in you may be strong,” writes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.”

What a simple, radical idea: allowing myself to be happy. I don’t have to put happiness off, until some future day when everything is just as I want it to be. In fact, I can be happy right now, just by embracing what is — the whole messy, imperfect ball of wax. Instead of being buffetted about by a swirl of emotions, self-doubts, or fears, I can watch life unfold with an appreciative eye and a grateful heart.

The other day I had tea with my friend Pam. It was the first of April, and we were watching it snow — hard. “Never a dull moment,” she said, smiling. So true. So obvious. So profound. As soon as I stop judging, complaining, comparing then I am free to become a full participant in the great swirl of energy that is life itself, with all its close calls and wacky surprises and unexpected twists and turns. Unfortunately, things never really go as planned. Fortunately, they have a way of working themselves out. Never a dull moment. I wouldn’t have it any other way.