A Rite of Passage

Two weeks ago I received a phone call from one of my sisters. She was in tears. My 94 year-old father was dying. I found myself crying, too, and made arrangements to leave to be with him and my family.

I wasn’t surprised by the phone call. In fact, I had been expecting it. I just didn’t know when it would come. My father had recently been hospitalized and when he returned home they started him with hospice. At age 94 he was fragile and vulnerable.

My father hadn’t recognized me or known who I was for at least six or seven years. Maybe more. I used to jokingly tell my friends it wasn’t that different. He had never truly seen me or known who I was.

In many ways, I lost my father a long time ago. Ironically, he once accused me of abandoning him. I’d left home to go to college and never came back except for short visits. But he’d also moved away my last semester of high school, which left me living with a friend and her family in order to finish the year out. My mother’s death, a remarriage, and a painful attempt to blend two families together all also preceded these events. So there were many abandonments between us.

Needless to say, we had our differences, not all of which got ironed out over time. But as he lost his hearing, then his vision, and slowly descended into dementia, I saw the man I had once worshiped as a child, rebelled against as an adolescent, and painfully tried to reconnect with as an adult, slip out of reach.

The skeletal figure lying on the bed, barely breathing, seemed a far cry from the man who had nurtured me as a child. And yet he was familiar, too. As I leaned over to kiss his forehead, I felt an incredible love that transcended time and space.

It was from that love that I wrote the eulogy I gave at his memorial. It stands now as a beacon as I navigate the waters of grief that includes grieving the father I didn’t have as much as the one I did.

His death was a liberation for him, from a body and mind that no longer served him in any meaningful way. I sense it as a liberation for me, too, as if a torch has been passed on, and I am finally free to be fully me, and with his blessing, as he has mine.


How to Stay Sane in These Crazy Times

There’s no doubt about it. No matter which side of the political divide you’re on, we are living in very stressful times. Self-care is essential in times like these. So I decided to share three helpful tips or reminders this month for how to remain sane and healthy in this crazy world of ours.

First on my list is to remember to breathe. It seems obvious as well as inevitable, since not breathing means you’re dead. But actually taking the time to turn inward and bring your attention to your breath, will help you regulate your emotions and anxiety. It will calm your nervous system by taking you away from your thoughts and into the sensations in your body. This changes your whole physiology. If you notice that your breath is short and shallow, focus on the exhale rather than the inhale. Follow your exhale with your mind as you imagine the breath leaving your body and going out into the atmosphere and towards the horizon. Try it right now for several breaths and see what happens…

Second on my list, is to walk away from all your electronic devices. Phone, tablet, computer, whatever you use to distract yourself and feel like you’re doing something at the same time, put it down, turn it off. Stay away from social media for a prescribed period of time. Start small and work up to longer periods. Give yourself quality time and attention. If even the idea of this makes you anxious, go back to number one above and simply breathe for awhile. Then when you’re ready to give up your devices, go on to number three below.

Last but not least by any means, is to take the time you’ve now freed to get out into nature. There’s no better salve for the soul than to be in the great outdoors. Even if it’s only your backyard. Life is everywhere, even in the dead of winter. It takes some slowing down to observe the natural world with its cycles and rhythms. Nature can be a great teacher. It tends to bring our own lives in perspective. Try going outside at night and gazing at the stars for that! The universe is vast and we are just a small part of it. Time also takes on a different meaning as we witness events that happened many, many light years ago. The phrase “This too shall pass” comes to me in those moments.

I’m imagining you now outside underneath the night sky filled with awe and wonder. The amazing thing is that no matter what we humans are doing in the world, the earth is always there beneath our feet, gravity holding us in its embrace as we gaze out into the universe and beyond.


What does it mean to live “on purpose?”


Last night in my meditation group we had a discussion about purpose that made me want to clarify what I mean when I use that word. It might be easier to start by saying what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that you are born with one purpose in this life and it’s your job to figure out what it is.

I find that thinking about purpose in this way becomes too conceptual. We get an idea that we then superimpose on our life. And I don’t mean that you only have one purpose. You may have many, or you may find that your sense of purpose changes over time. It makes sense that it could, and even would given how much we can change in a lifetime.

To me purpose is more about being aligned with life. It’s about following the flow or energy of what excites or interests you, what makes you feel alive and engaged. This is more a discovery of the heart than of the mind, though intellectual pursuit can certainly qualify as a purpose. It’s about trusting that what genuinely draws your attention is an evolutionary arrow for you.

Obviously discernment is necessary. This is not a caveat to indulge your baser instincts or addictions. Those things, while they may be compelling, don’t light you up in the same way. With them you’re more likely captivated and trapped. They lead to numbness and a darkening within, and often self-hatred.

When you’re on purpose you’re on the trail of something new that’s emerging. It can be very simple. For example, I was sick for two days. The first day I resisted how I was feeling, felt grumpy and resentful. But in the night something shifted. I came into alignment with the fact that I was sick. I woke up with an entirely different attitude. I wanted to nurture and take care of myself. I made soup and gave myself permission to take it easy.

Ironically, I got much more done the second day than I had the first. I had creative energy that had eluded me the first day when I was fighting myself. By aligning with what was happening, and being kind and gentle with myself, I was brought back on purpose and the creative juices flowed.

What about you? If you look closely at your life right now, do you see a thread of curiosity, excitement, and/or interest that you’re following or is emerging?


Setting Intentions for the New Year

As we step into the New Year it has become a traditional practice to set New Year’s resolutions. But I would like to suggest instead setting intentions. Resolutions are too often broken, creating a sense of failure. Intentions are more like an arrow pointing a general direction we’re headed, and have a more forgiving feel to them. They’re also more realistic.

Some questions that may be helpful to you when considering what intentions you’d like to set are: 1) Does your life feel like it’s aligned with your current purpose? 2) what are the distractions that most often pull you off purpose? And 3) where and how do you get the most support for staying on purpose?

The answers to these questions can guide you in setting intentions. For example, if your life does not feel aligned with your purpose, or you have no idea what your purpose even is, you might set an intention to be open to discovering it for yourself and even asking for help.

If you have a sense of what your purpose is, but have difficulty staying aligned with it, the other questions can be helpful. Identifying the ways you distract yourself is important. These are usually addictive behaviors but not always. Anything that pulls you off your path and keeps you stuck is not serving you.

This is not about being perfect and never doing these things but about bringing more awareness into your life. Setting an intention to do less of something is more realistic than resolving never to do it. And stating it in a more positive way, as something you can do, rather than as something to not do, is even better. One of my intentions for 2017 is to be kinder and gentler to myself. Another is to trust life at a deeper level.

Knowing who and what are actual supports for staying on purpose is essential. Being around people and activities that inspire and uplift me is the easiest way I know how to stay on purpose. For instance, I can’t imagine life without a daily meditation practice. My morning meditation sets the tone for the day. I do this with my life partner so we support each other in this practice.

How about you? What helps you keep on track for yourself? Has it become embedded in your daily routine? Are there people in your life you know you can count on to support you and offer appropriate guidance? One of the things I set an intention for last year was to meet new people who could help lift me to the next rung of my personal and spiritual development. I’m happy to say that happened.

What I like about setting intentions in this way is that it is not so much an act of personal will but a kind of prayerful aligning with our higher self, or the Universe, in a working partnership. I invite you to try and let me know how it goes for you.


Making Friends with Your Mind

What I hear most often from people who have tried to meditate and find it difficult is that they can’t stop their internal mental chatter. They set themselves up for failure by making this their litmus test of whether they are meditating or not. I find this so sad and frustrating as it is such an unrealistic expectation.

The mind’s job is to think. Just as the lungs breathe and the heart beats, the mind generates thought. We wouldn’t even consider asking our hearts and lungs to stop doing their job, yet we feel fine about making this request of our brains.

I think it’s partly that people turn to meditation as a way of getting away from themselves, especially their busy minds and lives. And there certainly are times in meditation when this does happen, but for most people, most of the time, there’s a whole lot of sitting through their thoughts that happens first.

Just as in deep states of meditation the lungs and heart slow down considerably, so does the mind, but generally not on command. I teach my students to allow their thoughts, as well as all the rest of their experience, rather than fighting them. When we push our thoughts, or any experience away, we are creating tension and resistance. These are not the optimum conditions for cultivating inner peace.

In contrast, by allowing our experience to unfold naturally in a framework of acceptance and curiosity, our minds can find their own way to calmness. In the process, we also get to observe how our minds work, their habits and conditioning, as well as their relationship to our bodies and emotions. This is an incredibly valuable process.

As an example, imagine you are sitting down to meditate and your mind is agitated from an interaction with someone you had earlier. As you sit, you keep going over what he or she said and then what you said, etc. I’m sure you’ve had this experience before. It can be annoying and feel obssesive, but your mind just won’t let go of it.

At first you might be caught up in these thoughts and the story, but after awhile you notice the agitation and anxiety underneath driving the whole process so your attention goes now more to your body. Your shoulders and jaw are tense and as you look deeper you can feel the sense of righteous anger you are embodying in that moment. And in a flash of insight you ask yourself who you’re trying so hard to convince that you’re right. What’s at stake? With this question something inside you relaxes and lets go.

Before you know it, the whole scenario drops away and you sink down into a deeper state of relaxation. Your breathing gets slower and you feel yourself wrapped in a warm cocoon in which the outside world does not exist for awhile. Ah…this is “real” meditation now. Of course, this ideal state does not last forever. After awhile something pulls you out of it, but when you recall the situation that had you so upset before, it doesn’t have the same effect. It’s like looking at it from the other end of a telescope…

I hesitate to get too concrete in describing the process that can go on in meditation because it is always different. This is only one way of many possibilities that it could go. I’ve also had students sit in a state of agitation through an entire meditation period, as have I at times. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. And there’s value even in that as well. It develops courage and patience.

What we learn from sitting with ourselves in this way is that we don’t have to be afraid of our thoughts or judge and hate ourselves for whatever experiences we have. We come into a friendlier relationship with our minds and hearts. And because in the way I teach, people talk afterwards about what went on in their meditation, nobody goes away feeling like a failure, like he or she is not doing it “right,” or the only one with such an unruly mind.

I love teaching meditation in this way because of how liberating people find it. Sometimes it’s just our ideas about what meditation is that is getting in our way.


The Art of Change

Are you contemplating making a change in your life? The thing about change is that often we both want it and don’t want it. There’s always some sacrifice involved in cutting ourselves loose from whatever it is we would like to be different. The cost of staying where we are has to outweigh the price of freedom.

There’s something in us that clings to the safe and familiar despite the longing for novelty and change. These two opposing tendencies put us into conflict with ourselves. We ask: is the risk worth it? Depending on our temperament we opt more for one side than the other. Sometimes we have to cultivate the one we’re less prone to indulge.

An over-reliance on safety, while providing stability, can be deadening. Predictability can lead to stale routines and a feeling of being on automatic pilot. It’s like living with a browser that never refreshes and updates what’s on the screen. After awhile that gets boring and frustrating and there’s a sense of being stuck.

On the other hand, risk-taking is, well, scary. We don’t know what’s going to happen and while that can be exciting, it’s also stressful. We have to be able to tolerate the uncomfortable sensations of moving between our hopes and fears as we anticipate the outcome of our decision. At the far extreme, some people get addicted to the adrenalin of this type stress and anxiety.

When contemplating making a change in your life, it helps to identify your habitual tendency. Do you dig in your heels and resist change, agonizing over decisions before taking action? Maybe you’ve missed the boat at times because you lingered too long on the shore of doubt. Or are you the type who leaps before you look, getting off on the thrill of hurtling through the air? Perhaps you’ve taken a few nasty tumbles along the way.

Some people need a lot of encouragement and support to take risk and others need help listening to the inner voice of caution. The dynamic tension between stability and change creates equilibrium. Knowing where you are on the scale can help to determine which way to tip the balance.


Living With Not Knowing

Have you ever found yourself in a state of change or transition when everything you thought you knew, and depended on, suddenly no longer seems so self-evident? It’s like the very ground under your feet has dropped away. Even your sense of identity is in question. You may find yourself wondering, “Who am I?”

While this can be a scary experience, it’s also a very rich one. Your initial impulse may be to grab onto the first thing that comes along offering the hook of a new sense of identity and knowing. But chances are, if you’re honest with yourself, it won’t be something that lasts and eventually you’ll be cast back into the sea of uncertainty.

Learning to live with not knowing is a challenge worth embracing, for it’s probably closer to the truth than anything else you’ll be offered. Once you’ve made the leap into the abyss, you’re likely to find that any view of self and the world you land on can only give provisional security. Better to develop those sea legs and learn to navigate the waters of profound uncertainty, becoming a deep sea diver and explorer.

Truth is a funny thing. The more you grasp at it, the more it eludes you. What if you settle back into the wordless experience of not knowing? Then you can watch the process of grasping at certainty and see it unfold before you. The coming together and falling apart again of anything you take for solid, while disconcerting to experience, can also be very freeing.

Even as I write these words they fall away…as if I know what I’m talking about. Ha! Ha! Of course you’ll settle for some approximation of the truth. Like the monkey swinging from branch to branch you’ll grab onto the next one in your quest until it dissolves you into free fall again. That seems to be the way we do it.

Until we don’t….

Until then we have those brief moments between branches in which we get a glimpse of freedom and develop the muscles of trust and courage in our hearts.


Keep on Paddling!


My partner and I have been kayaking up the Rio Grande from Cochiti Lake every summer for the last 15 years. The river has been progressively taking back the lake as water levels decline. Places we used to be able to get to by boat are no longer accessible. There’s one part of the river by Cochiti Canyon that has dried up entirely and is now solid land.

While paddling against the current, I often think of the Buddha’s words that the path he taught is about going against the stream. What he meant is that it takes effort to liberate ourselves from habits and conditioning. It’s hard work. If you’ve ever tried to quit an addiction you know what I mean. It requires dedication and determination, and another d-word: desire.

It’s ironic because the Buddha’s path is seemingly all about letting go of desire. Or is it? The Pali word used in the suttas is tanha, which has been translated as craving and sometimes as thirst. It’s the idea that what drives us in life is an unquenchable need that always leaves us searching for more and better. We can never be satisfied, at least for long.

Wholesome desire, on the other hand, is the kind of dedicated commitment that looks past immediate gratification and keeps its eye on the long-term benefit, the freedom at the end of the road. But it also appreciates the journey, even the difficulties, understanding that there are unexpected gifts along the way. Sometmes we don’t even see or know them except in retrospect.

As I’m paddling upstream, very slowly making progress, I’m surrounded by breath-taking natural beauty and wildlife. If I fail to take this in, I can feel frustrated and even angry at times about how hard I’m working and barely moving. But where am I going? Only further upstream to enjoy the beauty and silence there. I have to remind myself to look around. It’s right here, right now.

Joni Mitchell wrote a song back in the 70’s in which she sang “we don’t know what we got ’til it’s gone,” and “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” It’s as true today as it was back then. Even more so. We are living in the world that such short-sightedness gave rise to.

So I urge you to stop and look. Take in the beauty all around you. Witness this incredible miracle we call life. Witness your own life and the beauty inside you. Whatever problems or difficulties you may be having, put them aside for a moment and focus on the blessings in your life. Breathe deeply and allow them in with your breath.

Then as you release your breath, send compassion to yourself for the ways in which you may be suffering. Be especially kind to that part of you. And then send compassion and kindness to the rest of the world, too.

And keep paddling!

I hope this was helpful, and would love to hear from you either way. Post a comment or share this on Facebook.


The Path of Freedom


As the Fourth of July approaches, I find myself contemplating the concept of freedom. Like most Americans, I place a high value on feeling and being free. We live, after all, in “the land of the free.”

As a psychotherapist and meditation teacher, I am interested in the inner landscape. Freedom there is a different matter. I define inner freedom as the ability to respond in the present from a non-reactive place inside and make choices based on wisdom and compassion rather than habit and fear.

It’s easy to believe that if you were able to do this consistently, life would be a picnic, everything would turn out wonderful. But I’m not so sure that’s true. We don’t live in a vacuum. Our choices affect others and if they’re not also able to respond from this place, your responses can still trigger them.

In close relationships, what often happens is one person gets triggered and his or her reactivity triggers the other person, which in turn triggers the first again. Then we’re off and running, spiraling out of control. Nobody is truly present, or free. I’m sure, like me, you’ve been there, done that.

It’s a truism that we hurt most the ones we love and there are a host of reasons for it: 1) we’re drawn to people based on our early wiring and so more likely to be triggered by them; 2) we feel safe with them and make ourselves both more vulnerable to be hurt and more honest when we’re angry; 3) we spend more time with them; and 4) we know them so well we know exactly what to say to hurt them when we’re mad and out of control.

When we love someone, however, there is motivation to change this dynamic. There’s no magic formula for this other than a commitment to doing the hard inner work. The willingness to apologize after we’ve, yet again, gone down the well-worn path of reactivity before we could stop ourselves, is a necessity. The path of blame and shame is a slippery slope leading to a dead end.

If you wait for the other person to apologize first, it might never happen. So if you truly love someone, muster up the courage and humility to be the one to make the first move. Even if you know your partner or friend is in the wrong as well.

The path of freedom begins with taking responsibility for yourself. It can pave the way for the other to do it too. And even if he or she doesn’t, at least you know you’ve taken the high road. (And keep in mind, a healthy relationship is only possible if both people are willing and able to take responsibility for themselves.)

We can only free ourselves in the moment, and every time we do we make it that much more likely we’ll be free in the next moment.


Life From Death

Last weekend while hiking in the nature preserve near where I live, I noticed hundreds of young piñon trees sprouting up in the forest. They were growing in the vicinity of the decaying remains of the piñons that died about a decade ago from the drought and bark beetle infestation. I remembered how sad I felt at the time. The devastation of the trees had felt ominously foreboding of a dark and gloomy future.


Yet here is that future today, and it’s quite different from what I imagined then. From the death of the old trees has come all this vibrant new life. It’s a good reminder that our perspective is often so limited. We forget that whatever is happening now is only part of a much larger cycle. Hope and resiliency lie in the understanding that this too will pass, and that death and loss is inevitably followed by rebirth and regeneration.

It’s not that grieving is wrong. Quite the contrary. It is a human need to grieve our losses. Grieving is the way through, how we surrender and let go. When we feel stuck, hopeless and depressed, it is usually because we are not grieving. Instead, we are resisting the part of the cycle we are in at the moment. It feels like it’s going to last forever, and afraid to surrender to the feelings, we go numb instead. And, ironically, it prolongs and adds to our misery.

Life is made up of so many cycles. At any one time we can be in the middle of multiple ones. I am drawn to astrology for this reason. The planets are always moving. When people come to see me I like to look at how what’s happening in the sky currently is affecting their birth charts. It can help put their experience into perspective.

There is something consoling in knowing that the process is bigger than we are. It’s easier to surrender to what is when we understand it as part of a larger process that is leading us somewhere, even if we don’t know exactly where. Part of my job is to hold that understanding when the other person forgets.

And for sure, those little piñons wouldn’t be here now if the conditions hadn’t been right for the seeds to germinate and sprout. It took precipitation. Our grief is nourishing to our psyche in the same way. It cleanses and softens the outer shell of our hearts that wants to harden against loss. Our tears, and even our anger, provide the conditions necessary for new life to eventually burst forth.

If you like this post, please share it on Facebook and/or comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.