Be Where You Are!

Having traveled mostly on my own for 34 years you would think I would have it down. But I don’t. Certainly not since 9/11. I did better before the World Trade Center came crashing down and changed our lives forever, especially our traveling life.

I can remember driving up to the airport in Toledo, O, and saying “hi” to the porter whom I knew by name. I would follow him into the building toward the desk, where, after handing my ticket to the agent, “Mrs. Stranahan” would be headed toward her plane.

When I moved to Long Island most of my departures were from New York, and, although there were thousands more people and longer lines, the moves were essentially the same: Check in: go to gate. No long roped queues; no removal of clothes, no X ray machines, no plastic bins. We just got on the plane. It’s a memory I want to hang on to. I don’t much care about remembering how life was before television—we didn’t miss it; we had radio--or automatic gear shifting or push-button car windows. I do want to remember how life was when I walked alone into an airport, full of easy, relaxed confidence and  excitement about flying somewhere.

 Nowadays when the driver drops me off at JFK, I turn toward the multi-entranced building with a kind of dread. I have a feeling of abandonment, severe disconnect, as if I were suddenly unplugged from home base and left dangling. A sense of jeopardy, like a grey fog, wraps itself around me.

In defense against this debilitating vulnerability, I pull way into myself. I realize how strange that sounds but it’s true. Entering the bustling, teeming building, I tuck so far inside myself--exactly the way a snail pulls into its shell when you poke at it--that I end up feeling numb, shadow-like, not quite real. It is in this numbed-out, not-there state that I maneuver myself through the layers of roped queues.

A year ago, on a trip I made from JFK to Florida, standing in the line, I had dropped sufficiently into my blurred-out condition that I failed to notice a security man signaling to me to come to his station. The woman behind me gave me a nudge and I moved forward toward his waving hand. I stopped in front of him and handed him my passport, something I find easier to deal with than my driver’s license.

He was African American and well into his sixties. Glasses worn slightly down his nose, a greying mustache. He opened my passport, looked at it, then looked up at me—as they do to see if you really are you—and looked down again.

“Cecily,” he said, looking up again right into my eyes and smiling, “We don’t get many of those.”

 He had seen me? He had said my name? 

The fog around me lifted as if a fresh spring breeze had blown through the airport. Suddenly I was awake. The TSA officer had catapulted me into what the Buddhists call, “the pure land of the present moment.”  Grateful, I smiled back at him, looking straight into his twinkling brown eyes.

“Wake up!” My Buddhist teacher used to shout. “Be where you are!”

***

Speaking of Being Here Now, on Saturday night I was totally in the present moment at the Klein Memorial Auditorium, held, in fact, in thrall by the Greater Bridgeport Symphony and its brilliant and completely engaging new Musical Director and Conductor, Eric Jacobsen. I have seen Jacobsen conduct before when he led The Knights, a group that the New York Times described as a  “consistently inventive, infectiously engaged indie ensemble.” 

I wasn't going to miss Jacobsen's debut with the Greater Bridgeport Symphony and I was thrilled. Jacobsen demanded much from the musicians in particular in the playing of Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Scheherazade, and they gave him everything that he asked for. At the close of the concert the audience was on its feet cheering.

If you are dreading the drear of the long winter, may I suggest that you open your life up to some music magic and click on this link, http://www.gbs.org/ to purchase tickets for the remaining concerts of the season. I promise that you will not be disappointed.

Written by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

Easier Said Than Done

My brother is really sick. He has been fighting cancer for three years and, although following his latest chemo drug, the scans have revealed miniscule lesion growth; his feet, ankles and legs are so swollen that he can no longer walk without fear of falling. And he does fall. Often. This summer while staying at their summer place, he fell on the dock face down and could not get up. Eventually his wife found him.

His immune system is radically compromised. He suffers from raging thrush in his throat and mouth, a split in his jaw, and neuropathy in his hands. He now has what is rather hideously referred to as “chemo brain” which means that he can’t remember things and his brilliant, funny, creative mind is fuzzy and blurred.

Never mind that the side effects have become the main effects. The doctors are pleased with the test results. Their job is to see that the cancer doesn’t kill him.

Well, fine.

“Life is difficult.” That is the opening sentence of M. Scott Peck’s penetrating book, The Road Less Traveled. Fr. Richard Rohr writes in his profound work, Falling Upward, “Life is tragic.” The Buddhists teach us that all life is suffering. And every spiritual teacher tells us that we intensify our suffering by trying to avoid the pain that is fundamental to human existence. Carl Jung insists that our neuroses arise out of our attempt to escape normal human suffering.

Well, fine.

 None of the above stops me from grieving for my brother’s suffering. I want to fix it, fight it, hold him in my arms as I did on the day when I was three and Mom brought him home, tiny and pink and swathed in a blue blanket. “May I hold him?’ I asked her, stretching my arms toward the most beautiful being I had ever seen. “Sit down,” she said. I did and she handed him to me. From that day forward he was, in some sense, mine to raise.

So today at Yoga, my heart so heavy that I could barely stay in the room and with the teaching of Peck, Rohr and the Buddha in mind, I sought the balance point: that delicate and elusive place between acceptance, pain and grief. I sought it in my body, dedicating the balancing poses to my brother. I stood as tall and straight as I could on one leg while the other was bent and pressed firmly into my thigh, executing the Tree pose and wobbling some as I focused on finding that essential still point.

  For Eagle pose I wrapped my lifted bent leg around my bent standing leg, once again breathing and, wobbling a bit less, I allowed my body to steady itself into the center of the pose. My body does this far better than my mind. Always.

Suffering is. My brother’s and mine for him, are different, but in life’s Big Picture, it is all one suffering: his, mine and yours as well. Our natural response is to resist grief, loneliness and despair; we so much prefer joy. But in order to hold in our hearts equally the inescapable sadness of life and the constant joy, we must find a way to embrace the fact that, in the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, “everything belongs.”

Easier said than done.


 Watercolor by Cecily Stranahan's brother, Brandon 

Watercolor by Cecily Stranahan's brother, Brandon 

Written by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

Just Zip It!

Every so often our Spiritual Study group agrees to put itself through something we call No Suggestion Practice. This consists of spending a week without making any suggestions to anyone about anything—unless a suggestion is specifically sought.

 

 We stick Post Its around the house to remind us to shut up. In addition, we make notes of each time we slip and advise someone how they might do something differently, how they might solve their problem, how they might move to a superior level of activity, the best way to get to Whole Foods, etc. You know what I mean. It’s endless! It doesn’t matter how life enhancing we perceive our suggestion to be, for a whole week our suggestion mouths are zipped.

 

One year when we did this, two of the women in the group had young children and after much discussion we made an exception for the question: Have you brushed your teeth? Otherwise the rule held fast.

 

After a week of the suggestion gag rule we gather together to share our failure lists. We laugh and laugh. Most of us can’t make it through a single day. It is easier to do this if you live alone—even better if you lock yourself in a closet for a day or a week, but no one has gone that far to achieve perfection.

 

 One year the husband of one of our group members inquired about the Post Its on the kitchen wall, the bathroom mirror and stuck over the bureau in the bedroom.

 

“What are these?” He asked. His wife told him that we were all doing No Suggestion Practice and explained what it was. He smiled and commented,  “I thought things were different around here. I like this!”

 

Let me tell you: No Suggestion Practice is challenging; it heightens our self- awareness in a not altogether pleasant fashion. But I urge  you to try it for just one day and give yourself the opportunity to become alert as to how much of the time you spend—we all spend— in giving other people unsolicited advice. You’ll be amazed! 

                                           ***
To the Ukrainian people: Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Written by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

Who Would Have Thought?

Who Would Have Thought?

I have purchased an I Phone. A steep tech learning curve for me. So far I can do about four things on it: call, email and take pictures and send them. Does that count as four things? Could be that taking pictures and emailing them is only one thing, but I am grabbing credit wherever I can.

 

While using this tool, I have made a shocking discovery: something that astonishes me. It turns out that I have fat fingers. I cannot seem to hit only one letter at a time on that tiny keyboard. I am working on this. Watch this space.

 

A friend showed me one technique, which I totally love and even understand. If you click two times rapidly the screen shows you pictures of all the Apps that you have used recently and one by one, with the barest upward slide of a gentle finger you can make that App page disappear. Off each one goes, rising into cyber space not to be seen again unless you summon it forth. You know this already, right?

 

But I want to make a point here. And that is, that effortlessly sliding away that App that you are finished with is similar to Zen Buddhist practice. The practice goes like this: I’ve had that thought or done that particular thing and whoosh, I am letting it go. I do not cling to it; it is in the past. Now I am free, available in the present moment and open to whatever is next. Just like with the Apps on the I Phone, if old stuff and old thoughts hang around in my head, they will surely drain my battery.

 

Clear it. Release and refresh: all very Zen. A great life practice. Who would have thought the I Phone could be such a helpful  Zen teacher?

 

***

 

Check out Unleash Potential, offering personal growth groups in Fairfield on the first Thursday of the month. Caroline J. Temple and Lisa Jacoby are the compassionate leaders of Unleash Potential and my companions on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Click here for more: http://www.unleashpotential.us/events/

Written by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com 

Just Like A Beagle

”A body in motion tends to stay in motion.” The Celebrex commercial says it all. I’m no doctor so I wouldn’t presume to comment on Celebrex itself—actually I pray that I never have to take it—but the ad is spot on. (Now that I am thinking about it, one of the reasons to stay in motion might well be so that you would never have to go nearCelebrex.) But I digress.

Esther Tuttle, aged 99, and one of the centenarians quoted by the New York Times in Secrets of the Centenarians, October, 2010, says, “I think the secret of a long life is partly genes, but I also think it’s being conscious of your body. Your body is your instrument,” Tuttle tells us, “so I always did a lot of Yoga, stretching exercises and walking.”

Way to go, Esther!

People tend to think that those who exercise regularly love it and therefore it is easy for them. Not so. Not by a long shot.

It’s true that I love to walk. But not always. When it’s rainy or windy and cold or when I have to fly out of bed to beat the heat of the day, I often feel like: Oh, well. Just skip it. So I bribe myself. I pop a hard candy into my mouth as I head out the door, or I clutch a few roasted almonds in my fist and, making them last as long as I can, I eat them on the way.

I also have walks of various lengths, so on a bad-weather day, or when I’m feeling droopy, I tell myself, I’ll just take the shorter one, the one with the slow upgrade but no steep hills. It’s amazing how, once I get going I am willing to go further than I had planned.

When it’s really cold, thoughts of a cup of tea and maybe a cookie when I get home help me to kick up the pace. My son’s beagle always gets a treat at the end of every one of her walks. Why shouldn’t I? My philosophy of exercise is: do it any way that works for you. Just do it!

Best of all inducements is to have a walking partner, which I did for several years. Off we would go in whatever weather. In winter, our faces smeared with Vaseline, we chatted as we stretched our fleece-clad legs up hills. I was bereft when she moved away and I was back to walking on my own. Nonetheless, walking prevails.

Lightening can strike anyone at any time, it’s true, but we don’t have to be rods for that lightening. So get out there and be a body in motion and if you already are, perhaps you would be kind enough to share with readers what gets you going each day.

Esther Tuttle tells us, “It’s great to be 99 and well.” Wouldn’t we all love that?

Written by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com 

Sometimes in Life

Sometimes in Life 

Sometimes in life there is a storm coming and there isn't a thing you can do except marvel at its force and batten down the hatches.

Sometimes in life if you keep altering your perspective, watching and waiting, this is what you will find.  (Can you see that rainbow?)

Sometimes in life we are like pale pink roses, striving toward the sun and powering our way through tough, tangled  privet.

Sometimes in life, wherever we are, we need to just kick back and enjoy the view.

 

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     Written by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. V  isit Cecily's Blog at   LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

 

Written by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

A Walk To The Cove

A Walk To The Cove

I am in Nantucket, a beautiful island off the east coast of Massachusetts. An island of whaling history, filled now with summer people, of which, my friend Margaret and I are two of the “first-time” crop.

We are slowly discovering the island: its charms, its traffic congestion, its lovely beaches, its serene ponds and marshes and where to buy the freshest fish for supper.

I still have a loss-of-village-life in-England hangover, a slight hold-back that I can’t quite shake, but the salty breeze and the sand beneath my feet as I walk along the beach, and the gentle sway of masts in Nantucket harbor are helping to assuage my homesickness for England.

The cottage we have rented is cute and accommodating with a central living space, a good kitchen and our two bedrooms with bathrooms are in wings off the main area. There are lots of windows along the front and sliding glass doors opening to the back and the deck.

Beyond the deck a row of cedars stands tall, forming a frothy green privacy wall between our deck and the next cottage. Chickadees and a male cardinal hang out in the trees and I have taken to putting breadcrumbs on the deck railing to entice them. So far, only the cardinal comes to pinch them in his beak and fly off, but I am delighted that he does.

 Last night after supper we walked along the macadam road toward the water and then leaving it, followed a sandy path lined with wild blackberry bushes, rose rugose and on the ground, a scattering of various wild flowers.  This led us through to a small cove.

From the cove Nantucket harbor appears to stretch out for miles. Above us, the pale blue sky was streaked with thin clouds, as if they were brushed by the light touch of a watercolorist. The brilliant, red/orange setting sun was low and enormous. Beautiful.

On the way home we stopped along the road to watch the sun sink slowly behind the distant trees. A sliver of new moon was visible through a thin film of cloud. A moment of reverence held us fast, when suddenly the sound of mad dance music blasted through the evening stillness and we both looked quickly around.  It was coming from . . . where?

We turned and saw, off to our left and slightly up a hill, that, on the top of the roof of a grey shingled house on what is called a Widow’s Walk, two teenaged girls were wildly dancing to the music. Long bare legs, short skirted sleeveless dresses. The music blaring: the girls laughing and flinging their arms and legs out into the air. Dancing to the setting sun? Dancing because they were young and happy and feeling crazy? For the sheer fun of it? The spectacle?

It didn’t matter. The two women of a certain age below on the road began to wave their arms to the rhythm of the music and the girls, high on the roof-top, turned in our direction, the four of us waving and laughing together.

                                                ***
So sorry I didn't have my phone with me on the sunny day of this walk. I'm afraid you will just have to imagine. For those of you from other countries, I thought it might be helpful to see a Widow's Walk: the high place from which wives would faithfully scan the horizon for the sight of their husbands' ships returning home after years at sea.

Written by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

Rediscovering the Track

Rediscovering the Track 

 

Boyd Varty, master tracker, writer—The Cathedral of the Wild--and owner of the Londolozi Game preserve in South Africa, writes:

 

“I’ve learned that nothing is worth doing if it cannot be done from a place of deep peace. If we want to restore the planet, we must first restore ourselves. I believe that you find your way to your right life, your mission, the same way you find an animal. First you quiet your heart and be still. Then find the fresh track and be willing to follow it. You don’t need to see the whole picture; you only need to see where to take the next step. Life isn’t about staying on track; it’s about constantly rediscovering the track.”

 

Having just made a life-changing decision, I ask myself: Was it done from the place of deep peace that Varty describes above? I think not. Nonetheless it was—like many of our seemingly abrupt decisions-- done from an unconscious accumulation of experience and awareness.

 

Still, I think Varty has said it all and I admire the way he wrote it in his remarkable book about growing up on Londolozi land in South Africa. Reading the book, we witness the lively, sometime hilarious and sometimes frightening story of his journey into adulthood that brought him into the wisdom expressed above.

 

 “First quiet your heart and be still.” That means waiting. Many of us are not so good at that. Waiting. My wise son said about my pending decision to sell my beloved English cottage, “Wait three days, Mom, and then see what you want to do.” I waited the three days—three days are so symbolic—and then I was certain it was time to let it go. Sometimes the wait needs to be much longer than three days. Perhaps, as Ina Garten has written about her decision to begin to

 write cookbooks, a person might need to wait a year to find “the fresh track.”

 

Being still and waiting allows the Universe, God, the Great Choreographer in the Sky, to do some things: shift some ideas, create some space and open some minds, including our own. All of the above, and so much more: miracles that we cannot fathom.

 

Waiting makes us feel powerless because we are not doing anything. In our action-oriented culture, that’s bad news. In eastern cultures there are three acknowledged and accepted states of mind: yes, no and I don’t know. 

 

“I don’t know?”  People in the west tend to think you are a wishy-washy no-account if you don’t know what to do next. I remember my youngest son returning from a visit to Ohio—where he was born--after spring vacation of his senior year in college, and saying to me, “Everyone wanted to know what I was going to do and I had to say I don’t know. It was awful, Mom!”  (This man—not so young now---has seven television Emmys to his credit.)

 

A friend of mine retired from teaching a month ago and almost everyone she runs into asks her what her plans are. Travel? Moving? She laughs, waves her hands in the air and says, “Summer!”

 

Finding the “fresh track” and being “willing to follow it” takes courage. We need to trust our intuitions and also, if we are a bit off the mark at the start, we are urged to be mindful that that we can shift our course. Making adjustments, learning from our errors, in my mind, is the most significant life learning we can accrue. And, as Boyd Varty writes, “Life isn’t about staying on track; it’s about constantly rediscovering the track.”

 

“Rediscovering the track,” Yes. The process of rediscovery challenges us to remain alert and alive in our own existence. What a great way to live!

 

Written for Unleash Potential by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

That's Crazy!

Oh, come on! Nobody smiles when they are having a root canal. That’s crazy. That’s what the endodontist said when he noticed me smiling through the endless metal and rubber paraphernalia stuck into my wide-open mouth. Of course I was already numbed from my jaw to my right ear, but he was moving along efficiently and skillfully with all those bad-movie tools of his.

 

“You are crazy,” Dr. C said, with a smile behind his blue surgical mask.

 

Dr. C is about six feet, six inches tall, is my guess, young and from Utah. You can tell he’s not from the east coast; he has that easy, unforced friendliness of a westerner.

 

Please do not misunderstand. The night before I was anxious as a cow in the slaughter slot thinking about the procedure. I’ve had one root canal with a different endodontist and that was no picnic at the beach, I can tell you.

 

This was completely different. Not only was Dr. C really good at his job, but, also, was different. I lay flat back in the chair thinking about my younger brother who continues to fight cancer, thinking about all the truly nasty things that have been done to him in order to save his life.

 

 I was thinking, too, about my friend whom I would be visiting in the afternoon. His body carries physical pain in his joints as consistently as I carry my pocketbook. Only he can’t put it down. I was praying that I would be able to relieve his suffering even the littlest bit; I was talking to God and talking to my friend in my mind while Dr. C did his probing and drilling and cleansing.

 

And suddenly, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that this dodgy tooth of mine could be fixed: not moderated, not medicated and managed, but fixed. Compared to what these two men are going through, having a root canal is a joke.

 

 And so, with my mouth open like a yawning hippopotamus and stuffed with metal props, drills and rubber protectors, I smiled.

 

 

***

 

Welcome this week to readers from Singapore, Serbia, Thailand, Jordan, Macau and Taiwan. Thank you for reading Life Opening Up. I am wondering how all of you from other countries discover this blog? Through a friend? Through the topic labels?  I would very much like to hear from you. However you discover it, I am so happy that you find time to read it.

 

***

 

 To those of you in Ukraine, we pray for you still, for a stable, independent government. We pray for an end to the killing in Syria and Palestine and Israel and we pray for all the families of those who were senselessly killed in the blasting of Malaysian Airlines MH17.

 

Written by Cecily Stranahan 

Just Getting Through It

Just Getting Through It

Transitions suck. Harsh language? That's what I would say to you if you were standing in front of me. I wouldn’t try to sound like a writer. All correct and carefully chosen words. I would just tell you outright. Transitions suck. I am in one right now. I have been in many others and every one of them has been an uphill slog. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

 

Don’t get me wrong either. I know how valuable transitions can be, how necessary, how, often, amazing learning is derived from a difficult life change. I can spout all the trendy—“everything happens for the best”--clichés about the power that is sourced from learning to adjust to a new reality: life without your loved partner, for example, life with a damaged limb, life through a divorce or, as in my case, life without my tiny English cottage in St Mawes on the southern coast of Cornwall, where I have spent twenty five summers.         

I know all that stuff. I believe it. And I don’t care. I am mourning the sensible decision I have made not go there this summer: the decision to sell my cottage and to no longer spend three months among my English friends in the small harbor village of breath-taking beauty that has been my heart home. If I had followed my original plan for this summer, I would be there now.

Why didn’t I go? As the time to depart grew imminent, the stress of preparing to be away in an isolated part of another country for three months—never mind that it is an eighteen-hour trip--caused me to abort. I knew I could not go. I also knew it would not be any better next year.

So I remain in America with what I know is the right decision and I am grieving: missing the shudder of sails from boats in the harbor,  missing the cool, fresh, unpolluted air, the cows pasturing in the National Trust lands which rise steeply on the opposite side of the harbor. Most of all, I am missing my friends. Step-by-step, day-by-day, very gradually, I am adjusting to summer in Connecticut.

 Does this process of loss sound familiar to you? I’ll bet it does.

 Our lives are riddled with challenging transitions and we suffer. We struggle to make the best of things, urging ourselves on and over time we find new ways of being, new ways of living that may be even better or perhaps not quite as great, but, which have meaning nonetheless.We do that. And under far worse circumstances than saying goodbye to an English cottage and an English village life, however sweet and dearly loved.

A very good friend in St. Mawes—I have known four generations of her family—SKYPED me this afternoon and told me that she is unable to walk past my cottage. She can’t bear to think of my not being there. How lovely! I can hardly bear to think of it myself.

 This, too, shall pass.

Written by Cecily Stranahan 

Helping Really Helps

Helping Really Helps

 

 

Written for Unleash Potential

By Cecily Stoddard Stranahan

http://lifeopeningup.blogspot.com

 

 

A few years ago, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving found me frustrated and edgy. It wasn’t because I had 16 people coming and hadn’t made my perfect pies yet. Nothing like that. It was, simply, that I hadn’t done anything for anyone else: for anyone who’s Thanksgiving might not happen at all. Ordinarily I respond to one of the many requests that show up in the mail, but this year I wanted to buy real food, buy it myself. I had tossed out all the paper pleas thinking that surely a way to accomplish what I hoped would reveal itself, but it hadn’t. Now it was almost The Day and I had helped no one.

 

As I pulled into Stop and Shop, Westport, near the entrance of the store I spied my Yoga teacher from Yoga4Everybody standing with a small group, all of them wearing bright blue aprons that said in white letters, FOOD BANK.

 

Perfect. She gave me a list of what to buy and I bought a Thanksgiving meal for a family I would never see. Handing the food over to some cheerful young people, also clad in blue aprons, I left the store feeling relaxed and happy.

 

Everybody knows that helping is a two way street. We feel better when we help someone else: anyone . . . with anything. It doesn’t have to be a big deal; holding a door for a stranger laden with packages can lift our spirits. Psychology Today calls this the “helper’s high.” (New York Times, Dec. 1, 2009) What is amazing is that actual data exists to support what we are aware of experientially.

 

“It’s about stepping out of your own story long enough to make a connection with someone else,” says Cami Walker, a victim of multiple sclerosis, who, according to the New York Times, (Dec 1 2009) decided to give a gift to someone each day for 29 days. The results of her plan? Walker became “more mobile and less dependent on pain medication. The flare ups that routinely sent her to the emergency room have stopped and scans show that the disease has stopped progressing.”

 

Stephen G Post, director of The Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University, says about Walker’s experience, “‘There’s no question that it gives life greater meaning when we make this shift in the direction of others . . . But it also seems to be the case that there is an underlying biology involved.’”

 

 The Times reports further that “the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, CA,” found that “elderly people who volunteered for more than four hours a week were 44 percent less likely to die during the study period.”

 

Seniors! No curling up with Dr. Phil and Oprah. We have to get out there and help. Did you ever dream that prepping mountains of food in your church or synagogue kitchen might add to your life span?

 

The Times article goes on to say that “altruism may be an antidote to stress. A Miami study of patients with HIV found that those with strong altruistic characteristics had lower levels of stress hormones.”

 

“By contrast,” we are informed in the same article, “in one study of 150 heart patients, those who talked about themselves at length or used more first person pronouns had more severe heart disease and did worse on treadmill tests.”

 

 That’s it: young or old, no more lengthy monologues about ourselves. A sincere interest in others pays off even on the treadmill!

 

Analyzing two separate surveys of a total of 3,200 women who regularly volunteered,  a 1988 Psychology Today article described a physical response from volunteering, similar to the results of vigorous exercise or meditation.

 

Every religious tradition urges generosity. It’s not about striving for sainthood; it’s far simpler than that. Caring for each other enhances all of our lives. As Dr. Post of Stony Brook put it, “’To rid yourself of negative emotional states you need to push them aside with positive emotional states. And the simplest way to do that is to just go out and lend a helping hand to somebody.’”

 

Pretty convincing stuff, wouldn’t you say?

 

Written for Unleash Potential by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

 

 

 

 

World Cup Soccer Plays Life

World Cup Soccer Plays Life

I’ve been watching World Cup soccer. Introduced by my grandsons who played in high school, I’m a fan of the game. And now, this year, this World Cup, I am joined by millions of other Americans who watched the awesome game against Ghana, who watched and held their breath during the tense game against Germany.

 

America is playing soccer! We don’t have to mumble and stumble in front of the European and South American teams any longer. We are in the game!

 

And speaking of being in the game, I love the television long shots. The shots of the entire field: seeing the players on both sides moving, running, setting up their plays, twisting and turning with the ball. They miss the pass; they go after it. They fall down, hug their knees, breathe and get up or are pulled up by an opponent or a pal and they are back. No going off to sulk, no whining, a grimace, maybe a wince, but getting back in the game any way they can as quickly they can. That is the goal; that’s their commitment.

 

I love seeing the patterns of the plays as one guy passes to a spot where his teammate might not even have arrived yet, but the kicker knows he will be there in time. I love how they back each other up, covering, pointing and anticipating.

 

 You may think I’m crazy but it’s such a metaphor for life, this game. I know it’s a battle that I am watching. Occasionally it is outright fierce and people get hurt. But think about it. We get knocked down in life, too--sometimes really hard, and we get back up. We also strive toward difficult and challenging goals; we just define them differently.

 

On our best days we are there for each other in extraordinary ways, anticipating, positioning ourselves to receive the ball should it be passed to us. And we’re ready to move with it: whatever needs to be done. We juggle the workload, family life, and complicated schedules and, constantly moving from point to point, we stay in the game—even when, as it can happen, we can’t wait for half time to come.

 

 Take a look at the whole field next time you watch. Everyone is in motion: a giant dance of intense purpose and meaning. When we are fully awake and alive that’s who we are. Like the great soccer players, we are alert, ready to move: ready to be where we need to be to make our lives work, not just for ourselves but for those around us, for those who count on us and, conceivably, for some whom we may never even have met.

 

 On the field we see, at least for a period of time, what it means to bond with other human beings in a shared purpose, human beings totally in the moment, making a whole- hearted commitment to what they are doing together right now.

 

This is how we should live.

***

 

 

You might want to check out the new, weekly ESPN sports podcast: In The Loop. Three young men--my grandsons--“chopping it up” on radio with charm, humor and top-ranking sports savvy. 

 

Written for Unleash Potential by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

A Surprising Shift

A Surprising Shift

 I’m at my daughter’s house sitting in the sun on Sunday afternoon. A comfortable, lazy time: no one is going anywhere; no one is in a rush.

 

My favorite dog in the world, a black and tan Norwich terrier called Cameron, is on my lap and I am sprawled on a very cushiony chaise in the shade with a pillow behind my back. My daughter is near me in the shade as well, flipping casually through the latest copy of Real Simple Magazine. The sun is warm, the light breeze utterly benign.

 

The garden looks green and lush. Tall Connecticut trees--maples, dogwood, oaks and white pine--some of them hundreds of years old, I’ll wager--frame the yard, which is irregularly edged in the foreground by rhododendron, hydrangeas budding out madly and other low bushes unknown to me. There is a cared-for casualness about the planting in my daughter’s yard that feels as comfortable and easy as the deep cushion at my back.

 

My three, twenty-something, grandsons are with us: shirtless, in shorts and bare feet, drinking an assortment of iced coffees, teas, and sodas as they spread themselves out on wicker furniture in the sun. Unlike my daughter and me, they can get as tan as they want.

 

The youngest of the boys holds the family’s second Norwich between his legs and rubs her back. All these guys have graduated from college and have jobs in New York. But right now they are just hanging out.

 

My grand daughter, their fifteen-year-old sister, isn’t with us. She has gone sailing with some friends for the afternoon.

 

“Sailing?” my middle grandson—I’m going to call him Tim-- inquires.

 

My daughter responds. “Yes, with her friends, the Smiths. They have a boat in Norwalk.”

 

Tim brushes at his thick, dark hair with his hand and slings his leg over the side of the chair. “I bet she took her cell phone. Did she, Mom?” He presses.

 

“I don’t know. I suppose so.”

 

“Girls!” Tim says, sitting up straight now. “They have to take their cell phones everywhere! They can’t be without their friends for two minutes!”

 

I am surprised by his vehemence. Tim, with the lovely, steady girlfriend and the great job, I think of as very much of his generation: a cell phone always in his pocket. Tweet. Twitter. Whatever.

 

Something has changed.

 

 What is going on? I wonder. What unexpected awakening is this?

 

“Are you saying, Tim,” I ask, “that being on the cell phone all the time, checking for calls means that your attention is fractured? That you can’t really be where you are? You are not actually with whomever you are with?” (A bit much, I realize, but I can’t help seizing the moment.)

 

“That’s exactly what I mean, G-Ma! People will go to the Fourth of July fireworks this year and stand in the dark with the fireworks blazing away in the sky and--he holds his own phone high and looks into it—they’ll be watching those fireworks on their cell phones!"

 

“I write blogs about stuff like that,” I say, wanting him to know that I get it.

 

Tim grins broadly, revealing straight white teeth. “Good, G-Ma!” He says emphatically. “Don’t stop!” 

 

 

I won’t.

 

Written for Unleash Potential by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

Happiness Arrives

A few days ago at the end of the day, I plopped down on my living room couch—the one from which I can look out the window and see the freshly leafed-out Japanese maple and the wide-spreading oak—and, instead of opening the book in my hand, I dropped it into my lap and, leaning back against a cushion, I thought, I am happy.

 

That happens sometimes: an unexpected flood of happiness. Not happy like I won the lottery, not happy because the bite I had examined by the doctor turned out not to be a tick bite or because my grandson just graduated from college. No particular life event precipitated this happiness. It simply arrived, a surprising and encompassing happy feeling moving through my body/mind /spirit like a soothing wave. I noticed it that day and it made me smile.

 

 Noticing when we are happy is key. Sometimes we are too busy to notice and so we scarcely feel it; we don't allow it to run deep. We miss out in giving our hearts and minds that grace-filled, gratuitous pleasure.

 

These are moments to take note of, moments to record in memory and store up, much in the way that a squirrel stores nuts against the cold winter. Life offers us plenty of unexpected difficult times. My habit, like the squirrel’s, is to have banked every gift of serendipitous happiness, times remembered that have filled me with gratitude simply  for life itself.

 

 

I hope you will try this. I think you’ll like it.

 

Written for Unleash Potential by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

 

 

Starved for Connection

With our iPhones and our iPads we never have to feel alone. At least that is the myth. It’s fun, playful, a bit phony, but it works. Feeling alone is uncomfortable, often miserable, for many of us.  With our tech toys we are always potentially connected-- to our families, our friends, people we don’t even know and last, but certainly not least, we can, in an instant, find distraction in the form of entertainment.

 

The inescapable fact of the human condition is that we are, all of us, alone. Even if we re married, we are essentially stuck with ourselves and we just can’t stand it. Turn off the iPhone? For an hour, maybe? That’s unnerving. But everything turned off, say, for a whole day? I don’t think so.

 

We say we yearn for peace. We say, as the phone vibrates repeatedly “If only people would just leave me alone.” We are kidding ourselves. That’s the last thing we want. We don’t want to feel alone; we love the umbilical connection we can maintain through our tech toys. Parents can “hover” over college-age children via texts. Teenagers can make certain they never miss a beat.

 

 We are starved for connection. Content doesn’t matter: “I am on the subway now. “I’m at the doctor’s office. He’s running late.” It’s connecting that matters. We want someone to care that we are sitting in an uncomfortable chair reading a three-week-old People magazine.

 

Mark Zuckerberg, himself a loner, figured out how to create connection possibilities beyond anything the world has ever imagined. Facebook contains an unspoken promise: You only have to “friend” someone, anyone, and you will never feel alone again.

 

Connection, in whatever form it takes, is worth a fortune to us.

 

A natural introvert, I have spent some periods intensely alone: camping and fasting for three days by myself in the Sierra Nevada mountains, meditating for twelve hours a day for three days at an ashram, a weekend every now and then in silence at a Buddhist monastery.

 

What was I doing? Testing my ability to be alone, to be at rest inside myself. Strengthening my “alone muscle.” (FYI: My cocktail party muscle is totally flabby.)

 

I’m not suggesting we all head for the mountains, nor am I suggesting that we trash our tech devices. They are useful: planes are late? We make new reservations. Businesses could not be managed without them. And in our daily lives, we enjoy connecting wherever and whenever we want. We have come to rely on that possibility.

 

 This is our world now and much of it is good.

 

Still, just as tech tools empower us, they also enslave us. Finding an appropriate balance is hard to come by. That takes effort; it always takes effort to swim against the cultural current.

 

We need to be mindful that much of this communicating is only a game we are playing and that Facebook and our iPhones and our iPads are poor substitutes for the real thing.

 

Real connection, the kind that nourishes our souls, happens only with real people with whom we spend real time, time that allows for honest and self-disclosing conversation. Time, even in silence, in which minds and hearts find each other, when we can feel a friend’ presence: time that offers an actual warm hand to hold. That is the best connection of all. That is the connection we truly long for. 

 

Written for Unleash Potential by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

No Simple Steps

The theologian, Karen Armstrong, has been wise with her book, Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life. Instead of one of her customary tomes, she has produced Twelve Steps as a handy read that you can easily tuck into your bag. Furthermore, the words “Twelve Steps” resonate throughout America and if I can become a compassionate person in twelve steps, I’m all for it. Buy the book!

Begin reading and you find yourself in the company of a theologian who knows more about the history of religion than perhaps any one in the world. You will also discover that there are no simple steps to becoming a person of compassion. But then there wouldn’t be, would there? Developing compassion is a complex business.  Nonetheless, one can, guided by Armstrong--who is guided by the historical greats--make some major moves in that direction.

I think we are far more able to be compassionate toward others than toward ourselves. We are pretty quick to show up with the chicken soup for a friend in need. We are perhaps less compassionate with strangers and certainly with ourselves. Self-compassion lies buried beneath the layers of “shoulds” and “have tos” that direct our lives. When did you last cut yourself some slack?

Only last week I had to catch myself as I waited while an elderly and infirm couple ahead of me in the checkout line, slowly and carefully lifted each purchase out of their cart. A laborious process for both, it took them ages to empty their cart.

I thought because she-- his wife, I am assuming-- was standing behind the cart, that she was in charge of pushing it forward as they progressed.  Not so. The cart did not move forward and therefore, I could not begin to empty my own. The husband was standing ahead of her and their cart. When he had finished fumbling with his credit card and they were finally checked out, he reached back to pull the cart gently forward while his wife, her fingers clutching the rail, her feet somewhat dragging, moved haltingly along behind him.

I watched them leave, the man pulling the grocery-laden cart, the woman, leaning forward, supported by the rail.

My head? I went from annoyance and impatience: why did I choose this line? I am going to be late if they don’t get moving. To curiosity: is there something the matter with these old people? To a kind of sadness: They are both so very old and wobbly. To, ultimately, a surge of respect for their enormous effort, their heroic steps to forge ahead in life. They had left home and safety to purchase their food.

In a few minutes I had shifted from being an absolute crank to having a heart full of compassion for those two people.

Perhaps some of you move to compassion more swiftly than I or possibly inhabit compassion 24/7, in which case, God bless you, you are healing the world. I can be a bit slow sometimes, but these days, instead of berating myself, I thank God that I do get there, most of the time, and that I am aware of my process as I move from one emotional state to another.

Over time, I have learned to be gentler with myself and I am grateful for self-compassion when I allow it to arise.

 

Written for What I Know to Be True by Cecily Stranahan, our companion on this journey of reflection and self-discovery. Visit Cecily's Blog at LifeOpeningUp.blogspot.com

 

 

I packed my bag and in it I put...

My son, Chris, just returned from living in Za’atari, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, making an unprecedented film about the lives of refugees, in order to raise awareness through creative storytelling of the real life experiences of displaced Syrians who have lost everything; perhaps those of you who are parents can relate to the mix of feelings I had about this! 

In response to his first blog from Jordan, one of their followers named Jill responded as follows:  “Might be a good time to pull out some of the stuff I'm trusting you packed for just this kind of deal. Things like your flexibility, your acceptance of whatever comes up, especially when you don't have a choice about it anyway, your reserves of inner peace and ability to roll when you need to roll, and your senses of humor. For sure, your senses of humor.

We all know that whatever you're going to have to tap into from your luggage and your internal reserves probably won't come anywhere in the same solar-system-close-to comparing with what the people you'll meet in the refugee camp have had to find within themselves, every single day, simply to survive.” 

I couldn't agree more with Jill's comments and the importance of our inner resources, especially our ability to stay present and accepting of the twists and turns of our journey. It's not what happens to us that matters most, but how we respond to what happens to us. The most important gifts come from our heart, the gifts I call the "language of the soul" - connectivity, generosity, compassion, open-heartedness, acceptance, and trust, to name but a few. And that language is universal, even if it is so hard to access in times of crisis. The other quality Chris, Zack and Sean share with the refugees is courage - I am proud of them all and know that their big hearts will be open to everyone they meet, and that the hope and love they bring are the greatest gifts of all – yes, and their wicked senses of humor!

So I was reminded of when I was little and we used to play a game “I packed my bag and in it I put……” what inner resources would you would pack in your bag if you lost everything – or if you just chose to live a more present, simpler life?

Blessings,

Caroline

 

 

The Gift of Presence

As the holidays draw near and our stress levels rise, it’s a time to remind ourselves of the old-fashioned gift of presence. It’s a time to take a “pause” and re-evaluate how we are living our lives, what subtle messages we are giving our children, and our fundamental values. Presence has nothing to do with checking off items on a to do list, or tasks to be accomplished, or creating the perfect holiday, or doing in any way; infact, just the opposite. It has to do with being – being still, being creative, sharing connection through talk or a game together, connecting with nature and animals, consciously quieting the ever-busy mind that leads us further and further away from who we really are and the sense of inner peace we all crave.

Stress in 2013 has become synonymous with change of any sort. We are misled by, and reactionary to, the “paper tigers” hiding the bushes, so much so that our bodies actually believe they are real ones. Physiologically, our bodies don’t know the difference between real danger and something as insignificant as whether or not we are going to cook the perfect meal. The release of stress hormones in the body is the same! Chronic stress leads to disease, unhappiness, and unfulfilled lives. With the rise in technology and social expectations to do more and be more, it is imperative that we learn to shift perspective and pay attention to our own behaviors.

Sociologically, too, we are becoming less connected, more disrespectful, less mindful, more narcissistic, less tolerant, and more impatient. Techno-stress is directly correlated to a rise in anxiety, ADHD, and a generalized inability to focus, to name but a few. More Americans are taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication than ever before. The more we push ourselves and our kids, the more we reinforce an inability to tolerate discomfort and lose sight of the need to learn the all-important social skills that lead to connection, joy, and self-acceptance. The good news is that we CAN change this by living our lives more mindfully, in the present moment, with acceptance.

Here are ten tips for you to consider over the next few weeks:

1.  Consider a “digital detox” for a day or two over the holidays. It will help reframe what is important.

2.  Let go of expectations to be perfect – for yourself and those around you.  Learn to find the gift in imperfection and remember that you create your stress by how you respond to any given situation.

3.  Take frequent pauses to check in with yourself and slow everything down. Pause, Breathe, Rebalance.

4.  Be mindful of the gift of time with your child and family. Check in with yourself about what’s really important. A small shift in perspective changes everything.

5.  Prioritize and set healthy boundaries: have an “absolute NO” list.

6.  Take time to do nothing and be grateful for the little things.

7.  Learn to disappoint!

8.  Rest, rejuvenate and relax. Teach your kids how taking a deep breath helps to tolerate strong emotions.

9.  Get enough sleep.

10.  Feed and nourish yourself and your relationships, with consciousness.

Wishing you all a joyful, peaceful time of connectivity and presence with your loved ones!

 

 

 

Collective Compassion

There isn't much left to say that hasn't already been said about the Newtown tragedy and yet I felt compelled to share this with you as it touched a chord with many on Facebook: "The collective consciousness of compassion, as experienced around the globe, has elevated that vibration to a transformational level...we honor the little ones and the grown ones who have passed in a way that is helping humanity rise to a higher way of being..."

This perspective doesn't alleviate the sadness (an inadequate word for what we feel), nor should it. It is through this depth of feeling that we truly understand that we are one, we are all connected. It does, perhaps, allow us to find a way to send gratitude to those beautiful souls, assisting them in their transition to a more loving dimension.

In loving empathy ~Lisa

On being a mother-in-law

I am about to become a mother-in-law to 2 wonderful “daughters,” and we all know the reputation of mothers-in-law! So, I am determined to do everything I can to be the best I can be – and I am old enough and hopefully wise enough to know that this means walking the walk of living in my Truth – “being” the elements of kindness, compassion and light, doing my best to keep my ego at bay, and tending to my own triggers so I can stay open, loving and supportive, stepping back to watch so I can carefully maintain healthy boundaries and refrain from advice-giving or over-involvement (even if it’s hard sometimes!!) You see, I always wanted a daughter. I fell prey to the beliefs that I would somehow lose a son when my sons grew up and found wives. I suppose this was my fear – that somehow I would be “excluded.” I can see how the wanting kept me suffering, and how, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Largely because of my attempts to practice the Buddhist way of non-attachment, acceptance, compassion and love, and to live in my Truth, I am finding abundance, expansion and greater richness than I could have imagined. This is an example of how life is so much fuller than the beliefs we have about it. I know it deep in my heart and soul.

This past weekend, on a brief visit to San Francisco, I had a chance to “walk the walk and talk the talk”, meeting my future daughter-in-law’s family, celebrating with D and A and their friends, and witnessing their joy, excitement and love through that lens. I listened, and watched and loved and gave and let go of control – and in return, I received in abundance. Let me tell you, it was pure joy. Love and presence stripped away any illusion of exclusion or loss. And if any of my baggage showed up, even for a moment, I found myself reaching for the feeling of joy again. The result? Pure magic. I was even asked to go gown shopping and was witness to the first vision of her as a bride – an image of pure loveliness that took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes.

So, by living in truth, love and compassion, I have already begun my new journey of being a mother-in-law, knowing it is up to ME to stay aware, awake and attuned, reaching consciously toward the image of the kind of mother-in-law I aspire to be, bringing the feeling into the here and now. It certainly feels like I’m beginning a new and wonderful journey, full of healing and promise! What I know to be True is that I am enjoying some of the happiest moments of my life with my grown sons and I am so very grateful.

~Caroline~