Animals and Nature, Awakening, compassion and trust, courage, Mindfulness and Meditation

What to do when you feel so afraid

Long ago, when I was 30 years old, I ended a relationship with a man I thought I would spend my life with.  And so for the first time in a long time, I found myself living alone – in a high rise apartment building on the edge of a park in Calgary.

This time in my life was emotionally hard and sometimes dark.
I was, quite simply, brokenhearted.
For months I found it difficult to sleep at night – partly because I was feeling so fragile and sad, but mostly because I was afraid. Not necessarily afraid of being lonely or afraid for my future (although there must have been moments) – no this fear was based on a belief that I was not safe by myself.

I believed that in the dark of night someone would break into my apartment while I was sleeping alone and rob me or assault me.  I was convinced that I was vulnerable, in this apartment on the seventeenth floor, by myself. I think that this kind of fear is very familiar to women everywhere when they are alone, to some extent, and I could probably write pages about that topic.

But this story is not only about being fearful and alone, it’s about how I found my way through that time, and how what I learned then has served me ever since.

When I look back on that period in my life, I can almost laugh (with some compassion) and see that much of my fear was unfounded. I was not actually ever in any real danger – just the danger posed by my own wild imagination, and the power of fear itself.

To be clear, I lived in a relatively safe neighborhood, there was a large and alert security guard posted at the front entrance of my apartment building 24/7, my sturdy apartment door had a deadbolt, and a chain. Despite this I was so scared that someone was going to try to break in that around 9PM each night I regularly wedged a chair under the door handle, and pushed an ottoman and a trunk full of books in front of the door…just to be safe.

Perhaps you’re not surprised to hear that it was during this time that I took up meditation in earnest, teaching myself different techniques and using books such as Stephan Bodian’s Meditation for Dummies and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are (both of which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in making meditation and mindfulness part of your daily life.)

Over several weeks of meditation, I started to get a recurring vision of myself resting on the earth between two large pine trees, looking up at the night sky.

I would see stars, and hear the wind in the pines. Sometimes animals would join me in this setting – a bear, a large hare, an owl. It was a beautiful place to be, full of peace and safety.

One night I was particularly fearful, I paced around unable to settle, unable to relax and afraid to go to bed and fall asleep, the trusty trinity of chair, ottoman and trunk pushed into place.
I literally wept with frustration at my fear while all the while still feeling afraid.
This nightly ritual and the sleepless hours that followed had been going on for months.
I was so exhausted, and it felt like this fear was literally taking over my life.

That night I was somehow able to meditate in this fear storm, and again found myself between the pines, looking up at the night sky and feeling all the fear.

And during my meditation I begged the Universe to simply help me, help me, help me (this is not actually a part of the meditation practices outlined in any of the books I was reading but it was certainly part of my own personal practice that year. And sometimes still is.)

And almost immediately after I asked for help, to my left appeared a giant silver-grey wolf. And in my ear I heard, as though he was standing right beside me, these words in a warm, deep voice: “you are safe.” These words were so clear.  They resonated, they FELT true.  And so when I heard those words I knew it in my bones: I AM safe.

For a few moments I let the beautiful truth of it sink in. I felt it, I felt safe. I was grounded and sure. There was no need to argue with this wolf. I knew he was right.

And then I quickly got up and removed the chair and the ottoman and the trunk from the front door and with a sigh of relief I went to bed. I had a good, deep night’s sleep, my best in many months. And from that moment on, I never felt afraid in that apartment again.

If that’s not medicine, I don’t know what is.

And so I would say to you now, especially now in these strange, turbulent, fear-filled times we are living in, that if you are feeling afraid (and how could you not be?) then meditation and mindfulness have something real to offer: calmness, clarity, love and compassion for yourself, even a voice in the darkness that promises peace.

These are the things that make me return to my imperfect practice again and again – the unfolding of love in my heart, and the feeling of light in my body.

You may or may not be visited by a wolf during meditation, and I would suggest that it doesn’t really matter. Spirit or your “higher self” is always seeking to connect with you – it only matters that you make space for it, that you are listening, even when and probably especially when you are afraid.

Since that time in Calgary, wolf comes to me only occasionally, usually when I am afraid, specifically when I am needlessly afraid.

His appearance is a signal to me that I am conjuring fear in my head, that my dragons are made of paper. That I AM safe.

May you find your way to safety in these hard times. May you actually be safe, and know that you are. Whether you see him or not, may the wolf walk with you and whisper in your ear the words you need to hear, exactly when you need to hear them.

May you know in your very bones that you are safe and loved.

 

 

Animals and Nature, Authenticity, Awakening, compassion and trust, courage, Mystery and Magic

On how a crow gave me the courage to be myself

Recently, with all that has been happening in the world, I find myself scrolling through my news feed and on social media much more than usual, certainly much more than I like to be.  I try to limit my exposure because I don’t always come away from my time on social media feeling great.

These days, I come away from it feeling like I’m not doing enough to help this broken world, and everything seems urgent, the more I read the less I seem to know, and I start to feel smaller and smaller, so that by the time I disengage I am almost completely paralyzed and overwhelmed.

Perhaps you know what I speak of – I want to be informed, I want to be engaged, I want to take guided action and yet for the sake of my own sanity I have to sometimes just shut it all off.

My own particular Achilles heel in this area is that in my effort to stay in the loop, I inevitably start comparing myself and my posts and my efforts to others.

And I know better.

I know that comparison will either make me feel superior or make me feel like less, or not as good as. I start to believe that I’m not trying hard enough, not doing it “right,” not doing all the things.

When this happens, I know I need to re-focus my gaze inward, not outward. I need to look to my own work and my own calling and my own journey. I need to give some healing to my own heart.

So, as I offered myself the rest of the day off from FB and IG and turned off my phone, I prepared to step out into my backyard with a cup of a tea and a good book. I could still feel my sense of “less than” creeping up my back like a shiver, that odious voice in my head telling me “you’re a failure, you will never succeed at this, everyone is doing it better than you are” and just before I pushed my screen door open, there he was.

A little crow baby on the grass just a few feet from my back door.

Because I was in the house and behind the screen he couldn’t see me. I quietly sank to the floor and watched in wonder as he leapt around and crow-walked through the garden, over the grass, under the ferns and around the hostas without any concern.

And I got to watch him, drink him in with my eyes and my heart. I could see a few tiny, light downy feathers near his tail, which looked so sweet and quirky.

I confess that I wanted to squish him and love him and kiss him.

I wanted him to stay forever.

I grabbed bird seed, dates and corn chips. I followed him down the garden path as he hopped slowly towards the front gate, keeping his eye on me and watching as I fought off the resident chipmunks in my effort to bribe him with treats.

I don’t believe in coincidences anymore, and certainly not when it comes to nature. The last time I was crushed by comparison and doubting myself and my work, I had a life-affirming visit from a hawk.

So I knew immediately that there was an important message for me here, and that I needed to pay attention to this crow.

This perfect and comical little crow stayed in my backyard all afternoon and evening as I sat outside. Once I thought he was gone for good but then suddenly he flew past me where I was sitting, so close I could feel the air move on the back of my neck as he swooped in and almost crash landed on a rock a few feet to my left.

He looked back over his shoulder at me.

I opened my heart to him, I beamed love from my heart and eyes into him, I was so grateful that he had come to be with me as I worked to soothe my battered mind and heart.

For certainly the raven and the crow are birds that have walked with me for as long as I can remember.

They are birds of mystery and harbingers of internal change.

This crow child was asking me to remember who I am, who I really am. To honor my own magic, my own true self and my own divine potential.

He was asking me to protect my fledgling confidence, to honour all my efforts and small steps towards new things that felt uncomfortable. To embrace it, to own it, to walk it like one who knows that growing into her potential is inevitable, because she’s already walking it. And, that I need no one’s permission to do this.

Crow made time stand still for me. He said – ignore all the noise that is the world right now and just be yourself. Walk with me, walk like a crow – unapologetic, confident and curious.

And please laugh.

With him beside me on the rock I wrote, I wrote poetry for my family, I wrote the crow, I laughed and cried. I wept for the darkness and the light, for all the pain and suffering and beauty moving in this world, for all the ways that I am the fragile, merciless author of my own suffering.

And I realized then that in my backyard on a Saturday afternoon with a baby crow, I was communing with the divine. In a dark moment had come a beautiful, dark bird to show me the light. To show me the light within me, that is also within all of us.

I so badly want to serve the world in some meaningful way. I ask how I may serve, and it seems that I am repeatedly reminded to be myself, to get out of my own way, to give up my self-doubt and surrender to the immense, unknowable design of things.

And that I need no one’s permission in order to do this. I can assure you, there isn’t a crow in the world that has ever asked for permission from anyone, including the sweet, young crow in my yard.

May we all find a way to serve the world by being true to who we are. May we know we are enough. May we know that our courage is needed now more than ever, the courage to offer what we have, however humble. May we have the courage to do hard things, to have hard conversations, to make changes. In the dark storm, may we realize we are the light – and that in order to bring it the question has to be not “who’s going to let me?” but “who’s going to stop me?”

Divine beloved…
May I know my own value, beauty and worthiness without question
Change me into one who can fully love, forgive and accept myself
So I may carry Your light without restriction
Let everything that needs to go, go
Let everything that needs to come, come
I am utterly Your own
You are me, I am You, we are One
All is well.

Excerpted from “The Full Abundance Change Me Prayer” by Tosha Silver

 

 

Authenticity, Awakening, coronavirus musings, freedom, Mindfulness and Meditation

5 ways to find freedom when you’re feeling trapped

Lately, my experience of being “locked down” has changed. I am entering my tenth week of pandemic “sheltering in place” and because I seem to have time, I contemplate both the feeling and the idea of being trapped.

I review all the words I know for “trapped”: restricted, limited, cramped, constrained, restrained, bound, boxed-in, imprisoned.

And in doing so, I am immediately and inexorably engaged with its polar opposite – the concept of “freedom,” which is: expansive, limitless, involving the breaking of chains and wide-open horizons, movement, release, liberty, escape.

I have become aware of how much I value freedom and how much I have taken it for granted, in all the time I was free prior to the pandemic.

Freedom is beautiful.

The season of spring makes me want to get up and go, to do all the things, but in fact there is nothing to do, and no place to go. The grocery store just doesn’t feel like freedom today. On an almost hourly basis I struggle to navigate the choppy waters between freedom and restriction.

So as I roam about my house and yard on this beautiful, sunny Saturday with its blue skies and birdsong, I contemplate going for a brisk walk and once I start I realize that I am tired of walking. I am mostly tired of all the people out walking at the same time as I am.

Oh – how I long to be alone.
But there are cars and motorcycles and bikes and dogs and more people walking.
People sitting by the river and walking on my secret trails in the woods.
Where did all these people come from?!
In my head I am shouting “go away!”
Instead of smiling I am practically growling at people.
I get home and I am not restored by my walk. I am irritated and somehow sorry. Still restless.

It’s as though suddenly, today, it’s all sinking in. Like I just woke up in jail and I’m not sure how I got here or how long my sentence is. I wasn’t in jail last week or last month when the lockdown was even stricter, but somehow – today- I am in jail.

I am trapped – some part of my brain is telling me this – you’re trapped.
You are not trapped – the other part says – trapped is only a state of mind.

And so I can assure you that in an act of pure desperation, I go outside, I sit on a lawn chair on the grass under an umbrella. I close my eyes and breathe. I say to myself: “I am breathing in…and now I am breathing out.”

I listen to all the sounds around me; the neighbor’s dog barking, the motorcycles on the main road, the wind chimes by the back door. I struggle to not feel jealous of the birds going on with their lives and flying far and wide as I am not.

Free, they are so free those blessed birds. Take me with you, I beg the sparrow. Without a backward glance, he flies off without me.

And then, very slowly and very briefly, I accepted my reality, I relaxed into the moment and in that moment I no longer felt trapped. There was space around me, space around my thoughts about being trapped, almost as though I was suspended in time.

Of course, I could have stayed in that place of opening, that place of mindful awareness and acceptance but – as I was having the insight that there was freedom to be found in silence and stillness on a lawn chair in my yard – I found myself getting up and pounding away at the keyboard, afraid that I would forget how freedom felt and how I got there.

I am going back there soon, to my lawn chair and the space I find in being still. I am clearly not going to browse for swimsuits at the mall or visit my friend Allison who shares my love for writing and has a son with asthma, or look forward to a trip out west to see my family in July because my flight was just cancelled.

Instead, I am going to work on finding freedom here. I am going to find ways to balance the two extremes that are pulling me apart – my yearning for freedom, for things to be other than what they are, and the reality of ongoing restraint in the long, slow journey of the pandemic.

Because freedom is a state of mind.

And though I would never have chosen this task, this task of finding ways to be free during a lockdown, this is clearly my task (and perhaps your task) this year. And I am learning new things about freedom: as I mourn the loss of it, I am discovering how vital it is to my well-being, to our well-being…the experience of freedom. I am learning that even if I am not free, I need to feel free – and that’s a crucial part of the balance for me.

I am reminded of something Eckhart Tolle asserts; whenever you are faced with a seemingly impossible or challenging situation, you always have 3 options:
1) You can work towards changing the situation.
2) You can leave the situation.
3) If you can neither change nor leave the situation, then you must accept it completely, just as it is.

So because today I cannot change the fact that there is a global pandemic and that everything is closed or cancelled in my part of the world, and because I certainly can’t feasibly get to anywhere where this is not the case, then here we are, with option number three.  And this, I know, is the key to freedom.

So, if you are feeling my pain in any way, then I offer this list of 5 ways to feel free when quarantine/lockdown/sheltering in place/social distancing are making you feel trapped. I have tried them all, most of them today:

  • Meditate– lawn chair, umbrella, breathing, willingness to be bad at it. This is the part where we accept the way things are (without a mental story about how it’s good or bad), we make our peace with it, moment by moment.
  • Walk somewhere you’ve never walked before, take a different route, if you’re like me this is ideally where there are no other people – let me know where this is, I promise to keep it a secret.
  • Write. Draw. Play the piano. Bang the drum. Sing. Dance slowly in your kitchen. Doing something creative to express your experience of all the muck we’re wading through right now will be healing and…freeing.
  • Take a shower – I know this seems ridiculous but it will make you feel better, I promise. For a few minutes it can almost make you feel free.
  • Go outside tonight and howl at the stars. Or howl now.
    Like a wolf.
    Like a hound dog.
    Like someone who knows how it feels to be free.

 

 

Animals and Nature, Awakening, courage, gratitude, grief

Learning how to walk with my ancestors

The other day, an oriole on a watering can reminded me of an important truth.

A few years ago, when my aunt died, I was looking after her estate. Although my aunt had been a very challenging presence in my life, I had a deep affection and love for her. In my grief I was still present enough to appreciate the sharp and analytical mind that had enabled her to keep her affairs well organized, her investments sound, and all her ducks in a row well into her 80’s.

I remember sitting in the dining room with all of her bank statements and bills and investment portfolios spread out on the large table in front of me. Much of this stuff may as well have been written in Greek, because I’m an English major, not an accountant.  Occasionally I would find little notes of encouragement from her scribbled on the top of files – she knew I would be looking after things when she was gone, and while she seemed to have complete faith in me, she understood that I would not be enjoying this part of it.

So as I doggedly worked there in a sea of papers and spreadsheets, punctuated by little jolts of love as I found her notes, I was startled to see a bright, beautiful oriole at the dining-room window.  It was perched on the window ledge and it was literally pecking at the glass, as if to get my attention. I caught my breath and was spell bound, it was so close and it stayed at that window for almost a minute. Cocking its head, looking at me.

When it flew away I smiled. I felt as though my aunt had come to visit and offer me her blessings, perhaps it was her way of telling me not to give up. Regardless, I was just so thrilled to have an oriole at my window.

And then, a few moments later, this same oriole appeared on the opposite side of the dining room, at the other window.  It had flown right around the entire house, to peer in this other window and peck at the glass.

And as I sometimes do when nature speaks directly to me, I burst into tears.

I felt all my aunt’s love flow over me and course through me in that moment.

I felt so blessed and so loved and so at peace with the process before me.

I whispered “thank you, thank you” to that tiny orange bird until it finally flew away. I have held this memory in my heart ever since.

And so last week, as I was once again working on my personal and business income tax papers – a task I can easily find any reason to put off (procrastination) and about which I can feel defeated before I even begin because I don’t think I’m good at it (perfectionism)  – I looked out the window and saw an oriole. It was perched on the red watering can next to our vegetable garden. It hopped on and off that watering can a couple of times. It turned this way and that. It cocked it’s head at me.

I threw open the window and spoke to it.  Whispered words of welcome and love and joy to it. Because of course every time I see an oriole I know my aunt it with me.

And then it dawned on me that I was once again at a desk doing accounting work…and that she was lending me the power of her presence. Lending me her expertise, her business savvy, her confident, analytical mind. She was telling me, you can do it, I’m here to help. So just keep going.

Flowing from her to me through the oriole was all the wisdom and know-how she possessed. How do I know this? Because I could feel it. I was not alone with my task, and I no longer felt so intimidated by it.

I learned (again) that I could do hard things – especially when I called in my ancestors, the wisdom in their bones and blood flowing to me and within me.

And so that blessed oriole reminds me, my aunt reminds me, that I can ask for and receive help from those who came before me. The gifts and talents of our ancestors are available to us. They flow to us on the wings of the birds.

Whatever hard tasks lie before us, many of them far harder than filling out an income tax form, I know this: we are not alone. The ancestors walk with us. And they have done hard things before.

 

 

Awakening, compassion and trust, coronavirus musings, courage, gratitude, Mindfulness and Meditation

Musings on the meaning of it all

These days I wake early-ish…before the rest of the house is up. I need those two hours to drink coffee in silence and to sit.
I yearn to be alone.
I read from Richard Wagamese’s One Story, One Song…it soothes me, roots me into the present.

Sometimes I pretend that this is a regular morning, that soon I will put my book down and wake my daughters and they will get ready to catch the bus for school.  In my pretending I forget for a moment that this is not a normal day, that my husband is still upstairs.
Today when he comes down my greeting is not warm…I silently wish he would go away.

The day before today I was awash with gratitude for my family, feeling so lucky to have those I love safe under one roof. I stood at the foot of my daughters’ beds and touched their feet and wept. I made pancakes and woke everyone with a smile and a song. I hugged my husband hard and told him how much I love him.

I still do.

But today…I wish he would go away. Go outside. Take a drive in the truck…a long one.

This is day 23 of sheltering in place…I think.

This is normal, I tell myself.
During a pandemic it must be normal to ride these waves of emotion and extremes of love and loathing and anger.
It’s normal to want to hide in my bed and eat nothing but toast with butter.
It’s normal to long to sit on my meditation cushion and burn sage and be still and breathe and then struggle to my feet because I am about to be engulfed by a tsunami, like I am already under water all the time, moving slowly.
So slowly.

Sometimes I think it is enough just to lie on the floor and breathe. I think of those in ICUs all over the world, on ventilators, and with purpose I breathe in and out…I feel the constant presence and comfort of my own breath. I breathe with gratitude, with love.

And this is all I know: that I don’t know much anymore except that these long days seem to be offering us an invitation – an invitation to stop turning away from the hard inner work that is required if we want to change ourselves and our world.
To learn how to sit still, and feel into the murkiness of this time with curiosity and love. To find in ourselves a willingness to undergo our journey with compassion and in total trust.
To listen.
To breathe slowly.

And if the virus offers us anything, it’s the opportunity to practice compassion. For ourselves, and for all the beautiful, imperfect people on this planet struggling in solitude along with us.

In all of this, we are never truly alone…as my dear husband would remind me.

But for now, it is enough to be breathing on this shore, on the edge of the tidal wave, I turn to the mystery with curiosity and love and trust.
What else can I do?