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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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?

 

 

Animals and Nature, Awakening, creativity, gratitude, Inspiration, Mindfulness and Meditation

What to do when you feel so uninspired

Whenever I think I have nothing left to write, when I feel so uninspired, I make myself move.  And in the cold, icy days of winter, I am not exaggerating when I say that I have to coerce myself into taking a walk outside.

I think of Wordsworth, the Romantic poet, who legend has it would stride across the English moors for hours, in all kinds of weather, finding there the tranquility and inspiration for his poetry.

Movement and nature – at the very least they offer a way to prevent our creative energy from stagnating, and at their best a doorway to infinite inspiration.

It makes sense that Wordsworth would hike, long and often, if his many, beautiful creative works are anything to go by – stirring the pot, moving from yin (passive receptivity, waiting for inspiration to knock down your door) to yang (moving to greet or to seek inspiration).

So on one of my last walks, stirring the yang with dogged determination (a beautiful blue sky, sun on the snow and frigid temperatures– my cheeks red, my nose and eyes watering, yet somehow sweating my way up the hills in my big, down-filled winter coat) and thinking of Wordsworth (as you do), I notice how inspiration almost always comes to me within the first five minutes of my walk, it starts before I’ve even crested the hill…and along the river it unfolds in my mind. And I smile.

I used to worry that I would lose the idea, that I should rush home to write it down – but even when there is a delay between the inspiration and the writing, the words always come back to me.

Perhaps that is the nature of inspiration – it is not springing from my mind but entering my mind from a divine source that does not rely on my thinking mind or my memory – it only needs my willingness to receive…to enter back into a yin state like a fluid dance, to open myself to inspiration through a willingness to move my body and to quiet my mind.

I confess that Wordsworth was never my favorite Romantic poet – as a student I found him too flowery, too earnest, too…cheesy (I prefer Blake or Coleridge).  But he has helped me here in some tangible way, for the Romantics held all of nature dear, in the face of the Industrial Revolution that saw the countryside depopulated, and the rise of science with it’s relentless rationalizing of the natural world –  in their writing they offered us daffodils, a grain of sand, an abbey in the moonlight.

They knew what was being overlooked, lost, and forgotten…they saw nature through the eyes of love and wonder.

They were humbled by her beauty and they spoke for her against the great noise and machinery of progress.

On this walk I imagine Wordsworth, I imagine how- had he lived in Ontario- he may have written in his elegant hand about the humble Humber River that flows near my home.  I take joy -as I am certain he also did- in the movement of my body through the fields, in simply being outside in the cold air, among the trees, next to the swift-moving but silent river full of fresh snow.

In the midst of this natural beauty I am glimpsing the never-ending winding stream of time that brings us all back here – to a moment of movement, vision and eternal stillness.

A perfect present moment under the sky, where hope and inspiration lost are found, where:

I listen’d, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
– William Wordsworth, from The Solitary Reaper

 

 

Authenticity, Awakening, compassion and trust, courage, freedom, Mindfulness and Meditation

This is what I learned when I stopped drinking wine

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how this past year I have been working on noticing what triggers some of my behaviors around consumption – and by “consumption” I mean shopping, drinking wine, eating whatever is in the fridge, and escapist Netflix watching.

I started with what I had noticed about the relationship for me between food and fear.

And as I reflect on this theme, I realize that really, all my mindless consumption has it’s roots in fear.

The famed and no doubt fearless writer Elizabeth Gilbert espouses that “your fear is boring” — which is likely true, but I also believe that it serves an important purpose.

When I turned my attention to my habits around consuming alcohol, here’ s what I noticed:

Whenever I crave a glass of wine on a Friday or Saturday evening (or, let’s be honest – on any given night of the week), it is usually because I am having trouble relaxing and allowing myself to flow with ease into the evening or weekend, because I feel like I haven’t been productive enough.

I didn’t cross off everything on my to-do list (today’s list, for example, has 16 items on it).

I didn’t tackle that project that will be hard because I’ve never done it before so I might fail (fear) or just not be good at it (perfectionism).

In short, I didn’t do all the things, so maybe I don’t deserve to rest.

I feel like less, like I’m not enough.

As though my to-do list is the criteria by which I am to be measured by, as if my success as a human being depends on my output, my productivity. I want the wine to help me forget that I’m a failure.

This is a battle with fear and perfectionism that I have long waged and I am slowly relinquishing my tight grip on it.  I can tell you that whenever I am able to be self-aware and notice my triggers (mindfulness), I do choose differently.

But this has not been easy, my habit of turning to wine to relax me is so ingrained, has been with me for so long, that I have had to really work at not casting about for a different thing to consume as a distraction (like the t.v., or way too much coffee).  Instead of a glass of wine, I make the effort to go for a walk outside, I play a board game with my kids, I write. I offer myself compassion whenever I can because some nights I have to sit on my hands to keep them from reaching for a wine glass.

And as with any habit, the more I choose something kinder, including offering myself kinder thoughts, the more often I am happy to forgo the glass of wine.  If I’m completely honest, I can see that the wine doesn’t really help in the end anyways. My “not enoughness” is still there to greet me in the morning…now accompanied by a sulfite-induced headache.

A friend told me that her glass of wine at the end of the day gave her “something to look forward to.” Another has told me that she is able to justify her habit of having a Manhattan every evening because she only ever has one.  I don’t know what the answer is and my intention here is not to offer permission or judgement or advice of any kind, only to share my own experience with alcohol at this time in my life because I suspect I am not alone in my habitual and often mindless relationship to it.

I don’t want to do things mindlessly anymore. I don’t want to be chased through the long dark winter nights by my habits, with my fears and insecurities snapping at my heels, driving me to the liquor cabinet, to the Amazon website, to the endless episodes on t.v. where you never have to come up for air.

I want to turn and face the demons, to understand them, to put them to rest…with love.

I want to be able to relax in my own home at the end of the day or the week without a glass of wine.

I want to be enough, just as I am, with all my flaws and weirdness and beauty residing happily and soberly together.

I want to live on purpose, to realize that in every moment I get to decide.  To be fully conscious or to go below consciousness (which is where alcohol takes you) – where there is nothing to be felt, or resolved or gained.

Because that glass of wine is simply a way of courting oblivion. And I want to be fully awake to this beautiful life.  My life. I want to hear what pain and fear have to teach me.  I want to welcome them with compassion and love and heal them, not run from them forever into the dark night with a bottle and a corkscrew tucked under my arm.

Now when I feel like I might like a glass of wine, I pause.  I breathe.  I ask myself: why do you need a glass of wine today, what edge are you walking that feels so uncomfortable that you want to blot it out, what imaginary failure are you courting?

Breathe.

Have some tea.

Write it down…with all the love and compassion in your trembling heart, write your way through this habit that numbs you from the pain and then also disconnects you from the joy of your one beautiful life.

So here it is: I am working on understanding my relationship with alcohol and I am slowly changing it, finding that I need it less and less because – and I know I’ve said this before but it bears repeating – I really do want to live: fully, energetically and with purpose.

Maybe you do to?

Xo Shona