Awakening, compassion and trust, coronavirus musings, courage, creativity, Inspiration, Mindfulness and Meditation

Intuitive to-do lists for life in a pandemic

I love working with an ongoing “to do” list, and I especially love crossing items off my “to-do” list – it gives me a great sense of accomplishment.  Especially these days.

I also have these other lists related to my goals for the week, month and year. As the pandemic grinds on, I have had to shift and change many of these goals and my expectations about what I can accomplish. It is often harder, and certainly takes longer, to cross items off of those lists.

I share this with you because I know that writing a “to do” list is an act of optimism.

I also know that writing lists is a universal practice, as it helps us control the chaos in our lives, to compartmentalize vast quantities of information, and helps us mark our progress. On the other hand, I have noticed that lists can cause me anxiety and frustration, especially when I repeatedly see an item that’s been on my list for a long time, that just don’t seem to be getting done — no matter how many times I underline it, or put it in all caps.

And so lists seem to both help and hinder me.  Perhaps you can relate?

One of my favourite books to thumb through when I’m pausing for a cup of coffee is Shaun Usher’s Lists of Note.  This book holds a collection of fascinating lists, including 19-year-old Isaac Newton’s list of the 57 sins he’d already committed, a shopping list written by two ninth-century Tibetan monks, Tina Fey’s list of body parts for which she is grateful, and Johnny Cash’s list of “Things To Do Today.”

As I perused this book I found myself fascinated with what the “greats” (great authors, scientists, thinkers and artists) had on their “to-do” lists. And this is what I found: according to what was on their lists it looked like almost all of them struggled to stay focussed on their goals and aspirations, on the work of honing their talents.

They included on their lists things like “practice piano” (Johnny Cash) and “write a song a day” and “work by a schedule” (Woody Guthrie) and “always keep working on the acting exercises” (Marilyn Monroe – she underlined this).  And even the great Henry Miller composed a list of 11 commandments for himself which included “work on one thing at a time until finished.”

These lists were a bit of a revelation to me.

I had always assumed that the greats of the past and present…just did it.

Although I could imagine that they worked hard to achieve their success, it never occurred to me that answering their calling or creating their art could be an item on a list, could be something they had to keep their mind focused on, to insist to themselves that they work on — but it clearly was.

And although I was surprised, I was grateful to know that Marilyn Monroe struggled to attend all her acting classes, that Sylvia Plath struggled to finish her university writing assignments on time, that Johnny Cash thought he needed to practice the piano more.

So lists certainly seem to be an important part of staying focussed and getting things done – for the most humble to the most celebrated list writers.

If, like me, you are currently finding it very difficult to focus for long on the work at hand, and to find a gentle yet fruitful rhythm to your life that breaks up the monotony of a lockdown day frozen on repeat – I offer the following:

Lists can feel very regimented/left-brained or “yang” in their energy.  If you’re feeling frustrated or overwhelmed by the length of your list or the size of the projects on it, try this “yin”/right brained/intuitive approach to the tasks on your plate:

Take a blank sheet of unlined paper and randomly write your top “to-dos” for the day (or you can do this for the week/month/year) anywhere on the page – not in a list, just scattered anywhere on the page.
Draw a circle around each item as you go.
Now, instead of a top-down list, you have these bubbles of possibility randomly distributed and “floating” all over the paper.
Next, sit quietly with the paper and see which items you feel drawn to.
Give yourself time for this – a snap decision is not required or even helpful.
You may immediately know which items are not calling you that day and can let that help you narrow it down.

You are looking for the task that may not be the most urgent or practical but may be what you energetically feel able or inspired to handle at this time.  The work you choose to do in this way will flow more easily, with the potential that you will accomplish more and work with a more stable mood and sustained energy to get the task done.

Then use this intuitive technique to select your next task for the day or week.  Of course, if something is very urgent, that will have to be tackled first, regardless of what other tasks might be calling you!

May this help you find your own, heart-centred way of navigating these strange times – one day, one thing, one optimistic list at a time.

 

 

Animals and Nature, Awakening, Inspiration, Mindfulness and Meditation, Mystery and Magic

3 situations when a walk in the woods is the best solution

If 2020 has confirmed the truth of one thing for me, it’s the healing power of the natural world.

I have never felt more attuned to the vibrant energy of the river, the quiet presence of the trees, the beauty of the changing seasons and the comforting cycles of the moon than I have been this year.

I have the pandemic to thank for this intensified awareness, a silver lining if ever there was one.

And I have also noticed that there are certain recurring circumstances when a walk in the forest, by the river or through the fields is often the best and sometimes the only solution that works: that is when I’m stuck, when I’m bored, when I’m tired.

  1. When I am suffering from writer’s block, which right now can go on for days (OK…weeks), or I am working on something that really requires focus and I just can’t get past a certain point with it…I move. Sometimes a stretch and throwing the ball for the dog in the yard is enough. But more often what I really need is a walk by the river to clear my mind and be in my body.

    To simply take my problem into the peace of nature.

    Whether on a walk among the trees, a few minutes sitting on a riverbank, moving quietly under the moon and stars…always, it just comes…the free flow of ideas, the first sentence, the topic, the missing piece to the project.

    I’m telling you the answers and the inspiration are out there in the woods. We just have to be willing to go out there.

  2. Last week I spoke with my neighbor and asked him how he was doing and he said this: “To be honest, Shona…I’m bored.” I so appreciated his honesty because at this stage in the pandemic game we can probably all admit to being a little bored.And then it occurred to me that when I am feeling bored, out of sheer desperation sometimes, I get out of my house and head to the park or the woods. And to make it different, I don’t stride across the forest floor. Instead I stop to watch birds, I take my camera, I let myself pause and notice the busy squirrels, the chickadees, the last of the summer flowers.
    And voila!

    I become immersed in the present moment, I allow the outside world to enchant me, and my boredom is forgotten.

  3. I have known for a long time that if I am feeling fatigued, I will feel better and more energized after some exercise. And this has never been more true than now. Because frankly, I am fatigued.I am certainly tired of the news, the masks, the politics, and my own four walls.Weeks can go by and there are no Netflix shows left that I want to watch, no books that call to me, no project that moves me.For all that I am grateful to be healthy and safe and living with my family in Canada, I am also sometimes antsy and grumpy and tired of the marathon that 2020 has become.

    And this my friends, this is exactly when I most need to walk in the forest.

    It is restorative.

    When I am depleted, it fills me up with energy, with calm, and with love for life again.

So in essence, what I am really suggesting here – in all of these situations – is that you allow yourself to be enchanted by nature.

A walk in the woods or on the shore or through the fields is never the wrong answer.

And with all that is happening with our world on fire, it is past time we went outside, listened to the river, touched the bark of the trees, inhaled the smell of cedar in the fall and root ourselves in the knowledge that we are part of her and part of a greater cycle.

We belong outside, we belong to the earth.

In seeking her magic and healing energy we will find our way through, and our way home.

 

 

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?