The Courage to Change

buddha in garden bigger

Is possible? That used to be my question because as much as I experience change – in habits, in beliefs, in behavior, from the micro level of family dynamics to the macro level of society, sometimes it seems like things not only don’t change for the better but they stagnate and fester. Brothers don’t speak to each other; mothers refuse to take responsibility for childhood hurt; racism continues to express itself in ugly, violent ways; women still don’t feel safe, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

The question that is more interesting to me is how does change happen? What internal resources can we develop and nurture that effect change? Above all, I think, the key component is the belief – or even reaching for the belief that change is possible. That as we sit with uncomfortable feelings and truths, listen without getting caught in judgment, and notice even tiny shifts, we are able to deepen our capacity to be vulnerable, which is a major ingredient in being able to change. In this state of vulnerability, we can take small steps, be open to support, increase our patience, and celebrate the tendrils of change as they start to take root.

I have a family member who recently apologized for a hurtful situation that happened about 20 years ago. The heartfelt apology, where understanding finally bloomed about what had happened, was beautiful and astounding. I also was able to acknowledge a piece of their historical pain that I had not understood before. Throughout years of sometimes connecting and more often not; the willingness to be open to the possibility of change plus the ability to be vulnerable, allowed us to try again to share and to listen, to forgive and to be in the present.

Maybe it isn’t even the belief that change is possible but actually the courage to believe. Looking at a broken world of pain and suffering, healing can seem impossible. And when I look up the definition of vulnerable, it includes words like exposed, weak, defenseless, and helpless. To choose to be in that state is brave. To have support and encouragement in that state is imperative.

I have been touched by the book Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and, in particular her teachings about building a handmade fire. It resonates for me today as I think about the belief in change being possible – and the vulnerability of taking steps towards change:

Perhaps there are lessons in the building of a handmade fire that will help us now…fires do not make themselves. The earth provides the materials, and the laws of thermodynamics. Humans must provide the work, and the knowledge, and the wisdom. To use the power of fire for good. The spark itself is a mystery. But we know that before that fire can be lit, we have to gather the tinder, the thoughts, and the practices, that will nurture the flame…. So much depends on the body. Each joint at the right angle, left arm wrapped around knee and braced at the shin. Left leg bent. Back stretched. Shoulders locked. Left forearm bearing down. Right arm pushes and pulls in one smooth draw, without breaking the plane of the upright shin. So much depends on the architecture, stability in three dimensions, and fluidity in the fourth. So much depends on the motion of the shaft against the board so that movement becomes friction, heat building and building, spinning and spinning the drill down on the bowl, burning its way into a black and shining space so smooth that the pressure and heat burn from the wood a fine powder which gathers together in its need for warmth until it forms a coal that falls under its own weight through a notch in the board, onto the waiting tinder. So much depends on the tinder….Time and again I get to this point, where the heat has built and the fragrant smoke from the burning cedar bowl begins to rise around my face. Almost. I think, almost! And then my hand slips, and the spindle goes flying, and the coal breaks apart, and I’m left with no fire.

And I remember…the Fire Keeper fungus, the holder of the spark that cannot be extinguished. I go back to where the wisdom lives, in the woods and humbly ask for help. I lay down my gift, in return for all that is given and start again.

Can we start again – with our bodies, minds, and spirits, to nurture the spark of hope within? What materials do we need to build and to stoke our fire? What will help us to sustain courage through the times when the fire does not light? Tenderness is calling to me now – the soft breath of hope, as well as the hard edge of grief. Holding both I go forward to pick up my tinder and willingly begin the next fire.

I am not broken

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I am not broken. You are not broken. Over the past couple of months I have realized that I do not 100% believe this, and I need to humbly re-examine some unconscious ways in which my beliefs are not living up to their potential.

Judaism teaches that babies are born with a pure soul. Buddhists teach that we all have an “awakened heart;” a place inside that is cosmically connected and alive. Nature reminds us daily of the miracle of growth and rebirth – with no recriminations for the seed that takes longer to sprout or the tomato that does not ripen. These three teachers are my foundation, and yet somehow I haven’t fully accepted their wisdom.

Part of me does yoga and meditates and is vegetarian and teaches about mindfulness from a place of connectedness and aliveness. However another part of me has been doing all that with an unconscious belief that all this striving will accomplish something good. There is a fine line between “right effort” or “right action” and perfectionism or, as Larry Rosenberg teaches, there is no “spiritual Olympics. When I heard that phrase I joined the others in the room in laughter; yet my laughter was tinged with a bit of recognition that part of me is unconsciously looking for a “gold medal.”

What if I took another step in letting go of this limiting outlook? What if I – and all of us – already have all the “gold medals” we ever could need – in our pulsing hearts and expanding lungs and beautifully connecting brain synapses? What if, exactly as we are right in this moment, all we do is take the next step towards wholeness? Love as well as we are able? Notice our feelings with loving observation and not judgment?

Many traditions teach that our body is a vessel or a tool – provided for us to do sacred work in this world. We are the image of the divine or the expression of consciousness or the light made manifest. To care for our bodies – with respect, protection, and gratitude – is not supposed to be an action of drudgery or Puritanical restriction. What if the ways in which we move, eat, sleep, hug, cook, comfort, stretch, and bathe emanated from a place of self-love and remembering that we are partners of the divine consciousness? Yes we are imperfect – we make mistakes, act harmfully, are stubborn and take a long time to change. But imperfection is not the definition of failure…and it definitely is not the definition of un-lovability.

This inner essence is always present; we just aren’t always aligned with it. Sort of like being out of focus in a camera lens….when we click into focus, all the parts are simply there – the ways in which we are skillful and the ways in which we are not. With patience this part of us encourages us to reach towards alignment, willing us to be vulnerable and to grow into our best selves.

I am not broken, and I do not need to be fixed. With humility I can acknowledge that I have blind spots and imperfect actions and hurtful ways. With humility, I can also acknowledge that I have moments of seeing clearly, skillful actions, and caring ways. My commitment is to continue growing in honesty and in humility, taking responsibility for my humanness and celebrating the Divine shining through as well.

Transition

Tea Leaves  tea kettle  Tea cup with tea leaves

I keep hearing myself say that “I am in a lot of transition right now.” When I say this, I have noticed that the accompanying feeling is often a bit of rushed energy or intense exertion. It is not a very relaxed state and often many thoughts crowd in when I say it – to-do lists and plans and due dates. Today I am stopping to remember that we are always “in transition.” From awake to asleep, from cooking to eating to digesting, from talking to listening, from sitting to standing, from leaving to arriving, we are constantly shifting from one state to another. In each of these shifts, we have many chances to bring more awareness and presence to the transition. A moment of gratitude or an instant of noticing tension, or an ability to breathe before responding, or an awareness of physical strength could all be possible experiences during a transition.

And, yes, there are “larger” transitions happening right now, with my youngest daughter moving out and my partner starting a new business and my upcoming ordination/completion of a ministry program. Each of these processes has included fundamental shifts of perspective and feel transformative, but as I pause today I notice that no matter how fundamental or transformative, in the present moment, I could notice just the current transition, the present shift – breathing in and breathing out, lifting my teacup and sipping and putting my teacup down, saying hello and saying goodbye, writing a text and sending it, feeling cold and putting on a sweater. The feeling of time expanding fills me as I write this – even the tiniest moment of full awareness of now is so powerful.

At the same time, I am noticing that all transitions, large or small, involve some exchange of energy. I remember learning about homeostasis: “the tendency of a system, especially the physiological system, to maintain internal stability…” (Dictionary.com) and realizing that while we are alive, we can never be in an absolute homeostatic state – that although we strive for equilibrium/internal stability, we are constantly moving from one state to another. With larger transitions – from wintry weather to the death of a loved one, our efforts towards homeostasis require more energy. Feeling tired or slowed down is a natural response but is often unexpected. Imagining all my systems working double-time helps me to remember to honor my body’s needs, seeing things on a spectrum – from quenching thirst with tea to being with grief with gentleness.

Thich Nath Hanh teaches: “Each time we come back to the present moment, we are making ourselves available.” Instead of answering people’s “how are you’s” by saying, “I am in a lot of transition right now,” and unconsciously feeding tension, I’m going to see if I can pause and breathe and notice what is happening right now, whether it is a calm or intense feeling. I’m going to listen to my body and honor its needs. And I’m going to send love to all my internal systems for the amazing work they are doing!