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Ongoing Inquiry into Hope

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I have been reflecting on hope — as I experience the spring unfold. The buds going from tight and hard to gently unfurling, the tiny blue flowers poking up through the hard ground, the forsythia broadcasting its yellow triumphant hue for all to see. Along with noticing the way the plant beings step into the light, withstand the shock of unexpected snow, rejuvenate after various blights, I have wondered what to take to heart about their way – that seems filled with hope – that growth is possible, that healing happens, that beauty returns.

Bolstering these musings is this quote from a book I just read: I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown. She writes:

So I have learned not to fear the death of hope. I don’t really want to re­count all the ways that hope has let me down; it’s so damn painful. But all of this comes with living, with struggling, with believing in the possibility of change. The death of hope gives way to a sadness that heals, to anger that inspires, to a wisdom that empowers me the next time I get to work, pick up my pen, join a march, tell my story.

In the Buddhist way, hope is not encouraged – being with what is, noticing, observing, having compassion, witnessing – all this is encouraged but not hope per se. I appreciate Austin Channing Brown’s teaching – that letting go of hope connects her to feelings and a sense of how to move forward.

As I was writing this, I came across this passage, written by Reverend Elizabeth Nguyen, a local colleague. Her words captured so beautifully some of my inner dialogue:

This week is Lunar New Year, celebrated by Vietnamese folks as Tết. In my family it means lighting incense on altars, honoring ancestors, red envelopes of money and feasting on candied dried coconut and winter melon for a sweet new year. It means calling out “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!”(Happy New Year!). It means remembering the ancestors of mine who found a way to hope in the midst of war and immigration and loss and violence.

In the face of…uncertainty and brokenness, I’ve been thinking a lot about hope…One of my mentors shared a powerful insight: that given the violence and racism, the power of white supremacy and depth of greed in our world, I’m not in a place where I can think myself into hope. Any attempt to logic my way into hope ends in despair. What I can do is put myself in the way of beauty, art and the things outside logic…
….We may not have reason to hope, but if we put ourselves in the way of it enough, we may remember how to believe in it.

I so appreciate these two writers’ words, and their outlook is helping me as I sit with what feels like the seductive nature of despair or the perennial questions about whether or not it is “worth it” to hope.

I believe we are not here to simply hope for a better future. Nor are we here to despair of things never changing. Rather I believe we are here to remember we are human. We are here to deeply understand the specific and particular way we have shown up in this lifetime. We are here to experience being human and to be challenged to expand our heart, to sit with pain, to deepen our capacity for compassion – for ourselves and others. We are here to listen – to witness others’ true stories – without advice or platitudes or guilt or condescension. We are here to notice our desire to hope for something “better” and to step in to what we are called to right now. Where can we speak up? How can we remain vulnerable when/if we feel threatened? What helps us let our heart expand with compassion when it wants to shrink and shield itself into “us and them?” How can our breath be supported? Can we be tender with the human impulse to avoid others’ suffering? How can we learn to ask for support? Can we encourage ourselves and others to stay with whatever is arising right now and to find generosity within – to hear, to feel, to give?

Pema Chodron writes: “We could say that looking for alternatives is the only thing that keeps us from realizing that we’re already in a sacred world.” (from When Things Fall Apart). As the daffodil blooms and the red-winged blackbird builds its nest, I feel the pull to remember that the more than human world reaches towards light; it reminds me to find the sacred in each and every moment; it calls me to show up fully as myself and to be with others as heart-fully as possible, Our human incarnation is a sacred opportunity not to aim for hope but to believe that there are always steps towards repair, healing, growth, and connection.

Waterfalls of Love

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One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Buddha is:

You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection

Why do I keep coming back to this quote? Every once in a while I get an intense deeply felt sense of the waterfalls of love available to us – pouring out from the sky, the earth, the trees. Some call the source of this waterfall of love the Divine, others Allah, others HP, some just the beautiful silver maple on the main road at the Arboretum. Sometimes, when I catch a whiff of this abundance of love I am transported, and I can feel the connections, interconnections, possibilities, and oneness. Other times, I notice the experience of Love is almost unbearable – I can’t completely let it in. If I were to let it in, to truly and fully hold myself in a place of being beloved, I would then know/feel/trust/be in the truth that each and every person is held in this ocean of love as well. Being in that truth is still, at times, more than my humble human heart can truly bear, so I dip my toe in, let go of whatever self-recriminations I can, step into the present moment, where the past and the future do not exist, and open myself to however much my heart can hold.

In this toe-dipping process, I catch a glimpse of how every choice, act, decision, skillful or unskillful at the time, was my own version of how a plant seeks the light, how a flower follows the sun. At each major juncture, I have been reaching for the understanding of how to be – how to become conscious of who I came into this world to be, what my family offered and what they were not able to give, ways in which my blind spots took over, times I had the courage to be my authentic self, choices to shed layers upon layers of stuck habits, old beliefs, and unconscious patterns.

“Deserving love and affection” can sound soft or undemanding. However, in this human being process, it is actually one of the most demanding paths of all – to love ourselves – and others – no matter what. To turn a mirror towards ourselves and notice the painful truths of our imperfections and inadequacies and missteps and still choose to love ourselves. To know that each time we stretch our capacity to love ourselves we also are more able to love others. In choosing love, we can listen, consider others’ points of view, be patient, and find forgiveness.  In choosing love, we can set limits, create boundaries, speak up, and take action. The waterfalls are available to us – if we have the courage to step under.

 

Adam and Eve Reimagined

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For years I have been wondering about the creation story of Adam and Eve. Whether one is part of the Judeo-Christian lineage or not, the energy of this story permeates those raised in the Western world. Reimagining this story has been a goal of mine for a while…as my studies and inner understanding has brought me to a place where I absolutely reject the idea of “original sin” or “guilt” as a motivating factor for humans. We are beloved no matter what. We exist in human form to learn how to be human, which includes our imperfection. There is no shame in imperfection – just the humble understanding that we continually forget and remember and forget how absolutely lovable we – and everyone else – is.

Here is the latest reimagining:

Once upon a time, Great Consciousness had a yearning to create. Love was expanding and bursting and swirling. Love burst out into billions of shiny sparks of energy that expanded throughout the universe and poured forth; the world was created. Out of light and darkness came the sun and the moon, the sea beings and the land animals. The birds swooped, and trees and flowers and fruits and vegetables blossomed. Great Consciousness loved the world and all the creations and was filled with peace.

Love then created the first humans, Adam and Eve.  Great Consciousness loved Adam and Eve, who explored the Garden and loved all that was created.

One day they saw an amazing Tree. Great Consciousness had originally told them they were not yet ready to taste of the Tree. That day they felt ready and they tasted the Tree’s fruit. When they ate the energy that surged through them was nearly unbearable. The intensity of Love and Understanding was almost too much. They sought a quiet place in the Garden to meditate.

Later that day, they felt the breath of Great Consciousness and heard the question, “Where are you?” Adam and Eve did not know how to answer; they were not ready to completely reconnect to the Breath of Love. Again the call went out: “Where are you?”  Adam and Eve heard and still did not know how to answer. They were trying to absorb the new feelings and ideas they were experiencing. They understood that they could not stay in the Garden of Eden forever because they could not truly grow there. Great Consciousness asked again, “Where are you?” and Adam and Eve felt Great Consciousness’s love pouring out towards them. They suddenly understood that to be human meant that suffering and pleasure were experiences they had to go through. They understood that they would be loved no matter what – that they were simply going to develop their humanness. Great Consciousness was and had always been and always would be within and all around them; they simply had to remember.

There was no shame in eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve had trusted their own inner authority and the connection to the source of Love that was guiding them. There was no punishment in the eating – simply awareness that the human experience would include great suffering and great possibility of deep abiding connection to Great Consciousness.

But it was too much to truly understand and hold so as the story of their creation was told generation to generation and as the experiences of suffering mixed with times of connection continued, humans developed a false sense that perfection was the goal, that they were inherently unlovable unless they somehow did everything perfectly or gave up their inner authority to someone else. From time to time a human would appear to remind them that Love was available – completely available – to everyone no matter what. That each human holds this divine spark of Love and Connection deep within and as they let that spark shine Great Consciousness breathes fully within and all around them, which allows Light and Love to flow to the next human, reminding each one in turn that they are completely lovable – right now, as they are.

The Courage to Change

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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.