I am the Ocean

February 6, 2017

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I am the ocean.

I am the ocean.

I am the ocean.

This meditation that I learned from Tara Brach is the only one that brings me peace right now. When I wonder how my splayed-open heart is going to make it through our national horror show, I remember that I am the ocean, and while my grief and terror may be mighty waves, they cannot consume me. The ocean that is my true nature can hold them all.

We, the people, are the ocean of our roiling country. The waves are breaking constantly, some seem purposefully to be tsunamis. I pray that our democracy is deep and wide enough to see them dissipate in her vastness.

Zen Buddhist priest Karen Maezen Miller writes in her beautiful book Paradise in Plain Sight, “The nature of life is impermanence. One day it will get your attention.” Life has indeed gotten my attention. As a young girl in the 70’s being raised by a feminist mother, I grew up singing “Free to Be You and Me”:

There’s a land that I see where the children are free

And I say it ain’t far to this land from where we are…  

I see a land bright and clear, and the time’s comin’ near,

When we’ll live in this land, you and me, hand in hand…

And you and me are free to be you and me.

I know this vision of our country did not yet fully exist for everyone, and many have suffered horrendously in its pursuit. I believed though that we were headed there. At recent protests and at the Women’s March, I felt it still.

There is so much to fathom about our democracy’s potential demise. I grieve the thought of living in a country that does not prize compassion as one of its highest values. My greatest fear is that my child’s young life will end instantly in a nuclear war.

This national, international and earthly calamity hit at a time when I had lost my confidence in a God that can or will help. I’m embarrassed to have had such an understanding in the first place – surely if such a power existed, there would have been no slavery, no Holocaust, no Hiroshima, no Sandy Hook, no desperate refugee families refused at America’s door.

Then I watched the documentary White Helmets about the Syrian volunteers who dig for survivors and pull the dead bodies of their neighbors, families and fellow citizens out of buildings bombed by their own government. The White Helmets’ incredibly loving service in the midst of unspeakable horror is one of the most stunning and humble examples of Goodness manifest. For me, it is God.

I know that goodness exists everywhere and, I believe, within everyone, however covered up by our crap, or as the Buddhists would say, our ignorance. I am choosing to rest my hope for our country’s salvation on each of us rising to the occasion from our true nature whether we are a judge in Seattle, a Republican Senator who can stomach it no longer, a mother trying to make life feel normal for her child, or thousands of volunteer lawyers showing up at airports to help the stunned, stranded and bereft.

Journalist Sarah Kendzior writes, in this must-read piece (among all of her must-read reporting), “Do not accept brutality and cruelty as normal even if it is sanctioned. Protect the vulnerable and encourage the afraid. If you are brave, stand up for others. If you cannot be brave – and it is often hard to be brave – be kind.”

I do not know if goodness will win this time, but I hope so. Regardless, I will take great heart in the millions of mighty acts of love that have already begun rolling in like waves. I pray that I will breathe and remember that I too am the ocean, and that I will be brave and kind.

One day in yoga many months ago, I prayed to God, “Please let me feel you.”  The response I heard was, “I am you.” I think perhaps this is what God meant.

Church

January 23, 2017

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Moral Courage

December 2, 2016

As I sit through a dark night of my soul and that of our country, and sort out what I need to say, I want to share this sermon by Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles. She is my heroine when it comes to a spiritual leader’s use of her pulpit. Rabbi Brous gives perfect voice to what I want my son, when he is old enough, to know and act upon as well.

from IKAR’s website:

“November 19 – Shabbat Vayera
This. Is. Not. Normal.
To my daughter, who becomes bat mitzvah in a time of moral crisis for our nation: Practice resistance. Step up. Speak out. Don’t cozy up to power; don’t forget that your inheritance is willful opposition. Honor your moral intuition and remember that this is not normal.

Choosing My Life

June 26, 2016

“… we begin to sense a larger possibility that calls our heart and our soul towards our own natural awakening.” (Tara Brach, Talk, 6.1.2016)

I have a different sense of God lately. When in calm or desperate moments, I breathe low and shift my attention back and out from center; there I find Her. She is wide, free and kind. She doesn’t judge. I like to think that Her awareness is of the same Awareness that is present in everyone and is also greater than all of us. I understand better now how to surrender. The boundaries of me-Her ebb against the River of Life and, though I am scared to, She merges willingly and trusts the current to take us where we are meant to go.

With each mass shooting, each whole family murdered by an abuser with a gun, and each child accidentally killed with an unsecured firearm, I wonder when or if things are ever going to change. I beg God to please help our country. May we be safe. May my loved ones be safe. May all beings be safe. Yet that kind of prayer doesn’t seem to work, at least not on my small-mind timeline. The killings keep happening. Every day. There are scores of new grieving families every day.

I wonder now if it is not an external Being that is going to help us, but the God within each of us. I imagine that most gun owners and most members of Congress want the same safety for their families that I want for mine, even if we differ on the means of ensuring it. Were we each somehow to access and make decisions from our greater nature – that which encompasses peace, compassion and a fire that serves all humanity –  perhaps we could find meeting ground to save our children’s lives.

One of my favorite experiences in divinity school this year was interviewing several classmates about their understanding of God: what formed it and how it has changed over time. Listening to each of them share so sincerely about their traditional and off-the-beaten-path ideas and experiences of the Sacred was quite moving. Though this blog is an exploration of what God feels like in my own life and body, I do not want to tell anyone what they are to believe about their Higher Power. The children’s book Old Turtle by Douglas Wood speaks to how I feel about anything that insists that “my God is better than yours”:

But the people forgot.

They forgot that they were

A message of love,

And a prayer from the earth.

 

And they began to argue…

About who knew God,

And who did not;

And where God was,

And was not

And whether God was,

Or was not.

 

I went to divinity school because I thought that to reach people’s deep hearts, I needed more depth of knowledge about God, more than my experiential understanding. I had hoped to understand Jesus’s being and learn to interpret his teachings as the contemplatives do, recognizing now that this likely comes over the course of a lifetime (or more) and by the heart and mind sitting in silence. I uprooted my family and moved away from my home state even though I was told by a psychic that it l didn’t look right for me, and I was warned by a meditating priest to “run the other direction.”

I quit divinity school recently because what I was actually meant to learn was courage.

“It seems like something broke in you,” said my blessed mentor after a professor’s criticism of a paper led to copious tears. It had been a long time since I’d felt so belittled after giving my best (which, admittedly, was not very good by academic standards, but was indeed the best I could do within the boundaries of motherhood, marriage and self-care). When my son sweetly laid his head on my shoulder the next morning, it was balm for the wound.

What broke, actually, was my lifelong pursuit of outside validation of who I am, what God is for me, and the worthiness of what I have to give. That, I believe, was the River’s intent in getting me here.

Sarah Norris, my beautifully-spirited Nashville yoga teacher, often says as we lay in savasana with hands on hearts, “This is the life you choose.”  I chose to sit in a hard lecture hall seat this past year when I prefer to learn (and pray) sitting cross-legged on a mat, and it forced me to finally choose my soul’s path, instead of someone else’s.

I didn’t know that my “natural awakening” (for now at least) would happen like this. Its authenticity is freeing and powerful. It has created more joy in my family. I will never be a scholar nor will I ever walk solely on any one path. What I will do though is teach from who I am and share my own truth. At long last, that is enough for me.

Love

February 21, 2016

This morning in a rare moment of quiet conversation while our three-year-old son slept late, I asked my husband, “Why did you let me go to divinity school if you think it is a bunch of hooey?” He responded, “The realization that I might not be right.”

Little Arms

August 11, 2015

My family and I moved to Nashville so I can attend Divinity School and our son can grow up surrounded by music, progressive community and a church we love. My husband is also starting a new career after seven years of intense preparation. We are all glad to be here and at least one of us is also a little freaked out. “Will you be scared to go to your school?” my three-year-old asks, wondering if his own apprehension is okay to feel. “Yes,” I tell him, “because it matters a lot to me.” What I don’t say is that this will also be the first time my sweet son is going to pre-school every day and I will miss him. I fear losing our connection.

During the long hours of my husband’s training, I complained often about the resulting days of solo parenting. At times I felt desperate for a small break from lone responsibility for the all of the immediate needs of a small human being – entertaining, calming, teaching, feeding, protecting, bathing, changing, consoling and negotiating. There were bedtimes where I prayed for Divine intervention to help me through the last 30 minutes. There were regret and amends-making for losing my patience with my strong-willed boy.

Then I’d lifTandEsnugglingt up him up for our last hugs of the day, he would nestle his arms between us and rest his head on my shoulder, and I would be grateful for all of the two-of-us time. I get to experience feeling intertwined with his soul.

One morning after a wrenching pre-school drop-off with my son’s teacher hurrying me along and my child begging for one more hug, I went to yoga instead of my part-time job. My head and heart were torn in opposite directions “Should I have snatched him back and run out of the school? … They tell me he’s ok…. Am I failing him?… No, he loves being with friends…. A good mother would work during nap and at night instead of putting him in daycare.”

In the middle of class my teacher Meaghan told a Hindu tale of two sons:

One day Shiva and Parvati look out the window at their mango tree and see the most beautiful mango. They can’t decide to which of their two sons, Skanda or Ganesha, to give the mango. So they decide to have a contest: the fastest to race around the world will receive the fruit.

Skanda immediately takes off on his peacock around the world, while Ganesha sits down in meditation, perplexing his parents. Skanda returns ready to receive the mango. Ganesha arises from his meditation, circles his parents and says, “You are my world,” which earns him the mango.

I realized then that I am my son’s world – he is supposed to not want me to leave. My heart is supposed to ache when he aches. Being someone’s world, and doing it well, is a mighty purpose to fulfill. I fear that my stumbling and outright mistakes at parenting will scar him. I think, “if I only drink less caffeine, meditate more, do yoga but not be gone too much, stay by his side but not hover, keep him safe without filling him with fear, build a strong marriage, breathe, laugh, let go, hold him close” – maybe he will have a chance at a happy life and a strong sense of self.

I have now moved 1000 miles away from the hug of my own mother which, fortunately, is imprinted on my heart and my nervous system. As my son’s world opens further at his “Nashville preschool” (as he calls it), I pray that he will feel my love even when he is away from me. I recently met several Divinity School classmates for the first time and while listening to them talk about meaningful things – conversation I have long craved – I knew I had made the right choice to go back to school. After a couple of hours though, I drove home yearning to be with my husband and my child, who are my world.

I have been re-reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon for an infusion of the Great Mother before I dive into Christianity (and Eastern religions) in school. As a woman wanting to feel my real Self, and a wife and mother wanting to accept my imperfection, I pray often that I may be held in Loving-Kindness, as Tara Brach suggests in Radical Acceptance. While meditating recently on what feels like this more feminine aspect of God, Jesus showed up and said, “Let me change form.”

Ok, yes, I will.

Be my mothering, dear Jesus, comfort my son and inspire his joy when we are apart. Hold me like my own mother would when my heart is torn. Show up on occasion as the Great Mother, please. I need Her and you.

The Brea(st/d) of Heaven

August 30, 2014

A group of girlfriends, including our priest, humbly shared Communion around a circle. One mother of three small children handed the consecrated bread to the woman next to her and said accidentally, if appropriately, “The Body of Christ, the Breast of Heaven”. Much laughter ensued. I was moved by the potential meaning held in her unintentional substitution for the word “bread” – it remains an unforgettable Eucharist.

I wonder what it is like to breastfeed from God, to experience mutual need and devotion, intimacy and sustenance unlike any other. Do I already? Could I intentionally?

My son’s favorite part of church is what he calls “God’s Dinner”. It may be because he gets to move his little legs and see lots of people on our way up front, or it could be that he gets a snack. I think, however, he senses something more is happening. He seems in sweet awe as he holds his two-year-old palms up to receive this spiritual food. He has a skip in his step afterwards. Back in our pew, he always asks for more.

I experienced breastfeeding my son as a kind of sacrament, an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (Book of Common Prayer). In the wee dark hours, more than calories was transmitted. “Take, eat, this is my Body, which is given for you.” (BCP, Eucharistic Prayer II) It wasn’t my grace that flowed; it was the purest of God’s love feeding us both, and a passing of Peace between mother and babe.

It is no small feat to feed a child from your own body multiple times a day and night for weeks, months or years. During the harried moments of raising a baby into a toddler, it was within the calm of nursing that I remembered the profound nature of the mother role and what a privilege it is. A lot transpired in the 12-inch world we created between us in our blue denim rocking chair. It was there that my son rolled toy dump trucks and excavators across my chest, it was there we chanted about Sita and Ram during my yoga teacher training, and it was there we gazed into each other’s souls and fell deeper and deeper in love.

I often wonder, as I look at my son, if God loves me that completely. There were a few days last winter when I found myself saying, “I’m not a good person” because I had been bitchy, ungrateful, impulsive, and negative. These are the moments when I most want to contribute to God’s kingdom rather than take from it, and yet, I need time at the Breast of Heaven in order to right myself. I need to be held, to connect my soul with God, and to feel loved despite my shortcomings, maybe even, inclusive of them. Then I can be nudged towards what could be.

In the Hindu scripture The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna, the charioteer and teacher, gradually reveals himself to the warrior Arjuna as the Divine and as Arjuna’s immortal Self. Near the end of the story, he tells Arjuna that he loves him, that he is dear to him. I found this so touching. Could God also be this Self within me offering tender love and forgiveness to my imperfect, small “s” self?  

When people say “God loves you,” it feels like fluff to me, until I give credence to God’s love as I experience it – a surrounding presence within which I “live and breathe and have [my] being” (Acts 17:28). It is a healing energy that works its way into the inner reaches of my heart. It is as if I were a nursing baby and whenever I cry for my Mother, or even make a peep, She is there. This there-ness, that’s love to me.

Do we wean from God? As happens in a breastfeeding life cycle, I know that I have received highly personalized-for-each-stage-of-my-growth Divine nourishment. Sometimes I wonder if it is time for me to stop asking God for so much, and give what I already have. I don’t think, however, that I will ever grow out of needing to hear about Jesus’ vision of justice or tap in to his meditative presence. Nor can I imagine being beneficial for my family and the world without continually accessing a power greater than myself.  

I’m heartened that when weaning a child, allowing him to continue becoming his own self, his need for his mother is no less strong, and her love for him is no less fierce and no less present. This, I suspect, is how it is with God.

A Teacher and a Preacher

November 21, 2013

I honor the place in you in which the entire Universe dwells, I honor the place in you which is of Love, of Integrity, of Wisdom and of Peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are One.”

– The meaning of the Sanskrit salutation Namaste

If Christ is in me and Christ is in you, we have something in common. We are no longer separate. We are no longer separated by so many miles—or by race or class or disease. We have something of our essence in common.”

– Br. Mark Brown, Society of Saint John the Evangelist

These quotations reveal a poignant similarity between the two paths of spirituality I walk – yoga and a private relationship with Christ. I’ve only just begun to explore the depth and breadth of either path. This interweaving of the two expands my capacity to know God within myself and to recognize God in others, my life and the world.

I believe it was the goodness and strategy of God that brought me into the spheres of two mentors, one for each path, who continue to have great influence on me and what I hope to offer the world.

Meaghan de Roos is a deeply inspired yoga teacher and co-founder, with her husband Gil Elhart, of Breathe Yoga Center in Norfolk, Va. Her classes are structured, informative and powerful. Too many times to count, I have felt awakened by her clearly stated, profound words coupled with thoughtfully led movement. Once, just before I participated in a difficult work meeting, I heard her say in a morning class, “Rest in your own center with your own Source.” I repeated this mantra silently to myself during the meeting and came through with my dignity and integrity intact.

Whitney Zimmerman Edwards is a humbly-brilliant, Episcopalian priest. She was recently named rector of Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Westport, Ct. Years ago in a women’s Bible study in Richmond, Va., she said, “We each write our own gospel with our lives.” This seemed revolutionary to me: that the story of God continues to be written through me, and that my story matters. Last fall, in response to my questioning how God could allow incredible evil to be perpetrated against children, she wrote, “God is not a thing as much as the cosmic well from which is born any of the goodness, grace, peace and healing you and I have ever known.” I’ve been pondering that sentence for a year.

In the foreword to Eknath Eswaran’s translation of the Hindu scripture The Bhagavad Gita, he describes adventurers dedicated to “knowing the knower”:

Yet there are always a few who are not content to spend their lives indoors. Simply knowing there is something unknown beyond their reach makes them acutely restless… This is true of adventurers of every kind, but especially of those who seek to explore not just mountains or jungles, but consciousness itself: whose real drive, we might say, is not so much to know the unknown but to know the knower… every now and then, like friends who have run off to some exotic land, they send back breathless messages… ‘Look at this view! Isn’t it breathtaking?’” (pp. 7-8)

At young ages, both Meaghan and Whitney were led to seek the Divine and testify to the deeper meaning of our existence. Each practices and, in her own authentic way, builds upon an ancient tradition. They send back “breathless messages” and lay paths and lend guiding hands for others to make their own journey.

Their respective ministries – one delivered in a studio, the other in a church – have led me to believe that both traditions can be mine and that I can delve into their synergies. It is going to require a commitment to deep study of the teachings of Jesus and an embodied investigation of the spiritual realm of yoga revealed through intense physical, meditative and breathing practices.

Day after day, Meaghan and Whitney give of their real and evolving selves to the healing of others and, as a result, the healing of the world. It takes great courage and a deep-rooted sense of purpose to be a seer who tells what she’s seen and admits she yearned to seek it in the first place.

I’m honored that both agreed to let me share with you a small glimpse into who they are and why I find them so inspiring. They both responded separately to the following set of emailed questions.

What in your life experience has most shaped your spiritual journey and what you believe to be true?

Meaghan: When I was 20 years old and a sophomore in college I developed an eating disorder that started as bulimia and progressed to full blown anorexia. I was at a cross roads where I had to decide if I wanted to live or die. I truly believe that my eating disorder was actually a deep longing for a fulfilled life, a searching for a connection to God, to something bigger than myself. Existing in the silence I was creating between my body and mind was a longing connected to my soul’s desire for healing and wholeness. That longing could be expressed in two ways: that of disconnect, cruelty, inward violence, and separation, or that of growth, connection to spirit, and a putting back together of fragmentation, therefore the possibility of wholeness. What I believe to be true from this experience is that there is shadow and there is light in all of us and that both are born of the desire to be at peace and to be happy, whole and free. In order to truly live in the light we have to be equally willing to be in the vulnerability of the shadow, of what we fear, and what causes us pain. We can’t selectively have one and numb the other. This is the fullness of life. And to me, it is what makes life worth breathing.

Whitney: Not long after my brother’s incarceration, our father drank until he died, and our mother did the same, only a little more slowly. I was left to my own devices at such a young age that I shudder to think what could have happened after leaving home with few possessions and a load of pain. But what did happen, instead, was grace, in the form of a grandmother who needed me almost as much as I needed her.

I was never allowed to visit my brother in a prison deep in the south. But a short ways down the river that ran beneath my bedroom window, there was a jail. So, I began my search there, which as best I could tell was the closest I could get to him and the events which had laid waste to our family and my innocence.

I didn’t go to jail looking for my life’s purpose: I went to find fellowship with the broken, the burdened and the blamed. I sought kinship in those who had suffered evils not spoken of in polite company and among them I came to know beauty beyond all evidence to the contrary and forgiveness for that which I cannot understand. And, most unexpectedly, in between the bars and gates and rolls of razored wire I kept meeting this character Jesus, who, it seems, had long awaited me. Jesus, who stretched out his arms upon the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace, was there living among men who had known and caused suffering beyond measure.

I went to prison looking for what had broken in me and by the grace of God I found Jesus and returned home every evening to tell my grandmother about him.  And somewhere, on that short stretch of river between the two, I was saved.

What is God to you? What kind of trust do you place in that God? How do you believe God works in your life?

Meaghan:  I have always felt a sense of connection to something bigger than myself. Early in life that was an experience of God in the way that people told me, as a man with a white beard and staff that lived in heaven and determined one’s goodness based on how one behaved. Over time my image of God became freer and more personal. It was later in life, in a class with my teacher Seane Corn, that I heard her describe God as the manifestation of truth and love. That really resonated with me and is most in alignment with how I experience God. God is the manifestation of truth and love in all things, a blade of grass, the ocean, an animal’s sweet face, a baby, a spider, the greatest joys in life, the deepest sorrow. There is no limit or separation in this manifestation of truth and love, and it is recognition of the goodness innately in all. I place enormous trust in my belief that everything in my life is happening to bring me to a greater understanding of truth and love. That means the easy moments in my life and, most definitely, the challenging ones. The stickier it gets, the more I squirm, the more I know God is all over it.

Whitney:  I long for God in ways that surprise, feed and compel me.  I was first able to articulate that longing as a teenager.  I found myself in the midst of the Rose Test Gardens in Portland, an impossibly beautiful and fragrant spot. Looking at the snowcapped Mt. Hood, with a petal in my fingertips and the fragrance on the hot, dry air I had this perfect and fleeting moment of bliss and at that very moment I heard in my mind “this is what grace is”. I also realized that I have chosen to ignore grace by closing myself off to it countless times. Until that point I don’t ever remember wondering or caring about the nature of grace, but suddenly my senses had proven the means by which I could understand an aspect of God. God is pure gift: delight, beauty, life, hope, wholeness, and God pursues me with much more faithfulness than I have ever pursued God. The more time I spend with God the more any worries, fears, anxieties and wounds of life take their proper place in my consciousness.

What did it take to put yourself out there?

Meaghan: I don’t know if I ever would have pictured myself getting up in front of people day after day giving instruction, offering insight into yoga as I have experienced it through my life, and hopefully creating a container where people can feel truly seen and held. Truth is, I was a painfully shy and introverted child who liked the safety of my own home and the feeling of my own bed. I couldn’t look a stranger in the eyes without a ripple of terror pulsing through my body. My parents pushed me to do it anyway, and although there was a time in my life when I resented them for it, I am extremely grateful now. I am still introverted and it requires a lot of my energy to teach yoga in the way that I do. There have been times along the way that I have questioned if I am cut out to do this work, but every time I sit with that question I am absolutely clear that this is my dharma (purpose). I know because it is where I am asked to learn the most about myself and how I want to show up on this planet. It asks me to grow in ways I couldn’t otherwise. It asks a lot of me because it is through my teaching that I am coming to understand why I am here.

Whitney:  My early story is a sad one, one that I do not tell often, but it deeply informs my care for others.  I have known pain so intimately that others’ pain does not frighten me.  Suffering is inevitable yet dreaded by all.  It is never welcome and yet it refines the soul like fire.  Our silly concerns, wasteful anxieties and selfish pursuits tend to burn off in the fires of pain and whenever that happens real and meaningful healing is possible, in the way that these epic fires burning across the West will prove the forests, making the conditions just right for an even healthier stand than there was before.  I am honored to draw close to people in those terrible moments and remind them of a strength they possess not to endure but to flourish; helping them navigate their fear and discover more of themselves and God in the process.

What do you see in your students or parishioners that you wish they could see?

Meaghan: I see myself in every student that comes to class. I see the vulnerability of what it means to be alive on the planet at this time. I see how connected and alike we all are despite our surface level differences. I see the courage, strength and dedication it takes to make a commitment to practice yoga and develop a willingness to bump up against what is uncomfortable. I see the beauty and the wisdom that is expressed in each individual as I witness a collective moving and breathing together. I see what it means to choose a different path, one that is not ordinary or easy. I see the sacrifices that are made to carve out that bit of time to be on a yoga mat in a life that is busy and filled with responsibility. Most of all I see God…the manifestation of truth and love embodied through the practice both on and off the mat. And it gives me hope.

Whitney: God is in everyone.  I am dedicated to witnessing to that and celebrating it.