What the Heart Reveals in a Beat

“I feel your anger in your pulse.”

Yet again my acupuncture physician revealed my heart to me. Immediately, she ignored my statement of “I’m okay” and began listening to my pulse.  She always seems to know when to dismiss my words for what my heart has to say.

It is not that I am being deliberately dishonest. My mind says I am fine but as Dr. Gold keeps reminding me, the pulse of my body–my heart—reveals the truth, no matter what that may feel like.

This time Dr. Gold showed me how to feel the anger in my pulse. I was stunned at feeling this bubble, this thickened middle of a single beat. I remember my mind flashing the word “sadness” but I focused only on the beat of my heart.

Currently, my life is one of movement, so much stirring and shifting physically and emotionally. It is exciting, this palpable energy I am discovering through traditional Chinese medicine, this literal listening to the beat of my heart.

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I feel as if I am sitting with a trusted friend for I am. It is a friend that allows my mind to reflect on but not to linger in what has passed. It is a lifeline for revisiting anger.

This broadening of the beat of my heart takes me first to the movie, Selma, and then to 1965 as I remember it. That August I would change labels—no longer just a child but now a teenager as well.

The Beatles had already arrived. The Civil Rights Act had passed. Lyndon Johnson had been elected president by the largest landslide in history. Martin Luther King recently received the Nobel Peace prize.

But what the movie Selma awakened in me was the feeling of that time.  Even in the sparsely populated, high-plains desert of Wyoming, it was obvious momentous change was on the horizon.

For all Americans this energy would explode into their living rooms mostly on black and white television screens for it was an anger of black and white.

The heartbeat of the Civil Rights movement was palpable after just one moment of watching televised events in Selma and the subsequent protests. It was energy, it was hope, and ultimately, it became a movement for all faiths and for all races as the five-day March on Montgomery would show the world.

There was a belief that we would overcome. And the fact that President Johnson used those very words in his televised speech on the Voting Rights Act shocked many and angered some.

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Fifty years later, we still fall short but ”tolerance, like any aspect of peace, is forever a work in progress, never completed, and if we’re as intelligent as we like to think we are, never abandoned” (Octavia Butler September 1, 2000 NPR interview with Scott Simon).

We may be struggling “to be the change we seek”—maybe that is the never-ending human struggle–sometimes a great cause and other times, a true movement.

Our world is now even smaller as we meet one another screen to screen on a daily basis—connected is the word bandied about—we are faced with all we are and are not. We are a work in progress, ever in motion.

For a moment, we can reflect on but not bring forward the hope of another time. We move along with the real pulse of life all around us, a collective heartbeat. And if we are angry, that is our pulse. It is our truth.

What if we all learn to listen to the heartbeat of our anger? It is more calming, this expanding of a heartbeat, than you may think for it is the truth of what one feels. In knowing the truth we find our way to compassion and possibly tolerance, once again taking up the banner of believing we will overcome.

What kind of world might be possible if we turn to our hearts for the truth, for the real pulse of our lives? Are we intelligent enough to try?

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Note: Tom Michael, who walked the miles from Selma to Montgomery, writes a thoughtful and powerful essay on that time. You will find it here.

Monarch Meditations on Butterfly Warriors

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It is just dark, the morning darkness that precedes every dawn, the stillness before the splash of the sun that becomes the light of day. This is the pause—the moment of stillness—before the stirring begins yet again.

Most mornings I immerse myself into the stillness—my meditative state I call it—for when I do, there is a shimmer to the day that seems to rub off onto me as well.

Yet, there are days upon leaving my sleep state that I am aware of a mind-body consensus considering “what if we just rest today” and not really awaken. Mind knows that skipping meditation means body will not have to stretch itself with yoga.

There is a cascade of memories—perfect in their replaying of such lazy pleasure—of what past days of rest have meant: comfort food, marathon movie watching, binge reading.

It is the escape offered to the day at hand. Almost always, I decline the escape route. But every time I do, there is an acknowledged appreciation for what that escape once meant. It remains an old friend rarely visited.

Instead, I sit and remember the warrior monarch butterfly, a true bodhisattva and a welcome memory on the mornings I hesitate to meditate. The complete metamorphosis of the butterfly reminds me why I meet each day I am given.

It is the butterfly who gives up one way of life after another—each stage fraught with life-ending possibilities—for to fly is to know the freedom of walking on air. From the stillness of the larva the caterpillar stirs to its search for sustenance, consuming one leaf after another.

There is a reward for all this eating, and it is not one of rest but rather it is the spinning of a pupa—the chrysalis—a chamber of life as tissue, limbs, and organs of a body that once crawled become a body that now flies.

No new life emerges until the old is transformed into what is necessary for the life that awaits.

And for the monarch warriors, there is a 2,500-mile migration critical to its survival, a quest that relies not on individual warrior monarchs but on all monarch warriors living their lives to ensure the species.

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The monarch warrior moves through one form of life after another without wondering about the ways of existence. Such consideration falls within the realm of the human species.

We yearn to be like the monarchs, warriors working together, not singularly, to ensure our species survival. We might ache for metamorphosis but we do not easily let go of our accumulated experiences, especially those that seem to require so much of us.

“We don’t want to go through that again,” we say, which we won’t, of course, not exactly. Perhaps the monarch warrior does know this.

We want to spread our wings without changing who we are. We are agreeable to making necessary changes—an adjustment of our very being—as long as we are allowed to keep what is most dear.

We may not be as fearless or as selfless as the warrior monarch but we are just as connected to existence. We are born with the capacity for complexity rather than the singularity of purpose of the warrior monarch.

I have to wonder just what the warrior monarch might know for it is my nature to wonder. And so I do. On most mornings in the stillness before the stirring begins yet again.

Releasing the Fragrance of Forgiveness

Lately, I have been writing about transformation, in particular the changes I am experiencing with my health. And this week, there is even better news. For the first time, my acupuncture physician felt all of my pulse points. For me, that is huge—to say it is remarkable is not an exaggeration.

It indicates more movement than stagnation. It is as if a way of life, a mindset, is dissolving, breaking up. There is still some stagnation but the decline is being reversed as my cell structure changes in my body’s attempt to balance itself.

Transformation offers what has never been. If not a new body, literally, then a body and a being “falling in love with life, again” as reader Val Boyko so generously offered in the comments on last week’s post.

That more life is pulsing through me accounts for my increased energy level; also, it seems accurate to say—now–that my pain level is also in decline, albeit a slow one.

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Transformation occurs in its own time—patience is essential–but the benefits are life-changing, literally. I find I am more present in each moment. I do not want to miss any of the unfolding of any day so I am less likely to pay attention to mindset. There is so much new to explore.

Still, the mind prefers calling up the tried and true of old, a series of steps followed again and again until they are, well, set, as if in concrete. Mindsets are the known, limited in effect and thus, predictable, perhaps even stagnant.

Yet, I do not believe that a mindset is without its worth. Not at all. Rather, it is our own bank of experience. Mindset makes us who we are.

Mindset is what we bring to the moment we meet transformation. Then, we have a choice: same-old, same-old secure or the unknown of transformation.

“Patience, grasshopper” is a line I have met many times these last months yet sit I did and do still. My impatience is less for I found that in being patient, one finds forgiveness, the ability to let go of the debt that accrues from all regret. It is the way to open one’s heart to all.

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Not a Violet but a Petal

Not surprisingly, I returned to a favorite quote. Forgiveness is the “fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Though often attributed to Mark Twain (since the 1970s), it seems its present form is a compilation of phrases from centuries past.

No doubt the thought stays with us for forgiveness is such a struggle for humans.

There is a firm delicacy in a violet petal forgiving the heel that crushes the life out of it. Soon, the fragrance dissipates but it lingers just longer than life. That is forgiving the debt.

The fragrance reminds that in forgiveness we are transformed–a mindset shattered for what is yet to come with no regret of what has been.

Transformation requires we accept every step we have ever taken; it requires we acknowledge every action or decision, given or received. None can be undone. All steps are ours to own, to accept, and to release.

As always, forgiveness—a journey deep and often dark—begins within us. We cannot offer to others what we do not give to ourselves. In the moment we accept all that we have been, we release the fragrance of forgiveness.

We focus not on what crushes us but on what releases us.

Losing a Mind-Set and Gaining a Life

My first post for 2014 considered aim for even as a way to live. I saw it something like this: in every experience I give what I am able to give, mindful that no two occurrences are the same no matter how similar they seem.

Remembering that uniqueness is not easy but is key to maintaining my balance. If I offer more than I am able to give or if I give less than is possible, I miss my mark.

In 2014, I aimed high and low aplenty but by year’s end I found myself more and more in the middle—in balance, even—as I let go of a  mind-set that skewed my aim.

Letting go meant giving up tried and true ways that comforted—at times even protected me—from the chronic pain inherent in my life. The subconscious is not easily dissuaded for it has had a lifetime to fine tune what comforts in order to cope. It’s its own infinite loop.

It would take me most of 2014 to break out of this mind-set. I wrote about it—a lot—on this blog.

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In “The Winds of Change,” I believed I was slowly but surely losing my ability to walk. My response was I would adapt, like always. After all, I have an active online life and a great picture window with a view of the woods.

By September, “Some Awareness My Way Came”  in the form of spinal and cognitive issues. Yet, I would need another warning from my body that old ways would no longer serve. My kidneys sent a short but clear message.

“Only in Expanding My Cone of Habit” did I begin to dismantle the mind-set that had comforted me for decades. I turned to traditional Chinese medicine believing I had nothing left to lose. As I would discover, I had a lot to lose.

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Transformation leaves behind habits of a life lived. There is no “getting my life back.” Life anew is an accumulation of every misstep, every revelation I experience. The stuff of transformation is recognizing that the great teachers in one’s life have always been there.

One of mine is chronic pain. Our relationship has changed completely. I no longer need to cope because I no longer fear pain, emotional or physical. I no longer fear pain spiraling out of control. Rather, I sit with my emotions as my body sends sensations.

I aim for even.

My transformation is far from complete but the changes I am experiencing I cannot explain other than through my new relationship with pain. I walk–slowly–without any limp and am just beginning to take short—really short—walks.

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Every day, and I mean EVERY day, I have a level of energy, something I lost decades ago. On the same day, I can complete errands, do some housework, and write–if necessary. Nine months ago, I thought I would live from my adjustable bed.

The pain is not gone but the mind-set is. There is no seeking comfort to mask the pain. Rather, there is the slow movement of yoga and the stillness of meditation, the balance of acupuncture. And there is food that fuels the biological changes taking place in my body rather than inflaming it.

Every day, I aim for even.

As I was writing this post, I kept trying to find ways to impart what aim for even might look like separate from chronic illness. August McLaughlin seemed to read my mind when she posted this graphic in her wonderful blog post.

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She captures aim for even beautifully. In giving what we are able to give, no more and no less, we resolve to live life as the ebb and flow that it is. We keep ourselves afloat.

Finding Refuge on the Eve of the Winter Solstice

It is early morning on the eve of the winter solstice, neither dark nor light but both—in a way. Even for north Florida, it is cold. I have the car heater on low as I drive to St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf of Mexico.

It is perfect winter solstice weather.

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The solstice celebrates the dark during a season given to light, a reminder that in light there is always dark. Yin-Yang. Oneness.

And there is the inherent stillness of the solstice. The increasingly dark and deepening autumnal sleep culminates in the pivotal moment of the winter solstice.

After this day, every dawn will mean more light and less night, as slumber gives way to the awakening of the spring solstice.

Every year, I write these words or similar ones regarding the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. Usually, I celebrate the event with a walk around Waverly Pond but this has not been a year of “doing things as usual,” even holiday traditions.

Rather, it has been a year of firsts. Some may mean new traditions for me, among them driving to St. Mark’s on the eve of the solstice. Perhaps more than any other season of my life, I am immersed in transformation.

It is not surprising that I am drawn to the Refuge where transformation is in evidence everywhere.

Areas of longleaf pine stand stark in their burnt orange and black beauty against gray, morning skies. Wiregrass is the color of wheat ready to harvest.

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It is the season for prescribed or controlled burning, a matter of survival for the longleaf and wiregrass ecosystems. They depend upon the transformation fire brings–first alight with flame and then, darkness.

Transformation always involves the falling away of things we have relied on,

and we are left with the feeling that the world as we know it is coming to an end

because it is.

(Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening)

As I look across saltwater marshes in seasonal slumber—timeless transformation–I cannot imagine being anywhere else on this dark, gray morning on the eve of the winter solstice.

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In the quiet dark, I am mindful of the necessity of letting go in life. It takes time, transformation does, time to awaken to the light of a life yet to come, time to welcome the world anew.

Mindfulness gives you time. Time gives you choices. Choices, skillfully made, lead to freedom.

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

The solstice seasonal slumber reminds me to quiet myself, to observe the dark that is as much a part of this festive season as is the light. In the stillness of the dark, the light swirls.

On the marshes of St. Mark’s on the eve of this winter solstice, I let a life lived end as a life I have not begins. Each ending is yet a beginning, a time for slumber in anticipation of awakening anew.

In keeping with the light and dark of the season, regular blog posts will return in 2015.

The Magical Spice of the Gingerbread House

Perhaps the real spice in ginger is its magic, similar to the sparkle more in evidence this time of year than during other seasons. Resembling ginger’s spice, there is a warming of hearts and sometimes, even the healing of them. Of course, that’s where the magic is.

Ginger, and in particular gingerbread, has been associated with Christmas since the 17th century when gingerbread became a popular art form across Europe. It was in the 1800s when the Germans began baking and building gingerbread (lebkuchen) houses.

Hansel 1214The popularity of these houses coincided with the publication of a Grimm’s fairytale about “Hansel and Gretel,” two children who could not resist eating a gingerbread house. Very few people ever have, young or old.

Gingerbread houses are still associated with the holidays, a remembrance of one way the magic is celebrated. After all, gingerbread houses have their own kind of magic, rather like the hearts of children in any season but during Christmas, well….

You can see it in their eyes every day of the season, reflected in the soft glow of colored lights, mirrored in the round, red baubles hanging from the branch of a Christmas tree.

If you are fortunate enough to catch a child’s image in a bulb, you might also look more closely into what the ornament reveals for you. It is not as if the magic excludes.

It is as if we are once again that child in stolen moments wondering just what awaits us. Perhaps wishing for a certain gift or just being dazzled by the sparkle of everywhere we look. The scent of the freshly cut tree, an aroma reserved for one time of year only.

As an adult I may be mostly Buddhist but I delight in remembering the Christmases of holiday seasons past. Also, IGretel 1214 am almost child-like in enjoying the wonders of this giving season, be it gingerbread houses or their creators with their works in progress.

For me, there is no greater love than in the eyes of these two children, my great-niece and great-nephew. In their home, they carry on their family tradition of celebrating Christmas. They share it with me—some 2,000 miles away—courtesy of their grandmother’s love—and her camera.

The Artist 1214Every time I look at these photos, it is Christmas.

And yes, there is my naïve hope that the heart of the giving season—the magic that the heart of a child knows—will stay as the heart of the world this year and not be boxed up with the shiny bulbs and colored lights.

We can hold onto the spirit of the season—there is no need to keep it locked away for another year—its spice will sustain us, heal us like the ginger so necessary for a gingerbread house.

The spirit opens our hearts in ways we find difficult—even impossible–during other seasons. Increasingly, we are weary of the shininess of the season yet we thrill to the glow of colored lights, imagining lives behind windows in gingerbread houses, as if magic only lived in the imagination.

It does not. It lives within our hearts.

Any child can remind us on any day. It is for us to return to a moment in our lives–maybe it’s Christmas or maybe it’s not–when we believed in magic, the spice that heals.

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If We Learn to Read Hearts

There is one gift appropriate in any season or on any occasion. It is the gift of relationship. After all, we are always in relationship, one of the many miracles we experience every day.

Most miracles have a certain sparkle, and relationship is no exception. Eckhart Tolle says in this amazing miracle “ultimately, you are not a person but a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself.”

Here we are, having this remarkable experience as human beings, born with this and without that but physically each of us travels the life cycle from two major states, birth and death. What happens in-between those two events is the unique, individual experience of you and me.

It is not as if we reside in existence, it is that we are existence having these individual experiences. And it is not just about humans, either. It’s everything we can imagine and all we cannot.

The flower is aware of the fact that it contains everything within it, the whole cosmos, and it does not try to become something else.

Thich Nhat Hanh

No matter how many ways I write about relationship or how many quotes I find, I am astounded by the reality of always being in relationship. Often, its immensity is beyond my grasp.

I look to the elephant as the creature that most embodies relationship.

Elephants define family beyond any words we have ever written. For elephants, relationship is forever, absolutely essential to life and not broken with death. Elephants remember their dead, travelling miles to visit graveyards.

It seems a miracle that elephants maintain this richness of relationship as they come closer and closer to extinction. Yet, these loving and compassionate beings know what we have not learned: they are always in relationship for everywhere they go, there they are.

“They can read your heart” are the words of Daphne Sheldrick, a woman who has, for 50 years, given love and created family for orphaned elephants. It is the kind of story that always opens our hearts—giving season or no—sometimes, we donate to such a cause but what of learning to read hearts?

Not living as separate from existence but as existence experiencing itself is learning to read each other’s heart. Like the elephants, we must have the physical touch, comfort, and compassion of family—no matter how family is defined.

We must learn to read hearts so that when family is lost, family is created again, and we are not orphans. We have role models such as Daphne Sheldrick. We need not be orphans. We need only to read hearts.

Note: This writer and this blog thank Zen Flash for the post and video on Daphne Sheldrick and the orphan elephants.