Slow Down: Savoring the Practice of Pausing November 30, 2023 10:00
If you prefer to listen to this month's offering, click HERE for the audio link.
At various times throughout this month, I have received several nudges from the universe to slow down. For example, as I was driving home from school a couple weeks ago, I slowed down while entering a roundabout. I heard a car horn beeping behind me, and from my side mirror, I saw a small blue car. Inside, a cranky man was shaking his fist at me, urging me to go-go-go.
Apparently, he didn’t notice the giant “YIELD” sign to our right—or the three cars whipping around the circle from the left, which motivated me to slow down and pause.
I gestured toward the fast-moving cars—but cranky man just shook his head in frustration. When it was safe, I entered the circle. Cranky man in the little blue car buzzed by me, irritated, agitated, and totally unaware that I was not just looking out for myself, but I was looking out for him and others as well.
Another nudge from the universe came in the form of a poem that I came across by one of my all-time favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye. This poem, “Every Day,” is from her collection A Maze Me: Poems for Girls, published in 2005.
My hundred-year-old, next-door neighbor told me:
Every day is a good day, if you have it.
I had to think about that a minute.
She said, Every day is a present
someone left at your birthday place at the table.
Trust me! It may not feel like that,
but it’s true. When you’re my age,
you’ll know. Twelve is a treasure.
And it’s up to you
to unwrap the package gently,
lifting out the gleaming hours
wrapped in tissue,
don’t miss the bottom of the box.
Busyness is a habit of mind, and it can be an indication of an agitated nervous system. We are encouraged in American society to go-go-go, do-do-do, hurry-hurry-hurry, constantly chasing the mind as it leaps ahead into the future, leaving the body behind in a state of rattled confusion. The mind screams, “Look how busy I am! I am soooooo important!!!”
Right. I get it! I have certainly been caught up in this cycle. When I taught high school English, there were times when I was hyper-aware of the clock on the wall, and my days were measured in fifty-five-minute intervals, with ringing bells and five-minute passing periods. I remember the constant cycle of planning lessons and grading essays. I remember times when I was so focused on being prepared for anything that I was rarely focused on “what is” and present with my students sitting right in front of me. In other words, I was missing the bottom of the box.
Ironically, running around from task to task, obligation to obligation is just another form of laziness. According to Venerable Thubten Chodron, abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Washington state, “Being super-busy in a worldly way is another kind of laziness because it keeps us from our practice.”
A go-go-go, do-do-do, hurry-hurry-hurry mindset is a limiting one…and an exhausting one. It distracts us from what is most meaningful, and it prevents us from seeing the bigger picture.
Paradoxically, the most meaningful, big-picture moments, often involve taking the time to slow down, notice, and contemplate the small things:
*the rhythm and flow of the breath
*the syncopated sounds of rain on the roof
*a passage from a book or line from a poem that makes you stop, underline it, and read it again
*the sound of a child’s laughter in a grocery store
*watching leaves flutter to the ground
*watching the full moon shift and rise through bare branches
Small things, for me, are my portals to deep awareness. Small things encourage me to slow down—to pause—to do less and enjoy more—and to notice, really notice, what’s going on around me.
I’ve also noticed that making time for consistent, daily practices (for me, that includes meditation, mantra recitations, and Feldenkrais lessons) increases the likelihood that I’ll notice and appreciate the small things with big-picture potential—these tiny portals of awareness.
The biggest nudge from the universe came the other morning when I made time to visit a dear friend and former colleague. She has survived more than one stroke, has experienced slow, but steady cognitive decline, and is currently recovering from a recent heart attack.
The hospital where she is staying is close to the school where I work as a part-time tutor, and I was able to spend time with her between student sessions.
When I walked into her room, she was sleeping. I talked to her while she rested, describing the view outside her window. I told her about the large, billowy clouds and the streaks of sunlight shining through them. I told her about the air traffic control tower that I could see from the nearby airport, and every few minutes, an airplane would rise up and disappear into the billowy clouds streaked with sunshine.
She was surrounded by gently beeping monitors and was covered with a fleece blanket with turkeys and pumpkins on it. A muted National Geographic program about Egyptian art was playing on the television.
A friend had visited her the day before and brought her a green stuffed rabbit. She hugged it close to her as she slept. The color made me think of Green Tara, and I softly sang the mantra to her like a lullabye: Om Tare Tutarre Ture Soha, Om Tare Tutarre Ture Soha, Om Tare Tutarre Ture Soha, Om Tare Tutarre Ture Soha…
I told her how grateful I was for her friendship over the years, how her mentorship was extremely helpful when I first started teaching.
I thought about all the places she’d traveled with her family, all the stories she’d shared about her adventures, and how much her students admired her.
I didn’t know if she would awaken while I was there, so I made the most of the time I had with her. I was fully present with her.
Fortunately, she did wake up after a short while, and we had time to chat. Her eyes lit up when she saw me; she was delighted to have someone waiting to talk with her when she woke up. She struggled to find words at times, and her mind would catch in cognitive loops, bringing the conversation around to the same topics or questions. She confused me for other friends at times, or one of her daughters, but it didn’t matter. I was happy to have time to see her and to talk with her.
This visit with my friend did not make me feel sad. Instead, I felt joyful and relieved to have a chance to thank her for all of her helpful advice and friendship over the years. I had time to hold space and be present with her while she slept and while she was awake.
Slowing down means savoring the present moment, accepting what is with grace and dignity.
Listening to nudges from the universe, taking in these small moments, and appreciating the joy of pausing—these are the “gleaming hours/ wrapped in tissue.” Paying deep attention to these portals of awareness: this, too, is practice.
I hope you all are finding joy during this Holiday Season. May you be able to slow down and appreciate your own portals of awareness during this time. Please know that I have added several new designs to the Middle Moon Malas online collection, and they make thoughtful gifts for loved ones who have a meditation practice, or for yourself. Please consider purchasing a hand-knotted mala design to inspire meaningful practice and to support a small business. Much gratitude!
Generosity, Stinginess, and Over-Giving: Intention Determines What's Too Much, Not Enough, or Just Right September 28, 2023 08:53
If you prefer to listen to this month’s article, please click HERE for the audio link.
In general, most people would agree that generosity is an important quality to cultivate, practice, and encourage in mainstream society. I also think that most people recognize that selfishness and stinginess are polar opposites to generosity. I would add, though, that over-giving is just as counterproductive as miserliness. Whenever giving and receiving are out of whack, stinginess and over-giving can rise to the surface and pollute the pond of generosity.
According to Venerable Thubten Chodron, Abbess of Sravasti Abbey, generosity is linked with wisdom and bodhichitta, and our far-reaching attitude or motivation behind giving to others is extremely important. “The mind is not really giving, if generosity is linked with pride,” she says.
If we give to others and then regret it later, if we give to those who won’t appreciate or need what we have to offer, or if we give in order to flaunt status or to dominate others, our gifts become tainted transactions. Not only do these gifts lose significance and meaning, but they also destroy any possibility of merit because our motivation wasn’t grounded in sincerity, respect, and humility.
When it comes to generosity, everything hinges on intention, and intentions aren’t always obvious or easy to detect from the perspective of the casual observer.
I grew up among family members who had serious baggage around generosity and sincere giving. For example, when I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon for my mom to give a gift to my sister or me—only to take it back later. Usually, these were small things—a framed photograph, a pair of earrings, a book or a record—but, still—the taking back, usually motivated by regret or attachment on my mom’s part, felt like an “ungiving” as well as a covert power play.
A strange variation on a theme of this occurred many years later after Jim and I were married. My grandmother (my mom’s mom) had died, and my mother gave me a beautiful crystal candy dish. I was led to believe that it had belonged to my grandmother, and my mom gave it to me as a remembrance or keepsake of her mom.
I found out later that this same candy dish was actually a wedding gift that my aunt Christine (my mom’s sister) had given to Jim and me soon after we were married. Aunt Christine lived several states away, and she sent this gift to my mom’s address with the understanding that my mom would give it to us after our wedding.
Instead, my mom kept the crystal candy dish for herself, and then gave it to me several years later (out of consolation, or guilt). She never mentioned that Aunt Christine had given it to us many years beforehand. I discovered this many years later (from my aunt Christine)—and graciously thanked her for her generosity.
When I was a kid, gifts were transactional during the holidays. They were carefully counted, measured, and weighed. Often, my sister and I were given identical gifts to prevent any feelings of jealousy. Consequently, exchanging gifts in my family wasn’t open-hearted, generous, or even sincere. It was often an obligation laced with manipulation.
Withholding gifts and taking gifts back are forms of stinginess, selfishness, and emotional manipulation.
As a result, it took me a while to find a healthy balance between giving and receiving. Early on in my teaching career, for example, I made a habit of over-giving my time, effort, and resources, and I was exhausted and depleted as a result. Giving and doing so much for others while neglecting my own needs was not healthy or helpful.
Over-giving can also be a manipulative power play and a form of attention-seeking behavior. For example, I attended a dinner a few years ago with several friends. We met for a wonderful meal and an evening of camaraderie and connection. At the end of the evening, one of our friends volunteered to pay for everyone’s dinner. He sat at the head of the table and waved the waiter over with a flourish as he whipped out his credit card.
We had had gathered as individuals and as equals around a table, but my friend’s act of generosity struck me as just that—an act. I felt grateful, but I also felt uncomfortable. I wondered what his motivation was—was this an offering of sincere generosity? Was he flaunting his status? Was he claiming some sort of authority? Did he struggle with receiving? Was I being paranoid?
Clearly, I had a lot of questions, and it motivated me to consider my own intentions whenever I give to others. It also motivated me to consider HOW I give to others. For example, I’m a big fan of anonymous blessings and quiet contributions as opposed to showy public displays of generosity. I also prefer to give sincere, occasional compliments as opposed to over-the-top, gish-galloping geysers of flattery on the daily.
For me, one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned is that generosity doesn’t have to be material possessions or money. Time and attention are valuable gifts. Teaching is a generous offering. A meaningful conversation—a heart-felt card, letter, phone call, or text—a genuine smile and warm greeting—all of these can be sincere, generous gifts. What matters most is the intention—if the intention is respectful, kind, and compassionate—and devoid of desires or
agendas, then it is pure, it is valid, and it is more than enough.
According to the Psychology Today article, “Are You an Over-Giver?” Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW, asserts that over-giving is not a symptom of ultimate selflessness. Rather, it “essentially comes from an inability to receive.” Over-giving, like stinginess, is an indication that the balance of give and receive are out of alignment. Kleiman claims, “If you are unable to take in love, attention, or help from others and accept it completely, you are giving from an empty heart.”
In over-giving, the gift is more about the giver than the recipient. In this article, Kleiman also includes a list of common indications that over-giving, rather than generosity, may be present:
1. It’s important for you to be the giver rather than the receiver in relationships.
2. It’s common for you to feel guilty when someone gives to you.
3. You tend to put the needs of others first and neglect your own.
4. You tend to apologize about not being able to give in the way that you’d like.
5. You are unable or uncomfortable about asking for help.
6. Your own insecurities are at the root of your tendency to over-give.
7. You over-give in order to feel loved, respected, valued, or admired.
In other words, over-giving fulfills unmet needs or serves an agenda, as opposed to generosity, which flows from sincerity, humility, and kind-heartedness.
I have certainly been guilty of both stinginess and over-giving many times in my life. I’ve experienced the tight pinch of restrictive stinginess, of not giving enough time, attention, or resources to others in need.
I have also experienced the expansive, controlling gluttony of over-giving: showering gifts or compliments to those who didn’t want, appreciate, or need my excessive offerings.
Stinginess and over-giving are limited and limiting, and I am mindfully on the lookout for them in my own interactions with others.
Generosity is an important virtue—it’s one of the six perfections, and it’s usually first on the list! At the heart of healthy generosity is openness, kindness, and clarity. What is given is given (for keeps) with the sincere wish to benefit others in a humble, respectful, and appropriate way.
Thank you for taking the time to read or listen to this month’s offering. Please visit the Middle Moon Malas collection. Several new malas have been recently added. These malas make generous gifts for others and for yourself. May they be of benefit.
Photo Credit: Rui Silvestre courtesy of Unsplash
From Poison to Nectar: Distinguishing between Healthy and Harmful Pride March 28, 2023 11:52
If you prefer to listen to this month's blog article, please click HERE for the audio link.
I love listening to Dr. Bertice Berry's daily stories. She started posting them every day on Facebook during the pandemic. Dr. Berry is a sociologist, a story teller, a motivational speaker, a seamstress, and a writer. Her latest book, BlackWorld, is amazing!
Most of her stories are uplifting--and even when they deal with struggles or suffering--there is usually a message of hope and encouragement embedded in the story.
The other day, she shared a story on her page called "It's OK to be Proud," and she encouraged her listeners to "look at something you've done, something you created with our own hands and heart--and marvel at it--be proud of what you made and how you made it."
Taking the time to think about what I've worked hard to create makes me feel a little uneasy. That word--"pride"--is a loaded word--and the concept behind it can be a slippery slope.
On one hand, it's healthy to have a sense of self-confidence, a clear understanding of your capabilities and skills.
However, pride in its unhealthy form is an exaggerated sense of self. It is boastful and demeaning. It takes up a lot of space and demands of others. "LOOK AT MEEEEEEE!!"
I think my discomfort with this word started when I was a kid. As long as I can remember, I have talked to myself (when I'm by myself). Admittedly, I still do this--usually when I'm in the car. It's a great way for me to process creative ideas or to work through problems and struggles.
When I was young, talking to myself was part of imaginative play, and a way to keep myself company when I was alone. One time, when I was about seven years old, I was looking at myself in the bathroom mirror. The door was open, and I thought I was alone, but my stepdad must have been in the hall.
I don't remember what I was saying or talking about. I do know that I was playing--making silly faces in the mirror and giggling--just being a kid and having fun.
The next morning, I went into the bathroom, and when I turned on the light, I noticed that a towel was covering the mirror. It took a second for me to register this--it was jarring to me, and it took my breath away. I remember feeling a sudden rush of shame wash over me.
I can still see that towel in my mind even now--it was an old beach towel--faded yellow, with a single sailboat floating in a pale blue ocean.
My stepdad never talked to me about it. Instead, he let the towel speak for him. It communicated a strong message: don't look at yourself--don't waste time with silly play--don't talk to yourself--you're a weirdo--you're not important--you don't matter.
He may not have intended any of these messages, but this is what his action communicated to me.
My stepdad had assumed that I was being arrogant and prideful. I can't be certain of this, but throughout my childhood, he would occasionally accuse me of being full of myself or egotistical. Often, these accusations would blindside and confuse me.
Looking back now, I can see that he was likely projecting his own lack of self esteem and pride onto me, something a seven-year-old kid would not understand...yet.
This towel gesture didn't help me. Actually, it hindered me. It had a negative impact on my own self-esteem and confidence.
I still talk to myself :) (and I am more careful about making sure I'm by myself when I do), but I don't look at myself in the mirror very often--maybe just quick glances--but that's it.
"What is the wild horse that throws one from the mountain one is ascending? Pride, which thinks oneself superior and dwells on one's good qualities." (Gems of Wisdom from the Seventh Dalai Lama)
In Buddhism (and society in general), pride is considered a poison. It is an exaggerated view of the self that clings and grasps to one's perceived abilities and achievements.
Low self esteem, surprisingly, is also an expression of pride. It, too, is an exaggeration of the self, and it comes in the form of self-deprecation--making a big deal of ourselves in a negative way.
According to Venerable Thubten Chodron, abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Washington, the antidote to pride is to remember our interconnectedness to others. We never achieve what we do, or understand what we know, without having help from others.
Ven. Chodron agrees with Dr. Berry--that having confidence and the ability to rejoice and delight in our good qualities are healthy and important.
In addition, being able to discriminate between healthy pride, which is rooted in confidence and honesty, from toxic pride, which is rooted in arrogance, smugness, and demeaning others, is also very important.
Ven. Chodron adds that pride "isn't a poison unless it devalues another person."
In The Power of Compassion, His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains that excessive pride is connected to attachment to the self. "Attachment is narrow-minded and biased. Genuine compassion is healthier; it is unbiased and based on reason."
According to HHDL, the key to developing and practicing genuine compassion is cultivating equanimity. The wisdom of equality, equanimity, and focusing on others can transform the poison of pride into a healing nectar of compassion.
Sometimes I think about that little seven-year-old girl, that long ago version of me. If I could go back in time and talk to her (my "present self" talking to my "former self," which takes the notion of talking to myself to a whole new level), I would offer her reassurance and compassion. I would tell her that it's OK to be playful and imaginative--that it's OK to look in the mirror and smile. I would take the towel off the mirror and tell her that I love her, that she is beautiful and funny and creative, and encourage her not to let anyone dull her shine. We would look into the mirror together--and make silly faces.
It's OK to be proud. It's OK to celebrate and rejoice about things that matter to you, about things that you have worked hard to create and share with others.
I left a comment on Dr. Berry's story from the other day. I told her that I make beautiful, hand-knotted malas, and that my intention is to inspire and support meaningful practice for others. I hope that my creations offer a little peace, compassion, and encouragement for others.
She responded with a heart and an "Oooooooooo Yaaaaaaaasssssss!"
What are you proud of? What have you created with your heart, hands, and mind in this precious human life?
Take a moment to marvel at it--to celebrate and rejoice....because, sometimes, it's OK to be proud.
Thanks for taking the time to read or listen today. The MMM collection is full! Please take a look at the beautiful malas and quarter malas available in the online shop. May they be of benefit to you and your practice. Rejoice and celebrate!
Photo Credit: Edrick Krozendijk, courtesy of Unsplash