life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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Big S, little s

“Yoga is in the business of self-acceptance and exploration.”

(McCrary, 2013, p. 15)

In my experience studying sustainability, I became increasingly aware that the concept of the individual—what I refer to as the self—was missing from the field. Rather than questioning the balance of one’s own life, it seemed that the individual was meant to act as a kind of martyr in service to making the world a more sustainable place for present and future generations.

As I reflected on the academics of sustainability, I began to feel like a sustainability hypocrite. My own life was a far cry from the kind of balance I was intending to bring to the world at large. I was not “walking the talk” of my intentions. And everywhere I looked, I began to notice the repercussions of this void in my own life and the lives of those around me.

At great risk to my academic, along with my personal and professional reputation, I proceeded to advocate for the rights of the individual—beginning with my own self—to live a healthy, balanced existence.

I was met with much resistance from each of these three realms but also with support and encouragement. I have never been one to shy away from what I deeply believe to be the right path, so I continued on, creating the term self-sustainability, writing an autoethnography, and earning a doctorate in Sustainability Education.

Since finishing the doctoral program, I have witnessed a shift, even in the focus of the program itself. When I started the program, there was no question posed as to the sustainability of each student or faculty. Now, self-sustainability and the concept of living deeply have become the focus of a required course that I have been invited to mentor.

I write this not by way of congratulating my self but more in gratitude for this small but meaningful shift of focus. If I was at all responsible for this ripple, I am thankful for those who gave me the courage to do so. I do not believe I am on the planet to accept the status quo but rather to stir and shake; however, it can be intimidating and scary at times.

In my post-doc existence, I have felt a bit adrift, searching for a continued path.

I have created a business for bringing songs from people’s stories into the world and performed those songs at venues in Massachusetts and now Arizona. I left a permanent job with the government to pursue these passions, as well as matters of the heart, moving in with my long distance partner in the Southwest.

I have discovered the sage wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh and others who have written about the realm of Buddhism, mindfulness, and meditation.

Am I a Buddhist?

I don’t know. The more aware I become of my own self, the less I desire to label that self.

I recently happened upon a book that explains the many yoga practices from which one may choose. In it, the author describes two ways the yogic world refers to the self—the Self and the self. I was blown away by this simple but incredibly meaningful distinction and include the author’s words here:

The Essential Self

If you’re read any books or articles on yoga you’ve probably seen the word self written with both a capital S and a lowercase s. In certain philosophical schools there are two selves, the lowercase self, which is associated with the material world, and the uppercase Self, your essential or transcendental Self (or spirit). (McCrary, 2013, p. 4)

How have I only just happened upon this concept?

I find that there is synchronicity in how and when I discover people, place, and also ideas. Perhaps, I learn something when I am ready, when I open my Self up to the universe of opportunity. When I take notice, I begin to see it everywhere.

I practiced Ashtanga yoga for a year when I was living and teaching in France. This practice, along with learning a method of deep breathing referred to in the yoga tradition as “yogic breathing” provided a means for maintaining my sanity while living in a very stressful environment. When I felt my heart race and breath become shallow and quick, I would sit and practice breathing from my nose down to my stomach and back again. And I would experience some element of relief and peace, however transitory.

Upon returning to the United States, I left yoga behind. I created a life that seemed healthy and happy enough on the surface. I ignored the warning signs that crept insidiously into the layers of my conscious. I lived in this ignorance—I would not call is blissful—until the walls began to crumble from the storm brewing from deep within.

In my time as a doctoral student, I began to shed the layers of expectation and self-identity that I had created out of necessity and in the desire to please those with specific ideas of who I should be and what I should do with my life.

It is a practice that I continue and one in which I do not always succeed. Self-doubt and the work of my inner critic are powerful forces at work inside of me, and I have a propensity to compare my own value and worth to the achievements of others.

McCrary has written, “practicing yoga helps clear the lenses, so to speak, taking you on an inward journey back to your deepest Self and to the realization that you have everything you need within to experience the unbounded joy and freedom that is your true nature” (p. 4).

Perhaps, I am discovering Buddhism and rediscovering yoga at a time when I am seeking more tools to help me restore balance and peace.

I do not pretend that reading about these practices will help me to be instantaneously transformed. I have work ahead of me. But I feel excited and thankful for finding new and old ways to practice the work of the Self. In so doing, I become more grounded and open to helping others in their own work.

McCrary, M. (2013). Pick your yoga practice: Exploring and understanding different styles of yoga. Novato, CA: New World Library.

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Secrets of the Coyote

IMG_4398There is something wonderfully delicious about a dark, quiet morning. Stepping out of a darkened bedroom and walking on tiptoe through the house, I am privy to a secret that no one else will ever know.

How better to spend such a morning than with a hot mug of coffee and my thoughts pouring onto the page.

A friend reminded me yesterday that I have made an enormous transition in my life. I had nearly forgotten that my most recent upheaval from Lowell, Massachusetts to Prescott, Arizona only took place a few, brief months ago.

Has it really only been a little over two months?

Some things fade so quickly, the kinds of things I don’t miss.

The sound of sirens and late night parties from the college students next door

People in their car; check out lines, and all kinds of common places, in such a hurry and often so very quick to anger

Long nights of insomnia, trying to warm myself up alone in my bed

The uncertainty of sharing a future with another person

Some troubles from one reality fade with the change to a new life, while others remain. New troubles indelibly seem to take the place of those that no longer remain. I am reminded of what happens to rocks as they move deep underground. The softer rocks melt under the heat and pressure, and another mineral seeps into the empty space before it even has a chance to breath.

No reality, however romantic, comes with a promise of freedom from worry, self-doubt, or any of the other baggage that followed me from Lowell or any of my previous lives. This I have learned over time and many instances of uprooting. The grass may seem greener, but it is just a different species.

They say that life is not meant to be easy, but I wonder if my own nervous system takes particular joy in reeking havoc on the peace I keep trying to create.

I don’t think that life needs to be that hard, either.

I am learning more and more that my own perspective can make the difference. I choose what to focus on as I wake in the morning and drift to sleep at night and how much to let the idiocies of the world shake me.

“The present moment contains the whole of life,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh (2014, p. 47).

So I am trying to focus on each present moment, even the ones that shake me. If I pay close enough attention to the shaky feeling, perhaps I will be able to breathe some peace into it and soothe its rattling energy.

As I lay in bed a couple of nights again, my mind a buzz of activity over the most recent events that were cause for stress, I was shaken out of own ego and thrust into another dimension: the realm of the night.

While I lay warm and wondering, coyotes began to yip and yowl somewhere out in the darkness. I imagined them sitting atop the granite boulders that surround my house. The creatures called out in haunting song, short notes, long notes, staccato, and beyond. One mournful cry began as canine and ended as a woman crying. I imagined myself sitting atop the rock and crying out to the night, letting my own pain and worry transform from the depths of my soul into an unearthly howling plea to the gods of the night to hear me and ease my suffering.

I listened for a long while and eventually drifted off to sleep.

In the morning light, I opened my eyes and thought about the coyote symphony from the night before. I wanted to hold onto the feeling of hearing them, but already the intensity of the moment was passed into hazy memory.

How does one hold onto a present moment and stay focused and calm when each moment is so fleeting? Even as I write, my secret darkness is replaced by light that seeps into the every crevice of the fabric of the world outside my window.

Maybe, I do not need to hold onto everything and everyone so very tightly. For each moment I breathe in and exhale out, I am more than my self-alone. I am every one and every thing who has come before me and will follow after: “ancestors, culture, food, air, and water” (p. 57).

I just am.

Perhaps, this is one of the secrets of the coyote. I will have to listen more closely next time they sing. And maybe next time, I will join them.

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Vicarious Love and Acceptance of What is

Last night, I dreamed of India. A pair of piercing eyes from a Stupa, watching me through the dark, floated in a space just above the foot of my bed.

Until yesterday afternoon, I had never heard a Stupa but already they had a strange, spiritual hold over me. Maybe this was a design for a long thought about tattoo I could get, I thought as I drove home from work after seeing the Stupa for the first time in a local store with items from Tibet. I had finally decided on a trajectory of flying ravens, though I doubted I would ever actually go through with it.

Only moments later, I thought better of it. Did the world really need another white girl from the West falling in love with the Buddha and proclaiming their affinity through ink on the skin? Would this choice make me into a cliché? Would it even matter?

A voice inside reminded me that I was  far too indecisive for a tattoo anyway. Already, I had gotten my nose pierced and taken out the stud, only to re-pierce it years later. Recently, I had taken the stud out once more. A tattoo was a bit too permanent for someone with such an indecisive character as mine.

In my dream, I was packing for a trip to India with my music partner. He was packed and ready far before me. I can remember sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom with a bag open and clothing strewn all over the floor and thrown haphazardly into the bag. He called to find out if I was ready to drive to the airport. I was nowhere near ready but told him I would on my way soon. I can never bear to disappoint him, though experience tells me it is safe to be honest.

I knew from watching a dear friend prepare to travel to India that the process was not a simple one. There were vaccines and medications to procure, appropriate footwear to find, toiletries, optics, luggage that would be easy to haul on foot, train, plane, and beyond. And then to fit everything into two bags, one that could be worn on your back and the other on the front.

There was a period of my life where I moved every three months or so.  After leaving one transient community after another and bidding adieu to dear friends I may never see again, I began to long for the stability of a home in one place and friends I could have tea with on a Sunday afternoon.

I have travelled around the world and lived in foreign places, but I felt a pang of sadness when I realized that it had been ten years since I taught English in elementary schools in the northwest region of France.

Was this dream an indication that the travel bug had found me once more?

In my dream, my friend finally gave up on waiting, drove to my house, and showed up on my doorstep impatiently informing me that we were going to miss our flight. I guess my subconscious was telling me to stay put in Prescott for now.

It is so easy to view another life and wish it was your own. But it is most often an exercise in oversimplifying of reality. No life is easy, regardless of how glamorous it appears.

So I made coffee and oatmeal, took a shower, got dressed, put on earrings and a necklace I had nearly forgotten about, warmed up my car to melt the ice on the windshield, and headed to work. On my way, I looked in my case of CDs for something to listen to. I found a mix my sibling had made for me upon my return from some foreign travel years ago, maybe Africa? On it were songs that brought to back in time. The theme song from Dawson’s Creek, a Joan Jett song from the move “10 Things I hate about you,” and so on. When the theme song from the movie “Cruel Intentions” started playing, I felt a broad smile take shape across my face. An overwhelming feeling of joy welled up inside of me, and I beamed.

I realized that I could repeat the words of Thich Nhat Hanh and know them to be true.

I was completely happy and at peace with my life, just as it was.

Here’s to happiness and joy in your own life and the lives of those you love.


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A big “to do”

IMG_4103Stacks of books sit on surfaces of furniture in several rooms around my house. Piles of things to give away or sell sit on others. In my mind there races a seemingly endless and ever-growing list of things I need or want to do.

Will it ever end?

Each time I purge my life of material build-up, I breathe a sigh of relief, but it is temporary. I seem to find ways to refill the briefly opened spaces as quickly as they are created.

And I find myself disheartened.

From where stemmed this notion that life is made up of stuff?

I remember a saying someone dear to me used to say: Home is where your stuff is.

At the risk of sounding trite and shallow, I will be the first to admit that I feel a certain amount of comfort in being surrounded by familiarity, however material it may be. I have moved many times in my short stint on this planet, and I have often felt that the small stability that keeps me grounded was derived from familiar objects in unfamiliar surroundings.

Frustrated thus, I have turned to the comfort I find in wisdom from others who have moved through their own maëlstrom in search of simplicity and peace.

Thich Nhat Hanh (2013) assures me that I do not need to consume to feel whole. I am whole already; I have but to realize it fully in mind, body, and spirit.

Hanh (2014) encourages me to focus on my breath and the quality of my presence in order to simplify the chaotic world the pulses from within and without (p. 25).

“To be alive is the greatest of all miracles, and you can rejoice in being alive. When you breathe in this way, your breath is a celebration of life (p. 29).

Virginia Woolf (1954) reminds me that there is sanctuary in the imagination. She invites me to take refuge in worlds she has created. (Quote)

Salmon Rushdie (1991) notes that not one of us is truly in control of our destiny.

Why do I hold so steadfastly to this desire for control?

Each morning, I repeat a short meditation.

“I want for nothing more than I have. I need nothing more than I have.”

By the evening, I seem to have forgotten.

I am certain it will take me longer than the library will allow for me to make my way through my literary piles. I know that my slow pursuit stems from an inability to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time.

There is so much to do! How can I possibly sit still?

Disappointment and inner conflict ensues in who I am versus who I think I should be.

Perhaps, I should simply accept that I have a hummingbird inside of me that keeps me buzzing. I am a kinglet in winter and must keep moving; my survival depends upon it.

Or maybe Hanh is right. I should learn to sit as still as an owl, taking in my surroundings and waiting patiently for night to fall to begin moving with intentional wing beats in pursuit of a focused goal.

I took a sip of jasmine tea last evening and was instantly transported to the home of a beloved professor from my senior year of undergraduate school. He welcomed students from his courses to join him for tea and discussion in his home on Thursday afternoons.

The tea was jasmine. The dialogue (for me at least) was awkward. His home was simple and without clutter. There was room to breathe.

I would return to my own dorm room and begin tearing posters off of the walls in an attempt to create space for my own soul to breathe. Inevitably, the move toward material entropy would resume once more.

This morning, I awoke to a cold stillness in the air and a tenuous blanket of snow on the ground. A yowling cat roused me from sleep. Soon, heavy flakes began to fall in earnest.

Hours later, the snow has stopped. There is a small pile of jewelry on the coffee table that I have deemed ready to continue its journey in a realm outside of my control.

IMG_4102I close my eyes.

“I am not in control.”

I breathe in.

I breathe out.

A cat joins me in my quiet reverie. She yawns and rubs her chin back and forth against the upper left corner of my computer.

My partner is making cookies. I am offered one and decline. I have been sitting all day, and I know that I will feel simultaneous joy and guilt if I partake of one.

“No thank you,” I respond. He knows already that I am engaged in an ongoing struggle between my mind and body. I will eat my daily allotment of one cookie after I have taken a walk through the fresh snow.

It is the last day of the 2014 calendar year. People are sharing resolutions via social media. I am typically ruminating over resolutions for the fast-approaching New Year.

I could resolve to eat cookies without feeling guilty; to stop biting my fingernails and picking at my cuticles; to start celebrating others’ achievements rather than viewing their success as evidence of my own failure.

Were I to make these resolutions, I likely would fail within the day, if not the hour.

This year, I am resolved to set myself up for success. No resolution. I have no need to start anew. I have nothing that needs urgent fixing. I know that I am a work in progress and that progress involves stepping backward even as I step forward. It might be involve sitting still.

Each breathe in and exhale out is an opportunity to simply be present; to simply be.

Will you join me in this meditation?

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We are works in progress

I have been in Arizona for just over a month. When I first arrived, I saw familiar faces everywhere I went. At least, I imagined that I did. In the grocery store, at a local bar and restaurant, I would do a double take and the face of a friend would turn into that of a stranger.

Days and weeks passed, and I seemed to float in a haze of cleaning, organizing, and what I might describe as domestic bliss of some sort.

Within this haze, I experienced moments of clarity, when the reality of this great shift would occur to me. I felt them in my stomach, throat, and heart.

A couple of nights ago, a wave of reality and emotion hit me suddenly and with great power. Tears began and images swept through my mind, so quickly that I could not quite put them into words when my partner gently asked if I was ok. Maybe, if I just let them wash over me, they would continue on their way and leave me in peace.

Images of dinners with my parents, performances, faces of friends, brick and stone, my cat sleeping soundly beside me on a pillow all washed over me and with them, waves of tears I had not anticipated.

They had been just beneath the surface. How had I not noticed them until they forced their way out? I have worked so diligently to become aware of my own mind and body. I suppose that decades of dedicated training to ignore pain is not unlearned in a mere year or two or even though.

“I guess the honeymoon period is over,” I whispered in a voice muffled by emotion.

“It’s ok,” came the calming response. “We are works in progress, and we have our whole lives.”

I marvel at his ability for patience and grounding. I am not a patient person. I want resolution for painful encounters to happen right away. I try to create am immediate resolution in the wake of an argument, however false. Just make the pain go away and let everything be all right.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1992) has written of damaging effects of the desire to eradicate parts of ourselves that cause us pain, suggesting that we “throw out what is unwanted and keep only what is wanted. But what is left may not be very much. If we try to throw away what we don’t want, we may throw away most of ourselves (p. 52).”

I do not wish to be a hollow shell of my self, and I recognize that each experience of joy and pain and everything in between blends together to build the person I am today.

Thus, I am trying to embrace the idea that it is healthy to wallow in my feelings. I may not ever make sense of relationships that have gone awry or be able to fix them. But I can try to practice acceptance.

When I explained my predicament to a friend, he offered advice.

“Perhaps, you need to give your spirit time to catch up with your body.”

I am certain he is right. The quick and seemingly easy path to perfection is likely more damaging than helpful in the long run.

So, I am listening to the words of wise friends and reading the words of wise thinkers.

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And in the words of David Byrne, “I’m breathing in, I’m breathing out.”