Sweet Body: Anchor of the Soul

img_83464637943705As a teenager, I found mindfulness a little insulting.  One book on the subject instructed me to take a shower as if it were the only activity in the world, to feel all the lather and the hot water and to focus on every swipe of the washcloth; to breathe in the steam and to “be” the shower. Frankly, it seemed limiting and kind of sad.

How could I pretend that a shower is everything, I thought, when there is so much more in the world, when I have a complex mind and emotions and my life is so complicated?  Why, it makes me sound like nothing more than an animal!  It reduces me to less than a human being, and denies my spirit and puts me in a box that reads “this is all life is”. Is this all we can hope to attain: the enjoyment of a good shower?  It seemed small and silly.

But years later, I often find myself caught up in tiring, circling thoughts that lead nowhere.  I feel resentment about my past and anxiety about my future.  I feel like I’m floating aimlessly, with nothing to anchor me to  life, nothing to make me solid and whole.

Yet I find that I am happy when I slip into nature.  The warm breezes and shimmering leaves speak to me and settle my spirit in wordless silence.  And I have moments of conversation with friends when we stand side by side, breathing together, laughing, and I feel a deep connection that I can’t explain.  We are like trees in the sun, warmed and rooted to the earth, as we sink into each other’s physical presence; lost in the moment, and found there, as well.

I begin to see that these moments felt deep in my body anchor me to life, give me a place from which to connect and know.  God gave me a physical body for a reason.  I am not a formless, floating spirit.  Well, maybe I actually am, on some level, but this spirit has its current home in a physical body; a body crafted to experience one moment at a time, one step at a time, one breath at a time.

The irony, I am learning, is that the more deeply I go into my body — my physical presence right here, right now — the more I connect to my spirit and its shining joy.  I feel the solidness of my back and stomach as I sit in this chair, I feel the openness of my beating heart and the light that pours into it and moves into my eyes and ears, and I relish all the sights and sounds that flow through me and feed my spirit and move back out into the world.  I am spirit tethered to a body that is a world of wonders, a gateway into all connection within and without.   And I am awed and comforted.

The journey continues…

Breath

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Misplaced Longing: What Should We Be Striving For?

Hello, my name is Jennifer, and I am a constant striver.  If there were a 12-step program for people who strive too much, I would certainly join.  In fact, I would want to make it a better program, fix anything that was wrong with it, and if there wasn’t anything wrong with it – by gum – I would find something, and fix it pronto.

I’ve often read that children subjected to instability from a young age will often grow up to be strivers and fixers.  My parents divorced when I was five, and from that time, I have been trying to get them back together.   Not literally – at least not for long – but inside me, in an attempt to mend my brokenness.   In the sudden whirlwind of changing homes and changing schools and absent parents (I was sent to live with my grandparents for a time) I felt I was at the center of a raging storm, and must have somehow caused it.  But nothing I did made it any better.  I got angry and scared and cried, but that didn’t change anything.

Eventually, I settled into a new life with my mom and sister, and regained some stability.  Yet, I retained the feeling that things could go wrong at any moment, and no one around me could prevent it.  So I learned to make things right myself, to make disaster prevention my lifelong project.

It began with striving for perfect grades in school.  If I got less than an A, I was very upset with myself.  And I had to keep the house clean when Mom didn’t feel well enough to do it.  If everything was tidy and in order, chaos could be kept at bay.   Mom – while loving and protective – was always the wildcard.  Sometimes she was happy, and sometimes miserable.    So I had to learn to keep an even keel, to be steady and strong for the three of us.

One safety net was my dreams for the future: for a time when I would be an adult and could have a different life, a more ordered life of my own where I was in charge and everything made sense.  Another was the many books that I read to learn how to live, how to behave, how to escape when the world was too scary.  I could be the heroine of a novel, a completely different person; I could try on different roles until one felt complete and real.

I have carried these defenses into adulthood, the belief that with enough striving I could make any situation better.  It has served me well in some instances, but hampered me in others.

It has made me want to shape life in a way that it can’t be shaped, to organize my life into submission.   It has made me believe, on some level, that because my life was painful and chaotic in childhood that God and the universe owe me an ever-improving future, with all the things I missed out on growing up.

But I know that’s not how it works; that no one gets to create their own life.  Sure, we do to a certain degree, but life always throws us curve balls.  The unexpected presents itself regularly; it is part of the plan.

Many wise people have said that all we can control is our attitude.  I don’t really care for this reality, because I want to control all events as well.  Somehow I got the idea that I know what is best for me: that I need certain friends, or I need to live in a certain house, or have a certain job.  That God wants me to have the full, brimming life of “normalcy” that I have been trying to recover since I was five.   But what God really wants, I believe, is for me to love him, and he wants my spirit to grow, and he wants me to let go of everything but him.

And he has his own mysterious ways of making these things happen.  Maybe he put me in an unsettled family so that I would learn – eventually – that he is my only safety net.

Maybe he takes things away from us, and turns our lives upside down, so that we will learn that he is our one true reality.  We are the living, breathing images of God walking upon the earth; each of us a sign of his love and beauty.

Nothing else matters.  Sure, it’s good to have goals and hopes and dreams.  And, I believe, ultimately, that God will help us make this earthly world a reflection of heavenly virtue and beauty.  But I believe that our souls are the main thing: the only real thing.  And he will do whatever it takes to wake us up, to remind us again and again to strive for the only thing that matters.

Our hopes may be dashed; we may not get what we think we need; but in the ruins of the life we wanted, we can see a glimpse of the life we need.  A life where we look in the eyes of others and see God’s loving spark within.  Where we look at the rivers that flow and the sun and moon overhead and we know that God is father and mother and sister and brother.  And we know him by knowing each other and loving each other.  We are each an eternal reflection of his loving, heavenly light.

Misplaced

The Thrill of Just-In-Time

I have an addiction.

In the past, it was often exhilarating.  But now it is making me ill, so it’s time to do something about it.

Five days a week, I allow myself plenty of time to get ready for work.  And five days a week, I am running out the door, heart racing, palms sweating, because I know I am going to be late.

But the thing is:  I am never late.   Or almost never.   And that is the thrill, and the trap.

It is a beautifully choreographed dance.  I rise at 5:30.   I eat a nutritious breakfast, pray and meditate, do a little stretching and reading, and pack a wholesome lunch.   I feel alive and refreshed, ready for the day.  I may even take a little time to straighten the house as I groom and dress.  I feel that I have lived a good morning, many worthwhile things have happened in this quiet space before daylight.

One would think the final object of this perfectly choreographed morning would be my early arrival at work – perhaps by ten or fifteen minutes – so that I can carry a relaxed feeling of clarity into my day.

But no, apparently the real object is for me to arrive breathless and dizzy, bounding up the stairs thirty seconds before our 8 a.m. start time, acutely aware of my boss standing a few feet away, checking his watch to see that I just barely made it (again) and wondering if this is the day he should reprimand me.

But he doesn’t reprimand me, because I am a good employee, and I do good work, and I stay a little late each day to make sure everything’s in order.  This is also part of the thrill.

I’m always just in time, just under the wire.  Not a moment to spare.  The irony, of course, is that I’ve undone most of my good work of the morning.  Well, not most.  I did eat well, and I enjoyed my reading, and I felt devotion in my prayers.   But I undid the relaxation, the peacefulness, that is a primary goal of my quiet morning routine.

So why do I defeat myself?  Why do I do this nearly every day?  Why have I done this in some form since I was a child?

I’ve read theories about attention-seeking and low self-esteem, but I’m not entirely sure.  That’s why I lay it out before you, hoping my attempts at an explanation will shed some new light, reveal a way out.

In the past, I didn’t care so much.  It was a game.  And the adrenaline rush that it produced gave a kick start to my day, like a strong cup of coffee that got me off and running.

But now, it just makes me ill.   Not at first, but in a matter of hours.  And even the rush itself is contaminated with anger.  Because I have tried to change, and I can’t.  I have reduced my morning activities, for instance, to allow time to leave my house earlier.   But I just end up sneaking something else in (like one more peek at Facebook) so that I am back on my breakneck pace and any gain I’ve made is lost.

I am compelled, and that is the addiction.  But now I see that aging, that old substitute for wisdom, is forcing me to change.  I just can’t do this any more.   What once gave me a charge, now leaves me drained.   My body has to recuperate from this sudden explosion of energy, sometimes with aftereffects late into the day.   It just isn’t worth it anymore.

So, perhaps, my tired body will force my unruly mind and spirit to take a higher road.   Maybe that is one of the benefits of aging: a forced humility that makes us confront things about ourselves that we would happily ignore, things that may nudge us toward finally being the person we really want to be.