Thursday, April 23, 2015

Fresh Start

One of the main teachings in Shambhala about meditation is the importance of using a fresh start when needed. Not to be mistaken for taking a break, fresh start is dropping the technique for just a moment, still seated, in mid-meditation, when you feel you have fully lost what you are doing. This fresh start you can take at any time - stop meditating, reconnect, then begin again freshly.

This can feel like a spring breeze coming in the window for the first time in however long you have been sitting. Finally feeling your breath, you know you are alive again.

This is how it feels coming out of sickness for me, too. Though I can get bogged down with all the "things I supposed to be doing," there is also a miraculous quality of appreciation for my health, no matter how major or minor the illness. In the case of a cold/flu, as I had a few weeks ago, breathing became very hard for awhile. So the simple act of breathing took on huge importance and felt very fresh as it returned. In fact, getting better for me paralleled the arrival of spring, with a strong sense of the chilly but warming air actually helping my lungs and sinuses lose some of their fire.

The key thing about fresh start - and I am reminding myself as much as I am reminding you, dear reader, is that it not only can happen all the time, but it DOES happen all the time. While we are stuck in our stale suffering, the world is changing, micro- and macroscopically around us all the time.  While impermanence can get a bad rap - the old aging, sickness and death stuff - it also means we have a fresh opportunity in every moment. That can be scary or it can be exciting - it's there no matter what we think of it.

Friday, April 10, 2015


My mother, in her twenties in Northern Ireland

Today would be my mother's birthday.
I know the first question you want to ask me: how old would she be?
I am not 100% sure. This is because I cannot seem to remember her birth year, no matter how hard I try. Because I am in touch with some of her childhood friends, born the same year, I have some confidence in saying she would be 73. But I could stand corrected, certainly.

Recently I have begun writing a different kind of memoir. I know, I know, don't start writing another book, Miriam! But this one is coming out naturally, not taking energy from other projects. It's a different kind of writing, more standing outside and looking in rather than telling what happened from a scene-based experience. I am sure a lot of it comes from reading Abigail Thomas' latest memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. Anyway, as I usually share a post about my mom on these days, here's a tiny piece from my zygote memoir project, which I am calling (for now) Your Face Before Your Parents Were Born (after the old Zen koan). It's rough draft.

I have many stories I tell about my mother, and even more I tell about the two of us. In particular, I have single stories, threads with common themes I have told over particular eras of my life.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Charles Blow

I have already shared some about Charles Blow's memoir Fire Shut up in My Bones over on my other blog, Memoir Mind (  I wanted to make sure folks caught him here, too.

The memoir is outstanding and also difficult to get through - childhood poverty, racism, molestation. But Blow is an amazing writer. The ways he depicts and discusses the sexual abuse (listen from about 17 minutes on for a few) are lyrical and frank. The ways he talks about sexuality, bisexuality in particular, are hilarious and mind-reversing. 

This is a link to a great talk*/interview about the book, even if you don't/haven't read the book. This man is wonderful at taking what is inside and giving it space.

*A footnote that the first fifteen minutes or so are pretty awkward. The interviewer and Blow have awkwardly differing opinions on social programs and segregation. Don't let that dissuade you from listening on.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The White Expanse

This piece blew us all away in class. 

It's very tricky to lean into a full-on metaphorical image like this. Though Tod said it happened without his thinking about it, and without planning, his practice has allowed him to stay very close to surprising connections. He says he didn't even realize it was him until teh part about "the other members of his writing group." 

The imposter syndrome - feeling a fraud is well-depicted here. Also, the more nuanced but super tricky feeling that anything we do well must be cheating, not worth reading. If the writing comes easily, if, for instance, we build fictional worlds easily with barely any effort, then that must be bad writing, or we are just tricking everyone into thinking we are a good writer.

How to overcome this? Practice. Regular and compassionate. Consistent. And companionship.

Tod's writing:

He sprung into the white open expanse of his blank notebook page as if he was diving into a swimming pool of milk.  When he surfaced, breathless, blinking away the liquid pearls from his eyelashes, he was astonished to find that he’d written an entire story.
            The story was about a man who wrote stories, but hadn’t always been able to do so because the stories got stuck on their way out, they spoke in languages the man didn’t understand, so he didn’t know how to write them down, how to spell them.  It was a matter that came before the actual craft of writing itself, because he had to learn the language the stories were speaking.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Yup. There's no mincing around it. 
This is what has been coming up lately, in my life, in my wife's life, in my students' lives. 

When I don't get done what I set out to do (PS I had unrealistic expectations)...
When I make a mistake - or even moreso, a series of mistakes - while teaching or in public...
When I choose to sleep in instead of meditating...
When I procrastinate...
When I feel sexually aroused in a situation I suspect I shouldn't feel that way in...

I feel ashamed.
A heavy brick in my belly.
A punch to the gut.
Not a voice, not an inner critic, nothing that conscious or obvious or literal.
I don't THINK it, I FEEL it. In my locked up hips, my tightened legs, my triggered wrists.

More and more I am convinced that this is what Writer's Block, what creative resistance, what perfectionism, what procrastination ALL ARE - shame. Which is the cause and which the effect? Shame is like the fuel that powers the freezer that keeps us locked in one place. Not exercising, not writing, not exploring, not asking - all because some part of us, deep inside, believes we are unworthy. Anytime we make any kind of perceived error, it goes right into the evidence bin - not only have we done wrong, we are wrong.

For a long time, I have contended that Brene Brown's teachings on vulnerability and shame (click here to watch her stunning TED talk) are a perfect compliment to Shambhala's teachings on Basic Goodness (an article here demonstrating how the two are linked). Shame is our biggest block, our most underground and dug-in belief that we are not good. If we believe this, we can't believe we are basically, fundamentally good. We can't believe in bodhicitta, that we are all born awake and with full potential.

Shame is endless in its layers. Luckily my faith is also endless in its depths. Every time I find a new layer - this last week it was seeing that during a live online class I felt ashamed of myself because of technical errors beyond my control! - I react, I work with my body responses (through TRE or breathing) and then I slowly unpack all that was going on there. It can take months or just a moment. Over time, it gets easier to see, and easier to let go of the belief in shame, let go into the belief of my own - and others' - basic goodness.

What do you do when you encounter shame? How do you know it in your body? Do you know it? Does it have a voice? A story? Or is it more undercurrent? What is your relationship to shame and vulnerability?

And if I catch you using these questions, or my exploration, to compare yourself to, and shame yourself with, I'll come right over there and hug you and hold you while you cry. 

That is your punishment. I will mete it out mercilessly.

As Sakyong Mipham likes to say: "Be careful, or I am going to get gentle with you!"