“Honey, I just don’t give a shit about my body image anymore! I’m just glad it still works.” This is the response from women in their 80s when I tell them that my work focuses on reclaiming body image.
Unfortunately, when I talk to women in their 40s and 50s, the response is usually quite different. “I finally got comfortable with my shape and size, and now this whole aging thing pops up.” Or for those single 40 year-old women its, “I didn’t realize I would have to get naked again in front of someone new again. It’s a whole different thing at this age.” Occasionally, I’ll hear women, most of whom where slender in their 20s and 30s, say something like, “I never got the whole “body image” thing…but now I get it.”
It’s clear, many women experience a second (or third) wave of body image issues as we enter into our 40s and 50s. And just like it was a struggle to empower ourselves around it during puberty or pregnancy, we find the same thing repeated now.
Yet, there it is. Lurking in our daily conscious thoughts and often driving many of our decisions and choices -- how we dress, how we feed ourselves, how we show up sexually, and how we honor and nurture ourselves. But remember, disliking these fabulous, magnificent, complex, and magical bodies is not something we are born with. It is something we learned.
What taught us to be dissatisfied with aging in these bodies?
If you were from another planet and had to learn about America from a magazine, you would think we were all white, thin, flawless and 20. We are bombarded with 1000s of images each and every day, and almost all of them are women in their early 20s or younger – sometimes advertising wrinkle cream! These are not real images. They are enhanced in 1001 ways with makeup, lights, and photoshop, giving the impression of something that doesn't really exist in real life.
The few images we do see of older women (and men) -- usually advertising retirement planning, gated communities, plastic surgery, or Viagra -- are similarly altered to idealize youth. They may have a shock of white hair, but not a wrinkle, roll, or sag in sight. The real life humans seen in movies are altered in other ways - Botox, boob and butt lifts, tummy tucks, lip enhancements, chemical peels, hair extensions, and a army of personal trainers and chefs.
Older women are told to " age gracefully." which is simply another way of saying, “Hey baby, don’t change too much. If you have to change, please be pleasant about it and definitely try not to be too vocal about the unpleasantness it might bring.” It’s the same message we get during pregnancy and menstruation. “Hurry up and get back to being a powerful, beautiful, maiden-like woman”.
Of course, there are a few exceptions to this rule. We do hear about the 89-year-old weight lifter, the 100-year-old yogini, or the notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg). These are badass women, and yet the message is still clear - stay young and retain your youth-like vigor.
All of these are actually just symptoms of something going bad at the root. The predominant culture n American (as if there is just one) doesn't honor aging. We see older people as a burden, irrelevant, or even stupid. (Studies show!)
Traditionally, in more ancient, earth-based cultures, when a woman hit their 40s and 50s she took a rite of passage, and stepped into a new role. No longer a mother (of children or projects), she stepped into a circle of women who were the leaders of the community. They kept the ancient stories alive – those myths passed along from one generation to the next to teach the children well. They became the peace keepers and rulers of justice, probably because they had been around the block a few times and knew a thing or two about temperament. They were the visionaries, because they had the time to walk up the mountain, pray, and listen for the reply. They wielded justice, power, and passion. They were revered, honored, and taken care of.
Imagine we still lived in such a culture? Would we fear our wrinkles if we knew they were leading us to a place of wholeness? Would we remove laugh and frown lines if we knew they would entice people to listen with greater respect? Would we hide the soft belly rolls and angry hot flashes if we knew they took us into a deeper, second sense of purpose?
Youth offers us brilliance, but so does age. If we want to embrace these aging bodies, then we really need to embrace age too. Maybe we need to reclaim the word crone, just as we have reclaimed the word pussy! There are millions of young girls following us, and they need these aging shoulders to stand on. We need it ourselves.
So, how do internally reframe the story? How do we learn to look in the mirror and celebrate the laugh lines? Stand in the shower and embrace the stretches and sags? Move and dress these bodies to express ourselves rather than constrain ourselves?
Let us know some of the ways you have learned to embrace your aging body in the comments. And, let’s not wait until we are 80 to say, “I love this body.” Let’s start today.
By Jackie Dobrinska
How do you feel when you stand starkly naked? In front of a mirror? With other women watching? Just the thought of it is enough to make a grown woman cringe, but the actual act might be incredibly liberating.
BODY IMAGE LIBERATION
Recently, I visited a den of nakedness which powerfully reshaped the psychosomatic experience of being in this female form. Jeju Spa in Atlanta, which might more accurately be called a “bath house” than a spa, doesn’t let a woman hide. When you walk into the women’s wing, you are unceremoniously required to drop every stitch of clothing, leaving you and every woman exposed. It’s beautiful. You sit shoulder to shoulder with woman of all shapes, colors, sizes and form and it BLOWS YOUR MIND.
Not one flawless, photoshopped body in sight! Instead you are exposed to 101 variations of the female form. They have curves, rolls, cellulite, hair, scars, tattoos and asymmetrical and disproportion forms of every variety. EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM. I have no idea how they feel on the inside, but on the outside each and every one is standing up straight, not covering even an inch, and inviting, even encouraging, one other to embrace their form, just by being in the room.
It does wonders for the psyche. Most of us walk around with a very narrow idea of beauty – one that has been given to us through the 5000 photoshopped images that bombard us everyday – saying that we must be tall, leggy, busty, and in every way flawless. But hanging out with real women with real bodies helps us see the variety of form – that each and everyone of us is so uniquely different and beautiful in our own ways – like a garden of wildflowers.
BODY IMAGE NAKEDNESS
I remember my first experience of being naked with a group of women. For most of my life I had only really experienced women's bodies through the lens of the media. Any nakedness had been in locker rooms, flashed from behind towels, robes and super quick changes from activewear to outerwear. Very few women simply hung around nude. If they did, we all looked at them a little strangely.
But about a decade ago, I went to the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference for the first time. It was a warm October day and literally 500 women lounged around the little lake, almost all of them naked. It undid me. I had never seen so many female bodies. I had never seen someone stand up tall and let their thighs rub together, belly shake, and arms flab all while talking and laughing with other women. It seemed to me there wasn’t an ounce of shame in sight. And it liberated me. It allowed me to step out of my habitual constriction, that I thought helped me hide my perceived flaws, and instead stand in my very real body -- thick thighs, asymmetrical breasts, and strong arms -- with an increadable sense of freedom.
RECLAIMING BODY IMAGE
It’s one of the reasons I love to skinny dipping to this day. Getting naked is a statement that says, “this imperfect body is allowed to experience the pleasures of being alive…of sun and water on its skin, the joy of laughing with its belly hanging out, the fullness of taking up space.” No matter who may want to shame me or sexualize me for my nakedness, and many have, including a beloved partner, skinny dipping is one of the ways I celebrate the beauty of my imperfect body and enjoy the gloriousness it provides for me and me alone.
Yet, take me out of nature and put me in front of a mirror, and that confidence can melt away. Talking to many of my girlfriends, I’m not alone in this experience. The mirror reflects back an image that doesn’t always fit how we feel and can be held up as a way to compare our real bodies to the constructed image the media gives us. We inevitably fail.
Some Native American tribes, according to one of my Cherokee students, believed the mirror was one of the seven evil gifts brought by the white man. Before the mirror, a woman was reflected by her friends, "Oh you look so beautiful today! Your eyes are just shining. Your hips are so wide and rich. Your belly decadent.” When the mirror came alone, it allowed a woman to stand in isolation and judge herselves.
So, since standing naked in front of a mirror is my edge, I am making it my new practice. Can I take off all my clothes, stand in front of the mirror in all of my imperfection, and love my body as it is> Can I see through the negativity to see the very real beauty of this form?
It’s not a practice I’m looking forward to…but I think it is one that will radically change the grooves in my brain and allow me to love myself fully whether I stand with 500 women or alone. It will allow me to stand proud in front of anyone no matter their shame or shaming tendencies. My hope is that it leads to even more freedom and acceptance.
RECLAIMING BODY IMAGE PRACTICE
Will you join me? Will you commit to just 5 days of standing naked in front of the mirror for 5 minutes and making your mind your best friend as you do so? I would love to hear your experiences in the comments below.
We get so hung up on these bodies. Their shape and size. Smell and color. The thickness of our thighs, perkiness of our breasts, roundness of our bellies, or texture of our skin or hair. We obsess over how many carbs we’ve consumed, or the calories burned. Yet to what ends? Besides keeping some sort of eye on our health, when it comes down to it, these bodies really are just complex and intricate vehicles carrying around something so much less material.
Nothing brought this home as much as seeing “Bodies: The Exhibition” in Atlanta this weekend. It’s an extremely controversial exhibition, made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of real human cadavers. The tissue has a polymer that renders them into a sort of plastic and gives them a shelf life potentially forever.
The controversy is around evidence suggesting the bodies, bought from China, may be young men who died while being held in work-camps for their spiritual beliefs. No government should ever be allowed to profit from its war crimes.
Yet, if this is true, the exhibition is simply another example of how our world holds life – as objects and often with little respect. Just look at the semis with chickens driving down the highway, the video games showing graphic violence as a form of entertainment, or zoos that hold animals hostage and make them go a little insane for the sake of education. Look at how we hold our own life, turning our bodies into objects rather than subjects.
Yet here we are, for better or worse, in “Bodies” looking at the most amazing of machines – the human form. It is beyond comprehension – the beauty, the complexity, the intricacy. We have over 200 bones, 100,000 miles of capillaries and nerve impulses that travel as fast as 170 miles per hour. Our lungs fill around 673,000,000 times in a lifetime, the cornea gets its oxygen directly from the air, and the human body has enough fat to make seven bars of soap. Every ounce of this form is brilliant, fragile, and sophisticated.
Standing there, eyeballing the eye sockets, skull, nerve plexus and bodily mechanisms once hidden beneath the skin but now nakedly visible, one could easily forget that we are also staring into something much more menacing. We are staring at the face of death. Each plasticized human in that room at one point was a life. He contained a mind, emotions, dreams, passions, skills, heartache and philosophical beliefs. He had parents, friends and potentially children and all the complexities that comes from being alive. He was both consciousness and chemistry. Spirit and matter. Breath and mud.
Never before had I felt so viscerally that for all intent purposes we really are walking around in, what comedian Wyatt Cenac calls, “meat filled skin sacks”.
With such a clear illustration that bodies really is just a vehicle, I became even more acutely aware of how much time, money, energy and self-esteem we waste hating or trying to change our forms. We are SO MUCH MORE than our shape, size or color. We are creatrixes, mothers, daughters, warriors, lovers, dreamers, mystics, priestesses, companions, jokesters, mystics, prophets, agents of positive change, and 1001 other things.
It makes me stop and wonder, what the world would be like if we took off the internalized corset -- stopped shaming ourselves, and others, for the bodies we live in. If we simply loved all of these various forms, and instead took all of that time, energy and power to be brilliant humans with skills, passions and dreams. If we took our creative force and used it to serve justice in the world.
Would we take the millions of dollars we spend on botox and surgeries, and instead fight to protect elephants, rhinos and cheetahs? Would we take the billions away from the diet industry and instead put it toward orphanages in India? Would we take the time we spent in front of the mirror at the gym, and instead write letters to help release prisoners of war?
I’m not sure. But the Chinese, despite their politics and potential war crimes, have an ancient proverb, “when sleeping women wake, mountains move”. Maybe that is why we are here. To wake ourselves up. And potentially to wake the nations as well.
We won’t shift overnight. But maybe next time I start a new diet or exercise program, I’ll also take a few moments to send some money to the animal shelter down the road too. If we all do that, we might actually feel better, and not because of the diet
(Modified from Sunya Kjolhede's article at Windhorse Zen Center.)
The Winter Solstice is one of the biggest events in the great cycling dance of sun and earth, marking the time when the northern hemisphere leans farthest away from the sun, and the sun makes its lowest and shortest arc across the sky. And it is a potent time to look at how we treat our bodies and learning to love them.
Most of us think of this day, our Midnight of the year, as the longest night and shortest day. It is the time of darkness, but it is also a time of hushed pause -- almost as though all of Nature is holding its breath.
For ancient peoples, the solstices were times to honor and bring into harmony the polarities of yin and yang, male and female energies–-for world rebalance and renewal. These times of ceremony and celebration were also occasion for the community to renew itself and its bonds with nature, themselves and each other. And so it can be for us as we are learning to love our bodies.
Today, under the powerful global influence of our indoor culture, the Solstice is barely a blip on the screen of awareness for most people. So many people are staring at screens as never before, and those screens don’t blip much for the solstices and equinoxes, instead they are feeding us unrealistic stories of perfection. They are selling us diets, exercise programs, and programs to somehow change or be better.
Perhaps one of the greatest losses we’ve incurred along the way of becoming more ‘civilized’ is the loss of any real connection with these cycles of the moon and sun and stars. Instead, of getting still and reconnected during this time of year, we rush around in a holiday frenzy, disconnecting us from our bodies, from Nature, from each other and from ourselves. Perhaps this disconnection is closely related to the mess we find ourselves in now, with all the violence and abuse and planetary destruction.
Every day we have a choice to choose between violence and friendliness, both towards others and towards ourselves. When looking at our bodies, many of us unconsciously and habitually choose violence. We focus on the flaws, punish our form for not being perfect, and feel shame when we don’t meet some unattainable standard of beauty.
A friend recently shared that she is feeling disgusting in her body, as she has been super busy so hasn’t had the time for self care. She has put on some weight, isn’t exercising and has been eating things she judges as bad. So, believing that her body is disgusting, she has hatched a total life overhaul where she promises to eats better, exercises more and gets back into her bodily perfection. Yet, even with this perfect plan, she feels so bad about herself, that she has yet to implement the program.
How many of us have been there? We make the New Year’s plan, but only follow through in fits and starts, or never really begin. And then we call ourselves failures or shame ourselves for not living up to our ideals. We stay stuck in a cycle of disconnected shame and violence towards our bodies.
Perhaps a life overhaul is the wrong approach. Perhaps instead of creating change from the outside in, we start from the inside out and extending what the Buddhists call “unconditional friendliness” to our bodies.
Instead of falling into the violence of our mind that tells us we are only worthy if we are a certain shape, size or fitness level, that we are only “good” if we eat clean and healthy, perhaps we can focus on holding our form in gentleness and compassion? To sit with the feeling of being in this body AS IT IS RIGHT NOW, and knowing that it is worthy of love, affection and appreciation in this very state.
What would that be like? Could we actually do it? Could we let our bodies be like the moon and reflect the brilliance of the sun no matter what it’s shape?
I’m telling you, whenever someone starts to love their body from the inside out, miraculous things happen. Sometimes their shape changes. Sometimes their experience of living in their body becomes more and embodied even without any external changes. Sometimes a simple change in attitude can start a cycle of self-care and nurturing that is more effortless and joyful, than any restrictive program.
I’m reminded of the native American story of the grandfather with his grandson. He tells the boy that there are two wolves fighting inside of him. One that connects to the brilliance and magic in the world, and one that creates division through cruelty and pain. The boy asks, “which wolf wins?” The grandfather responds, “the one you feed.”
So despite all the lies you may be hearing about your body as the holidays roll around and the new year’s resolution marketing begins, I encourage you to feed the wolf of friendliness and compassion toward your body. I promise you, it will bring more to your 2019 than any diet or exercise plan.
May the solstice serve you well as we move from the cycle of darkness to light.
Intro written by Sunya
What is your body image self-talk when you are at the gym? Standing in front of those long line of mirrors, we often check ourselves out under the auspices of making sure we are in good alignment. But what else are we checking out? And how does it affect our self-image and self-esteem?
If you are anything like me, the body image self-talk at the gym is not always a pretty picture. I wish I could say that my first thought was from my inner cheerleader, “Damn those are some strong, beautiful arms!” or “You are looking good girl!” But unfortunately, my inner critic is usually the first to appear, “How in the hell are those hips so wide? Is that real? Compare yours to the women around you. Yep, these are a freak of nature?!?“
That’s the thing about learning to love our bodies. We often don’t have control of the first thoughts. So, part of the practice is learning how to hear the inner critic when it perks its well-meaning but nasty little head, and then take steps to change the next thoughts.
If you are lucky, you might have someone on the outside, like a good trainer, being an outer cheerleader. Several of the teachers at Scorch in Asheville are brilliant at this. They say things like “You are so strong!” and “Yay baby…you got this.” My old spin teacher at the Asheville YMCA use to say, “Dig deeper!” and “Just about the time you are ready to give up, that’s when you get stronger.” I’ve internalized these cheers and try to use them as that “next thought” for almost everything now, including when I want to succumb to those first voices of despair and disgust around my body.
I used to avoid gyms when I was first learning to love my body. I needed to stay away from mirrors. I also needed to stay away from the collective unconscious of women getting fit. I swear I could hear their inner dialogues -- The fear in the footsteps on the treadmill, “don’t get fat, don’t get fat, don’t get fat” or the shame at the swimming pool, “I hate my body, I hate doing this.”
Learning to love my body meant learning to love moving it just for the sake of moving it, not for the number of calories it would burn or how it would help me look better in some way. So, I took up dance…and hiking…and anything that was fun and got my heart moving but wasn’t tied to losing weight. And nothing that had mirrors.
Today, I’m back at the gym because I sprained my pelvis and I need to strengthen my core to heal. I also wanted to get fitter. So, I’m revisiting the mirrors, and those negative voices, and the body image stuff at another layer. Oh the fun!
But I have more resources now. Instead of focusing on what I hate for the whole class or comparing my body to others, I replace it with things like “I have kick ass arms” or "I'm so thankful I'm healthy". I feel so excited when I hear my girlfriend in class says something like, “I love how I’m feeling stronger in my body,” instead something about her weight. It all feels like powerful steps in the right direction.
No matter what reason any of us have for going to the gym, our biggest goal as we learn to love our bodies and stay away from shame as we do it. If you are working out because you fear fat, or because you want to burn calories to try to attain the unattainable standard of beauty, or because you want to make your heart stronger, or simply because you want to feel your body move, the biggest goal is to love yourself the whole way through. The last thing we want to do is heap additional shame for our motivations in addition to any shame we might feel for the not already meeting the standard of beauty, weight and healthism.
So, move for whatever reason you want. And do whatever exercise you want – whether it is 5 minutes of walking or 60 minutes of CrossFit. Just getting into your body and moving it is so incredibly awesome and does so much for us outside of fitness.
There is nothing more you need to do to be amazing just you are. And if you want some assistance to become your own body image cheerleader, here are a few suggestions for reclaiming positive body image as you stand in front of all those mirrors:
So, take that mirrors! Take that inner critic! And keep taking those small acts of power to love this body every single day, just as it is, because it is amazing...and you are worth it.
Out of a great need we are all holding hands and climbing. A not loving is a letting go. Listen the terrain around here is too difficult for that. ~ Hafiz
Women are fighting. If you look around any room in the US, you will see women of every age, shape, size and color engaged in an inner battle – one they are waging on themselves. Statistics show that 89-95% of women are dissatisfied with their bodies. Whether she is tall, thin, leggy, hippy, busty, round, stout, wrinkled, flawless, flabby, furred or finned – whether she is the woman you are comparing yourself to and failing or comparing yourself to and winning – she is fighting the same battle you are. She is at war with the form that allows her to be here nd enjoy this temple of life.
What happens when we are engaged in a war? We either fight or surrender. Either way, we throw all of our resources at it. And for a woman fighting her body, those resources include her time, thoughts, energy, money, self-esteem and power.
How many of us spend our precious time and focus counting calories, carbs or fat? How many of us run on treadmills, not to express our power, but because we fear fat? How many of us take stimulants instead of nourishment when we are hungry? Spend our money on products, pills and programs that promise lasting results but rarely deliver? Or feel ashamed because we still struggle in some way, never quite winning the war completely?
What would it take stop the war?
Some focus on prevention. Many programs exist helping young girls address body image issues and media culture. While I’m grateful that our daughters may grow up with a healthier foundation, it still doesn’t address the issue for those of us over the age of 25. We didn’t get a body positive education, and the messages telling us our worth is connected to our looks and no matter what we do our looks are not quite ever good enough have worn grooves deep in our brains that have only deepened over the years.
And media culture is only growing. Women are inundated by 1000s of images a day telling us to get fitter, thinner and younger. And social media only makes matters worse. Hundreds of youtube videos coach women of all ages how to trick to camera or alter images that are posted on Facebook, Google and Instagram. We think these images are real when they are not.
Ignoring the war won’t make it go away. Despite the cultural myth, women don’t “grow out” of body shame. In fact, for many women, the fight against our body actually gets worse as we age. I’ve talked to countless women in their 40s who say, “I was finally getting a handle on accepting my body, when all this stuff about age came up.”
Another diet or self-help program won’t stop the war either. To tell you the truth, I’m sick of people trying to sell me. “Try my four-step process for the best life you can dream.” It’s just another marketing trick that got us here in the first place. Life is dynamic sweetheart. So is our mind and body. There is no silver bullet. So stop trying to sell me another product couched in the framework that even here I still need to improve. That’s the whole issue to begin with. The belief that we are flawed and need to be fixed.
So how do we find peace? Not the peace we think will come when we are 10 pounds lighter or my arms/thighs/belly/skin is somehow different. But the peace we can find right now.
While I certainly don’t have any silver bullets, I think there is a spiral path that can lead us there. One filled with acceptance, allowing, appreciation and affection. One where we count our small acts of power every day. The acts that nourish and support our bodies, minds and lives as well as other women.
The Chinese have a saying, “When sleeping women wake, mountains move.” And there is no time like the present. The world is a mess. Imagine if every woman everywhere stopped the war with her body; reclaimed her time, attention, power, focus and money; and redirected it to her passions, joys and heart’s desires. Imagine if we held hands and did it together? I think those mountains might start to move, and probably without a bunch of heavy lifting.
Magic happens. It's easy to miss sometimes. Especially when I get consumed by the dark storms that run through my mind. The natural habit of negativity-bias kicks in and I end up trapped in an endless cycle of rumination and problem solving that doesn't actually get me anywhere new. I forget to look up and become blind to the miracles that surround me.
This morning, my eyes were forced open. The magic screamed, or maybe squawked, at me.
When I arrived at the river for my daily walk, 1000s of birds perched on the far bank, filling the barren tree tops like leaves. The cacophony was impossible to ignore. And the sight curious. Why where all of these birds perched in these particular ten trees? On this particular morning? On the winter solstice? Had they been there before? What were they doing there now? What kind of birds where they?
I stood on the river bank and simply watched, exhilarated by the mere sight, wondering if they had a secret message for me personally? Then, in a flash, as if with one mind, the birds jumped into the air and flew directly overhead, piercing the air with their wings and making a sharp sound as if a new kind of wind. I imagine it's the note of the sound barrier breaking when you're tiny and natural.
They flew directly overhead! It had to be a sign!!! I walked up the bank pondering the significance of what it could mean. Less than two minutes later, the birds circled back and landed in the tree DIRECTLY OVERHEAD. Well this I couldn't ignore.
I stood there and watched. Hundreds of individual birds, that had moved as if one mind, now perched and flitted. They were obviously each singular. Yet, somehow intricately connected.
It reminded me of soul groups. This idea that we are individual humans, but part of a larger soul family. Sometimes an individual moves across town or across the country, but they are still very much a part of the group essence. They cannot be lost, because while they are technically an individual, they are part of the greater whole. Like a finger is part of a hand, or a wave is part of the ocean.
We are all part of one soul family and within that a soul collective and within that our own soul essence. All waves , gulfs and oceans. All fingers, hands and bodies. Multiple kinds of singularities.
As I mused, one of the birds dropped a piece of bark directly in front of my feet. I picked it up, as if a precious gift, and moved closer to the epicenter. Gazing up, I closed my eyes.
The birds didn't just make a clattering of melody. Nor was it symphony. It was an etheric vibration. Pure sound.
Sound is the basis for all things. All structures are made of molecules and all molecules are geometric forms. All geometries come from vibration. Which means, the whole world is created from sound. Or as 13th century Christians interpreted it..."In the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and the word was God."
What if the birds were creating sound that can influence structure in the most subtlest form. And what would this sound do if I listened and felt closely? I'm not sure.
What I do know is that these birds were grackles - you might call them blackbirds. Grackles are originally from Europe and have bright shiny feathers. They easily overcome obstacles and remain chattery and full of joy while they do it. Their head is especially golden, often seen as symbol of uniting head and heart. And their being-ness suggests gleeful play and active.
Perhaps these birds where there on this particular solstice morning, as I rose with the sun, to remind me of my joy, to appreciate the small activities and to show me how to gleefully balance emotions through both the head and heart.
"Take heart! " they say. "Look up and look for joy! And remember, that all shall be well!"
Thank you to the mystery. To the sound that creates. To the reminder to show up and pay attention.
Blessed be and happy solstice.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, so lives the foundational doctrine bred into every American from birth. Every business leader and religious guru tell us this is the key to both worldly and spiritual success. But what if this is idea is only half-baked? What if it has a terrifying shadow side? What if the pursuit for unending happiness is the cause for so much of the suffering and destruction of the world?
Don't get me wrong. I want to be as happy as the next girl -- happier even. It feels better in every single way. When I'm happy, I love the flowers more, I love my friends more, I love my life more. I even love myself more. It's sort of like living in L.A - a perpetual blue sky, summer day where I get to run around carefree and bubbly. Who doesn't want that?
But when I'm not happy?! When I'm not happy, it starts to get a little dicey. I can feel the bloom start to fade a bit, and the panic sets in. I feel an underlying urgency to change this trajectory. I must find my way back to the golden land ASAP. If I don't, it's failure. And the annihilating shame of failure is NOT an option.
To head off the impending downturn and subsequent shame, many of us grasp at worldly things - a new lover, another drink, a new sweater, another "like" on Facebook, a new self-help book, another inspirational talk, a new snack, or another...well... almost anything to fill the scary space of "negative" emotion that is opening up. Or, for the more spiritually bent, we may try to breathe, meditate, yoga, journey or presence our way back to happiness. Each strategy is simply an effort to get to the light, a mask to what is calling us from the depths.
But what if the only way back, is not to avoid the descent but to actually go all the way through it? Maybe our task is not to turn away, but to look directly into the darkness? I mean, we think the seasons are a failure. I know that fall will not last forever or think that the sun is failing because it is night. Each season - fall, winter, spring and summer - has a rhythm and a beauty.
Other cultures seem to get it better than we do. In ancient indigenous European societies, the cycle of the year was both a spirituality and a psychology. The cold dark winter of the world, and the cold dark winter of our minds, were just as important as the vibrant summers. In fact, traveling through the inner seasons was considered an important part of becoming a contributing member of the community. For how does one know true compassion without walking the path of pain? How does one learn to care, without care-taking, unless they have found the gems that come from being in the ugly pit of darkness?
In these tribes, a young maiden (you might call her Persephone) is out with her mother in the flowering fields of summer. At some point, she suddenly knows! So much more exists within her than she can possibly access by staying in this summer of her youth. So, she takes a brave breath, grabs the hand of her wise old grandmother (Hecate) and together they venture into the unknown of the underworld. She discovers the volcano of her anger, the depth of her loneliness, the well of her grief. And she is changed by it. When she is ripened, she returns to meet her mother in the field of flowers - stronger, wiser, softer. And then months or years later, she knows...there is another layer of herself to unearth and she goes under again.
Every once in a while, she doesn't want to leave the field. She ignores her grandmother's beckoning. If the whisper grows into a scream, and she still refuses to answer, then her fierce soul (also known as Hades) will grab her against her personality's will, and she will suffer until she surrenders to the pull. After all, we must respect the cycles of life to remain in balance and in harmony.
Yet most of us don't head the call, because to turn away from the sunshine of summer would mean certain failure in this culture of bliss. We stay in a perpetual youth, and perhaps as a result, less and less helpful to our tribe and culture. When our soul finally grabs us, instead of letting ourselves be ripened, we medicate it. Either through a doctor's prescription or our own self-selected drug of choice.
But really, given the current state of our world, is anger, grief and loneliness all that irrational? I mean look around. Dying oceans. Child pornography. Never ending wars. Homelessness & hunger. Suburbs & isolation. Animal life sold as a commodity. Human life sold as a commodity. Every single thing sold as a commodity. And the media distracts us, telling us we are flawed and not enough but that some THING might make us better.
If you live in this world, and you are at times sad, angry, lonely, depressed and anxious, then maybe absolutely nothing is wrong with you? Maybe you are awake and feeling a universal life force as it moves in you? Maybe you are feeling the interconnectedness of all things? Sensing the pain that we have caused in others by continuously pursuing happiness in the form of comfort? Maybe in such a world, you are not suppose to be happy all of the time?
Don't get me wrong. It's still wonderful to enjoy the beauty of the world. To smell the flowers. Celebrate the sunrise and sunset. Feel the wind on your skin. Melt into consensual human touch. Feel the pulse of beauty in every living thing. After all, summer is important too! But let's not all move to the Sunshine State just yet. Let's not turn a blind eye to the other seasons. To the pain, the isolation, the injustices of the world and in our hearts. Because if we never feel them, we may never work to change them.
Maybe the path to happiness is really a path to wholeness...one where we allow all of the inner seasons a place of honor. A world where feeling our feelings, whether glad, sad, mad, fear and love, are all seen as a form of success. In this world, emotions are not shamed but seen as important clues that guide us. If we allow their cycles to ripen and mold us, perhaps we will then be better able to serve the outer world, community and culture. Maybe, we will turn from a world full of youthful acorns into a world full of mighty oaks.
The heart is a strange organ. It beats every few seconds, filling and emptying with blood. Yet at moments, it feels almost like a vacuum, filled with a vast void of nothingness. The spaciousness almost annihilating.
It is made of some of the strongest muscles in the body, yet it can feel as delicate as fine crystal that shatters easily. Once, my heart felt like it was trying to run 10,000 watts of energy through a 100 watt outlet. It blew the whole thing up like humpty-dumpty and all of the king's horses and all of the king's men could not put it all back together again.
But then there are these other moments, more mystical. Like when, almost out of nowhere, the heart fills with some unknown force and all of the world is alive with color and vibrancy. The sense of separateness dissolves for a moment and you know, at a visceral level, that this is not your energy alone. It is the same force that moves through all hearts. And you see everyone as this light, a force that is the connection between each one of you. And all of a sudden, you understand mystical aspects of Christ. It wasn't an individual person. It is the singular fire burning inside the hearts of all humans. It just happened that one man, named Yeshua, lived from that place enough moments in his life for people to write about it.
When you get a tiny glimpse of that flame in your own heart, you want to hang on to it before slips away into the catalogue of intellectualized thought forms. But alas, more than often the thoughts take over.
Have you ever seen the sacred heart of Yeshua? Or the one of Mary? His is encircled by thorns. Hers by roses. Both are alight with flames.
Why the difference between the two? I'm no expert, but I do know my heart fluctuates back and forth between the two. We cover our hearts with roses when we sense it will touched by another's beauty. In this state, we call the "other" our beloved. Yet, when hurt, misunderstood or dismissed, it feels encased by thorns. In that state, we call the "other" enemy, though often it is the very same person who was once our beloved.
Both, friend and enemy make us catch up breath. Breath, in Hebrew is Rauch, which can also be translated as wind, force or Spirit. So when we "catch" our breath because of a beloved or an enemy, it is a direct sign we have disconnected from spirit, from life force, from the one.
In numerology, the basis of all sacred geometry, first there is one - the point, the singularity, the birth of existence, separateness and wholeness. It then separated into two -- polarity, attraction, repulsion, desire and a sense of "other". Then the two come together and we find the sacred third - trinity, dynamic movement, the spinning vortex that sets magic in motion. And from this three, all 1001 things (infinity) come into form.
Perhaps that is the magical equation of the heart. First there is one - me, separate, space and alone. Then there is two - another, sometimes I want to enmesh with him, bringing us back to one and at other times, I want to keep him separate, in a constant state of two. Yet neither will create the world of expansion. If I don't allow the duo to move forward, the contraction kills and suffocates.
So instead of pinging back and forth between enmeshment and separateness, I need to somehow expand into something I do not know. Me as separate, him as separate, yet together as part of a sacred third. What is the secret of allowing this?
Perhaps, the answer lies again in the breath and the spirit. When we feel the "catch" we can learn to breathe, for both of us - me as singular, you as singular (friend or enemy), and us as unity. Maybe then, in the flow of the breath, we can turn to each other and expose the fullness of the heart. Pull back the skin, crack open the ribs, tear through the sinew and let another see the raw, vulnerable, raging beauty of the heart, both the fragrance left by flowers and the scares left by wounds. If the other is willing to do the same, to sit with the vulnerability of both needing and being needed, without taking on the task of figuring out how to mend, fix or fulfill the others heart, but rather simply be with it and allow the sacred third to emerge....well then....then we have real magic. Two flames, learning to burn brightly with the light and dark Twins, willing to help each other become fuller than they ever could alone.
Together we evolve, two flames, the same source, not become one, but becoming three. A third that could never be found without the other. Yeshua & Mary Magdalene. Isis & Osiris. Radha & Govinda. Me & my beloved. Trios who have the potential to evolved the world.
According to Ayurveda -- an ancient practice which can simply be translated to mean the science of life -- being healthy means living in harmony with the cycles of life. So recently, to get myself out of my funk, I decided to start waking up with the sun again.
It's not a practice I like. My bed is my safe place. I've always wanted to be a cat, simply because they stay curled up in the warm folds of the comforter for as long as they want, stretch their long bodies with a silent yawn around 10:30am, and then groom themselves for a few hours before they go play. Seems like a great life to me, living in a state of perpetual Zen. But fate, or destiny as it may be, had different plans for me. I got the "fortunate" boon of being born a human in this lifetime.
So I have to get out of bed everyday. I have to make stuff happen somehow. Evolve and shit. Quite literally. But I still feel the past-life cat DNA trying to hold me in bed for as long as I can without feeling guilty, which usually starts around 7:30 am. Lately, it's been creeping up in to the 8:00 am range. Which in and of itself wouldn't be a big deal, but I've been depressed. Grieving something I loved so deeply and could not last. Only the mystery knows why.
To kick start my life and my mood, I reached into my Ayurveda tool bag and recommitted to the 5:30am rise-and-shine time. At first, with grand delusions that I would hop out of bed and get my sweet ass to a spin class. It's winter, and I need some endorphins. But that perfectionist's plan simply led to anxiety, resistance, and staying in bed even longer. My inner rebel is stubborn, especially when she feels my inner child is being forced into something without being considered or consulted!
So, we called an inner counsel. Everyone was invited - the magical child, the wounded child, the strict disciplinarian, the perfectionist, the inner feline, the queen, Isis and Sehkmet and many more. We worked together to discover what would feel nurturing, supportive, and inspiring.
So far, the new plan seems to be working. We...
This river, five blocks form the house, is not just any river, it's a sacred river. I know, I know, they are ALL sacred, as is any place on earth. But this one...it's the 5th oldest river in the world! Older than these mountains, which lay claim to be the oldest. We are talking BILLIONS of years old. She also happens to run north, which still doesn't make sense to me through the explanation of elevation. But we'll just let that slide for now.
Most of the citizens of Asheville don't respect her very much. After a hundred years of industrialization, she's been pretty polluted, so we all bitch about how we can't swim in her because she's infected with Ecoli. But isn't that the case with most sacred beings these days? Look at Ganges! And still that doesn't stops people from cleansing their sins in it.
So, yes, I've started to head to the river to pray. She's been around a long time, and I figure she has a lot of wisdom to share. The prayer changes each day, but most days I'm simply WOW. A way to open to the awe of the beauty that surrounds me, even on these cold grey, brown November days.
I wonder what I'll learn from this goddess. She baths me in the herstory of nature, more cleansing than any shower. I imagine it's a bit like swimming in the unfathomable heart of the blue whale as it calls deep rhythms into the vastness of the ocean.
Today it was the Pilaeted woodpecker, who swooped by in his erratic flight to say hello. He is a shaman, I'm sure of it, bringing messages I still can't translate. Yesterday, it was the squirrels, who jumped out of the trash can to jolt my heart into a joyful laughter. The day before, the brilliance of the sun, peaking out over the mountain before it disappeared behind the molten grey sky. This river, she has such wisdom. I wonder who is listening? I wonder what secrets she'll share?
What I do know, is already she has awakened my heart, soothed my mind and opened my soul. As I follow the advice of Ayurveda, AND Mary Oliver, I will continue to wake early throughout the winter. As I find more harmony, I also find, with absolute effortless effort, that I'm following another one of her directives...Instructions for life...
Tell about it.
Thank you to the resurrection of each day...and the resurrection of life.