Turning 41-years-old

This body –
my body –
of flesh, bones, organs,
a forever pumping heart and breathing lungs,
turns 41-years-old today.

I wonder if my mom and my dad,
each in their own separate states,
will travel back in time today,
thinking back to the day I was born.
Will they will reflect on what it means
to be the parent of a 41-year-old woman,
self-possessed, dwelling in the mountains
so many hundreds of miles away
from the land of her raising?

This day is not in celebration of me,
as though I were self-created,
self-propelled, self-contained.
Today I want to elevate my heart
in celebration not of me but of my parents;
my grandparents; my ancestors, blood and land;
my tribe of people near and far, past and present;
the wealth of resources and privileges
I’ve been so richly and generously afforded.

Did I mention I am filled to over-flowing with gratitude?
Did I mention that I try my very best
not to take it all for granted?

Have I mentioned that each day
when I rise, I form a smile of love
on my lips for the sheer joy
that comes from waking?

The Gift of Vision

pic I took last week at the Mission Lookout Tower in Swan Lake, Montana

This is me
at 5:28am on a Thursday,
gazing affectionately
at the morning sky,
and the pinks it’s dancing wide
on the horizon.

This is me
chewing on the gift
of having vision
and what it means to see.

This is me
casting a smooth round stone of gratitude
into the pool of today,
watching as the echo of my quiet joy
ripples out in all directions,
above and below.

Shout Out to Hard Labor Workers

My husband Mike. Photo & editing credit: Luke George

I reckon it’s impossible to pay proper attention and collectively highlight each and every single one of the worthy professions and investments of time that exist in the world. Still, this is me wanting to elevate what I’ve often seen and regarded as one of the greatest sects of unsung heroes: hard labor workers.

Construction workers; skilled trade workers; heavy equipment operators; road building crews; trail crews; trash collectors; the men & women in the trenches of making physical progress and growth happen in our towns, cities, parks and across our global landscape near and far. Rarely – if ever – have I seen these workers given due credit and collective appreciation.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that in the wake of Covid-19 we are currently using our local & global voices to love up on our front line and essential workers, our truckers, our food industry workers and so forth – but it has left me wondering: what about our hard labor workers? What about our roofing crews (like my husband)? What about our electricians (like my dad)? What about our plumbers and sewage workers and road workers and front-loader operators? What about carpenters and framers and concrete workers? What about loggers and miners and trail workers? What about our mechanics? What about all of the workers who make a living getting dirty and using their physical bodies in the utmost taxing of ways – who are near-required to live on a diet of fast food and energy drinks just to make it through the day and get as much done as humanely(/un-humanely) possible?

This is me wanting to say thank you.

This is me wanting to say that I see how, as skilled and hard labor workers, you sacrifice your body for the sake of making sure we all have homes to live in and stores to shop in and roads to drive on and trails to walk on and a way of life that continues with all of the luxuries and great comforts that we are so accustomed to and often take for granted.

We complain when there’s road construction and it disrupts our route of travel. We complain when a new house is built in our neighborhood and creates a din of noise. We complain when a new building goes up in our area, signifying that our town is growing, thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if things never changed and just stayed how they were 20-years ago? But gosh, what the heck would we do without all of these workers?

Hard labor workers are amazing – it’s as simple and important as that.

So please, next time you pass by a job site or a road construction crew, instead of looking down on them or disregarding them or flashing them a sour-face because of some minor inconvenience you’re experiencing, get in touch with how hard their work is and extend your gratitude to them. Get in touch with how without them, the dwelling place you’re living in would not be possible; grocery stores would not be possible; all of the stuff you like to buy would not be possible; driving places would not be possible; running water and electricity and trash disposal and indoor plumbing and the internet and and and… would not be possible.

Big love to our hard & skilled labor workers. We owe you a great debt of ongoing gratitude.

 

 

Living with Chronic Pain

I just spent an hour or so crafting an email to a young woman looking for some support that I was connected with through a mutual friend. A young woman who lives with chronic pain and has tried using mindfulness as a tool to work with better managing her pain levels, with little success.

Knowing how best to respond to these sort of inquiries has been a challenge for me in the past. In my view, trying to take up meditation for the first time while in the midst of great difficulty (physical or otherwise) is just extremely difficult, if not near impossible. But I wound up finding an angle to share from that I feel pretty good about. Here is the email in its entirety, in hopes that it may offer benefit to other fellow folks who live with chronic pain as well.

Dear ________,

My apologies for the delay in getting back to you. Thanks for writing and feeling comfortable to share with me a bit about what you’re going through and your experience with mindfulness in relation to living with chronic pain.

I myself have a nerve condition called CRPS, which I developed when I was in my late 20’s (I’m now 40-years-old). I was on meds for a number of years which, as you said, took the edge off. I also walked with a cane for a few years as a result of my pain and challenges in moving. I’ve been off my meds now for a few years and only use my cane once in a great while, on my high pain days. I’m on disability for my condition but I am able to work very part time.

What you shared in regards to when your mind quiets it then floods with emotion/grief makes so much sense, I can totally understand that based on my own experience back in the beginning of my journey with living with chronic pain. Meditation is not a one-size fits all approach – and especially when it comes to living with chronic pain, I think it’s important to be aware that meditation can bring up more discomfort in our mind than it helps to alleviate in the body.

I can share from my own experience a couple of things that have been incredibly helpful – and I’ll share too that both of these things took me a long while to really “get” and truly understand in a way that I was able to benefit from them and experience a reduction in my physical pain levels.

1. Mind/Body Connection. As a mindfulness practitioner since my early 20’s, I was grateful to have some background in the practices of mindfulness and sitting meditation before the onset of my illness and pain AND it also took me a long while to really see how closely and intrinsically linked the mind & body are. After my injury (which is what led to my nerve condition) as time went on, I saw more and more clearly that the more I generated stories of thought about how bad the pain was, how awful it was that I’d be in this pain forever, how I’d never be able to do X Y Z again, and so on, the more these thoughts and stories amped up my physical pain. As soon as I started thinking about how bad the pain was and started running with that story, my pain was immediately worse. So a big game changer for me with my pain levels had to do with making friends with my body and with my pain when it kicked up – prior to making friends with my body, I treated it like an enemy with which to battle and fight against. I would literally say (internally) to my body: I hate you, I hate this, NO! And this fight mode increased my pain, every time. So I learned to start making friends with my body and my pain – when I was unable to do something I wanted to do, when I was bed ridden with pain, I would say to myself: It’s okay body, I’m here for you, I’m going to take good care of you. And this befriending process changed my experience with pain almost right away, because I wasn’t adding to the fury of it by tensing up and hating and fighting against my own body. I would also put my hands on the high pain area and send it kindness through light touch, helping to care for my body. And as hard as it oftentimes was, I would smile to my body when my pain was unbearable. These friendly approaches to my body were very helpful and an important part of learning how to better manage my pain.

 

2. The Art of Resting. Gosh this one took me a hella long time to embody. Friends who have known me for a long time will often ask me what changed in regards to my condition, as they saw how bad it used to be for me, walking with a pain and being incredibly limited in movement with high pain levels and now I’m at the point where no one would know I’m someone who lives with chronic pain and physical limitations. And the answer I give them is this: the greatest thing that has helped my condition is that I’ve learned the vital importance and power of the art of resting. It used to be that I fought against resting tooth and nail – No! I shouldn’t be resting, I should be doing something more important & productive!! Resting means I’m lazy and selfish and and and!!! Despite what my body was telling me very clearly, I would rally against resting, trying to push through with the no pain no gain sort of approach (which is just death and destruction to those of us living with chronic pain). And early on, even when I was laying down (because I had no choice but to lay down because my pain was so bad) I certainly wasn’t resting – my body was laying down but my mind was super spinning and fighting and hating the fact that I was in pain and laying down in the middle of the day. So for me, I learned that the art of resting involves resting both body & mind. It became absolutely necessary for me to learn how to rest without feeling guilty about it; without feeling like I should be doing something else. It took me a lot of practice – and it was worth every bit of the challenges I had learning how to do it. For me still currently, I regard resting/napping as my super hero power. I am able to do quite a bit with my time these days and it’s largely because I diligently manage and balance my time every single day in between activity and rest. I put a great deal of importance on the art of resting in my life. And I regard resting not as selfish but actually as one of the most altruistic acts I can do. Self-care directly translates to my ability to help care for others. When I’m miserable, so is my husband, so are my friends when they’re around me. Resting is what gives me ongoing strength and fuel to keep doing the things I am still able to do, even though what I can do is in some ways very different than what my pre-injury self could do.

Additionally, I will share the importance of finding/appreciating/investing in activities we are still able to do. Cultivating joy is so important – so trying to activate energy in the direction of the things we can still do vs. what we can no longer do was really important for me. I have had many different kinds of gratitude practices I’d done over the years too and have gotten so much benefit from strengthening my gratitude muscle – I have a daily and active practice of connecting with gratitude and it deeply enriches my life and my relationship with myself and the world around me. Perhaps something fun for you to do is something I’ve done in the past where I had a gratitude buddy to share with once a week or once every 2-weeks – so we checked in with each other and each shared our recent gratitudes, with maybe a little commentary about why we were grateful for the things we mentioned.

I’m a big proponent of starting small to work big, as I like to call it. Starting with small small super doable steps sets us up for success when it comes to bringing on board anything new in the way of change work/growth work. And I would encourage this approach with meditation too, if that is something you are interested in cultivating in your life. Please don’t feel like you have to sit for some long hellish amount of time in order to do it right or that you have to sit in some particular position. If you do want to start a meditation practice, I would suggest you start with 2-minutes. And be in a position that is comfortable for you, or as comfortable as you can get. It might be laying down. It might be sitting on your couch. Set a timer for 2-min and see if during that 2-min you can offer yourself kindness and practice to enjoy your in-breath and out-breath for just a breath or two. If silence is too much for 2-min, put on some ambient music you enjoy and have that accompany you for the 2-min, to help your mind settle. If the 2-min feels doable, continue sitting (or laying) for 2-min maybe 3-5 days a week and then feel things out for yourself – maybe you feel ready to increase to 4 or 5-min after a couple of weeks, and maybe not. The point is to start with a really doable amount of time in sitting meditation and not to set goals that are near impossible to stick with – consistency is more important than the length of time you sit for. There are some meditation apps I’ve heard great things about too that might be helpful – Insight Timer is one of them. Smiling Mind and Stop, Breathe & Think are others I’ve heard good things about. These are also all free, or have free options involved with them. 10% Happier might also be worth looking into (which is an app and podcast). Having guided meditations (and keeping them short) can be helpful.

I hope some of this was helpful. Please know I’m happy to chat more with you and I’m here if you simply want to connect with another sister living with chronic pain, which can be helpful in and of itself, as those without direct experience with chronic pain, while often well-intentioned, can only understand so much and I’ve found that friends/family can say things that really show how little they get it (and how could they?!).

With care,
Nicole

 

My Four Main Practice Threads

A little thing I made this morning :)

Most of what I have to share about in regards to the practice of mindfulness, rooted in the Plum Village tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, centers around these four main threads, which I personally weave into my daily life on a regular and ongoing basis:

  1. Cultivating joy
  2. Practicing gratitude
  3. Prioritizing rest
  4. Monitoring closely the power & importance of words

Of course, there are other threads I weave in too, like: comfort zone expansion work and investing in creative forms of self-expression, but both of these, and many others, could simply be enfolded into one of the categories above. This list of four threads is the foundation of my own personal practice; it’s where I dig my Dharma well.

In Thay’s book Interbeing, in the four principles listed for the Order of Interbeing, it states:

It is said that there are 84,000 Dharma doors through which one can enter Buddhism. For Buddhism to continue as a living source of wisdom and peace, even more doors should be opened.

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New Practices for 2020

Soon we bid farewell to one year in welcome of another. Soon we turn over the calendar, the decade; archiving it in the folds of yesterday’s memory.

And as is custom for me, I will leave behind the specialty mindfulness-strengthening exercises I started this past January and replace them with new ones to carry with me through the year, as a way to help keep my practice fresh and alive.

Each January, I pick up 2 or 3 new mindfulness-based practices, and lay down the ones from the previous year. In 2019, I adopted two new practices: 1. an Angst & Impatience tick-mark chart in my car, which I used diligently when driving and 2. 52-Weeks of Thank You’s.

Starting on January 1st, I’ll be picking up 3 new practices: 1. reading & practicing with one card a week from Thay’s deck of 108 meditation cards (recently published; see pic below) 2. transferring the Angst & Impatience chart for use when I’m on my laptop and 3. writing one haiku per day (or perhaps one per week, if doing it on the daily proves to be too much).

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Yep, here i am talking about gratitude…again

Gratitude is one of my favorite subjects. One of my favorite practices to engage with and invest time and energy into. One of my favorite mindfulness-related skillsets to delve more into and unpack. Gratitude is both in and of itself a virtue to continually nourish and strengthen and it’s also a gateway to other beneficial unfoldings.

Gratitude has many other companion seeds in the garden of life. When we water the seed of gratitude, we’re also watering the seeds of: joy, kindness, resiliency, equanimity, understanding, compassion, and ease.  I’ve stated in the past and stand by it: in my view, if we chose only one practice to nourish and develop, gratitude would be more than enough.

Given my affinity for the practice and development of gratitude, I especially delight in the moments when I stumble across insights from teachers or info from articles in regards to gratitude.

“What is the one thing that people who can fully lean into joy have in common? Gratitude. They practice gratitude. It’s not an “attitude of gratitude” – it’s an actual practice. They keep a journal, or make a note of what they’re grateful for on their phones, or share it with family members…

Embodying and practicing gratitude changes everything.”

Brené Brown, from Dare to Lead, pg. 83

 

And just today, I came across a link to an article in my twitter feed that said:

“Over Thanksgiving, in between mouthfuls of turkey and sweet potato pie, many of us will be asking ourselves: What are we grateful for?

Taking a moment to practice gratitude like this isn’t an empty holiday tradition. It’s good for our mental and physical health. And here’s another thing: It can actually change our brains in ways that make us more altruistic.

The past two decades have seen a flurry of research on gratitude, beginning in the early 2000s with a series of landmark papers by Robert Emmons, Michael McCullough, and other psychologists. In recent years, we’ve learned through several scientific studies that there’s a deep neural connection between gratitude and giving — they share a pathway in the brain — and that when we’re grateful, our brains become more charitable.”

– from Giving thanks may make your brain more altruistic: Neuroscience is revealing a fascinating link between gratitude and generosity

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52-Weeks of Thank You’s

For those of you who are a much appreciated devoted follower here, you might recall that each January, in lieu of New Year’s Resolutions (which I’ve never been a big fan of), I adopt 2 or 3 new mindfulness-based practices to weave in throughout my calendar year, which I then switch out for new practices the following January.

This past January, one of my new mindfulness practices was to embark upon an exercise that I read about on the Random Acts of Kindness website: 52-Weeks of Thank You’s.

The concept is pretty self-explanatory: each week, I craft a thank you letter/note/card to someone. I’ve been including friends, family members, and also local businesses and organizations. I’ve done a total of 44 thank you’s thus far, with this week marking week #45 of 2019.

I made labels to affix to each card (see pic above) and my personal commitment was to not send these thank you’s via the less personal route of email but to instead write them out by hand and send them in the U.S postal mail, putting some love into the dwindling art of letter writing.

This practice has been quite an interesting new road I’ve been traveling on, with some weeks harder than others to drum up my next person/business to send a thank you to. Still, even when it’s been a bit challenging or I’ve had the thought Oh man, I have another thank you card to do already? Didn’t I just do that?! angling myself in the direction of sending direct thank you’s to people and businesses has been nourishing to my own sense of connectedness.

Over the years, I’ve invested in a number of different gratitude-strengthening practices and this is what I’ve discovered for myself personally: the more I practice seeing and touching gratitude in my life, the more I see and touch more reasons to be grateful – and the stronger my sense of gratitude becomes, the more joy and ease and sense of connection I feel as a result.

The Second Dharma Seal: Nonself (2 of 2)

(In this post, anything in quotation marks will be from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh, as I’ll be referencing it throughout this post.)

This is part 2 of a two-part post.

“The Second Dharma Seal is nonself. Nothing has a separate existence or a separate self. Everything has to inter-be with everything else.”

My husband Mike and I recently had a conversation on whether/how nonself differed or was synonymous with interbeing. He came up with a great metaphor (no surprise – he has a true gift for creating metaphors.). He said: Nonself (aka a separate self) is what our cup is empty of; interbeing is what it’s full of. Brilliant!

My own working definition of nonself, as it differs but is related closely and is inseparable from interbeing: the more I come to see clearly my nonself nature – that I am a collage of an endless stream of causes and conditions – the more my insight of interbeing blooms and flourishes.

“Nonself is not a doctrine or a philosophy. It is an insight that can help us live life more deeply, suffer less, and enjoy life much more. We need to live the insight of nonself.”

“Nonself means that you are made of elements which are not you.”

Once again, how do we practice with this Dharma Seal so that we aren’t at risk of intellectualizing this teaching to a detriment?

Here’s what I came up with for myself.

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Forehead to the Ground

When I bend down
and touch my forehead to the ground
in gratitude,
I am pretty sure the
aging leaves still clinging
to the two elm trees in the backyard
murmur in resonance.

I am pretty sure
it calls birds in closer and
inspires the squirrels
to lean in to listen more intently
and the roots of the front yard
mountain ash to dig down a little deeper.

I am pretty sure
a shifting in the air can be felt
and the moon in her wisdom clad gown
sits a touch more upright
in her royal posture.