A Hymn to the Plants: Best of Friends

I count myself blessed that I was able to wander about in empty fields in my neighborhood as I was growing up – sit among grasses, follow the grasshoppers, collect bouquets of daisies, buttercups, and Queen Anne’s lace for my mom, strip the seeds off the yellow dock into my pail to make “coffee.”

I had forgotten a lot by the time I started my formal herbal studies in my late fifties. On our first field walks, the plants looked indistinguishably green to me. Over time I learned to observe smooth and wavy and notched leaf margins, the arrangement of leaves on stems, the patterns of veins, the colors and sometimes fuzz on the underside of leaves. I smelled and tasted. I started to pay attention to which plants seemed to like to grow near one another – like poison ivy and its antidote jewelweed. This was one adult way of becoming friends with the plants.

Science was another – the complex chemistry of each specie, how to extract  and then dose the desired mix of constituents, how different bodies may respond to the same medicine.

Yet always there remains mystery: green plants turn the sun’s energy into food and medicines for us.

Yes, this is called photosynthesis, and there is a chemical equation for it. Still, it is a mystery. The plants’ variety, beauty, colors and countless healing gifts are mysteries. Just like the hearts and gifts of our human friends.

Some of these phytonutrients have affinities for certain kinds of tissues in the body, and can be selected to nourish, soothe, tone and repair those particular tissues. Others interact with hormones, immune cells, and neurotransmitters to foster balanced communication between cells.

It is my deep prayer that we never entirely solve these mysteries nor come to the end of praising them.

A Hymn to the Plants

from the Rig Veda*

Plants, which as receptacles of light were
born three ages before the Gods, I honor
your myriad colors and your seven hundred natures.

A hundred, oh Mothers, are your natures
and a thousand are your growths.
May you of a hundred powers make whole what has been hurt.

Plants, as Mothers, as Goddesses, I address you.
May I gain the energy, the light, the sustenance, your soul,
you who are the human being.

Where the herbs are gathered together like kings in an assembly,
there the doctor is called a sage, who destroys evil, and averts disease.

As they fell from Heaven, the plants said,
“The living soul we pervade, that man will suffer no harm.”

The herbs which are in the kingdom of the Moon,
manifold with a hundred eyes,
I take you as the best of them, for the fulfillment of wishes, as peace to the heart.

The plants which are queens of the Soma,
spread over all the Earth, generated by the Lord of prayer,
may your energy combine within this herb.

*Translated by David Frawley in Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide, 1989

The healing I needed, not the one I wanted!

I regret and am embarrassed to report that the socio-drama in which I participated did not give me the healing I wanted. It only took me deeper into my grief, and left me untouched by the empathy that opened up for more than one of my friends, who could simultaneously see the terrorist in themselves and summon compassion.

Our group had selected a headline about ISIS from among five story banners in the morning’s New York Times. Our highly skilled facilitator then had us establish a time and place: we settled on Grand Central Station, 2:00 on a Friday afternoon. Roles were assigned: a shopkeeper, a cop, a businessman, a little girl on her way to see her first Broadway show with her mom, a terrorist. I watched as the players got into role, the shifts in body language, facial expression, as they moved through the space. Every once in a while, the facilitator invited our questions for the characters.

The story played out: the cop confronted the terrorist, shot him, detonating his explosive vest, raining havoc and death, and drawing forth strength and compassion among the walking wounded.

Here is the cop’s story: I’d only been on the job a week, I didn’t want to move in on him too fast. I didn’t want to fall into profiling him and overreacting. And the terrorist’s: my people, they are getting killed, I have to do something.

Here’s (some of) my story:

I can’t solve suicide bombings.

I can’t solve evil. Even we can’t solve evil.

I hope I never get to the end of my grief.

I know my own rage can rise up with a killing strength and desire in the face of the most mundane challenge.

I struggle with helplessness, despite the true and simple guidance I was gifted with by mentor Michael Broom nearly 30 years ago: You’re not helpless, you know.

I struggle to answer the question periodically posed to me: what is worth dying for?

I can delve into the dark history of racism and engage in education, in protest, in community action and turn away from inquiring into my own tribe’s history of pogroms – one of which drove my grandfather from his Polish village and then to America at a young age. From inquiring into the Holocaust, though my husband fled Germany for England in his mother’s arms just before his first birthday. From inquiring into the rise of anti-Semitism.

Amazingly, wonderfully, I can still be true to a life of practice, true to my imperfect humanity:

I have permission to be a fool and a wise woman.

I have built up some muscle for turning directly toward what terrifies me, and a passel of teachers, friends, and fellow-travelers to encourage me.

I can keep engaging, keep listening, keep wrestling with myself about when and how to speak up in my life, in the life of my city, my country, my world.

I can even love the healing I got – the one I needed – which points me right at the inner work at hand.

FULL DISCLOSURE in the face of recent events

Version 2

The bumblebee I have been eyeing is having a hard time of it with the evening primroses, whose petals at high noon have mostly collapsed into soft mush. Every 3rd or 4th wilting bloom she lands on, she manages to work her way in to where the nectar is. Soon she gives up and goes for the easily accessible stalks of liatrus.

This morning, I am working at having a FULL DISCLOSURE heart and soul with myself. Because that collapsing evening primrose bloom is the body-mind of my country, spent, folding in on itself, and ready to fall to the ground. And I am the bee who insists: there is still nectar here, there is still something important to be gathered here. Don’t move on just yet.

To stay here, stay here, stay here long enough to weep, that is the challenge.

Last week I was full up with working against multiple deadlines. So when I came off an involuntary news fast the news from Baton Rouge was 3 days old, from Falcon Heights 2 days old, from Dallas, 18 hours old – an eternity in social media time. My heart rose to my throat and dropped to my feet all at once. My body went into its default state: dissociation.

Sorrow and determination, the same two words now rise in me again as they first did after the Freddie Gray Uprising in my home town, and then a few months later after the Charleston church shooting.

And something else, a fierce love for Baltimore.

A Mason-Dixon line city. A gritty city.

The-park-bench-with slogan-at-bus-stops-city: The City That Reads. Believe. Charm City.

Home of Shake and Bake Family Fun Center and HONfest.

The city of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Lenny Moore, Thurgood Marshall, Henrietta Lacks, Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday. And the city of Francis Scott Key, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Enoch Pratt, Philip Berrigan, Wild Bill Hagy, Barry Levinson, John Waters.

The history of my city and the goodness of its people are both rising up.

Native Americans have lived in this area since the 10th Millennium BCE, but were probably not inhabiting the land when David Jones settled a claim in 1661 on what is now the East Side. Thomas Cole settled the West Side in 1665, then sold it to Jones 14 years later. East and West Bawlamer remain vital cultural distinctions to this day, with Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland “Health Systems” the respective dominant land-holders.

We became the Port of Baltimore in 1706 and Baltimore Town in 1729.  By the early 19th century we were a major port for the slave trade, attracting  slave dealers from Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee. They built slave pens – yes, pens – near Pratt Street, now the major east-west thoroughfare that passes the Inner Harbor, a commercial development and community event and gathering place with a modern history of being inhospitable to groups of black youth.

I get the feeling that most any place I might step in the city I am obliviously treading on history, even holy ground, ground sanctified by suffering.

As individuals, we heal when we come out of memory into the present moment. We do this when we remember. When we bring into awareness our forgotten, suppressed, and frozen griefs and rages. When we feel them in our bodies. When we permit them entry and integration into our psyches and lives instead of acting them out.

This is the journey we seem on the verge of beginning as a nation. Towards naming our disappeared, both owned and owner.  Towards feeling slavery and all its repercussions in the civic body. Towards FULL DISCLOSURE. 

How can safety, justice, freedom,  reconciliation, possibly be realized in its absence? 

And this is likely to be a rough road, given how difficult it is to agree on “facts.” Given how poor we adults are at listening. Given our tendency to make the world over in our preferred image. Given the ways our tribal bonds have taught us to see the “other” as suspect if not outright dangerous.

I sit here, watch the bumblebees, hope the sunshine will thaw me into weeping.

Meantime, in this thirst to know my city, I sip bittersweet nectar, begin to gather historical facts to dignify some few drops of the lifeblood of all those who have been erased from my city’s narrative and living memory.


A wealth of historical facts is available through The Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery in Maryland – case studies, interactive maps, and a searchable database: http://slavery.msa.maryland.gov

 

Not all grown up? Embrace your orphans

EMBRACE, definition: hold (someone) closely in one’s arms, especially as a sign of affection, especially as in: one’s orphaned parts

Early in life, our egos masterfully and poignantly craft survival strategies in response to the caregiving we receive from our imperfect parents: in that process we abandon some parts of ourselves and come to depend on the rest to handle what life brings. To maintain these strategies – we commonly call our them our “defenses” – we push these young ones away, out of sight, out of mind. They don’t get a chance to grow up along with the rest of our personality, to unfold with our soul.

Ultimately, these abandoned parts can become somewhat unruly in the ways of young children who demand our attention – whiny, hanging onto our knees, “inappropriate,” prone to tantrum or meltdown.

Eventually we may recognize these as behaviors of the younger parts of our adult personality that need growing up.  That, in fact, our wholeness lies in embracing what we have been pushing away. And then we may need to do deep and forgiving work to nourish and integrate these orphaned parts of our humanity.

Well into my mature adult years, chronic disappointment and sorrow at the emptiness of not being met, not being understood, extended their shadowy, unacknowledged, and undermining influence into every single relationship.

I found 1001 ways to disengage, clam up or cut out early: anything to avoid that emptiness, to reject or abandon before I could be rejected or abandoned.

I am well-spoken, apparently at ease in the world, and not without professional accomplishments or spiritual “progress.”  But my mother had worn black mourning velvet to school for months after her mother died. And I was profoundly shaped by her grief-stricken childhood.

Before I could take in the melancholic and disappointed child in me, embrace her and give her a place, grow her up, I had to sort out my own griefs from my mother’s. And before I could do that, I had to feel the depths of my own.

 

the face of the deep

by Sara Eisenberg

 

B’li mah,

without what?

i am a boneless world suspended

upon nothingness,

a spiderling

ballooning out on breath,

a wisp of silk.

 

over and over

i launch myself into,

mingle materially with

emptiness, barren and

wearying until

I come up

up against

push up

up against

push,

push,

not landing,

push

against cloth black against

darkness, the shape of my mother,

herself bereft,

herself a mirror covered

against mourning,

swallowing light.

A healing environment: it starts with story

Bethany 2014I am delighted to continue my interview series with healthcare interior designer and fellow herbalist Bethany Ziman.  As an herbalist and healer, I know how important it is to hold a space and deep listening for each client’s story. A story constructed from ephemeral sensations, fashioned memories, and enduring emotional patterns, each with its own syntax and language. shaped by our culture and family, our neighborhoods and the physical homes where we grew up.

As we awaken and heal, we often deconstruct or otherwise rewrite our story. And yet we continue to live in our stories, much as we live in our material homes and workplaces. It had never occurred to me before talking with Bethany that designing interior spaces, especially hospitals, also starts with story: not typical at all, she told me, but a method that works for her. As you read on, you’ll also appreciate her “not typical” results.

During uncountable hours I have spent as a family member, friend, and advocate in more than a dozen hospitals over the years, I know how the physical environment itself  wears me down. Monitors buzz and beep. Urgent voices page medical staff. Carts clatter. Ever-present fluorescent lights and high-def screens glare. Plastic everything, even the plants. Windows are sealed shut. Air heavy with deodorizing cleaners poorly masking medical odors.

The healing power of nature, vis medicatrix naturae, has been abandoned. Read on and learn how one talented woman harnesses and translates this power into one of the most challenged of modern environments: the twenty-first century hospital.

Bethany is Director of Healthcare Interiors at the Baltimore architectural firm Marshall Craft Associates, and owner, herbalist and health and wellness coach of The Herban Pharm, LLC. She is an LEED accredited professional (aka “green” designer) and a Registered Yoga Teacher. Bethany brings both thoughtfulness and improvisational delight to all of her work.

 

Finding inspiration in the natural world

20140812_140648Bethany first visited Hamilton’s Pool near her hometown of Austin, Texas as a teen.This natural pool was created when a limestone dome collapsed exposing an underground river.  She described to me the wonder, awe and overwhelming sense of connectedness she felt to the landscape and the people who came here before her: “I remember thinking ‘Wow, I am sitting at the very spot where Native Americans sat with their families.’  I imagined them enjoying – just as I was – the beauty and coolness of the cave-like limestone canopy, providing protection from the scorching Texas heat.” That formative experience continues to influence Bethany’s design work and reminds her how vital it is to “tap into people’s sensory and emotional centers when designing places of healing, by incorporating natural textures and materials that we have co-evolved with from the beginning of time.”

An Interview with Bethany Ziman

Sara: It seems as if you begin writing your “story” for a design project with the same kind of empathic imagining you described at Hamilton’s Pool, re-membering within yourself what it was like for travelers of a totally different time, era and culture to enter that space.

Bethany:  I do begin with what I call the “energetics” – an understanding of how a design can evoke sensory and emotional responses from different groups who will enter and move through a space.

I consider how to design the interior architecture to uplift their mood; evoke a sense of peace, comfort, and reassurance; encourage collaboration and a sense of community; even initiate a movement toward health and healing.

Patients, their families and friends,  medical and maintenance staff – each group enters with a different mindset and agenda. I approach a Physical Therapy/ Occupational Therapy unit differently than a Neonatal unit or a Heart and Vascular unit, yet they all have over-lapping goals.  I think through the implications of these different perspectives.

In addition to the energetics, I draw on both art and science. The art is a choreographed play, using various media – color, lighting, texture, noise reduction, line, rhythm, balance, and harmony. Evidence-based design principles also play a key role. Studies have demonstrated, for example, how the presence of a garden or even just images of biodiverse gardens, can lower blood pressure and reduce patients’ anxiety and their use of pain medications

Sara: Recently you completed the design of a new neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC). A NICU functions as a kind of sophisticated womb, in a sense, where premature infants can come to “full-term” development so that they can go on to thrive in their own family homes.  In your story you set out to draw on the healing power of the natural world, what you call “its consistent complexities.”

Bethany: I was working on my Master’s degrees in Herbal Medicine and Health and Wellness Coaching at the same time I was working on the interior architecture and design and “the story” of the NICU.

As I learned more about the world of plants and plant medicines, I understood how we draw comfort from complexities that we don’t necessarily bring to conscious attention.

The UMMC NICU is designed with 52 single family rooms divided into 5 “neighborhoods.” People enter the NICU off an elevator lobby, passing through double doors in a floor-to-ceiling glass wall etched with a field of lavender flowers. I wanted to evoke our memory of grasses naturally swaying in the wind, which is an invisible but real energetic force. Even though the lavender motif is static, people may sense a natural movement that subtly breaks the static box of the built environment.

I was also learning about the energetics of plant medicines, when to incorporate cooling herbs vs warming herbs to create balance in the body. In the NICU I used the medium of colors, which are also cooling and warming, to distinguish different neighborhoods, each entered through it’s own “portal,” an architectural detail that you walk through to transition from one neighborhood to the next.

Orange neighborhood - Jaramillo 0021
Photo credit: A. Jaramillo

I strategically placed the orange and yellow neighborhoods on the north side of the unit so the colors would energetically balance and visually warm up the lower-lit northern exposure, and the blue and greenish-blue rooms on the southern side to balance and cool down the brighter southern exposure.  Solar shades in the rooms – also with a lavender motif – are programmed to rise and fall with the sun, reinforcing and rebalancing circadian rhythms. I chose photographs of healthy and biodiverse Maryland environments guided by this same color palette – their harmony and balance enhances the identity and sense of place of each neighborhood.

Sara: This design story, you told me, also takes into account the reality that NICU hospitalizations can run to weeks and months, and so the families need both privacy and social support.

Bethany: In my herbal studies I kept coming across patterns in nature that repeat at progressive scales, called fractals. I saw that I could incorporate this type of patterning to transition from spaces supporting refuge, intimacy and family bonding to progressively expansive spaces encouraging opportunities for social and environmental support.

A family can stay in the room with their baby, “huddle” or draw inward, regain strength and bond. When parents want to step away from the room but are not ready to travel too far, they can wander within their neighborhood, which includes a “respite,” a large window seat with a view and an architectural bulkhead overhead – a “protective canopy” inspired by the natural formations like the one at Hamilton’s Pool. Here a family may encounter other immediate neighbors.

And as time goes on, a family may wander through the other neighborhoods and encounter a larger pool of people going through a similar life event.

Community naturally evolves through these casual encounters where parents can teach and learn from other parents and the medical staff.

Blue neighborhood - Jaramillo 0017
Photo credit: A. Jaramillo

The unit is laid out like a large rectangular race track. To travel from one neighborhood to another patients and visitors move at their own pace along a wood-look path. Along this inner track, they walk among images of nature, sheltered from the fast-moving medical staff speeding along an outer track.

Practically speaking, “neighborhoods” met the need to conform to fire and building codes and functional “zones.”  Together the single family rooms and the neighborhoods provide opportunities for this range of privacy, social and care needs.

I wanted the high-tech critical care to fade into the background so the space would feel more nurturing and less clinical. The consistent complexities found in nature help bring peace and a sense of stability and reassurance to the worried mind. Where better to transplant these potent and viable seeds but in a healthcare setting?

Sara: What would you like readers to take away from your story?

Bethany: To be inspired to observe the world and beauty around them, to feel deeply, compassionately and with overwhelming gratitude. I find importance in investing in the time required to discover your gift – your passion, investing the time to develop it and then taking the time to share it with those around you who may be touched by the enthusiasm. I have learned that it often takes “going against the grain” on the road to self-discovery and being the driver of your own life but it is well worth the stance and I am happy to have been a rebel in this regard for most of my life!

 

Listen to Your Body: It Speaks Truth

My body speaks to me all the time.

It speaks wisdom.

It deeply knows health

It is a system designed for adaptability, resilience, and self-repair. It is designed for health.

Breathing fast and shallow, brow knitted, nervous system buzzing?  Translation: I’m not getting enough oxygen, so how are you going to even think straight?  You’ve got me set on overdrive and I can’t switch into recovery mode. Slow down. Take those three items off your to-do list. Take the whole list way less seriously. Take yourself way less seriously. Take a break and walk around the garden. Look, really look at how the flowers are made. How you are made.

Bloating and distended belly?  Translation: I’m full. Put the other half of that green drink in the fridge for later. And for Lord’s sake, sit down and relax for a few minutes before you even start – give me a chance to get ready for the food, get some saliva and digestive juices going. When you’re standing at the kitchen sink or riding on the highway, I just can’t even get your digestive system going.

These are two of the messages my body delivered today, and I listened.

Some days I am too busy to listen.

Some days I listen and treat the messages as opinions of absolutely no merit or standing. My will To Do Important Stuff triumphs once again.

Spend too many days in one of those unresponsive modes, and I am headed for trouble: I begin to feel ill, when all my body is trying to do is repair its disturbed balance.

In this respect, I share the view of Hippocrates, the 5th century Greek physician often credited as “the father of western medicine.”  He called this faculty the vis medicatrix naturae,  usually translated asthe healing power of nature.” Physician and author Victoria Sweet writes in her extraordinary book  God’s Hotel  that a more accurate translation is “the remedying force of your own nature to be itself, to turn back into itself when it has been wounded.”

Vis medicatrix naturae2

When we listen to the body’s speaking, we know when our vitality is strong and when it is depleted.

We can also be frogs in a pot being gradually heated, not noticing until it is too late to jump out of the boiling water: we play down the body’s messages of fatigue, achiness, funky bowel patterns, aches and pains that come and go or move around, fuzzy mind, irritability or lethargy. We hardly notice that patterns are being laid down.

Or, we may be quite aware of changes and seek medical assessment, only to be told that our lab numbers are fine, or handed an Rx for an anti-depressant.

As a vitalist, I would say there are preclinical changes happening that are not optimal – changes for which we do not have lab tests to measure what is going on. What we do have are sensations and observations, clinical evidence the body is trying to restore its balance. We also have stories that help us make sense of all this information: it is very common to have a sense of your health Before and After an accident, an injury, an acute illness, a disruptive life change. All this evidence can be assessed and translated into practical supports, among them herbal supports

As an herbalist in the vitalist tradition, I know there are plant friends  from the mildest and food-like to the stronger and therapeutic that can:

  • aid and enhance our innate body wisdom rather than suppress its messages or burden it with side-effects
  • nudge our body back towards health
  • restore  our adaptability, enabling us to mobilize a robust response to physical, emotional, and environmental stressors
  • rebuild our resilience, allowing us to rest, repair, and recover from those stressors

So, listen to your body today.

It is speaking to you, and it speaks the truth.

What is it telling you?


Read more about a restorative approach to health HERE.

The Kabbalistic Universes: a Map for the Spiritual Journey

A Map

Something about the quality and design elements of this sweater captured me the first time I saw it in the catalogue. The rich earth and sky colors.  The embroidered, what? –ladders, tracks, pieces of fence one could climb through; a boundary, but a permeable one?

Each one of these has been a metaphor for practice, given me a different map for my spiritual journeying – a ladder that connects earth and heaven, a path through wilderness and confusion, a way of understanding the vital importance of boundaries that do not wall off life, but let Reality, let God, shine and move through.

For close to twenty years, I was devoted to climbing the ladder, and with poor understanding at that. I was just trying a “spiritual”  way to escape from my body and the demands of material life, a life where I felt cut off and isolated even from myself.

I have been enlightened, enlivened, and comforted to find in the Jewish wisdom tradition a map of interpenetrating worlds and multiple paths of knowledge.

This map guides me as I come into relationship with life as it is showing up, with how I am showing up in life, with who I am. This map has brought home to me that relationship itself is the fundamental thread that weaves together all of life. Like a fine lambswool sweater.

IMG_0274
Each universe both surrounds and fills those within it.

From the viewpoint of this depiction of the Kabbalistic universes, even as we journey, we simultaneously live in the presence of all creation. We live in multiple and interpenetrating universes, states of consciousness or soul, often represented as concentric circles, each world surrounding and filling those within it. It is Reality itself, the Presence of God itself, that is the fabric of all.

At any given moment, however, I go through life splitting the world. I limit the amount of reality that I allow to a level of suffering – and joy – that I can bear. I selectively split off and selectively awake, living in one or two of these worlds only.

The “journey” is then our gradual, erratic, persistent wandering, awakening to the reality of the universes, to our own glories and limitations, a re-unification, an enlivening of the everything that is right here, right now.

This understanding fuels my patience to keep working on myself, while I also deeply claim who I am just as I am. To live a life that is not more perfect, but more human. To be willing to be, forever, a work in progress.

The world of doing…

The world of Doing (Hebrew: Assiyah) circumscribes a material world of objects that act upon one another, behaviors utterly without introspection. When split off from the other worlds, what we might call Doing-only, our relationships are black or white: no gray areas. People are objects, either with us or against us, friends or enemies. The body is an object, and we look for silver bullets to fix us. God is far away, at times absent, and our prayers range from the ritual and magical to supplication and bargaining across an otherwise unbridgeable gap.

Separateness is a hallmark of this world. Yet when transparent to the worlds that surround and fill it, our material, physical life is stable and dynamic, preciousness and beauty are everywhere, even in suffering, and we have a deep sense of being at home in the world.

The world of formation…

The world of Formation (Hebrew: Yetzirah) circumscribes a world of self-reflection and story-making, a quantum leap into a realm where the personal unconscious awakens. Our relationships shift as we begin to explore the motivation and intent of our own and others’ behaviors. Most of us spend the majority of our waking and dream life in this state.

This world takes its name from our devotion to “forming” and shaping meaning, understanding and insight out of what life brings us. We have broken out of the trance-like consciousness of Doing-only, and become seekers. The spiritual journey is born here. Personal story is crafted here.

Relationships are more nuanced – we find a single person may be friend, ally, enemy. We can disagree without going to war. Here we can begin to work through the knots of family history and personality. We may plumb what ails an organ of the body for its metaphoric value, and see how words as well as herbs and medicines can heal. Our prayers shift to encompass acceptance, gratitude, thanksgiving, guidance, and mystery. God may be a Friend and Companion.

This all sounds pretty good, right? Progress, freeing, much to celebrate. And many paths culminate here.

But this world when split off remains suffused with duality. In a world of Story-only, we live more responsibly and with growing freedom and skillful means. Yet our relationships remain captive to unceasing comparison, weighing every distinction as good or bad, as it affects our personal safety and well-being. Self judgment, and all of the varied ways we make ourselves larger or smaller than we are thrive in Story-only.

The world of creation…

The world of Creation (Hebrew: Briah) circumscribes a universe of spacious possibility, where we make another quantum leap, this time from the personal unconscious to the nondual and fully human where each person and object is simply itself and takes its place in the whole of reality, distinct and in relationship.

It is through persisting in our personal work in the Universe of Formation that we come into this Briatic relationship with the fullness of our own humanity. Honesty and kindness begin to shine through more and more. We become the size that we actually are, both awakened and still waking up to all that is present in our life.

Conflict does not disappear. But the heat of friction subsides. Cause and effect are understood as a single unified event.  Here we pray with complete honesty, however we need to pray.

We can and do split this world off too. In Creation-only we leave behind the body, heart and psychology that make us truly human. We paper over our problems, dissociate from, or actively try to transcend the body, the “Lower Self,” and war. We seek a place of unchanging peace and harmony – precisely what I was after when I was climbing the spiritual ladder.

As we become more and more established in the nondual, in life as it is and as we are, the nature of effort changes. We are not so much seeking, ferreting out, making meaning. Rather we become willing creatures moving and in relationship with the never-ending changes that life brings. We don’t so much use as embody our skillful means. We arrive at right action not only because we have become more discerning of intellect and heart, but because our sense of self is now both personal and not.

The world of emanation…

The world of Emanation (Hebrew: Atzilut) circumscribes a world before there is a world we can even conceive of, a universe of undivided oneness that pre-exists separateness. This universe is essentially unknowable to us, yet is our source and foundation, a mystery that suffuses our material world, emotional and psychological being, and our most honest, kind and enlightened state.

The map that draws us home…

Each of us is delivered at birth into the center of these universes, a separate being wholly dependent on our caretakers, who both tend and fail us in their humanity.

The spiritual “journey” is a gradual, erratic, persistent wandering, awakening to the reality of the universes, to our own glories and limitations, a re-unification, an enlivening of the everything that is right here, right now.

I like to think that what sets us off on this journey – what accounts for the yearning, the wrestling, the ultimate willingness to engage and persist – is the Undivided Oneness that is right here, not yet fully known to me, tickling me and pulling me forward and back.

The map is vital to me not as a shiny or magical key, but because it draws me to notice what is here, and just that noticing brings me into relationship with my life. Hold too tightly to the map, and I risk thinking I can stop the movement of life. So I hold it lightly, and the map brings me more deeply into the territory of who I am, and how life is.

I know this about myself: I treasure this map.  Especially for those times when I lose heart. Without help, I may not even be able to locate myself – but I trust the map, I trust Reality. And that Reality teaches me there is no failure, that my inherent optimism about our capacity for healing and wholeness is not a delusion, and that even as I am convinced I am confused and lost, that I am held and safe in the mystery.

An invitation to reflect, draw or journal…

Wherever you are on your journey, what if you trusted that you are being pulled toward the center of your own existence, your home, the heart-intelligence of Reality, the Indwelling Presence of God?

What if you trusted that coming into relationship with your very human self, warts and all, is not an obstacle, but the very vehicle to take you home?

How would that change your relationship to yourself? to others? to God? to your journeying?

A Blessing Habit

Kwan Yin Goddess of Compassion

A siren wails in the distance as I head home from an early-morning stop for coffee. Not a police siren. Not a fire engine. Clearly an ambulance.

From behind the wheel, I send blessings. I have been doing this since my children were young, and taught them to do the same. I don’t think about it. The sound of the siren cues me to this. Pavlovian.

Its a good habit, a beneficial habit – it uplifts me, pulls me out of my pre-occupation with one worry or another, with one to-do-item or another. Pulls me out of isolation and into connection. And if you believe in the power of intuition and prayer, as I do, the blessing has some healing effect on the injured or ill one.

But blessing in this way is still a habit, beneficial only to the extent that I inhabit it. Bring awareness to it. Let the blessing live in my body.  Let the blessing draw from a well of compassion that is in no sense “mine,” but that I can access and share, from which I can partake and pass on.

When I hear a siren, I don’t have to remember to send a blessing.

I have to re-member myself.

I have to re-member connection, Source, suffering.

When I can be all this, I re-member wholeness, and the blessing is real.

The patient, the ETs, the ambulance driver are blessed.

I am blessed.


Read my guest story-teller piece, Dance Camp, about embracing limitations as opportunities HERE.

Read about this practice to break a common habit that doesn’t serve you.

When receiving becomes a gift

The general rule is: If you open a gift in the presence of the giver, then your verbal thanks are sufficient.

Emily Post

I checked my email one last time just before boarding the first leg of my flight from San Jose to Baltimore. There was a single new message, an apology from a long-time colleague who I hold in great respect, and with whom I had been in disagreement for some months. His words, “I feel sorry that I hurt you,” were neither casual not formulaic. And yet I struggled to take in his words, to actually receive the gift, the shift in relationship, that they held.

 

I wanted nothing more than to be able to simply open his gift, stand alive and in his presence across the geographic distance, and heartfully respond “Thank you.”  Except that wasn’t true. My feelings were varied, complicated, turbulent. 

 

Our relationship deserved more than a few words hurriedly sent off in response to his. For the many hours of flight and baggage handling, arriving home in the wee hours of the morning to a week’s worth of mail and tasks waiting for me, I struggled mightily to stay put in the gap between how I wanted to feel – generous, connected, forgiving, and the way I did feel: angry, small, closed, steeled.

 

Eventually…by the late afternoon hours, I recognized an old and familiar theme: fundamentally, essentially I was disappointed. I understood that I had burdened his words with a lifetime of disappointment, and I was able to respond to him:

I had to sit for a long time to be able to take in your words – “I feel sorry.” I have been waiting forever for God or Reality or Someone to say “Sara, I am so sorry…” It has taken me hours to let all the weight of the past roll off, and receive these as just your words.

The following week we spoke at length by phone. There was no barrier in our exchange. We each talked about our struggles and vulnerabilities and responsibility.  We did not “solve” our disagreement. Yet it was, from both ends, the most undefended conversation we have had in our twenty-one year relationship, both friendly and respectful, amends without glossing over, full of the nourishment and beauty of receiving, of being in friendly and respectful relationship.


 

Who in your life is waiting for you to receive their words, their heart, their being, just as they are, and just as you are, without glossing over?

What holds you back?