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  • Hayden and Allure Are Counting on You

    September 20th, 2013

    Tibetans have always had a deep reverence for the earth, so much so that they don’t like to harm it in any way.  This really resonates with me, and I’ve been trying to pass along earth-loving values to my kids.  I think  it’s working, if this video from my daughter is any indication!  Enjoy, share with friends, and please do as they ask in the video!


    Impermanence: A Crash Course

    April 19th, 2012

    For the past two weeks, I’ve been staying with my mother at her home as she deals with end-stage cancer.   It has been a hit-me-over-the head lesson in the Buddhist concept of impermanence.  While I became immersed in this concept while writing FALLING TO HEAVEN, this experience is taking it to another level. 

    What does impermanence mean?  It seems best summed up by something a Buddhist once said, “We are all dying, every minute.”  Geneticists have found evidence of this concept in something called telomeres, which exist in our cells and they tell our cells when to stop dividing and rejuvenating our bodies.  So we age and eventually die because our telomeres tell our body’s cells, “Okay, pack it in.  You’re done.” 

    My incredibly brave mom has wide placid eyes these days as she contemplates the ceiling and walls in her room and the changes happening to her body.  When I ask her how she feels about these changes, she says she is calm. 

    Her condition changes every single day.  When I got here, we went out to breakfast.  It’s scarcely two weeks later, and going out to breakfast seems a distant dream now, like a fascinating cultural practice on a distant planet. 

    These days it’s about whether the food she takes in — a  section of an orange, a tiny sliver of cheese on a cracker, two ounces of liquid – will stay in.  Often, it doesn’t.

    I spoke with a friend who’s a social worker with hospice, and she asked me, “Are you meditating?”  I answered, “No, it’s called avoidance, right?  Meditation doesn’t let you avoid.”  

    She said, “Well, you better get started.”  She suggested a lovingkindness meditation in which you extend first the positive thoughts towards yourself, and then to your loved one:

    May I feel safe.  May I feel content.  May I feel strong.  May I feel at ease.

    Then, May she feel safe.  May she feel content.  May she feel strong.  May she feel at ease.

    That’s perfect.  Because impermanence is happening, whether I’m shutting it out or looking straight at it. 

    I want to feel safe while I look straight at it.  And maybe, my mom and I can help each other feel safe looking straight at it together.

    Are You Survivalizing?

    January 23rd, 2011

    Survivalizing?  What’s that?

    It’s something we do in our heads.  We take a situation that is not a life or death issue, and we tell ourselves, 
    This is a matter of life or death.

    Some might call this “making a mountain out of a mole hill,” and it is that, but it’s also more than that.

    When we survivalize something, we not only make it big in our minds, but we also have a huge physiological response.  Our bodies go into fight or flight mode.  Yeah, sweaty palms, racing heart, pounding head, muscles all tensed up, ready to fight for our very survival.

    Here’s an example.  I had to buy a new car this week.  It was terrifying.

    On January 4th, someone rear ended me.  It was a good hit in the behind that totaled my car.  And yes, I did have some psychological effects then, like being spaced out for a week and having trouble concentrating. 

    But I was never afraid.  I wasn’t in fight or flight mode even when there was the threat of bodily injury.  No, that response came this week as I shopped for, looked over, inspected, considered and ultimately bought, a car.  My heart thumped away as if there was a semi coming at me. 

    Why?  I survivalized the situation.  And even as I watched myself do it, I couldn’t stop.

    It’s pretty humbling to be a psychologist, with training in biofeedback and relaxation therapies and cognitive therapy, and watch yourself make a mountain out of a mole hill and get your entire arousal system in a tizzy. 

    But at least I had the detachment enough to say, “You’re survivalizing this!  It’s not like you’re losing a limb!  It’s not as though you’re being pursued by a pack of angry killer bees!”

    For now, I’m going to have to be happy with having had the awareness.  Oh, and I did try some deep breathing and calming music, so that’s a good sign, too.

    Maybe next time I have to buy a car, I’ll be able to meditate all through the experience, right?

    Listening to Old Tapes

    December 28th, 2010

    There’s an expression: listening to old tapes. It’s sort of pejorative, referring to the inner thoughts we have that seem to dog us for years on end and keep us tied to our emotional baggage. They’re never fun thoughts, either. No, we don’t dwell upon parental messages like, “I’m proud of you, kid.” Instead, they’re the bad ones like, “You’ll never amount to anything” or “nobody’s going to like you if you act like that.”

    Sometimes they’re not anything that someone said, but rather a message that came through their actions. Like my father who ignored me completely – at least that was my experience of it. Being less than seven years old, my ability to understand this was limited, so I assumed, like so many children do, that there must be something rather dull about me. I didn’t notice that he was pretty much ignoring everyone else because he was off in his own world.

    Now, after many years of self-examination, I understand that he was simply self-absorbed, wrestling with demons, not ready to be a dad. I know in my head that it wasn’t really about me at all, but my heart hasn’t really grasped that yet. So when I have experiences in which I feel ignored, bang! – that button gets pushed. And instantly I feel very very bad about myself.

    Like other people, I do all sorts of things to avoid feeling that way. You know how we avoid stuff – we eat a lot, or obsess over the Internet, or drink too much or exercise compulsively. All to avoid feelings.

    So my friend suggested I listen to some old tapes, in order to stop listening to my own old tapes. Huh? But the ones she offered are some old talks by Jack Kornfield from 1992 – on cassette tapes! (She loaned me a cassette player too).

    Jack Kornfield is a wonderful Buddhist teacher who talks about settling into the heart in our meditation, not staying up in our heads. And that means allowing feelings to be there, without jumping away from them. Listening to, and examining, the scary stuff.

    And knowing that the scary feelings that come up are as impermanent as everything else.

    The scary feelings are impermanent too.

    So I tried that yesterday. Just sitting with the emotions I usually avoid. It was just beyond awful. It ended up being a horrible day, because I dipped into some pretty nasty core stuff, without running away. I cried and cried and dragged myself through the workday like something from “Night of the Living Dead.” I kept thinking, “Jeez, I thought Kornfield said these feelings would arise and then fall away! What a crackpot!”

    But today, I feel great. Not that I think I’m done. But I feel lighter. More free.

    So maybe he’s not a crackpot after all. Maybe. But the jury is definitely still out.

    Impermanence: How It Liberates Us

    December 18th, 2010

    One of the most prominent messages of Buddhism is that everything is impermanent; that all of us are dying, minute by minute, and that all conditions are also changing from moment to moment.

    Most of my life, I’ve always hated that idea. When I would hear the word impermanence, I’d think of all the people I love, and that they could be taken from me in the next instant. I would feel the quicksand shifting beneath my feet, and I despised that feeling. I would still like to pin down all my loved ones in such a way that they simply couldn’t disappear from my life.

    But lately, I’ve begun to see the other side of the coin. That is, if everything is impermanent, then some of the most annoying things, things we struggle with, are impermanent too. So if I’m not particularly happy about the holidays coming this year and would like to say, “Wake me up when it’s January,” I can rejoice in the concept of impermanence. So I’m not looking forward to Christmas this year — I’ve had better Christmases and probably will again. It’s not permanent. And even the way we feel during the day — if there’s something we’re struggling with internally — that too, can shift within an instant.

    When seen in this light, impermanence becomes quite liberating!

    Chanting Down the Monkey Mind

    November 25th, 2010

    There are times when our brains lift us almost off the planet, they’re so turbocharged with vigorous energy and zinging ideas.  According to Buddhist philosophy, these zingy thoughts — consisting of worries, fantasies, fears, judgments, scripts about what’s supposed to happen – fog the lenses of our perception.  They fog things up so significantly that as we walk through our day, we are not truly present to what is happening around and within us. 

    We cannot perceive clearly. 

    This is the problem that all mindfulness strategies seeks to address.  

    Thus, mindfulness gurus such as Thich Nhat Hanh exhort us, “When doing the dishes, just do the dishes.”  A statement which can sound so obvious as to be idiotic. 

    Until you actually try doing it.

    Ever tried to just do the dishes?  It’s nearly impossible.  Unless of course, you’ve been practicing just doing the dishes, mind entirely focused on that alone, for years.  With some practice, you might have moments of pure dish-doing, but they probably won’t last through the entire washing up! 

    So there’s the goal, learning to simply be.  But how to get there?  It’s incredibly frustrating to watch helplessly as your mind hatches eight monkeys going in different directions while you stand there with a soapy glass in your hand. 

    When my mind is extremely active, the best way to put some of the monkeys back into the barrel is to chant.

    The word “chant” has a Latin root.  In Spanish, the word is “cantar,” and in French, it is “chanter.”  Both of the latter words imply something that the English word does not, namely, singing.  When we hear the word chant in English, we merely mean reciting words in a speaking tone of voice, usually. 

    In my experience, chanting — using a singing voice — is the shortest superhighway to a settled mind.  Meditation, done after chanting, can feel almost effortless.

    Chanting can be found in many religious traditions.  Sikhs, Buddhists, Catholic monks, and yogis all use it.  The words of the chants will vary according to the religious tradition of course, but the kernel they all share is reaching towards the divine with words and music. 

    No matter what your spiritual path may be, there is probably some chanting tradition with which you can connect.  And you can begin chanting down the monkey mind.

    The Secret Behind “The Secret”

    November 15th, 2010

    In last week’s blog, I trashed Rhonda Byrne’s  book/DVD, The Secret, along with the c0ncept of the law of attraction.  No, I don’t believe that wishing — alone — can make it so.  But in our affluent western society there is something which can combine with wishing to make it so.  What is it?

    Behavior change.  Setting specific goals and then making them happen, one behavior at a time.

    Here’s an example.  My friend Annette and I had the dream of being substantially better at taking care of ourselves, and we decided to do something about it.  So for the past 6 weeks, we’ve been touching base on a weekly basis, for what we’ve named our “coaching call.”  During this call, we set intentions (goals) for self-care during the week.  The key to setting these goals is to be so specific and behavioral that if a chimp were observing you, he’d be able to tell whether you did these goals or not.  So rather than setting a goal like, “Meditate,” we set a specific number of minutes we’re shooting for during the rest of that week.  Or if there’s a goal that contains more than one step to it, we put all the steps in there as separate goals.  That way, we give ourselves credit for every step.  So here’s a typical week’s goals for me:

    Meditate a total of at least 60 minutes during the week (cumulatively, to empty my mental hard drive)

    Go to yoga at least 2x/week (relaxing, takes care of health, increases chances of maintaining sanity)

    Speak with friend Jane at least one time during the week (a good source of moral support)

    Do at least 2 hours of housework (I do much more than this anyway, but have never gotten credit for it before, or even counted up how very much time it requires!  Also, when I get behind on housework, I get stressed out by looking at the mess).

    The goals are very simple, and it feels quite rewarding to check them off as I do them.  And, more importantly, I don’t lose track of these — they’re essential maintenance ingredients for me.  It takes a special effort for them to not slip through the cracks, and I’ve committed to making that effort. 

    In the past, I’ve also set more ambitious goals, such as with the writing of FALLING TO HEAVEN, and its sequel, HALFWAY TO THE ETHER.  First I started with dreaming big.  That’s where I think Byrne has tapped into something.  She challenges people to open their minds to possibilities.  And then, the diligent ones among the crowd break it down into tiny steps to finally reach the end goal.  So at times, I have set goals like, “Write 2 and a half pages a day,” with an eye toward having a completed rough draft of a novel in about 6 weeks.  And I’ve gotten there!

    You can do this with nearly anything you want to accomplish.  I first started doing this with doctoral dissertation students, who had to conceive a research question, narrow it down, develop a plan of how to study it, get approval to do a study, run the study, then analyse and interpret their results, and finally defend it in front of their professors.  A very daunting task, that has turned more than one doctoral dissertation towards screaming, and often towards quitting school.

    But it’s not so hard if you break it down, week by week, into a million little steps.  Then it’s quite do-able.  With some psychotherapy clients, I use this process to help them overcome social phobias.  One step at a time.  The key is to keep at it, and find yourself someone to hold you accountableeach week.  And if you didn’t meet your goals, compassionately ask yourself why.  Maybe you weren’t realistic about the amount of time you’d have available that week.  Use that insight in setting your goals for the next week.

    I imagine Rhonda Byrne initially thought big — really big — and then worked her butt off to make The Secret happen, one step at a time.

    The Secret: The Rabbi and I Trashed It.

    November 12th, 2010

    There’s a breathtakingly well-written post from Rabbi Rami Shapiro about The Secret (Rhonda Byrne’s book and DVD) on the Spirituality and Health website.   Here’s the link: http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/NMagazine/articles.php?id=1760.

    In The Secret, Rhonda Byrnes claims that according to the “law of attraction”, you attract certain things to yourself by means of your own thoughts.  And she says, “you can have, be, or do anything, and there are no limits” (page 47). 

    Rabbi Shapiro begins with acerbic strength.  It would be a disservice to paraphrase him, because I couldn’t say it any better than he did:

    “This is pure baby-boomer narcissism: the universe is your personal concierge. The thought that the universe is some kind of genie whose sole purpose is to fulfill the endless desires of human beings is terrifying.  To see just how terrifying, I spent a few hours wandering around the campus where I teach asking people what they would ask for if they thought the universe was a giant wish-granting machine. For every “world peace” there were 10 “SUVs.” For every “cure for cancer” there were dozens of “a million dollars.” For every “an end to injustice” there were 20 “a perfect body.” If the ideas in The Secret are true, the universe is doomed.”

    At this point, I guffawed loud enough for my neighbors to hear.

    But there were sad parts too.

    He quotes Byrnes:  “Everything that is coming into your life you are attracting into your life” (page 4), and “the only reason any person does not have enough money is because he is blocking money from coming to him with his thoughts (page 98),”  and then utterly eviscerates both claims, saying:

    “Rape, incest, spousal abuse happen because their victims want them to happen. Poverty has nothing to do with racism, sexism, or social and economic injustice.”

    Yeah, I have a hard time contemplating a mother watching her child die of starvation just because her thoughts didn’t magnetize any food her way.

    Not only does the rabbi use logic like a sword,  but –

    The rabbi could be a Quaker.

    The Friends also assert that it is our moral, personal responsibility to address these ills (e.g, feed people), rather than blaming those who suffer them for “not thinking right.” 

    And that is why I kept saying ”Amen!” as I read the rabbi’s post, with the same vigor you might hear in at a Baptist revival meeting.

    Are you there, God? It’s me, Doofus.

    November 6th, 2010

    I seem to be in a time of not being sure whether or not I believe in God right now.  It’s not like I’m ever perfectly certain about God, but at the moment, I’m feeling particularly disconnected from God.  Perhaps some of you who have read FALLING TO HEAVEN have already figured out that the character closest to describing who I am is Emma, the perpetual doubter and skeptic.

    I like having her in the story, because she gives voice to so many of the things that we “faithful” types often feel, but perhaps try to hide.  Readers have told me that she also makes the book much more universal, because atheists can read it and not feel alienated by all the religious content.  Emma doesn’t just doubt, she gives God a good drubbing on many occasions, along with a piece of her mind.

    I’m not really feeling like a drubbing is in order, I just don’t feel connected to God right now.  And as I’ve been dealing with some personal challenges lately, a few people have asked whether I’d like to try to connect with God more closely.   But how, with my doubting mind?

    It’s when I feel like this that I sometimes go back to the Serenity Prayer from AA: (God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  This prayer it reminds me of the simplest way I’ve defined God in my mind — the most bare bones concept of God I’ve got.  God is the first phrase of that prayer: “the things I cannot change”  (the ones I must accept).  And that’s a lot of things!   There is an elegance to this explanation that satisfies my scientifically-trained mind, reminds me of my place in the world, and sets me on a simple path toward acceptance.  That makes me feel oddly . . . connected.

    Sex — Warts and All

    October 25th, 2010

    Like many writers, I have long struggled with how to write with honesty.  I mean the kind of honesty that writers are supposed to have in memoir.  Not just the soul-baring kind, but the sort which could leave you open to others judging or looking askance at you. 

    I recently read FREE FALL, by Rae Francoeur, and this book sets the bar high for honesty.  It has been billed as a ”late-in-life-love-affair” and erotic memoir.  The writing in FREE FALL is breathtaking, carrying you effortlessly from one page to the next and the next.  It’s the kind of book I walked around the house with in one hand while cleaning with the other, because I simply didn’t want to stop reading it for a moment. 

    But what struck me most about this lovely book was the writer’s willingness to just put it out there. 

    I heard the author speak, and someone asked her, “Was it hard for you to bare so much for other people to read?”  Her reply was, “I didn’t really think about it.”

    That stopped me.  I, and most of the other writers I know, have to make all sorts of end runs around the giant linebacking editor hulking around in our heads.  And this, for the purpose of getting through a paragraph without stopping the flow in order to correct punctuation errors.  But here was a woman who trusted herself enough to write about the most intimate of topics, sexuality, and about the struggle to carve out a life for herself vis-a-vis an old boyfriend who won’t let go.

    Letting go is the larger theme of this book, and it is the entire point of the intimate scenes.  That is, the sex is not for its own sake; it is a symbol of how the protagonist embraces a part of herself she had never allowed before.


    © 2008 Jeanne Peterson. All Rights Reserved. Website Design by monkeyCmedia

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