The Role of Vows

sunI am spending a lot of time at the moment studying and meditating on the role of vows in our lives, meaning I am in the midst of making much more intentional vows (or intimate declarations) towards making our world a brighter, more awakened place.

This has a lot to do with my recent trip/retreat back home to Northern California and the inspiration to deepen my commitment to Zen Buddhist practice that occurred rather wonderfully and organically while I was there. It also has a great deal to do with where I am in my personal life as devoted mama and wife, friend and confidante, student and practitioner, writer and guide, and so on.

Yes, recently I have been truly consumed with not only the impulse but with the more profound long-term question of how I can in earnest aspire to and become a greater light.

How might I ripple and radiate out from the closest most interior circles to the nether regions of the universe as an ever more welcoming, beaming, and loving presence?

I believe this is an essential question that all us sacred creatures share and contemplate with varying degrees of consciousness over the course of our lifetimes, as it is fundamentally about unearthing, then thriving from our inherently sweet, warm, and generous natures.

I mean, don’t you think this is sort of THE life question when it comes down to it? How we can ultimately support, soothe, inspire, and ignite more love and kindness here in ourselves, there in others, and everywhere in and around us all?

Sounds grand and utterly lofty, doesn’t it? Yet there is some serious, subtle, and soft inside work to be done in making the big outside wow stuff happen!

I am convinced that accessing and living in alignment with our unique and meaningful vows is a huge part of it. 

Feeling stymied by this project? Here is a sequence of hints at how you might discover and live with your own positive declarations:

  1. GET QUIET. Sit down and touch the stillness inside you. Open yourself to receive how in your heart of hearts you would like to live.
  2. COMMIT. Take note of the phrases that you intuit to be your life commitments and privately declare them to yourself. They may me about being better to you, or being a more compassionate companion, parent, coworker, etc. What really matters is that the vows come from your truest center.
  3. START SMALL. Let each dedicated vow arise in the simplest of acts, in how you speak to your kids or loved ones, how you cook your meals, mail a letter, walk the dog, or anything and everything else super mundane and everyday.
  4. EXPECT NOTHING. Don’t assume or look to gain a thing from living in accordance with and abiding by your vows. Just be present and allow them to steer your every move, no strings attached.
  5. RIDE THE WAVE. Experience the crests and falls of your life with your vows in place and observe how you feel.
  6. DEEPEN. In other words, go back to go. Lovingly reaffirm and recommit to your vows often, and keep on surfing it all…

My teacher Norman Fischer writes in his fantastic new book, Training in Compassion: “We would all like to serve others, to feel for others, to love others with everything we’ve got. We would all like to be a light for the world.”

Vows are at the crux of and provide the blissful foundation for making this possible. They literally illuminate the way. You game?

In light and loving kindness,

Maggie

Clarity and Acceptance

Sometimes the reality of our lives is painful. Sometimes there’s not a lot we can do to fix it or make it go away. Sometimes standing up, facing, and being with that painful reality is the only option. And this is gutsy; it takes courage, it takes ferocity, it is HARD.

When life is a struggle and the things that get me are up in my face, when I can only sit with and behold what is the most difficult, I often support myself by looking to a teacher—a wise owl as I might call him or her. One of my go-to guys for this is Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.

Below are some of his words that will hopefully encourage you to more deeply accept whatever is going on, if you are indeed feeling burdened, buried, or strangled by your stuff.

These short teachings have certainly helped me:

“If you have nothing to cope with, your life feels empty.”

“You will find that your problems are valuable treasures that are indispensable for you.”

“Before you accept the problems that you have, you cannot accept yourself as you are.”

“You have plenty of problems, just enough. This is a mysterious thing, the mystery of life. We have just enough problems, not too many and not too few.”

“You are receiving just what you need.”

“Just accept things as it is.”

“We should be very grateful to have a limited body like yours or mine. If you had a limitless life, it would be a great problem for you.”

“The only way to enjoy our life is to enjoy the limitation that is given to us.”

Do any of these quotes resonate for you? Which one?

Here’s my take: To be clear about and accept our struggles fully, that’s really it. Then we can be free.

Thank you Suzuki Roshi.

In clear and sweet acceptance,

Maggie

Privacy and Publicity

Ever since my teens, and because I had such a rough and turbulent childhood, I have found great solace in the act of looking inward as both a healing mechanism from early suffering and as opportunity to develop and celebrate a rich inner life, free from baggage and my seriously messed up history.

Fast forward 20 years and I have grown more and more rooted in this sense of the private and interior—meditating and yoga-practicing—me. What I have also experienced recently is how often divergent my private, peaceful, wise, and profoundly accepting self is from the more overwhelmed and erratic, frequently anxious and in a flutter person I tend to be in public. Can anyone else relate?

Fresh off the coattails of a heavenly and seriously illuminating retreat, I have been staring a lot at the incredibly strong divide between my deeply private self and my more overwhelmed public one. And, I have to say: this divide really bothers me!

In a time when social media expectation and cultural trending require more and more disclosure, more and more revealing, I think there’s been major backlash, and not in the form of others having too much information, but rather in that the representations we end up putting out there match less and less with the essential nature of who we are internally.

Now that I am back in the throes of New York City and more hip to how I protect my retreating self from the glare of the public eye, my question to you is this: Where are you happiest? When you are your most private, intimate, and peeled back, OR when you are intentionally not?

Next question: Do you think it possible to live as your deeper private self more of the time, by letting the light of who you are shine through and dropping the armor and disguise? I certainly do.

The best place to start is in getting to know the traits of both your private intimate self, and the buffering traits of your public persona—I’ve even diagrammed my two selves. Once you’ve really studied your inner and outer apparitions, then the practice of the slow integration of the “real” you into all that you do can begin. Make sense?

To me, this merging of private and public is key to soothing our suffering. Similar to “what you see is what you get,” I love “who you see is who I am.” No B.S. No act. No veil. Just the pure beautiful emanations of who we essentially are.

I’m in. Are you?

In sweetness,

Maggie

Living and Loving Your Life!

How often do you feel exuberant and intensely loving of your life? Is this way of being the norm or is it a sensation you merely touch upon in particularly happy moments?

I am a huge supporter of, and have in fact devoted my life’s work to inspiring others and myself to love being alive, and to be equally grateful for these specific lives each of us has so graciously been given.

This personally hasn’t come easy, and ironically has arisen from feeling for the bulk of my 36 years decidedly less than in the life-I’ve-been-given department. Yet, quite miraculously, and since a profoundly catalytic spiritual experience at age 33 while on holiday in Cabo San Lucas, I have pledged whole-heartedly to LIVE.

What I mean here is not just to exist by keeping my head above water, but to fully embrace and seriously love all the experiences—up, down, and upside down—of being alive. Or, as Zen great Suzuki Roshi puts it much more succinctly, “The only way is to enjoy your life.”

Believe me, it hasn’t all been a cakewalk. Still, my internal acceptance of and awe at what has and continues to happen as I step authentically along my path has made it pretty wonder-full.

How so? I was urged in my Cabo experience to deepen my understanding of what it means to be alive. Since then, I have prioritized fostering an ever-evolving rich interior life, namely through meditation, affirmation, and visualization practices, and too, very quiet yoga. Secondly, and almost more convincingly, I have worked hard at cultivating a more intuitive, fulfilling connection to the things in the outside world that bring me joy, and too, have changed and sometimes even muted my relationship to the things that create undo stress.

Now I won’t pretend to sit here and know exactly how you should go about seizing the day and loving your sparkling precious life. Only you know what thrills and depresses you, and so much of this comes from tapping the seriously wise voice inside.

I do however hope that my words spark you enough to open up and allow for that spirited inner light to beam and guide you into discovering and manifesting your own unique and celebratory way of being.

Here’s to LIVING and LOVING your life!

In sweetness,

ML

Feeling of Compassion

I’ve suffered a lot in my life. From a young age, I was so busy figuring out how to survive, that looking compassionately—with love, warmth, and kindness—upon myself was simply too hard to come by. When I was introduced to Buddhism at 16, I began in my brain to grapple with healing from within, and started to believe, intellectually at least, in the power of compassion to soothe life’s hurts.

Oh how I loved this idea of compassion! Finally a way of living and understanding the world that spoke to the truth of my existence! It was like a huge light bulb flashing on in my brain! Still, no matter how hard I tried, I could only narrowly find the feeling of compassion for others, and even less so for myself. As I continued to sit in meditation over the years, it became glaringly clear that knowing, adoring, and believing in compassion in our heads is totally distinct from feeling and experiencing it in our hearts.

I wasn’t hard-hearted, but sad-hearted, and closed off as a protective measure from all the hurt and difficulty I’d seen. Not only had I shielded myself from reliving the agony of my pain, but I had also shielded myself from the possibility of awakening deep joy and kindness within. Precisely because of this, precisely because I couldn’t point the arrows of compassion inwards, my ability to fully point them outwards was also thwarted.

It took almost 15 years from my first exposure to Zen to actually feel compassion. I credit this exclusively to having my first child at that time. Giving birth to my now 7-year-old son Gavin was indeed the moment when I actually understood what compassion was all about, namely letting our hearts crack open enough to feel the pain of others while simultaneously committing to loving and doing everything in your power to save them, no matter what. When I stared down into that sweet, needy, born small, and a little early face, wow did the compassion-blocking chains on my heart burst apart.

There really is something magical about one’s own child, or anyone else for that matter incredibly reliant on our tenderness and care, to elicit compassion in our hearts, especially when we haven’t had the greatest track record of feeling it for ourselves.

There is also no right way, no one-way ticket to experiencing compassion. Some feel it for themselves first, then for others after, or the feeling for another opens the floodgates inwards and then pours it back out. It honestly doesn’t matter, so long as over the course of our lives, we soften to compassion, and observe this sweet negotiation between its loving flow in and its loving flow out.

The essential point is that we drop out of our heads, and awaken compassion down below, or in other words, that we experience in wonder how compassion ultimately flowers open and sets free our hearts.

In sweet compassion,

ML

 

Sensation of Community

We as human beings rely and thrive on intimate bonds. No matter how we’ve felt about belonging or not belonging in the past, it appears that the yearning du jour—from men and women, young and old, urbanite and suburbanite—is for more community and authentic social connection. This current feeling of what’s missing seems a little strange, counterintuitive even, given the explosion of social media and cyber-networking that has taken the world by storm. One might indeed argue that we, as a planet, have never been more connected.

Still, I am convinced that when it comes down to it, we are all striving for a much more hard-copy, nut-and-bolt sensation of community, one where we can actually reach for another’s empathic hand, give hugs freely, or spend an extra hour talking and breathing beside someone with whom we never seem to run out of things to say.

It took years for me to understand and appreciate this kind of deep interest in connection, as my entire teenaged life was a swim upstream against community, a fight against belonging or being identified with any one group. I was in my bones leery of tight knit circles, and chose instead to stand on the outskirts, to never quite fit in.

This all goes back to my coming from a family for which I was desperate not to be a part, and from which I had actual fantasies of being kidnapped. But, blessedly, one summer Sunday, before my freshman year in college, I walked into a Zen Buddhist center North of San Francisco, to learn meditation, hear a talk, have some tea, and take a walk down to the beach. For the first time, I was profoundly struck with wanting to be part of this particular whole. For the first time, I wanted to be let in to this energetic community by the sea.

That was 20 years ago. Today, I have a series of intersecting, chosen communities to which I am comfortable belonging—in my own quiet way—some more immediate, like my husband and kids, and some less. Threading through all of these various groups is a sense of grassroots connection and allegiance, feelings I had never really experienced until I’d found Zen center so long ago, and ultimately re-found me. In other words, my first taste of outer community enabled the experience and acknowledgement of my own interior community.

For those of you feeling a scarcity of closeness and commonality, I so totally encourage you to get out there and join that meditation or music circle, that town board or campaign committee, that regular yoga class or tango troupe. But I also encourage you to go in there, and get to know what it is inside you that has sparked your craving for more external ties. When you begin to excavate that discomfort at not being related outwardly, it may well reflect a deeper lack of relation within. Make sense?

The great news is: you can do and have both. Just remember that the more you lean out, the more you tweet and seek and stretch to find another like you, there is a very deserving beautiful creature waiting and calling for your friendship too, and that creature is you.

In communal sweetness,

ML

The Holy and The Plain

Have you ever exalted in something so simple as a slice of fruit, the branch of a tree, the sleeve of a shirt, an old worn sneaker, or the dripping umbrella leaning by the door? Do you believe that the magic, celebration, and depth of the world can be found in any one of these everyday things?

What I’m writing about today is cultivating our appreciation for spirit, the sublime energy within us all, through the appreciation of this same spirit in the most ordinary of objects. The reason? We are so often cut off, bewildered by, and stranded from spirit in our suffering-prone, rampant minds, that coming to experience spirit out in the world is at first more accessible than experiencing it inside.

I can’t help but think of William Carlos Williams here and his famous poem about a red wheelbarrow in the rain. Much like a still life painter, WCW manages to infuse and amplify that wheelbarrow with the ethereal.

Same with our toddler Stella and the small apple she lines up for after her yoga class every Wednesday. There is nothing special about this apple, just one of a great many in the basket awaiting the children when class is over. Yet, the apple palpates with such remarkable spirit, its power obvious in how she asks for it, how she holds it in her sticky little fingers. While she takes maybe three or four bites tops, the eating of the apple is not what makes it so much more meaningful than itself. It is rather how she is able to blow up and saturate the thing with such glowing energy, how she is able to give it a pulse, as if it were alive.

The elevation of and exaltation in everyday stuff is wonderful training, our attention made crisper, our gratitude deepened. Might you practice feasting your eyes and lifting your hearts with the sight of a mere avocado, or lemon, or apple on the counter waiting to be tasted? When your understanding of ordinary shifts from basic, drab, less than excellent to containing the divine, you will know it. From here, from this feeling of rock-turned-to-gold, you can then move your gaze back to your very human and wonderfully ordinary life—where so much of the work is—and behold spirit within you.

Suzuki Roshi said, “Ordinary mind is not something apart from what is holy.” In even our little dramas, our bigger heartaches, our most banal and boring moments, there is spirit. The ordinariness of all these things makes us human. The sacred in all of these things is also what makes us human. It is our job, in toil, distraction, frustration, and play, to kindle and rekindle this relationship between the holy and the plain.

Start by discovering the vital energy in any old piece of fruit. That’s good enough. Then slowly, with practice, you can jibe your attention and discover that vital energy in your own existence, where spirit lies embedded, gleaming and unperturbed, at all times.

In ordinary sweetness,

ML

Thaw Out!

Our lives are predicated on choice. The freedom to choose just about anything is truly our blessed right, however we are so often enslaved to the process of deciding, and caught up in there being a hierarchy amongst the potential answers—the best, the worst, the mediocre—that the liberation bit gets lost.

What adds to the trickiness is that embedded in this hierarchy, and pounded into us from early on, is not only the best/worst classification, but too, and even more problematic, the right/wrong one. In mathematics, this is true; there is one right answer, one right choice. Yet when it comes to life decisions, like where to live, where to work, whom to date, where to raise children, how to nourish our whole selves, the right/wrong, black/white thing is pretty unreasonable, or more pointedly pretty artificial. We grow so afraid of choosing “wrongly” that we go crazy in the process, presuming that we are potentially on the brink of ruining our lives.

I have notoriously struggled with making decisions. When I was living at Zen center so many years ago, there came a time at the end of the practice period where I had to decide if I was going to continue my leave of absence by staying on, or go back to school. I agonized. I lost sleep. I had formal and informal meetings with Norman Fischer, the abbot and leader of the practice period at the time. He even gave me a Japanese calligraphy of the word Decision, as he had been made so intimately privy to my struggle. You know what I ended up doing? Neither, but that’s another story.

What was once deep agony has with practice been downgraded to moderate stress, which obviously still stirs the pot. A couple months ago, I got anxious in deciding which multi-vitamin to take. I chose one that in my mind sounded really great, pure, and was food-based, so was by far, I convinced myself, the most fantastic of the bunch. Well, I took it and had a horrible allergic reaction. And for one or two days I got really upset with myself for my choice. Why did I do it, if I had only chosen differently, you get the drift. I mean, seriously, how was I supposed to know? The main thing, when we make one not-so-fortuitous decision, is to absorb it, drop our fear, and of course act wiser when food-based is an option in the next supplement showdown.

There is also the sense with decisions, that someone, anyone, everyone out there, knows better than we do, as if they were the ultimate experts on us. It’s silly, honestly. But if you have a hard time deciding like I do, let me be the first to tell you, you truly are your own supreme expert. You truly do know what is the best choice for you. You just have to give yourself a chance to be quiet, and intuit out what feels true, not from a reactionary frenzied wild place, but from a deep delicious in-touch place.

Here’s my final plea: How about you set as your base intention taking the pressure off of making decisions, and let yourself be guided more organically instead, so that the next time you freeze in the cereal aisle, you smile and know it is symptomatic of being frozen about the bigger forks in the road. You smile too because you know that this classic moment is the perfect clue—and cue—for you to seriously thaw out and relax.

In sweetness,

ML

Flow Downstream

Why are we so afraid of change?

It’s crazy that I’ve always sought self-development and deep change, but at the same time freak out about them regularly. Ever since I got sick in 2006, and healed myself over the ensuing three years, I have devoted my life to supporting others along their transformative journeys. I have at times forgotten just how radically I had to change to arrive at a place where I could even contemplate helping someone else do the same.

Why Buddhism appealed to me so young, and why Zen practice became a haven in my life as early as my teens, was how fully I could relate to the idea that the only real constant is change. Self-destructive and hostile as I was back then, I must have thought: Hey, wow, Buddha, you are the only authority figure who I don’t have a problem with, and how cool that you are speaking all about impermanence, a language I totally get!

Here’s why: I never felt stable or secure in my house growing up. I didn’t know what I would get when I walked in the door—raving lunatic, eccentric nurturer, sad hysterical wreck, or feverish poet. You can imagine, as a child this was terrifying. I wish I could say I was at ease with change as my mercurial mother was all I knew, but precisely because of my experience with no-ground, because of not having had a root, change has instead always made me desperately uncomfortable.

Though Zen has slowly brought me around to the ever-fleeting nature of things, I still often feel like I’m swimming upstream. Right now for instance, I’m back in another wild cycle of change. Over the past two weeks, I’ve found myself wishing pretty vehemently for plateau, if I could only cruise for a spell, while I take others through their stuff.

Ghandi of course was famous for his message on changing self first, and my wise yoga teacher has reminded me of this a great deal recently, when I’ve complained about not getting a break and just wanting to help everyone else. Suddenly I feel like I haven’t gone through a thing, like I am at the beginning of all the changing I have to do, that I haven’t seen anything yet. And you know what? For the first time in ages, I’m pretty calm about it.

SO, if you are either resisting or in a state of rapid change, here are four things that help:

  1. Let go of needing to know how everything will turn out.
  2. Take refuge in routine, do the practices you love daily, and stick with them.
  3. Talk and write about everything you are going through.
  4. Remember that nothing is permanent. This phase too will pass.

Most of all, I love what Norman Fischer says, “Life comes and goes. Life comes and goes very quickly. We don’t need to worry so much.” When in doubt, find your footing in change. Instead of fighting the current, take cue, and for once in your life, flow downstream.

In sweetness and change,

ML

No String Attached

What if we were joyful simply just because? We all know the feeling of our hearts spilling over with joy. Can you imagine feeling this way all the time, or at least believing you could feel this way at any given time?

There have been stretches in my life when I’ve been starkly aware of the absence of joy, where I couldn’t even imagine it. I remember describing it to a girlfriend as just plain missing. We all know how dull and flat this feels. A lot of joy’s absence for me was from wounds from my past that I wasn’t addressing, wounds of not feeling worthwhile.

Because the rays of joy that seem to come more naturally to children were not often shining in my house, I’d learned over the years to have low expectations for them, given my limited exposure. I am not writing this for you to feel sad for me, but more because I think many of you can probably relate, or else I think we would be a great deal happier a lot more of the time.

What is wonderful is that no matter what we’ve been through before now, we can awaken joy today, by actually being with whatever is in our way. It’s only when we push our wounds aside that joy appears lost. Conversely, when we witness our heartbreak, we can actually soften to the possibility of joy suddenly showing up.

This is just it: Joy holds the magical element of surprise. The spontaneous rise of joy in the heart can be as simple as seeing a hummingbird land on a flower. It takes us in such a disarming way! The disarmament of our hardened stances enables happiness to flourish. Joy melts us, or in other words connects us into our elemental goodness.

The other day, I was reading a funny anecdote about the Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi offering a student in pain some jellybeans, and I started laughing and crying in delight. I had a moment of totally spontaneous joy. I felt so at ease in my heart, and this reminded me of what one of my first Zen teachers says about joy: “I think that you can know from your own experience that when you relax and have some easy, happy feeling inside yourself and a good feeling for others, it does feel quite easeful and natural.”

Another thing about joy is how simple it can be. Like mindfulness, joy can be found in eating a pear, or putting on socks. It doesn’t have to be some insanely ecstatic event, some big revolutionary wow. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the smile, how within the smile is all the joy we need. Or inversely, the joy invokes the smile. He is spot on. The spread of joy across my toddler’s face is synonymous with her smile. How the smile illuminates her! The small but momentous thing fills her entire body, the joy itself transformative.

Joy too is not far away, off in a hidden crevice somewhere, but rather belongs with and lives in us all. As with stillness and peace, there is always the capacity to touch joy, to animate it, in this very moment, in our own imperfect selves. Yet we so often lose sight of joy being contingency-free. Remember, joy does not have to be earned. We certainly don’t have to win something or depend on someone else to feel it. Why not drop our notions of having to work for it at all?

The main thing is to trust in joy, to know that joy is right here, like a free-floating effervescent balloon. Even when obscured by a cloud or caught in a tree, it is still right here. To have that profound trust is both miraculous and also quite ordinary. It is simply joy, no string attached.

In sweetness,

ML