January

The first month of the new year comes soon after the sun has reached its lowest point and begins to rise. Appropriately the month is named after Janus, the Pagan god of endings and beginnings. The Romans portrayed Janus as having two faces – one looking to what is behind and one looking forward to what lies ahead. The Greeks called Janus the guardian of exits and entrances, for to begin again one must exit one state and enter another. In our culture, this idea continues in the form of New Year’s resolutions – resolutions to diet, to exercise, to simplify one’s life. These resolutions spring from the impulse to better oneself, and in a deeper sense to find new ways to be nourished. In that spirit, take a moment to look back at 2011 What stands out? Whether pleasant or difficult, every experience contains within it the seeds of nourishment. So as you look back over the past year, allow yourself to feel nourished by whatever you went through. Take a few moments to remember an experience that particularly affected you. Where in your body do you feel it? Try to physically sense what that experience was like. Think of the way that experience affected you and take a moment to reflect on what you learned. Picture the seeds of this experience begin to grow, filling you until you are able to feel an embodied sense of its lesson(s). Think too of what you no longer need from 2011 – it may be a habit that no longer serves you as it once did. It may be a worry or a concern that gets in the way. It may be a relationship or a job that you’ve begun to outgrow. Whatever it is, bring it into awareness and then practice letting it go. You may want to take a piece of paper and write down a word or phrase that represents the thing you’re releasing – then find a way to symbolize the release. You may decide to burn or bury the piece of paper – you may want to throw it in the trash or flush it down the toilet. Remember as you do, that in order to enter a new state you must first exit an old one. Now look forward into the coming year. Feel its expanse opening up in front of you – a fresh new year of possibility. What is calling to you? How do you need to be nourished? What do you want to bring into your life in the coming year? It may be a personal quality you want to manifest; an experience you want to have; an action you want to take; or a daily routine you want to practice. At first, until they manifest, such callings are vague and amorphous; like the air, they are difficult to grasp. So rather than trying to figure it out with your mind, take a moment to listen to what is calling you and allow it to arise effortlessly in your imagination. See if you can find an image, a sound, a sensation that gives you a sense of this calling. Feel it in your body. If you have an image of the heart – feel your heart opening. If you hear water flowing – feel your body becoming more fluid. If you sense adrenalin running through you – feel the excitement of embarking on a new path. As you get more in touch with the calling, bring it into your consciousness by finding words to frame it as an intention and then synchronize the words with your breath. I want to be a kinder person – breathe in kindness; breathe out whatever interferes. I want to be more vital and alive – breathe in vitality; breathe out whatever interferes. I want more spacious and quiet in my life – breathe in spaciousness and quiet; breathe out whatever interferes. With each breath in, you are nourished and enlivened; with each breath out, you release what is holding you back. At any moment of the day, you can stop what you’re doing and remind yourself of what is calling to you by bringing your attention to your breath – breathing in what is calling to be born. In this way, you breathe what you want into being. As the poet Rilke wrote, Life goes forth from within us, moment by moment. POSTSCRIPT Three people stand out in my mind when I think of the new and unexpected openings that can happen when old states are left behind. None of the “exits” I describe were intentional or welcome, but each moved the individual in directions better than any they could have consciously planned. One person was a friend who lost her home in the Berkeley/Oakland fire of 1991. On the day of the fire, she and her husband were out at Point Reyes enjoying the warm sunny weather. As they crossed the Richmond Bridge on their way home, they noticed a black plume of smoke rising from the East Bay hills. From its size they knew it was a fire, and a big one. “Oh my god!” my friend cried looking closer, “Our house!” As they drove toward Berkeley, the sky darkened and bits of ash began to fill the air. At the south-east corner of Berkeley, fire engines and police cars were everywhere. Officers were directing traffic and blocking roads so it was impossible to drive into the hills. As evening approached, my friends – along with hundreds of others – were guided to make-shift shelters. Not knowing the condition of their house and armed with only a donated toothbrush, they spent the night in shock. Days later, when the fire was officially “out”, they were allowed back in for a brief period to reclaim anything that hadn’t burned. A twisted shower fixture and a few charred pieces of concrete were all that remained of my friend’s house. Furniture, clothes, computers, photo albums, jewelry – a lifetime of belongings – were all gone. Days later, I accompanied my friend to search through the rubble for her engagement ring. Driving up, it felt like we were entering a nuclear war zone – nothing was alive. Here and there, people sorted through bits of blackened concrete and metal. Few, including my friend, found what they were looking for. It took weeks, months, years to regain any sense of normalcy, and more years to begin to heal. Thirteen years later, after learning of the earthquake that had erupted in the Indian Ocean, my friend went to Thailand to help people whose lives had been shattered by the tsnumai that followed. Her own experience compelled her to want to help. In the process, she fell in love with the country and returned to live there – helping in the reconstruction effort and using her skills as a therapist to provide ongoing counseling for PTSD. Out of what had been a tragedy, a whole new life was born. Another is a friend who was arrested after participating in a gang fight when he was a teenager in Watts. In the fight one person was killed. And though my friend didn’t fire the gun, because he was seen as “an accomplice” he was imprisoned under what was called “indeterminate sentencing law.” This sentencing policy provided no set release date but rather tied an individual’s release to his behavior in prison – which, in turn, was determined by the sympathetic or unsympathetic staff of the prison. As it turned out, my friend was in prison for twenty-one years. Before entering prison he was a talented but confused young man. The product of a white woman from Mississippi and her black lover, he was raised until the age of four by his mother and her racist husband. As an infant he was light-skinned and passed as white. But as he grew, his skin darkened. After the KKK burned a cross on his “parents” lawn, his mother sent him to Los Angeles to live with relatives of her lover who were elderly and childless. The trauma of being separated from his family, where he had experienced himself as white, and sent alone at the age of four across the country to live with strangers who were black, was a trauma that stayed with him. Though he was an outstanding athlete and had been awarded a tennis scholarship to UCLA – his demons got the best of him and he frequently got in trouble. During his time in prison, he met George Jackson – the head of the Black Panthers in prison – and was exposed to philosophy, sociology, eastern spirituality, as well as the social inequities and politics of the day. He was periodically put into solitary confinement – where he had nothing to do but read and write – and over the years developed an almost monk-like wisdom. Upon his release, he went to work with at risk youth, teaching them the lessons he he’d learned over the years. And while he is dedicated to keeping them out of prison, he admits that he is a very different person now than he would have been had he not been arrested. “I would have been dead or strung out on drugs,” he often says, “if I’d continued on the path I was traveling.” The third is an eighty-one-year old friend whose husband – after fifty years of marriage and five children – announced he was gay and left her to live with a young man half his age. My friend was devastated by the news, for though there had been challenges in the marriage and little physical contact for years, there was a deep love and admiration between them. For months she was alternately angry, despondent, and overwhelmed. At times her grief seemed too much to bear. At other times she was obsessed with finding answers. Had he been gay all along? Had he been leading a double life? How could she have been so unaware? Looking for others who had so suffered, she joined a support group of men and women whose spouses had “come out.” Questioning her sexual abilities and wanting physical contact, she joined a sexual awareness group. Trying to deal with her anger, she joined others who were working on nonviolent communication. Hoping to fill the emptiness she felt, she went on meditation and painting retreats. And – most helpful of all – seeking spiritual sustenance, she read books and tapes by Pema Chodron. Three years after her husband left, a friend invited her to dinner with an eighty-three-year old man who had been her beau when she was in college. His wife had recently died and soon after meeting again they were consoling each other over their respective losses. Now, almost two years later, they have developed an unexpectedly passionate relationship. My friend is getting a kind of physical attention she never received in her marriage and daily she receives a love poem from her suitor. The children on each side are delighted by the relationship and gradually she and her husband are reestablishing a fond connection. Though it was the most painful period of her life, she is the first to admit that it has deepened her and exposed her to aspects of being human that she would have never otherwise experienced. While these people’s stories are examples of the unexpected blessings that can come when one is forced to leave the life they had been living, change also happens by choice. At any moment we can choose “to begin again” by being willing to exit one state in order to enter another. Books The following books relate to the theme of endings and new beginnings. CALLINGS; Finding and Following an Authentic Life – by Gregg Levoy. Levoy examines the many kinds of calls we receive and the various ways they come to us. Drawing on the stories of people who have followed their own calls, Levoy shows us the many ways to translate a calling into action. “A multitude of forces in this world conspires to divide us against ourselves, our power and authenticity, our voices, even our ability to simply listen to ourselves and believe what we hear . . . The purpose of calls is to summon (us) away from (our) daily grind to a new level of awareness . . . Our own unfolding require that we be in constant dialogue with that calling.” THE ART OF POSSIBILITY; Transforming Professional and Personal life – By Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. This book combines Benjamin Zander’s experiences as conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and his capacity as teacher and communicator with Rosamund Stone Zander’s ability to create innovative possibilities for fulfillment. The two write passionately about the powerful role that the notion of possibility can play in every aspect of one’s life. “Our premise is that many of the circumstances that seem to block us in our daily lives may only appear to do so based on a framework of assumptions we carry with us. Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view . . . Each chapter of this book presents a different facet of this approach and describes a new practice for bringing possibility to life.” TRANSITIONS; Making Sense of Life’s Choices – by William Bridges. Bridges takes us step-by-step through three stages of any transition, explaining how each stage can be understood and embraced: Endings, Neutral Zone, New Beginnings. “Change is situational. Transition, on the other hand is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner re-orientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture.” THIS YEAR I WILL . . . ; How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution, or Make a Dream Come True – by M. J. Ryan. Ryan provides practical steps and exercises to help readers make change become permanent. Though geared toward a mass audience, Ryan addresses change on many different levels. Ryan’s philosophy can be summed up by a quote from Aristotle at the beginning of the book: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an art, but a habit. “Social scientists tell us that when we change a habit or follow a dream we go through five stages: pre-contemplation, when we don’t even know we need or want to change; contemplation, when we say to ourselves, “someday I’ll do that”; preparation, when we are getting ready to do it “soon”; action, as in “I’m starting right now”; and maintenance, which means we keep going until we get where we want and stay there . . . . The cornerstone of this book is the awareness that we can stop doing the things that hold us back or cause us suffering and create a life filled with meaning, peace and ultimately, happiness. We can make a dream come true or bring something new into being. Big or small, grandiose or humble, we can have the things we want in life.” GETTING THINGS DONE; The art of Stress-free Productivity, by David Allen. I include this book because it has helpful ideas to deal with the “stuff of life” that tends to overwhelm and bog us down – and thus is a good thing to read at the beginning of a new year. Allen talks about the importance of “getting things done and doing them well, and yet also savoring life” – doing and being at the same time. He has a “2 minute rule” that advises the reader to look at the actions they need to take and and ask him/herelf it will take two minutes or less. If yes, do it. If no, delegate or defer it. While the book has a few main points – he tends to repeat them, so best to skim the book, looking for these points – which are quite helpful. SOLACE OF OPEN SPACE by Gretel Ehrlich. This is a moving and eloquent book that grows out of Ehrlich’s experience living in Wyoming. In 1976, after the wrenching death of a close male friend, Ehrlich moved from Los Angeles to Wyoming to mourn. It recounts her growing love for Wyoming and its people as she discovers a new life. Her portrayal of the men who work the land is full of heart – she finds the stereotypical cowboys very different that the images she’d previously held of them. As she gets to know them she discovers a tender-heartedness and an unexpected courtliness. She writes of the timeless beauty of Wyoming’s mountains and plains. “In the Great Plains the vistas look like music, like Kyries of grass, but Wyoming seems to be the doing of a mad architect – tumbled and twisted, ribboned with faded, deathbed colors, thrust up and pulled down as if the place had been startled out of a deep sleep and thrown into pure light.” The unpredictability and beauty of the landscape provided continual inspiration and insight for Ehrlich. “It occurred to me that comfort was only a disguise for discomfort; reference points, a disguise for what will always change . . . finally, the lessons of impermanence taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life.” THE GATHERING, by Anne Enright. The narrator of this book, Veronica, traces the aftermath of a tragedy that has claimed the life of a rebellious older brother. As she travels to London to bring her brother’s body back to Dublin she recalls the past to try to understand why and how her brother died. She reflects on her overly passive mother, her dissatisfaction with her husband and children. As the family gathers to bury the brother, tempers flare and a secret Veronica has concealed since childhood comes to light. In the end, as she returns home after a trip away, she has reconciled herself with the past and is ready to reenter her life. “Gatwich airport is not the best place to be gripped by a fear of flying. But it seems that this is what is happening to me now; because you are up so high, in those things and there is such a long way to fall. Then again, I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.” Retreats In addition to my retreats Finding Stillness, Cultivating Creativity, and Developing Balance, I’ve created two additional offerings. These can be crafted as one day retreats for either individuals or small groups, or can be addressed in ongoing coaching: Come To Your Senses: A Sensory Awareness Training, and Giving In: Self-care and Philanthropy. The day-long retreats take place in a charming cottage outside the town of Occidental on ten acres of rolling meadows, oak, bay redwood trees, only minutes from the ocean. Any one of them would be a meaningful way to step out of your busy life and mark the beginning of a new year. Consider giving one as a gift to someone you love, or consider giving one to yourself. Ongoing coaching addressing these topics is often done by phone so that location isn’t an issue. If you want in-person sessions, I see people in Berkeley, Occidental and San Francisco.