Thursday, October 29, 2009

The School of Family

As the final quarter of the year progresses, many of us are planning holiday gatherings with family.  In our household, these reunions are occurring slightly ahead of schedule.  I feel very lucky to be spending long stretches with all four of my boys' grandparents this year, before and during the holidays.  I am also getting to see my sisters more often and I can't underestimate the gift of their presence in our family life.  For me, 2009 has been a year to contemplate each of my family relationships and to evaluate the lessons we can all take from each other.  Some conflicts have occurred as I have tested the strength of some family relationships.  I am grateful that the loose ends have come nicely together to round out the end of the year. 

We have just returned from a week spent with my inlaws in Pittsburgh, PA, which also happens to be the home city of one of my sisters.  I was sad to return home.  Seeing my children interact with their grandparents and aunts is a great source of joy.  Simply enjoying a week of extra family members at the table brought such warmth into our routines. 

My own mother is arriving in New York this evening and will stay with us for a week to celebrate her 70th birthday.  One day after her departure, my father and his wife will be coming to visit for five days.  During this time, both of my sisters will join us and for the first time in several years, we will have all of the Garrison girls together with their Dad.  At Thanksgiving, we will celebrate with my sister and brother-in-law and then at Christmas we'll be back in Pittsburgh with Nona and Papa as well as my husband's sister, her husband and our twin nephews. 

I am opening my heart to each of these extended family gatherings and my hope is that this year, more than any in my past, will raise my awareness of the way my life is enhanced by every family relationship. 

It is said by some that in a spiritual sense, we choose the families into which we are born.  I rejected this idea the first time I encountered it.  With more experience, reading and further reflection, I am coming to my own realization of the spiritual significance of family roles.  Every relationship presents unique challenges.  The individual qualities of our family members comfort and uplift us in every stage of life.  Our own personalities are greatly influenced by the behaviors of our parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  If we believe that a higher power is guiding, or at least present in our lives, is our place in a particular family coincidental?  If it is, then I am greatly benefiting from coincidence. 

Many people dread long visits with family at the holidays.  I don't think that I have ever felt 100% enthusiastic about an impending family get-together.  There is at least a small degree of resistance, discomfort or trepidation.  Some of this is simply to due to changing my norm and adapting to the company of people I don't see often enough.  A bit of the discomfort also stems from prior encounters and known challenges.  I am learning that the challenges are often the most valuable aspects of my relationships.  In a spiritual, and also an intellectual sense, I will always have so much to learn.  I find it difficult to grow if I am completely comfortable.  One of my extended family members has this e-mail signature: "Life is change.  Growth is optional.  Choose wisely."  In spite of the ways that I am being stretched, I am opting for growth.  What I would like to change going forward is my handling of the challenges.  In this endeavor, acceptance is my friend and resistance is my enemy. 

In meditation, I have recently been focusing on sending love to my family members and friends.  I have specifically been honing in on my more challenging relationships to experience more peace and love in my life.  After entering a meditative state, I envision the person with whom I experience tension or conflict on some level.  I then send that person love and a message of forgiveness.  I also ask to be forgiven.  As I do this, I can feel myself becoming less rigid and more accepting of differences.  Additionally, I find it freeing to focus on the easier relationships, savoring in a meditative state my most favorite qualities about each individual.  It is a joyful and healing practice that I would recommend to everyone, especially at this time of the year. 

As our schedules become more packed and we are asked to interact with larger groups of contacts, familial or otherwise, we would be wise to prepare ourselves to gain power from these interactions.  So often we feel drained around the holidays, but this doesn't have to be the reality we experience. 

I am finding more peace in my life simply through the practice of acceptance.  I acknowledge that I have not been accepting in the past.  I attempt to be accepting in the present.  I embrace the opportunity to fully accept each of my contacts and relations in the future.  I am thankful for all of the teachers in my life. 

May you never graduate from The School of Family. 

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Meditation, Country Style

Breathing in and breathing out gets us to our happy place in chaotic moments.  The breath brings us home in meditation, prayer and yoga.  At this time of the year we are all breathing in the fall air, inhaling the scents of wood burning fires, smoldering leaves and a crisp autumn breeze.  A country girl at heart, I'm going back to my roots for some country style meditation.  Come along with me while you take in this themed photo journal from right here at home in the Lower Hudson Valley.  The photos are followed by a guided country meditation, courtesy of Craig Morgan--the chorus is very apt-- I Breathe In, I Breathe Out.  Enjoy!

A little bit of guitar,

A little bit of truck,
A little bit of hound dog,
And a little bit of luck,
A little bit of bacon,
A little bit of beans,
A little bit of you lovin’ up on me,
And a little bit of how it's supposed to be,
A little bit of life,



Yes sleepin' all night with the windows down,
Up in the mornin’ stirin' around,
Drink a pot of coffee and I head off to town.
Work, Work, Work
All day long, crank it up, back it up, bring it on home,
Supper on the table and I eat me a bite,
Then we snuggle on the porch by the pale moon light.

A little bit of me and you doin' alright...
A little bit of life.

A little bit of backseat,
A little bit of moon,
A little bit of radio, a goin’ boom boom boom,
A little bit of sugar,
A little bit of spice,
A little bit of nasty, A little bit of nice,
A little bit of how it's supposed to be...
A little bit of life.



Yes sleepin' all night with the windows down,
Up in the mornin’ stirin' around,
Drink a pot of coffee and I head off to town,
Work, Work, Work,
All day long, crank it up, back it up, bring it on home,
Supper on the table and I eat me a bite,
Then we snuggle on the porch by the pale moon light...

A little bit of me and you doin' alright--

A little bit of life.

A little bit of tractor,
A little bit of farm,
A little bit of cornfield,
A little bit of barn,
A little bit of come on,
A little bit of play,
A little bit of yee haw in the hay,
A Dixie cup,
A homemade wine,
A little bit of life.
A little bit of back porch,
A little bit of swing,
A little bit of wind chimes goin' ding-a-ling,
A little bit of TV,
A little bit of couch,
Popcorn smellin' up the house,
A la mode on a little slice of homemade pie,
A little bit of Life.



Yes sleepin' all night with the windows down,
Up in the mornin’ stirin' around,
Drink a pot of coffee and I head off to town.
Work, Work, Work,
All day long, crank it up, back it up, bring it on home,
Supper on the table and I eat me a bite,
Then we snuggle on the porch by the pale moon light.

A little bit of me and you doin' alright...

A little bit of life.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Thich Nhat Hanh Dharma Talk

My husband and I attended a Dharma Talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on October 9 at Beacon Theater.  I received tickets for the event as a birthday present. 

Quoting from the printed program we received, "Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most respected and recognized Zen masters in the world.  A poet, peace activist, and human rights advocate, Thich Nhat Hanh was born in Vietnam in 1926.  A Buddhist monk since the age of 16, he was one of the founders of the "engaged Buddhism" movement, choosing to live a contemplative life while working outside the monastery helping villagers suffering from the devastation of the Vietnam War.  In the early 1960's, he founded the School of Youth Social Service, a relief organization for survivors of the war.  Thich Nhat Hanh has been an expatriate since 1966, when he was banned from reentering Vietnam after a peace mission to the United States and Europe.  In 1982, he founded Plum Village, a Buddhist community in France, where he lives and teaches today.  A prolific author, Thich Nhat Hanh has written more than 85 books, including more than 40 in English."

Thay, as he is known by his close followers, is a gift to all who read or listen to his teachings.  His birthday is today, October 11.  Monks and Nuns from his monastery accompanied him on his visit to New York, singing and giving prayers and lessons before and after his appearance. 

For my husband and myself, the most penetrating lessons of the evening were centered around a better definition of the Kingdom of God and of the role that suffering plays in building a loving and compassionate society.  Thich Nhat Hanh said that he does not envision the Kingdom of God as a place with no suffering.  As a Buddhist, he does not hold a dualistic view of the world.  On the other hand, he did quote from the Gospel in his talk and he has written in his books that he has both Jesus Christ and Buddha at his personal altar in his place of meditation.  He wrote the book, Living Buddha, Living Christ.  He explained his personal view of the Kingdom of God in this way; suffering is necessary to produce the seeds of compassion.  He said, "No mud, no lotus.  One cannot grow a lotus flower from marble."  Suffering is the mud that produces the beautiful lotus flower.  He said that he would not want his own children to grow up in place where there is no suffering and no affliction, because it would be impossible for them to learn how to love unconditionally and to develop compassion. 

Thay often evokes the image of a new flower in his teachings.  In his talk, he likened babies and children to flowers, saying, "His face is like a flower.  Even his hands are like flowers."  These simple words touched my heart as I envisioned the faces and hands of my very small boys--even their little feet are precious objects to me.  We can learn so much about love from our children.  He spoke of how our love for one another is also like a flower, and if we do not care for it well, the flower quickly turns into garbage.  However, we should not despair when we have lost our love and have only garbage, because, "as a flower can turn into garbage, garbage can also be used to build a flower."  He spoke about gardening compost, and then invited us to think of our capacity to love and our human errors in this way.  The co-existence of war and peace, of sickness and health, and of love and hate do not have to be part of a dualistic, Good vs. Evil, Heaven vs. Hell perspective of the world.  I personally believe that as humans we do not have the capacity to fully understand the complexity of our existence.  So often we live in anger, fear and resistance to the phenomena that surround us, rather than cultivating peace within ourselves.  Peace can come from an acceptance of all experience.  This is the teaching that enlightens my mind and brings peace to my soul. 

During this visit to the US, Thich Nhat Hanh spent two hours speaking with Oprah Winfrey.  There should be an upcoming audio or visual presentation of their encounter.  Additionally, his Flower Fresh Meditation can be found on Oprah's website:

I would like to close with a prayer which was sung by the monks and nuns on Friday night.  It is called, Breathing In, Breathing Out:
Breathing in, breathing out
Breathing in, breathing out
I am blooming as a flower
I am fresh as the dew
I am solid as mountain
I am firm as the earth
I am free
Breathing in, breathing out
Breathing in, breathing out
I am water, reflecting
What is real, what is true
And I feel there is space
Deep inside of me
I am free, I am free, I am free

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Stay-At-Home Parenting--The Glamorous Side

I am a SAHM.  That is the acronym for my job.  I have been doing this for three years.  In previous posts, I expressed my desire to start working again, and I am sure that will happen...eventually.  However, I now completely accept my current gig without reservation.  I no longer feel the need to talk to others about future career plans.  I no longer fear stigmatization or stereotyping.  It has been a long time coming and I am pretty excited about it.  After all, whenever I do eventually start working for money again, I want to be able to look back on this moment and know that I enjoyed it 100%. 

What is life like for a stay-at-home parent?  It differs in each individual case.  It varies based on the number of children and their respective ages.  It varies widely based on what the spouse is like, if indeed there is a spouse at all.  Admittedly, it varies dramatically based on income level.  Uniformity is no fun.  As the French say, vive la difference!  The key is to like what you are doing and take ownership of it. 

My SAHM job goes a little something like this: I have two boys 19 months apart in age.  The oldest is just shy of three years and the youngest is nearly sixteen months old.  Both boys are active and healthy.  They are now fully capable of moving most of our furniture.  They are both able to open the fridge and pull out its contents.  My husband and I have decided not to gate them in.  I do a lot of running around.  I chase them to feed them.  I chase them to stop the floor lamp from breaking.  Occasionally I clean up broken glass at warp speed.  I change a lot of diapers.  These are the unglamorous aspects of the job. 

Now for the glamorous parts:  my boys nap each afternoon for 2-3 hours.  I have roughly 15 hours per week of childcare.  I personally manage my own household.  My husband gets home at 6:30 p.m. each night and we all have dinner together.  My husband is a very involved father who is constantly supportive of me and the boys.  I give a lot of love to my family and receive so much love in return.  These gifts are incredibly luxurious and I do not take them for granted. 

The naptime is hugely glamorous, allowing me a chance to read, write, meditate and catch up on whatever needs to be done.  I never had a 2-3 hour break during my former jobs.  Then again, I wasn't on duty from 6:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m.  I still count it as a luxury. 

My childcare provider is an enormous help and is now like a member of our family.  She has known my youngest from birth and she calls us when she is not with us to check on our boys.  I can trust her completely and she is a good friend.  My children get to benefit from a third caregiver and all of the variety that she can bring to their upbringing.  I don't know if I think "it takes a village", as Hillary Clinton says, but I am of the philosophy of "the more the merrier!"  Sometimes I am able to spend time with one or another of my children while she takes the other one to do something fun.  Other times I clean the entire house, or go to a doctor's appointment without two toddlers.  It is a luxury that makes me a calmer, more centered mother.  Additionally, my husband and I get a date night twice per month.  I feel like someone in the MasterCard commercials: "Childcare? Priceless."

How is it glamorous to personally manage one's household?  Well, let's see: I get to choose what we eat, how it is cooked, what we wear, our standard of cleanliness and the routine of our days.  I feel like that is a treat, but that's my perspective.  I would rather pay for childcare than for a housekeeper, because I am picky about housework.  I like to be able to walk barefoot on my floors and not feel any sand from the sandbox.  I don't like dust on the ceiling fan blades.  That is luxurious.  I can't get that from a bi-weekly housekeeper, and probably not even from a weekly one.  I also find cleaning to be an exercise in mindfulness.  Buddhist and Catholic monks and nuns garden, clean and cook to gain a clearer mind and a better spiritual perspective.  Mindfulness is a beautiful practice and housework, if done mindfully, can be quite therapeutic. 

Having dinner together as a family on a regular basis is becoming old-fashioned, it would seem.  I can't praise this practice enough.  I look forward to dinner all afternoon.  Our oldest tells Mom and Dad what happened at pre-school, Dad tells us about work, and the one year old squeals to drown us out.  Food gets thrown all over the floor and the mood is generally festive.  The happiness of the boys is measurable as they have the attention of both parents.  It is a wonderful ritual, and in our society, it is glamorous due to rarity. 

The icing on the cake is the support that I receive from my husband.  He does not resent the fact that I stay home with the children.  He never belittles me.  I don't see how he could have the time to be unfaithful, like the fictional fathers in "Mad Men."  He does exceptional professional work and is fully engaged with us at home.  He respects my intelligence and my goals and we are full partners in all that we do.  I feel more liberated now than I have ever felt as a woman. 

What is it like to lack a respected career?  Honestly, my opinion on this aspect of stay-at-home parenting continually evolves.  I have forgotten how to use attorney timekeeping software and I couldn't tell you about the latest and greatest regulations from the SEC.  I don't wear suits and heels and blow-dry my hair every day.  No one calls me on my cell phone to yell at me at 9:00 p.m. when I am with my husband.  Just this week, a doctor said to me, "It is a shame for you to waste your education.  You must have worked your ass off in school."  Actually, I didn't work my ass off.  I love school.  I could be an eternal student.  Staying at home with my kids allows me to pursue a lot of interests that I never had time for previously.  Do I care what others think about my life choices?  I used to care.  I used to care too much.  Formerly, I lived my life in pursuit of approval.  Now, I live my life in pursuit of survival, love, enjoyment and stability for my family.  The best part is this:  right now is perfectly acceptable, and anything can happen in the future.  You might say I can't put these years on my resume?  I will always be so much more than a resume could ever represent.  This is true of every stay-at-home parent and I believe that opinions are turning in our favor, irrespective of the importance we place on opinions!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Stop Writing from the Ego

“Stop writing from your ego.” During a recent meditation session, this was the phrase that cut through the silence. I heard a female voice repeat it several times. Since then I have contemplated what it means to write from one’s ego and how ego impedes not only honest writing, but spiritual progress.

Riddance of ego is a current struggle for me as I attempt to reach a higher spiritual plane and a healthier mental state. In addition to authors whom I do not know personally, the following people have brought this issue to my attention in 2009: Kadam Morten, a local Buddhist teacher, Sean Rachlin, a local acupuncturist and Cindi Sansone-Braff, a local psychic and medium. At each occurrence, my warning to back off of ego was remarkably similar in the words that were said as well as the chosen tone. Kadam Morten repeatedly teaches on recognizing and learning to master the ego in his classes. I heard the more personally directed advice from Sean and Cindi, as one of their many clients.

Since people naturally make decisions from the ego center, it can be remarkably difficult to identify and refrain from this habit. I am well aware of the difficulty in defining the term with precision and I wish to emphasize the importance of context.

Because I am by no means an expert, I am going to quote from Beyond the Frontier of the Mind, by Osho. “This is how a child grows. First he becomes aware of you, thou, other, and then by and by, in contrast to you, thou, he becomes aware of himself. This awareness is a reflected awareness. He is not aware of who he is. He is simply aware of the mother and what she thinks about him. If she smiles, if she appreciates the child, if she says, "You are beautiful," if she hugs and kisses him, the child feels good about himself. Now an ego is born. Through appreciation, love, care, he feels he is good, he feels he is valuable, he feels he has some significance. A center is born. But this center is a reflected center. It is not his real being. He does not know who he is; he simply knows what others think about him. And this is the ego: the reflection, what others think. If nobody thinks that he is of any use, nobody appreciates him, nobody smiles, then too an ego is born: an ill ego; sad, rejected, like a wound; feeling inferior, worthless. This too is the ego. This too is a reflection.” The ego center is that part of us formed by our perception of interactions with others. The self that we perceive is a delusion unless we learn to understand this truth. The ego produces a need to portray and to pretend, to attack and to defend. It is a faulty basis for living. It is a trap. Jean-Paul Sartre said, “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” meaning Hell is other people. This is a true statement only if we are living from our ego center.

How often do we get fired up by the viewpoints, comments and actions of other people? How many times do we get sidetracked or delayed from our purpose by something that originates outside of us? How many hours do we spend fuming, ruminating or scheming when we could be working, relaxing or relating? What do you think about while driving or riding public transportation? The next time you are aware of your thoughts, stop and call them out to yourself. Are they helping you or hurting you? Your intuition will give you the answer.

Lately I have found myself writing in response to an event that has upset me or a person with whom I disagree. I have felt the need to make my own views known in opposition or in contrast to other views. While I do get a dark enjoyment out of this practice, it is not something that feels good. It feels like going for a drive at night to clear your head, when all of a sudden you find yourself on a curvy stretch of road and AC/DC plays on the radio. You speed up and discover just how well your car handles corners, knowing all the while that there is risk involved. It might be fun for a moment, but it’s not the way you really want to live. I don’t think it’s possible to experience peace and adrenaline fueled speed simultaneously. Someone please tell me if I’m wrong, because it’s something I would try at least once!

With respect to writing from ego, the answer came to me today in a Rob Brezsny quote that I read on

“Your drive to produce hard-edged opinions stoked by hostility is likely a sign that you've been brainwashed by the pedestrian influences of pop nihilism”. Awesome. I get it! I then read the follow up testimony from the site editor, Julia Melges-Brenner:

“When I first began to awaken spiritually, I was attending a prestigious university where I was surrounded by intellectuals determined to prove their acumen by endlessly attacking and debating other people's opinions. While I kept my spiritual beliefs to myself for the most part, I found these hard-core skeptics to be utterly brain-washed by the cult of intellectualism. They also struck me as the most angry, depressed group of people I'd ever met, which naturally made me doubt the wisdom of their views.” I don’t know Julia but I would love to meet her. Her statement echoes countless feelings I experienced during my graduate and law school years. I was thinking similar thoughts while riding the subway home from Greenwich Village to the Upper West Side. Damned 1/9 train! Damned intellectuals! Now I’m not proud of those thoughts, but without them I may never have started down this road leading me away from ego.

This essay contains a fair amount of quoted and paraphrased material. Many people quote from scripture to communicate a spiritual lesson. I like to do that too, but for me, sacred scripture is newly spoken every day. So thank you Kadam Morten, Sean, Cindi, Osho, Rob and Julia. If I am lucky enough to continue learning from people such as you, I may eventually be able to stop writing from my ego.