Monthly Archives: November 2015

Gratitude in the midst of it all

kwan yin

Kwan Yin, goddess of mercy and compassion

In the US every year on the last Thursday in November we get together with family and close friends to…engorge, imbibe and put on our game face. We call it Thanksgiving, but it’s the rare gathering that actually takes time to express gratitude in the midst of the turkey, gravy and stuffing. It takes a certain bravery to be the one to break up the busy conversation for a moment of silence, prayer, poetry or, even braver, a request that everyone tell what they are grateful for. (Can you hear the collective groan?)

Throughout much of the country the weather turns cold and we just want to be cozy. We may want to hide away from the news of the world, as it takes on a fierce quality, harsh as the winds that shake the house. It feels like the newscasters are just making this stuff up to scare us. And in some ways that is true because of where they focus, how they frame it, and the need to lead with what bleeds, knowing our negativity bias.

This year we are getting to know our future president, whomever he or she may be. That enforced and extended uncertainty can be stressful, particularly when the field is so large and the candidates so… well…

We may have issues we feel strongly about, and we may feel frustrated when fellow citizens don’t seem to care, or worse, see us as the problem. And even those who share our views can get distracted by things we may consider non-issues.

The world seems full of testosterone-crazed nihilists causing havoc and heartbreak both here and abroad. We feel compassion for those who are without a home and who may feel without hope. And we are inspired by those who rise above base fears to embrace shared humanity, as when Germans greeted beleaguered refugees with generosity and compassion, or when Parisians of all ethnicities and religions hugged each other in peace after an attack on their city. This too is the world we live in. For that triumph of the human spirit we are especially grateful.

On a Thanksgiving in turbulent times, we have the capacity to deepen in gratitude for being present, together, enjoying cherished traditions. For some of us, this is our first Thanksgiving without a loved one who was very much a part of our tradition, but gratitude is still possible. We are grateful to be alive to experience whatever life brings, regardless of current circumstances or conditions.

So if you feel inspired to be the one to tap your glass and bring the table to a brief moment of sharing in this deep way, know that just below the surface we all may be feeling a little vulnerable right now and perhaps more ready than usual to acknowledge our blessings.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

May all beings be well. May all beings be at ease. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be happy.

– Stephanie


Embracing Uncertainty

When I find myself all tensed up or worried, I remind myself to hold whatever is going on in my life in an open embrace. This idea of an open embrace helps me to release tension, come fully present and cultivate compassion. So when my poetry teacher, Prartho Sereno, set the theme of our class session as ‘Embracing Uncertainty’, it resonated with me.

porcupineEmbracing uncertainty sounds as ill-advised as hugging a porcupine. Uncertainty is the bane of our existence, isn’t it? If only we knew that everything would be all right, then we could relax and enjoy life. But with life’s rather harsh ‘no guarantees’ policy, we have instead a sense of dread.

What are the consequences of living in dread? We shape our lives to avoid change. We shut down. We stop interacting with the world altogether. We try to avoid seeing what is before us with all kinds of distractions. We make an enemy of the present moment, as if it is a bomb about to detonate, so we run the other way. Maybe we get lost in nostalgia for the way things used to be, back when life was ‘perfect’. Or we get lost in daydreams about what life could be, if only…(fill in the blank). ‘If only’ is a seductive trap we can get into that keeps us from seeing and appreciating what’s right in front of us. Selective memory and comparing mind sabotage us and set us up for a narrow fearful view of all that arises in our experience. Is this really the way we want to live our one precious life?

Of course not. But then how do we live with this ongoing uncertainty? First we have to acknowledge it. We don’t know what the next moment will bring. Our plans have to have room for the unexpected. For example, we might not get the wedding cake we’d requested. One of my students said that her wedding cake was dropped on the way to the reception, so the bakery brought another with a different couple’s names on it! Not what she expected, but all these years later it sure makes a great story. How easy it would have been to get distraught, furious, or worried about what this ‘wrong’ cake might portend. But instead she and her mother who had planned the wedding so carefully had a good laugh. Life goes on! And in truth, regardless of what the cake said, it WAS her wedding cake. Not the cake she imagined, but the cake that celebrated her wedding, the cake shared by her guests who came to witness her love and share her joy. It’s what we do in that moment, when things turn out differently than we planned them, that defines our potential for happiness in life. Certainly much more so than any list of achievements or possessions. So we nurture our ability to be present with what is and hold it in an open loving embrace instead of a stranglehold of emotional frustration, disappointment and demand for recompense.

Now maybe a situation is not a cake walk, and whatever is going on, it’s valuable to be present to notice not only what’s occurring but all the emotional uproar attached, and to hold it all in a spacious compassionate way, to whatever degree we are able.

We can make the ‘I don’t know’ mindset a practice in itself. Questioning the veracity of our assumptions is healthy and invigorating. Even in difficult times we can find a sense of delight in a state of open curiosity and exploration, not searching for the elusive pot of gold but possibly finding the gold of this moment in all its richness. And, speaking of gold, consider the Japanese art of kintsugi, repairing something broken with gold, making it all the more prrecious. Isn’t that how it is when our hearts are broken, when we allow them to heal with compassion and wisdom that makes our love that much more precious?

Uncertainty holds just as many pleasant potential outcomes as unpleasant ones. We tend to notice what we are predisposed to see, so when we incline our minds toward the unpleasant, ready to judge and complain, that is what we are likely to find. When we incline our minds toward the pleasant, ready to appreciate things for what they are, ready to feel gratitude to be alive to experience whatever arises, then that is what we find. Studies have found that humans tend to have a negativity bias.  When we take note of pleasant unexpected things that happen in our lives, we develop a stronger core of personal experience to challenge our negative assumptions. This is not putting a positive spin on things, nor putting blinders on to pretend away anything unpleasant. It’s bringing the light of awareness to whatever arises in our experience.

‘The future’s not ours to see’, as Doris Day so aptly put it in the classic song ‘Que Sera, Sera’. Truly ‘whatever will be will be’, and when we hold life in a way that doesn’t crush it or deny the parts that make us uncomfortable, chances are equanimity will arise to support us. That’s how we skillfully live this precious life. That’s how we embrace uncertainty.