Choosing Love

Before my trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I created an intention, inspired by my lovely friend Rowan: “Choose love.” When making a commitment, It is important to know to what I am committing before doing so. Thus I began to ponder, “What is love?”

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Most of us probably know that syrupy sweet feeling of falling in love, or that feeling of deep compassion, connection, and support that we feel with our families and friends. Normally, when I think about love, I think about feelings. I turned to the Bible to see how it described love:

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NIV)
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Most of the words used to describe love in this verse are words of action and behavior. It doesn’t tell us that love is feeling warmth in our hearts. Love can be observed and made tangible. This verse reminds me of two people who taught me some cherished lessons:
(1) my cousin Lisa, who a few years ago taught me that love is actualized through loving behaviors, not through loving feelings
(2) Ohad, a minister on the retreat, who reminded us not to commit to feelings such as love but to commit to actions and behaviors

Which brings us back to the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers: (1) not-knowing, (2) bearing witness, and (3) loving action. I was honored to see so many examples of loving action arise on this trip: arms reaching for another during difficult moments; vulnerability in sharing our deeply intimate stories, whether directly tied to Auschwitz and the Holocaust or not; challenging conversations where words were spoken with the intent to heal and to connect rather than to perpetuate separation. One day, two retreat participants who had gotten engaged a few months prior to the trip decided impromptu to marry at the retreat, at Auschwitz. Through this act of love and commitment, the couple brought love, happiness, and healing to not only the group, but to the place. Later that afternoon after the wedding, the sky began to clear and a beautiful, broad rainbow danced across the sky.

What I came to learn is that loving action is not always easy action. Father Maximilian Kolbe took Jesus’s example and gave his life to spare the life of a prisoner with family who was heading to the execution block. There are countless stories of prisoners who shared their meager food with others, at the risk of punishment, out of love and generosity. A couple in love, Mala Zimetbaum (the likely leader of local resistance) and Edward Galinski, escaped dressed in stolen SS uniforms with the intent of finding freedom and sharing with others the horror of the camp. Suspicious guards later captured Mala, and Edward turned himself in because he had promised not to separate from her. They were both sentenced to execution.

During the trip, I also wondered: what about forgiveness? Going back to the Bible, we are told in several verses that in forgiving, we are forgiven by God. What is forgiveness anyhow? It seems that even Merriam Webster has a bit of a challenge with this word, using “forgive” in its definition of forgiveness. But the gist of the dictionary definition is ceasing to feel resentment, anger, and blame. While there is some utility in that definition, I’ve come to develop my own working definition of forgiveness.

Forgiveness (according to me): “Seeing it all, the good and the bad, and still choosing to act in a loving way.” Moments of anger and grief may still arise, and it’s necessary to feel those emotions fully as part of the healing process. We can work with the anger, transforming blame and resentment into compassion and understanding. We usually cannot choose how we feel, but we can choose how we act.

Vipassana teacher Tara Brach says, “We release blame for our own freedom.” Through choosing love, we transform poison into medicine.

Turning Away from Auschwitz

Written on November 18th

Earlier today, I was speaking with a friend about my emotional experience during the retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I recounted how some of the time I felt relatively even-keeled, until something happened: I felt the energy in the former gas chamber, I saw the mounds of baby shoes collected by the S.S., I saw photographs of the prisoners of their lives before the concentration camp and before being put into the ghettos, or I read the names of some of those who perished. Whenever I put names and faces and lives to those who had been murdered, I could feel deep grief, anger, and despair.

Entrance to Crematorium III in the concentrati...

Entrance to Crematorium III in the concentration camp Auschwitz II (Birkenau) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But there was something I forgot to mention to my friend: there were times when rather than feeling even, I numbed out. Even at meditation retreats, without the distractions of television and our normal busy lives, it is possible to numb out, to dissociate. And the energy is only slightly different than those moments of evenness: a barely perceptible headache or fuzzy vision, or a realization that more time passed than I expected on my meditation cushion as my mind wandered, searching for more comforting ground. Even in an environment designed to confront a great atrocity, I still found myself turning away, at least for some moments. And as I continue to ponder the notion of turning away, I think about times in my “regular” life where I turn away: at the street corner where a person asks for money, or when the news reports another superstorm or wildfire or drought, each likely caused by global climate change. These are moments when I actively turn away from information that I find distressing or uncomfortable. There are also moments when my emotions run high, during episodes where intense grief and sadness arise, but also sometimes during moments of profound joy and happiness, where I notice myself check-out. This is dissociation, a sort of turning away. This seems to happen on a less conscious level, when my nervous system becomes overstimulated. The body provides a mechanism to protect itself in order to function by shutting down its capacity to feel.

Based on my experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau, I’ve separated out these two types of turning away: (1) an active, conscious turning away that happens when we don’t want to confront our world views or our discomfort; and (2) a more subtle turning away that happens when we aren’t capable of fully feeling on a more physiological level — perhaps the stress of the situation is more than our nervous systems can handle and parts of us shut down so that we can maintain a baseline functionality.
The Zen Peacemakers outline Three Tenets: (1) not-knowing, (2) bearing witness, and (3) loving action. If we’re able to identify those moments of being numbed out or of turning away, we can “not-know” by dropping judgments about it and “bear witness” by seeing it as it is. For example, if I feel dissociated and realize that my nervous system is taxed, a natural loving action that might arise is for me to pause and rest, giving my body an opportunity to get grounded and to feel more resourced. If I feel dissociated and realize that I don’t want to see something because it challenges my belief system, I can respond with compassion and curiosity as loving action. I can speak gently to myself to see if I can find the deeper layers there while recognizing that seeking comfort is a very human response to any stressor.
From what do you turn away? And is it possible to find compassion for yourself and others in those moments?
I will send out some more thoughts about my trip later this week.
With Love,
Stephanie

The Fate of the Water Bottle: the Role of Plastic in Global Change

When people purchase groceries in many places in the United States, they take them home in plastic bags. Many people drink bottled water for convenience. Plastic has existed as a consumer product for less than 100 years, but is now found in many everyday products. Because of its widespread use, scientists are discovering plastic in unexpected places all over world. Human activity has created a new type of global change through the use of plastic and the pollution that it creates.

What is Plastic?

Plastic is derived from petroleum. Petra means rock; oleum means oil. Let’s explore the typical origins of petroleum.

  • First, organic matter is deposited. Millions of years ago, as algae and other organisms in ocean and lakes died, their bodies created organic-rich layers in sediment.
  • Organic matter is buried and heated, forming hydrocarbons. Sediment accumulated on top of the organic-rich layer. As more sediment accumulated on top of this layer, the deeper the organic-rich layer became. Over time, the buried organic matter matured into oil and gas – often called hydrocarbons because the molecules are made of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon.
  • Hydrocarbons migrate in the subsurface. The hydrocarbon migrated away from its original source, ending up in a hydrocarbon trap: a geologic structure that prevents the hydrocarbon from moving any further.
  • Humans extract hydrocarbons from the earth. Humans currently extract hydrocarbons for use in fuel for heating and transportation and to create materials. The hydrocarbon is extracted, refined, and then transformed into synthetic materials like plastic. About 3% of the U.S.’s petroleum is used for feedstock, the material from which plastic is made.1

Where does plastic go?

After you are finished with your bottle of water, where does the plastic bottle go? In some places, recycling is an option. With recycling, the plastic is mechanically reprocessed into a similar or lower quality plastic product or chemically reprocessed into feedstock.2 But if the bottle isn’t recycled, then what happens? If you place your plastic bottle in the trash bin, it will probably end up in the landfill. As more waste is brought into the landfill, the plastic bottle will be buried underneath the trash, away from sunshine and the elements. Plastic is durable and most microbes are unequipped to digest it.3 Plastic in landfills could be around for hundreds of years and still not degrade!

Let’s say that the wind blew the bottle out of the trashcan before it made its way to the landfill. Most of us have seen plastic bottles littering the streets. A rainstorm may pick the bottle up, transporting it to the nearest river. From there, the plastic bottle could even make its way out to the ocean. Plastic is now found within many ecosystems. A recent study in Europe found more plastic particles than fish larvae in the Danube River!4 Rivers transport plastic out to sea, and sometimes plastic is disposed of directly into the ocean. Parts of the Pacific Ocean have so much visible trash kept afloat through currents and waves that scientists have given the oceanic trash accumulations their own name: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of the state of Texas,5 and contains recognizable plastic debris, such as intact bottles, as well as fragmented plastic debris. In fact, most of the plastic discovered in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is only millimeters in size.6 Plastic breaks down into smaller particles through mechanical weathering and through a process called photodegradation. Photodegradation occurs when UV light hits the plastic, which causes the plastic to become brittle and to break down.7 Due to its low density, plastic often remains buoyant, floating at the surface of the ocean.

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Albatross remains showing ingested plastic debris, Image by Forest & Kim Starr, Creative commons license 3.0.

Fish, birds, and other organisms can mistake the floating plastic for food and ingest it.4, 8 Furthermore, pollutants such as pesticides can adhere to the plastic debris.9 This adsorption process can render plastic even more harmful to wildlife because if they consume it, they will consume not only plastic, but pesticides and other chemicals as well. Many organisms are harmed through entanglement within plastic.10 Plastic and other floating debris, however, have created habitats for organisms that would otherwise be unable to live in the surface waters of the open ocean.11 Certain insects use plastic pellets as a site to lay eggs, which allows their eggs to disperse over a greater area.12

Scientists and engineers are working to develop solutions to our plastic problem. One solution that we can all take part in is to prevent additional plastic from entering the ocean in the first place is by reusing, reducing, and recycling plastic products.

REFERENCES

  1. “How much oil is used to make plastic?” Frequently Asked Questions. U.S. Energy Administration. 28 April 2014 <http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=34&t=6>
  2. Hopewell, J., Dvorak, R., Kosior, E., 2009. Plastics recycling: challenges and opportunities. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B –Biol. Sci. 364, 2115-2126.
  3. Andradya, A., 1994. Assessment of Environmental Biodegradation of Synthetic Polymer. J. Macromol. Sci. C –Polymer Reviews 34, 25-76.
  4. Lechner, A., Keckeis, H., Lumesberger-Loisl, F., Zens, B., Krusch, R., Tritthart, M., Glas, M., Schludermann, E., 2014. Short communication: The Danube so colourful: A potpourri of plastic litter outnumbers fish larvae in Europe’s second largest river Environ. Pollut. 188, 177–181.
  5. Kaiser, J., 2010. The Dirt on Ocean Garbage Patches. Sci. 328, 1506.
  6. Gross, M., 2013. Plastic waste is all at sea. Curr. Biol. 23, R135–R137.
  7. Andrady, A.L., 1990. Weathering of polyethylene (LDPE) and enhanced photodegradable polyethylene in the marine environment. J. App. Polym. Sci. 39, 363–370.
  8. Young, L.C., Vanderlip, C., Duffy, D.C., Afanasyev, V., Shaffer, S.A., 2009. Bringing Home the Trash: Do Colony-Based Differences in Foraging Distribution Lead to Increased Plastic Ingestion in Laysan Albatrosses? PLoS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007623.
  9. Lorena M. Rios, L.M., Jones, P.R., Moore, C., Narayana, U.V., 2010. Quantitation of persistent organic pollutants adsorbed on plastic debris from the Northern Pacific Gyre’s “eastern garbage patch.” J. Environ. Monit. 12, 2226-2236. DOI: 10.1039/C0EM00239A.
  10. Votier, S.C., Archibald, K., Morgan, G., Morgan, L., 2011. The use of plastic debris as nesting material by a colonial seabird and associated entanglement mortality. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 62, 168–172.
  11. Goldstein, M.C., Carson, H.S., Eriksen, M., 2014. Relationship of diversity and habitat area in North Pacific plastic-associated rafting communities. Mar. Biol. DOI: 10.1007/s00227-014-2432-8.
  12. Majer A.P., Vedolin, M.C., Turra A., 2012. Plastic pellets as oviposition site and means of dispersal for the ocean-skater insect Halobates. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 64, 1143–1147.

 

Houston #NoKXL Vigil

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Photo courtesy of Tar Sands Blockade.

Last night, February 3rd, about 60 people from the Houston, Texas area joined together in a protest vigil at the Mickey Leland Federal Building, which houses an office of the State Department. There, we called upon the State Department and President Obama to stop the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline following Friday’s release of the State Department’s Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. The Keystone XL pipeline will further increase carbon pollution and it clearly fails the climate test set by President Obama. Community members from local organizations such as Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.), Houstonians Against Tar Sands, Houston NoKXL, among others, participated in Monday’s vigil. This event was one of over 280 vigils that took place as part of a larger national campaign led by CREDO, Rainforest Action Network, the Sierra Club and 350.org.

The northern segment of Keystone XL is a proposed tar sands pipeline that would transport some of the dirtiest oil on the planet from Alberta, Canada, across American soil to refineries in Texas and ultimately to export. The southern leg of the pipeline became operational two weeks ago. The proposed northern Keystone XL leg would accelerate the rate of tar sands exploitation in Alberta and further increase carbon pollution, as well as further endanger communities along the pipeline route and in other frontline communities like Houston’s East End.

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Photo courtesy of Tar Sands Blockade.

This is not just an “environmental” issue.  As Bryan Parras of t.e.j.a.s. stated, “From Alberta to Texas, TransCanada is a trans-national squatter.”  Bryan also stated that, “It’s not enough to have a vigil, but we must be vigilant against all exploitation.”

Jorge Lugo enchanted participants with beautiful, poignant music asking, “Where will the children play?”  His songs encouraged us to embrace love.

Kim Huynh shared with us the story of the MiCATS 3, three women with the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands who were convicted of felonies for nonviolent direct action last week.  Vigil participants are writing letters to these three brave women in Michigan who face three years in prison for their work to stop construction of an Enbridge tar sands pipeline in their backyard.  Read more here about these brave women.

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Photo courtesy of Tar Sands Blockade.

Climate Change, Mass Extinction, and Cognitive Dissonance: Moving from Reaction to Action

Earlier this month, I gave a talk at the Houston Freethinkers Oasis entitled “Climate Change, Mass Extinction, and Cognitive Dissonance: Moving from Reaction to Action.” You can see that here:

For those of you who aren’t aware, we are in the Earth’s sixth extinction event. Extinction rates are currently exponential, and some predictions are that as much as 75% of animal life on earth will be extinct by 2250. If climate change proceeds as predicted, the continental interiors may become too hot to sustain plant life.  Even if humans can survive, can what we eat survive?  Can the rich biodiversity present on life be sustained?

Climate change is a little more familiar topic.  With the cold Arctic front moving across parts of the country, some people doubt “global warming,” but climate is really concerned with long-term trends, and increasing temperatures are what we see from trends of global temperature measurements.  Everyone wants to find an easy solution to climate change.  The solutions may be easy or perhaps not.  I’m unsure right now.  But what I do know is that adapting to and mitigating climate change requires creativity and a willingness to not only look to the outside for solutions, but a willingness to look internally.

Since the talk, I’ve encountered some people who have criticized the movement of personal lifestyle changes as a way to change our “most likely outcome.”  While it may be true that large systemic changes will be required, it often first takes a shift in consciousness on a person-by-person basis to create structural changes.  I see this akin to, for instance, people saying that racism (or sexism or any other system of oppression) is bad but not changing the oppressive ways in which they treat others because larger systemic changes are necessary for any “significant” change to occur.  A drop in the bucket is a drop in the bucket.  While we aren’t the only ones filling up the bucket, our individual actions contribute to it, and others will respond and act in kind when we have the bravery to act differently.  Enough drops will shift the content of the bucket.

Yes, government needs to do more.  But it will take more than legislation to have true transformation.

Can We Forgive Ourselves for Climate Change?

Last summer, President Barack Obama spoke at Georgetown University, urging action on climate change. Often, national dialogues on climate change are limited to three main themes: (1) the presence or absence of climate change—does it really exist? or (2) the physical consequences of climate change (e.g. storms, drought, reduction in polar ice, changes in moisture, famines, etc.) or  (3) the politics and strategies to mitigate climate change, such as carbon taxes and geo-engineering. Even if we acknowledge the existence of climate change and are willing to discuss its physical implications, this discussion is incomplete. We must be willing to discuss its emotional landscape and its connection to every person.

The first step is, of course, in acknowledging that there is a problem. In order to address those attitudes, let us look briefly at the science behind climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2), a known greenhouse gas, has been released into the planet’s atmosphere at an accelerated rate relative to normal earth processes over the past ~150 years. The extraction and burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas releases CO2 in the atmosphere in a way that is out of balance with normal earth processes. Basically, we’ve taken something from deep within the earth that would otherwise be mostly absent from the surface carbon cycle and put it back into the system. This results in an overwhelmed system, and there are only so many places for the CO2 to go.

The CO2 that humans have emitted into the atmosphere is having an effect on the planet, and plenty of well-researched scientific publications discuss the impact of CO2 on the atmosphere and the environment, so I won’t go more into that here. After acknowledging that climate change is, in fact, a verifiable phenomenon and is already impacting people and other life on the planet, notice what comes up.  Some people may not get that far. They may stick with denial. Others may accept that climate change is real, but might deny it a personal connection. Sometimes, even when we recognize that something is happening, two “so what?” thoughts might occur: “it’s not my fault” and “it’s not my problem.”

So what about fault? Who do we blame for climate change? Blame provides the dualism that sometimes seems necessary to handle the issue. If we can blame someone, our mind finds simplistic solutions: get rid of those at fault or make them fix it.  I see two perspectives on blame that we can choose. The first: climate change is everybody’s fault.

As I sit here typing on my laptop, I am using energy that is most likely fossil fuel derived. I live in Houston, which in wintertime can be relatively pleasant, so my heater is not turned on.  However, if it were summertime, my air conditioning would be powered up and running like a champ. I’m drinking a delicious herbal tea blend made with herbs grown elsewhere in the United States or possibly elsewhere in the world, transported to Houston courtesy of fossil fuels. In my driveway sits a car, which uses fossil fuel to run, and even if I only had my bike, my bike was built somewhere else and took energy to be created and shipped for my purchase in Houston. I sometimes eat locally grown food, and I sometimes eat food flown in from South America. Everything that I eat affects the CO2 footprint I leave behind. If I eat processed food, even more energy is consumed in getting that food to my plate. Nearly all of our consumption and lifestyle choices require energy. In that regard, everyone is to blame. We are all, to varying extents, consumers of fossil fuels and with that we share in the responsibility. Just pause for a moment to consider the role that you play in increasing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. What purchases do you make? Where do those things come from? How were they created? Are they by-products of the fossil fuel industry, like plastic? Are they from natural materials? Do you drive or take the bus? Where does the oil and natural gas come from? You use energy. In thinking about the food and the materials in our lives and how they arrived in front of us, it becomes undeniable: we are all responsible, at fault, for climate change. Now let us consider the second perspective.

The above perspective  is only half of the story. Just like my bike or my tea, I have a story to tell, too, and the story of how I got here on this planet at this moment is larger than just me. It requires me to look at my ancestors, generations upon generations of people and situations that set me up right where I am. I was born into a culture that consumes fervently. I was born into a culture where fossil fuels are accepted as a deep part of our lives, and where money and material goods are valued as indications of our worth as people. I was born into a culture where convenience is appreciated and goods are considered disposable. Being in this culture, how am I not supposed to use fossil fuels? How could I not contribute to CO2 emissions and ultimately global climate change? This is my cultural inheritance. In that regard, climate change is not my fault at all.

This presents a paradox: I am at fault, but I am not at fault for climate change. Just like me, you are at fault, but you are not at fault for climate change. And this is where forgiveness enters.

Forgiveness requires an ability to see both truths and hold them together. If we get overly caught up in being at fault for climate change, feelings of guilt and shame can overtake us. At a point along my path, I strove to be a perfect consumer. I only wanted to consume fresh, local organically grown food. I wanted to buy only goods that were made in socially responsible ways and to drastically reduce my carbon footprint. Every time I traveled by car or by plane, much less turned on the air conditioning, I felt a pang of guilt. I still believe in aligning my habits of consumption with my values, but now, I choose also to let go of the rigidity and inflexibility that also creates suffering.

If we get caught up in the paradigm that we are not at fault for climate change, then enters in the other mindset of “It’s not my problem.” This attitude is dangerous because it maintains the status quo by condoning behaviors that cause suffering, certainly to other creatures and humans, but also to ourselves. In day-to-day life, each time that we see oppressive or harmful behaviors and choose not speak out, we condone this behavior. We say implicitly that those actions are okay, and in doing so, we lose a piece of our humanity.

We are simultaneously at fault and not at fault for climate change. Then how do we find forgiveness and healing around the issue of climate change? How do we go from finding ourselves at fault to accepting some responsibility? Holding both of these truths together, we can vow to take responsibility for our actions and our behaviors. A teacher of mine once described a vow as something to which we aspire, but it perhaps it may not be always attainable. We strive to maintain our vow, but we also recognize our human fallibility. When we find ourselves avoiding our responsibility toward the planet and to its inhabitants, we can gently guide ourselves back to the path, with determination and persistence, but also with gentleness and love.

We can find forgiveness on a societal scale by holding everyone accountable for our behaviors without harsh judgment and by finding gratitude even in challenging situations. To begin that process, take a step back and find gratitude for everything that fossil fuels have provided for us. Fossil fuels have kept humans warm for centuries. They provide rapid transportation and have opened up the world for travel and connection. Fossil fuels have allowed for the development of amazing technologies. Whenever I hear about the feats that humans have accomplished, I feel wonderment and amazement. Fossil fuels have given humankind some amazing opportunities.

Humanity is at a pivotal moment. Scientists like Arrhenius understood since at least the early 20th century that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and industrialization is causing global warming. More modern science is showing an array of possibilities for what will happen if COemissions continue. Many climate models predict potentially catastrophic outcomes. This provides us with an exciting opportunity to make good choices for ourselves and for the planet.

As part of the healing process, I urge us all to thank fossil fuels for all that they have done for us.  I urge us all to find empathy and compassion for ourselves for all of the times that we have made choices that might in some way have created more opportunity for global warming. I also urge us all, from that place of empathy, love, and compassion, to make better choices for ourselves, for our families, and for our future.

On Gratitude

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.

-Melody Beattie

This quote is pinned to my bulletin board at my desk because I appreciate having a daily reminder of the power of gratitude.  Gratitude is more than a feeling.  Gratitude is a habit that can be cultivated, and when it comes down to it, I’d much rather choose to embody gratitude than, for instance, resentment.  As 2013 draws to a close, I have been reminded to take stock of not only those things upon which I want to improve, but also my successes and accomplishments.  Today, I examine 7 things from 2013 for which I am grateful.

  1. Gratitude.  Yes, I am grateful for gratitude.  This year started off with a 21-day Gratitude Challenge that many of my friends and I participated in last January.  The Challenge was a special time for me because I got clear on how even challenges and difficulties can engender gratitude.  Seeing my friends and family join in created even more gratitude and abundance as I heard stories of how the practice of gratitude was altering lives in unexpected and beneficial ways.
  2. Leaving my job.  I gave up what most would consider a really great job to pursue a new path.  Not often, but at moments, I think I might be a little crazy for leaving a secure, interesting career or I feel anxious about how I will support myself.  But mostly, I feel deep gratitude for taking risks and giving myself the opportunity to explore new possibilities.  Things haven’t ended up as expected, but I’m grateful for the chance to examine all of my expectations and judgments and see what else is beyond them.
  3. Giving myself permission.  In June, I took a writing class at Inprint Houston because I wanted to share stories with others and get feedback on my writing.  That class transformed me.  After class one evening, the amazing Dr. Lacy Johnson and I were talking about life.  After I made a few wishy-washy comments about what I wanted in life, she looked me square in the eye and said, “You need to give yourself permission.”  I took that message to heart.  I have given myself permission to have fun, to trust in life, to shout “YES!” at the top of my lungs, to dance, to mess up and make mistakes, and love as deeply as I possibly can.
  4. Seeing my brother graduate.  In August, my brother John graduated from Nebraska Methodist College with a degree in Radiology Technology.  I always knew he was a smartie, but now he has a piece of paper to back it up.  He worked hard over the past few years to make that happen, and I am so happy and grateful to have witnessed his graduation.
  5. Learning about Karpman’s Drama Triangle.  Sometimes simple models can be great tools for insight.  Karpman’s Drama Triangle outlines 3 roles we often fall into: victim, persecutor, and rescuer.  And we can often shift between roles, even in a single interaction.  When I notice resentment creep up, I can now recognize that I fell onto the triangle.  When I’m acting out from one of these roles, I often am not acting from a place of deep integrity and I’m usually not taking responsibility for myself and my actions.  I am grateful that this simple model is giving me a way to evaluate my behavior and to make better choices for how I treat myself and others.
  6. Going on retreat to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I have written a few posts about my trip to Poland to attend a Bearing Witness Retreat at the former concentration camp.  I am so grateful that I attended.  I am grateful that I had the time to attend.  I am grateful that so many members of my communities supported me psychologically, spiritually, and financially as I made the journey.  I am grateful for reconnecting with my friend Petr who visited me while I was in Poland before the retreat.  I am grateful for the deep connections that I made on the retreat with incredible, loving people from all over the world.  I am grateful for creating space to look at some of the worst of the human psyche and finding some of the best of the human psyche emerge within this amazing group of people.
  7. Preparing for Jukai.  Yesterday, I sent in my Jukai preparatory materials to Upaya Zen Center.  In March, about 20 or 25 of us will receive Jukai, which is a ceremony where Buddhist practitioners receive the vows.  You can read a reflection on Jukai here.  I’ve written a thesis, a dissertation, and have accomplished some other tough goals, but even with all of that behind me, I still had moments where I thought completing a hand-sewn Rakusu (a garment signifying taking of the precepts) would be impossible to finish.  Sewing was tough and initially I had a great deal of resistance to it.  But as I got into it, I started feeling a sense of peace and accomplishment.  The front panel of the Rakusu is created with strips of fabric that came from a skirt that my father brought me from a trip he took to Vietnam in 2000.  He was there during the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, and I’m so grateful that I could commemorate him and his journey in the Rakusu.  I also sewed in hidden heron and owl feathers, found by my friend Kirsten.  Before I could sew the Rakusu, I spent a lot of time writing a gloss of the precepts, which is essentially my relationship with each of the vows that I will be taking.  I obtained great satisfaction from this process, now having a much greater understanding of the challenges of making vows.  I also created lineage charts, which includes lineages within our Buddhist tradition as well as a personal lineage chart.  I am so grateful for the opportunity to acknowledge from where I come: my family, my friends, my life experiences.  While my personal lineage was by no means exhaustive, it gave me a sense of my deep connection to the people and places of my life.  And I am so grateful to be going through this process with a wonderful cohort of cherished friends.

Lots of gratitude for 2013!  I’m excited to create more space for gratitude in 2014 because, as Lynne Twist says, “What you appreciate appreciates.”

Embracing our Shadows

It is not that shadow is negative — it is that shadow is denied, and therefore operates in unconscious ways that often becomes self destructive for ourselves and others.

-Fleet Maull

As a child, I remember spending sunny summer days in the neighborhood swimming pool. As I floated in the water, a few puffy cumulus clouds would wander across the sky. As they passed over the sun, I felt my skin turn slightly cooler and I noticed the broad, cloud-shaped shadow cast upon the earth. When the sun reemerged from behind the clouds, I once again felt the warmth upon my face. Some other children played outside of the pool, shadowboxing with each other using the intense light of the summer sun.

Without light, there is no shadow. Yet as Fleet’s quote above indicates, our culture often denies the shadow. Songs beckon us to the sunny side of the street and we are encouraged by experts to think positively. We strive to achieve a world where we are all happy and everything is good. But even with the best intentions, this type of attitude can lead to a denial of the truth that sometimes life sucks and it can lead to an avoidance of confrontation. Thus, we hide away from the dark and heavy and seek to embrace only the good and light.

This hiding away, as Fleet so aptly observed, creates a state of repression from which destructive, subconscious behaviors emerge. I’ve certainly gotten caught up in wanting to maintain an image of myself as being a certain way, for example, a good human being. (Note: “good” is a subjective term, and cannot be linked to any specific behavior, which makes it necessary to define on a case-by-case basis). I avoided thinking about my “bad” attributes like my occasional selfishness or my grumpiness if I don’t eat every 3 to 4 hours. Or those specific times when I did not act in a completely ethical way or in a loving, caring, compassionate manner. We’re all human, and we all have those moments. Denying their existence in our lives is like a child who places her hands in front of her face and believes that because she cannot see anyone, no one can see her.

The gig is up. We can all put our hands down and take a look at those things that we don’t want to see and all of those things that we don’t want others to see. We all have them, every last one of us. Many of us believe that if those things are seen and acknowledged that we will confirm our unworthiness, our lack of belonging, our not-enoughness. I used to be afraid of that, and I have let that fear guide me into some pretty dicey places. When we don’t acknowledge our shadows, we create a system that repeats itself over and over. It wants to come to resolution, but it can’t. Not without being seen.

When I was at Auschwitz-Birkenau in November, I saw some of the aftermath of what an unacknowledged shadow can do: murder, torture, and destruction of entire families. An unexamined shadow can lead to devastating consequences.

We can change this by starting with a simple step. Let’s befriend our shadows. Perhaps a daunting task, but ease into it with compassion for yourself. Invite your shadows in, offer them some tea. Learn what they are about and why they are there. Treat them with love and compassion. See what lessons they have to offer us and acknowledge them for the gifts that they are.

Where ever there is light, there is shadow. We can resist, we can fight, we can avoid. But when we do, we find ourselves living in struggle and adversity. We can choose a gentler path by moving toward loving and accepting ourselves completely and allowing our shadows to bring us greater clarity and insight into who we truly are.