29. The Alchemy of the Peacock

Alchemy was the forerunner to modern day Chemistry; a mysterious and seemingly magical practice where base metals were transformed into gold.

This sketch depicts the alchemy, the transformation, of arrows of negative thoughts and feelings, into the flowers of understanding and peace. 

How is this accomplished? 

By carefully observing our negative thoughts and feelings through the lens of mindfulness: Observation – Acceptance – Compassion.

Once you observe your own emotions, your next challenge is to accept them. You do not feed them, identify with them, or fan their flames. You simply acknowledge their appearance: “I see that anger is happening”, rather than, “I am angry”. 

Next you apply compassion as you seek to understand why that negative emotion has appeared. 

Be curious about your feelings.

Be compassionate towards yourself. 

See if you can create a flower from an arrow.

The myth of the Peacock’s Tail tells us that beauty can be created from poison.

In this origin myth, the peacock starts off as a drab, ordinary bird, going about its business hunting for food and shelter. One day, it encounters a lair of many deadly snakes. But, just before the snakes rise up to strike and kill the peacock, they are quickly gobbled down by the bird. In this way, the peacock avoids venomous bites and instead ingests the snakes, poison and all. Low and behold, as the peacock digests the poison, it begins to shake and tremble in it’s efforts to cope with the dangerous substances and when this process has finished, it’s dull feathers have been transformed into glorious iridescent plumage and the bird is healthier and more robust and beautiful than ever before. This is the peacock we know today.

Catherine Larkin, LMHC

In this way, our troubles can lead to growth, strength and deep understanding and even peace.

28. Letting Go of Pain

Pain is a great teacher- both physical pain and emotional pain. I drew this picture when I was experiencing very painful neck spasms. They were quite debilitating and frightening in their intensity. As I sought relief  with massage and pain killers, I also used this imagery to speak to my over-vigilant muscles, thanking them for their efforts to protect me, but causing me more pain instead.

It is so clear to me, looking back, how much stress was involved in these painful episodes.  It was a great manifestation of the emotional pain I was experiencing. The words I wrote to my neck muscles were just as appropriate to the psychic pain I was experiencing.  “Guarding muscles, you are trying to protect me but you are causing me PAIN. It is time to let go now…. thank you.”

We all have “psychic muscles” that have great intentions; intentions to protect and guard us. Like spasming neck muscles, these psychic muscles are often overactive and add suffering instead of relieving it. Both kinds of muscles involve your brain recognizing patterns and racing to the rescue with a rehearsed response. It’s kind of like that old saying, “ When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Teaching you brain new responses starts with recognizing the old ones. Then you can chose new responses, rehearse and practice them until they become your brain’s new favourites.   Easy-peasy right?  Simple but it takes a lot of practice. 

27. The Queen of Broken Hearts

OK Warrior. Time to put your intentions to the test. Where is that balance and strength? 

3 Little Me’s

This picture depicts three Little Me’s acting out my standard reactions to my mother’s insatiable needs. 

  1. Run Away(top left) – Avoidance is a no-brainer. If you are not around, you don’t have to deal with the emotions. Easy, but not satisfying in the long-run, as it leads to emotional atrophy, among other deadly traps.
  2.  “I’m goin’ in”(bottom left) – Rescue is my favourite. Everyone loves a hero. Having spent much of my adolescence as care-giver to my mother and my younger siblings, this came naturally to me. However, no matter how much I did, it was never enough.  

Learning about co-dependency in families was a real eye-opener for me. My favourite book on the subject remains, Family Ties that Bind by Ronald Richardson. I learned about family roles and I learned about “over-functioning” – that’s the rescuer.  There’s a very popular Coldplay song called Fix You. It makes me cringe whenever I hear the last line of the chorus- “I will try to fix you.” Nooooooo… it’s a trap! 

3. I’m Here But I’m resisting– This was me when I was present in body only. My mind and heart were still resisting everything that was happening- very exhausting!

Warrior Me

The big yellow form is Warrior me. Standing strong and present. Allowing the experience to flow through me without the damage that is caused by resistance. 

This takes courage and vulnerability… and practice! 

Try…fall down…begin again.

Notice the Rage, Notice the Silence

A friend sent me this open letter from Krista Tippett, of the On Being podcast. I have copied most of the letter below – have a read. Also, the audio of her interview with Resmaa Menakem is well worth a listen. https://onbeing.org/programs/resmaa-menakem-notice-the-rage-notice-the-silence/

Here in Minneapolis, the street corner where George Floyd died with a police officer’s knee on his neck has become a sacred space of neighborliness, protest, bearing witness, lament, eating, bicycle repair, praying, mural-making, and singing. An alternative landscape of care has risen up amidst burned-out buildings, and it is teeming with young people. These pictures are not shown as constantly by drones and journalistic cameras as the pictues of destruction. But they are as true, and they matter as much. What is not covered seriously enough by journalism in crisis mode is often precisely what can save us: the redemptive landscape on which the work of the rest of our lifetimes is emerging.

Resmaa Menakem is a teacher and visionary in this city, though I only became aware of his groundbreaking work a few months ago. Just before the pandemic sent us into lockdown, I sat across from him in our studio on Loring Park. He watched me as closely as he listened to my words. He caught me bracing at the term ‘white supremacy,’ and taught me that noticing such bracing is exactly where I have to begin to live differently. He’s drawing on knowlege we’re just now gaining about systems and processes in our bodies that we’re only now learning to see: vagus nerve, psoas muscle, trauma.epigentices. He makes a stunning connection between generations of trauma that white bodies inflicted on each other in the centuries we call the Dark Ages and the generations of horrific trauma inflicted on black bodies in the ‘new world’ of America – which, as Langston Hughes wrote, ‘never was America to me.’ We are all literally carrying – breathing, reliving, and so repeating – much that didn’t happen to us personally. It’s one way to finally grasp why talking about race, and ‘teaching our brains to think better’ about race, has fallen brutally, tragically short: ‘the vital force behind white supremacy,’ Resmaa Menakem writes in his extraordinary book My Grandmother’s Hands, ‘is in our nervous systems’.”

This converstaion, and the intelligence and practical tools it offers, has become more precious to me with every day that has passed. I’ve drawn on theological language already in these paragraphs – confession, redemption. I’m also finding the notion of ‘repentance’ newly meaningful lately. Like so many other important sacred practices, we have taught this too much as inward, private work. But the word itself in the biblical Hebrew and Greek in kinetic. it is about stopping in your tracks and walking in another direction.”

26. The Warrior

 Do you prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do you choose to live and die in fear? (Eckhart Tolle)

When I read these words, I took it on as a personal challenge:

“Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?”

Well, when you put it like that…

Yes. I was ready and willing to take on life directly. I was ready to grow up.

For several years I had used a personal mantra – 

“Open arms, open heart”

Now I saw that I needed to add “Open Eyes” -clear sight.

 Yoga’s Warrior pose took on new meaning to me.  Just try keeping your balance with your eyes closed…

Open eyes, open arms, open hands and open heart – all with balance and strength.  

“I’m ready life. Bring it on!” YIKES! This kind of vulnerability is scary. 

Then there was this wonderful reframing of fear:

“The warrior knows that we can never know what happens next. This not knowing is part of the adventure.

Can FOTU (fear of the unknown) really be transformed into an adventure? 

Yes it can.  What is required is the ceasing of resistance. The warrior takes a strong and balanced stance allowing her to ride the waves, like on a surf board. Acceptance and even exhilaration is possible.

“Oh is that all?” I hear you say. Well I am no surfer! Ok, let’s call this an aspirational idea; an about-face from fear to adventure. 

I admit that sometimes just imagining having the courage to live this way gives me palpitations. But efforts in this direction do pay off. The more you think about opening your eyes and your heart, the more it will happen. And then you will begin to see and feel the benefits which will give you the courage to keep going. 

So strike a Warrior pose and repeat after me:

“Open eyes, open arms, open heart.”

25. We’re All in this Together

We often hear that “we are all connected”. Our current pandemic has made it undeniable that we are connected in ways that we cannot see.  We can lean into that connection through practicing compassion with curiousity, adaptability and humour. 

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, is a powerful tool for connection and peace. Cultivate curiousity about other people’s feelings. Try to understand how they arrived at their point of view. 

Remember that your own point of view is limited. You the star of your own movie. It is easy to become self-important and think that the other people in your life are merely supporting players and extras. Don’t forget, they are all thinking the same thing. They are the stars of their own movies too. 

Do you really want to limit yourself to seeing only what is visible to you from your own perch? Open up to the rest of the world. Be curious. Be humble. Be grateful.

Open up to dissolving the barriers between us. 

Build bridges, not walls. We’re all in this together. 

24. Compassion

When I went through Hospice Volunteer Training, one of the principles we learned was about the importance of Presence. We were taught that the most important thing we could do for someone who is dying, is just “be there”. You don’t have to say anything wise or do anything profound; just be a compassionate presence, as a fellow human traveler. That is most important and best thing possible.

Healing presence is the condition of being consciously and compassionately in the present moment with another , believing in and affirming their potential for wholeness, wherever they are in life.”  ( The Art of Being a Healing Presence – A Guide for Those in Caring Relationshipsby James E. Miller and Susan Cutshall) 

What we see on the outside of a person, their body, be they healthy or dying, is just a shell or a mask. The true presence in each of us is the light and energy inside.  When someone dies, you can see that energy vanish as it leaves the body. I like to imagine it rejoining the stream of energy that is the Spirit of the Universe, or whatever name you like to give it. 

When we are truly present with another person, it is our internal spirit or energy that reaches out from behind our mask to make compassionate contact with the presence behind the shell of the other. That connection is a healing presence.

I remember holding this picture in my mind as I visited my mother, who was suffering from chronic pain and depression.  I needed to let go of my need to fix what was wrong. I could not fix it. What my mother needed the most from me was to be there, to witness her distress, see past the surface to her spirit, and let her know that she was loved. 

This picture was my attempt to visualize what I needed to do on my next visit. 

23. A New Story

I would continue to travel to my hometown to care for my family, because I choose to do that. But I did not need to make that responsibility the defining part of my life. My parents had their own path in life to travel, and I had my mine. Our paths would still intersect, but they would no longer merge. 

My next task was to create a new story, based on the reality of the current day, and emphasizing the aspects of my life with which I wanted to build my new identity. It was not all rainbows and butterflies, but there was a lot of good, and I chose to focus on the good and look for more. 

A the time I was reading Rick Hanson’s brilliant book, Buddha’s Brain, The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom.  

He writes about “Pulling weeds and planting flowers”:

“Imagine that the positive contents of your awareness are sinking down into old wounds, soothing chafed and bruised places like warm golden salve, filling up hollows, slowly replacing negative feeling and beliefs with positive ones.”

Rick explains that the brain is actually designed to change based on what we think about. Repeated thoughts, be they positive or negative, form pathways in our brains. Pathways that are travelled frequently become roads and even highways. The bigger the road, the more often the brain will chose it as a default, and it continues to grow. 

I decided to neglect the negative pathways and let them grow over. I needed to build some new roads that were based on the positive things in my life.  My new story had begun. When my good friend asked me about my latest visit with my mother, I would tell her in a few words, but I would no longer recite a litany of complaints and difficulties. I realized that I was reinforcing and imbedding those experiences by repeating telling. I wanted them to pass by like the clouds.

I started a practice that I called, “Taking in the Good”. I worked to focus my attention on the positive things that came my way. I would reinforce them by writing about them, photographing them, drawing them and talking about them. Whatever it took to imbed a positive memory that would become a part of my new story.

More than ten years later, I am happy to report that the decision to write myself a new story really changed my life. It was a very powerful experience and has made a lasting impact on my own happiness, and probably my family’s too.

22. An Old Story

This is my old story, in a pseudo comic book layout. It is story I had been repeating to myself for my whole adult life. In order to fill the squares I needed to identify the key elements of my life story:

  • Emigration – I was told, “you’re really a Dublin girl.”
  • My mother’s illness, as well as her emotional needs
  • My responsibilities as her substitute parent
  • Promises of better days that never came. “In time to come…” and “when we move back to Ireland…”

The stick figures represent, from left to right:

  • My father, who was often away from home, travelling for business. When he did come home he brought a big black cloud with him.
  • My mother, who was often ill in bed, suffering from various ailments and depression.
  • My older brother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was in his mid-teens.  
  • Me, holding my new baby brother.
  • My other younger brother, and my little sister 

Then there were Eckhart Tolle’s words:

“As long as you make an identity for yourself out of pain, you can never be free of it.”

Wow! Stop the presses!

My story was about growing up in a family steeped in pain. 

What good was this story doing? Was it helping me – at all? 

Maybe it was keeping me stuck and in pain.

Maybe I needed a new story.

I didn’t need to pretend that these things never happened – they did.

And some things were still difficult. But a lot of my life was pretty great. 

I could choose what aspects of my current life would define me. 

I could choose! 

If I chose to build my identity from the pain of the past, I would never be free of it. 

And I wanted freedom! 

21. Drop the Story

Question: What’s truer than the Truth?  Answer: The Story. 

This paraphrased Jewish proverb speaks of the power of Story. 

Power for good, meaning, understanding, joy or pride.

Story also has the power to invoke fear, helplessness, anger, resentment, or shame.

When I read Eckhart Tolle’s advice – “Drop the Storyline”, I became curious about what stories I had been telling myself about my life.  

Had they become truer that the truth? 

Were my stories even true?  Well of course they were true, but were they based on fact? There’s the rub.

Thus began a life changing exercise for me.

How do I drop the storyline and open up to what is?

What stories have I been telling myself?

Were they true? 

Were they helping me?

 Or were they harming me?