These watercolour sketches are from an illustrated journal that I kept during the last year or so of my mother’s life. It was the last year of a complicated, intense and often challenging relationship.
For as long as I could remember our family life had been heavily weighted down by mental health difficulties. For my mother, that culminated in chronic pain, extreme anxiety and depression. Inspired by Mary Pipher’s wonderful book, Another Country – Navigating the Emotional Terrain of our Elders, I made the choice to do whatever I could to love and support my mother during the last chapter of her life. My husband, a palliative care physician, would call this “The Path of Least Regret”. (sounds like something out of the Princess Bride, doesn’t it?)
These sketches represent my efforts to truly absorb and live out the lessons that I was learning from my reading. As such, you may recognize some of the ideas and phrases that came from Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, Elizabeth Lesser’s The Seeker’s Guide, and also Michael A. Singer’s The Untethered Soul. Each morning I would spend a hour reading, and then, in an effort to really grasp the essence of the teaching, I would create a quick sketch that represented my understanding of the concept.
Today, more that 10 years later, I find that these sketches are still powerful reminders of the lessons that I learned that year. It is my hope that they might be helpful to others too. I will annotate them, but feel free to skip the text and to let the pictures speak for themselves. I have loosely organized them according to topic rather than chronologically, but most of them are dated.
Sent into the world with love – Deirdre Love
I.GOING WITH THE FLOW
1. Begin Again
I’ve always loved the fresh start-ness of a new journal- choosing a new book, the feel of the paper, finding the right pen; all the best of intentions and hopes for new insights. I can still remember how I felt as I began with this drawing. I put the pen down on the first page and waited to see what would appear.
I love the Buddhist principle of Beginner’s Mind. It has given me the freedom to celebrate new beginnings as gifts that come to me – each new day, each new page, each new breath. Everytime I notice myself wander off, away from my intentions, I can smile and gently say to myself, “Begin Again”. For me this applies to my monkey brain during meditation, my on-and-off efforts at exercise, healthy eating and mindful living, as well as numerous other aspects of my life. I am letting go of striving for perfection and learning to enjoy my humanity… begin again.
2. There is No Dry Land
One day I read this: “There is no dry land, there is only fearlessness, which is to be found in the heart. This is the path to freedom” (Elizabeth Lesser).
I was shocked. What did she mean, there is no dry land?
If that’s true, then why do I keep waiting for it?
Why am I trying to fight the current to get to “safety”?
If there is no dry land, then resistance is futile (thank you Star Trek).
I might as well buckle up and enjoy the ride.
3. Create a Space
Sometimes, in times of stress or high emotion, there seems to be no room for…anything. My chest is tight, my heart is tight, my mind is tight, my temper is short, and I cannot find an opening for love and grace.
How do I create that opening where there is none?
Breathe in through my heart and out through my head.
Breathe in to create a space for love and grace.
Breathe out to relax the tightness and let go of…everything, even if just for a moment.
4. Like the Weather
Sometimes I forget that life is fluid.
Whatever challenge I am facing, right now, feels like it will last forever.
Whatever emotion I am experiencing, right now, feels like it will last forever.
I like things well defined, nailed down, with an action plan – something must be done! But does it?
My friend’s father tells her, “Stay calm, do nothing, see what happens.” I love that!
Sometimes all that is really needed is to remember that, like the weather, this too shall pass.
5. The Truth of Change
Why do we resist change? I guess it is another manifestation of the fear of the unknown – let’s call it FOTU (just for fun!)
FOTU deserves it’s own acronym because it is something we all share. Some of us more than others.
One of the most common examples of FOTU shows up in our fear of aging. Why, why, why, do we resist this undeniable truth? Aging is a privilege. The only other option is death. (For a laugh, take a moment to check out “Cake or Death Lego” on Youtube).
Have a birthday coming up? Try being glad and grateful – Cake Please!
II. BECOMING THE OBSERVER
6. The World According to Me
Learning to observe my own thoughts and emotions has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. I still experience anger, fear, loneliness and uncertainty, but I don’t buy into them. It is so easy to get stuck by believing every thought or feeling I have. So many of them are reflexive, ill-informed, out-of-date, or just plain wrong.
Being an observer allows me to be curious about my thoughts and feelings. My urge to defend myself, to protect my heart, is so instinctive. I often do not notice it right away, but when I do, I have the opportunity to step back and be curious.
Of course, even as an observer, I have only my own point of view – The World According to Me. This too can be observed. It is an opportunity to gently remind myself of my limits.
“The seat of the observer is the seat of the soul” – I think this is from Gary Zukav’s book, Seat of the Soul.
7. The Inner Roommate
The Inner Roommate is a delightful image I gleaned from Michael Singer’s book The Untethered Soul. Regarding this inner commentary that we all live with, he writes, “How would you feel if someone outside really started talking to you the way your inner voice does? How would you relate to a person who opened their mouth to say everything your mental voice says? After a very short period of time, you would tell them to leave and never come back.”
Do you ever just stop and listen to that incessant voice in your head? Will she ever shut up? Things you forgot, things you might forget. Things you said, might say next time, should have or shouldn’t have said / done / not done…..
No wonder it is difficult to concentrate on the here-and-now with that racket going on inside your head.
My inner roommate specializes in rehearsing conversations for the future, as well as judging my past behaviour. In fact, an extra special feature is her eagerness to judge me when I slip into judgemental thoughts myself. Now who’s judging whom? Wait- what?!
Yes – it gets ridiculous and even comical. In fact, I have found that the best way to deal with my inner roommate is to laugh. Seeing the humour in such human-ness allows me to be kind to myself, smile and once again say, “Begin again.”
8. Pull Back and Enjoy the Show
One of my magic tricks is worry. When I obsessively worry, it is as though I think I am helping that person, situation or the world, by holding them in my mind and protecting them with my worrying. Is this helping – at all? When I am caught up in worry and anxiety I am no good to anyone or even myself.
Last summer, Robin and I took an epic road trip, all the way to the Arctic Ocean. There were several occasions when the roads were a little scary. Robin, who was at the wheel, was unphased. From the passenger seat, I was quietly freaky out. At one point, on the road to Telegraph Creek, I realized that I was holding my breath. At that point I stepped into the observers seat and realized what I was doing. I had to laugh. I turned to Robin and said, “I hope you appreciate the hard work I am doing over here. Holding my breath is what is keeping us on the road!”
Instead of getting caught up in the mental melodrama of my life it is possible to pull back. As I take the seat of the observer, my emotions calm, my attachment loosens and my role in it all becomes…well, it often just disappears.
Observing, breathing and a little humour go a long way.
III. Stay Here Now
9. The Anxiety Gap
The past is gone, the future is imaginary, the only thing that is real is NOW.
Anxiety is a huge burden for so many of us. It is caused by the gap between the present and the future. That is where anxiety is created. It’s the red line. The line that we try to reach over in order to control the future with our thoughts. Just knowing where that red line is, is helpful to me. Visualizing it wakes me up and helps me to refocus on the present. We spend way too much of our mental energy imagining all the things that might or could go wrong. Will it help? Will it change anything at all? Save yourself the exhausting anxiety and stay here NOW.
From Bridge of Spies: “Don’t you ever worry?” “Will it help?” https://youtu.be/5Tr8qZCVxhA
10. Say Yes to Now
“When you say ‘YES’ to what is, you don’t need pain anymore.
How much more pain do you need before you make that choice?”
This question kind of stunned me when I first read it – How much more pain do I need before I choose to say YES to the present? You mean I am choosing pain?! I am asking for more pain?! WHAT?!
When you put it like that, it seems impossible to choose pain. Another Cake or Death decision – https://youtu.be/rZVjKlBCvhg
It is really that simple and profound and challenging:
Let go of the past,
Surrender the future,
Live in the present.
Breathing is a REAL magic trick, not just one that my mind made up.
Just two minutes of mindful breathing can change everything.
It has become a cliché to say, “just breathe”, to anyone who is in a crisis. I see it all the time, now, in movies and on TV. When some poor woman is in labour, someone is there yelling at her to BREATHE! The thing is – it works! (the breathing not the yelling).
Mindful breathing takes me out of my head and back into my body. It connects me with the present moment and creates some space between me and my fears about the future, or my obsessing about the past. Two minutes can change my state of mind by quieting my “monkey-brain”.
Got two minutes? Of course you do!
12. Come back…
Meditation practice helps me to notice how very busy and noisy my mind is. Delightfully, this busyness is often referred to as Monkey Mind. I like this name because it contains the lightness and humour with which I need to approach my practice. It is tempting to try to tame my Monkey Mind, fighting against it by making it still. “Trying hard to relax!”; ( Yes, I have been known to say this!)
Like so many challenges that life brings us, the only way to get past it, is through it. The only way past Monkey Mind is acknowledge the commentary and stories that are streaming through your mind, and then, one by one, letting them go. The practice is not about achieving a serene mind; it is about noticing your thoughts, and then letting them go. Let them pass through like the clouds in the sky.
See the storyline…..drop it…..come back to the freshness of the moment.
13. The House of Thought
Sometimes I really am my own worst enemy. My inner critic seems to never shut up! No matter how hard I try, it is never enough. Perfect has some how become the only acceptable standard. If I spoke to anyone else the way I speak to myself, inside my own head, I would be considered abusive.
Inner resistance and anxiety makes me feel like I’m a prisoner.
Until I realize – oh yah – there may be bars on the windows, but the door is unlocked.
The only one keeping me in prison, is…me…
I am the prisoner AND also the jailer!
Freedom is closer than you think! What would it take to just walk out that door; the door of the prison you have built yourself, in your own head?
14. Get Out of Your Head!
Do you ever feel like your brain is going to over heat? Boy, there have been days, and nights, when I felt so overwhelmed that it was hard to see a way forward. Adrenalin was coursing through my veins, and my brain was in overdrive, trying to think my way out of the latest perceived emergency. Fight or flight at its finest.
Even with your brain on fire, your breath can calm the flames and move your energy from your head into your heart. Your breath can create a space, a cool pathway out of your panic. Try to visualize inhaling deeply through your nose and down into your heart. Then exhaling out through the top of your head. Sounds strange, but it will relax your mind and help you to recenter yourself.
Let your breath take you out of your head and into your heart.
Feel your inner body
Feel the inner stillness deep inside.
Stay rooted within. (Eckhart Tolle)
15. Resistance is Futile
Boy this has been a difficult and important lesson for me. Making this sketch really helped me to actually see how futile my resistance was. When I imagined my resistance as a wall of bricks I was pushing against I was able to understand how much energy I was wasting while I pushed back against Life.
Acceptance and surrender are certainly easily said and yet so difficult. They require exposure and vulnerability, which makes them scary. “It is what it is”, has become a glib auto-response they people throw out when they don’t know what else to say. However, when said with acceptance rather than defeat, it is actually rather profound and important. Allowing Life to flow through us rather than battering against us is the path to peace.
This is an aspirational goal is not fully achievable for most of us humans. That’s why I love these encouraging words from Eckhart Tolle:
Forgive yourself for not being at peace.
Fully accepting non-peace will take your into peace.
16. The Root of Suffering
When I look at this sketch now, after 10 years or so, I can still feel the tension of my resistance to what was happening in my life. My mind was full to overflowing with objections to reality. I remember being exhausted by my pushing back so hard against life. Did it help? Not at all. It definitely added to my suffering, and probably the people around me too.
17. Emotions Gone Wild
This was my version of a panic attack. Fear of pain, leading to pain and more fear until my mind was hijacked by my own emotions, my autonomic nervous system, and an almost irresistible urge to Fight or Flight!
The cool stream of a conscious deep breath could have created a space, and a bit of time to slow down and let the adrenalin that had flooded my brain drain away.
I don’t think I remembered to breathe my way through my panic that day, but in reflecting on it afterwards, I was able to create a plan for next time. That plan has been a tremendous help over the years.
18. Old Frienemies
Pain Body is what Ekhart Tolle calls the historical pain that controls our emotions from our past. Everyone has a Pain Body – it’s part of the human experience. It’s kind of like the monster in the basement. Some would call it the baggage that we carry with us. When conditions or events trigger a familiar pattern in our brains, the Pain Body awakens and tries to be helpful by telling us what to think and feel. The trouble is that those reactions are based on history, sometimes ancient history, not on what is happening right now.
I found it so helpful to recognize that we all have these patterns of thought and feelings buried deep in our psyche. When my Pain Body awakens, my work is to recognize it, and let it pass on through. Do not feed it or buy into it. Just smile and say, “Hi Pain Body, I see you. Thanks for your concern but I’ve got this.”
19. Feel the Feelings
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing at all. Refrain.
“Stay calm, do nothing, feeling the feelings, see what happens.” (Adapted quote from Camille’s dad)
When unpleasant feelings come our way, we are driven to move away from those feelings by whatever means necessary. We are programmed that way – to our primitive brains it makes perfect sense.
Aggression. Cravings. Agitation. Boredom. Fear. Loneliness. Jealousy. Pain.
They all leave us with the sense that there is a gaping hole inside – a gap that we try to fill with whatever is fastest and easiest.
Activity. Food. Sex. Distraction. Entertainment. Reading. Work. Drugs.
We all have our favourite ways of filling the gap so that we don’t have to feel those feelings. Unfortunately, these feelings do not go away – they just bury deeper into our psyches. They feed our pain body.
The good news is that these feelings have the potential to be our greatest teachers. They can be conduits for emotional growth and a bridge to freedom from suffering.
The trick lies in not filling the gap. When you feel those feelings –
REFRAIN! Let the gap be there.
Hang out with those feelings…
… feel them…
…listen to them…
…accept them without feeding them…
…learn from them…
…know that they will pass like the weather.
VI. Stories I Have Told Myself
20. Travel Light
I have learned to travel light, with my carry-on suitcase only. Yes, it is challenging.
We have all had that experience of over-packing for a trip, and then hauling around all those items that we do not need or even use. What a waste of energy. So I’ve learned to pack only 2 pairs of shoes, to dress in colour-coordinated layers, and to do laundry while I’m away. Simple but not easy.
Even more challenging is learning to ditch the emotional baggage that I drag around with me. My anxiety tells me that I need to be ready for anything – plan ahead, rehearse every scenario, prepare for every possible emergency – protect & defend. Oh my! And the energy I spend on carrying around all those cautionary tales from my past? It’s all just exhausting.
All of my projecting into the future and recalling the past has blurred my vision in the present. I can be so caught up in my tales of the past and my fears about the future that I am not fully present in my own life as it is happening.
I am learning to travel lighter by accepting life as it comes to me; experiencing life in the present tense, unencumbered by all that extra baggage. I feel much lighter.
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 Ekhart 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?
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 Ekhart 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!
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 write about them, photograph them, 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.
VII. Compassion & Transformation
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 being there. You don’t have to say anything wise or do anything profound; just being a compassionate presentce, 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 or with others, 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 and rejoins 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 out 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. 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.
25. We’re All in this Together
We’re All in this Together
We often hear that “we are all connected”. Our current pandemic has made that 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. Open up to dissolving the barriers between us.
Build bridges, not walls. We’re all in this together.
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 developed 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.
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. Acceptance and even exhilaration is possible.
“Oh is that all?” I hear you say. Ok, let’s call this an aspirational idea; a direction, a turning 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.”
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.
- 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.
- “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.
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.
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.
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.
30. The Guarded Heart
Like Rapunzle this heart is locked in a castle. Is it really too precious to allowed out in the world to experience life, love and loss? Is that how you want to live? Guarding your heart is natural, especially after you’ve been hurt, but it will not give you the life you desire. You have the keys to the castle. Have Courage – Liberate yourself!
31. The Price of Freedom
Here is the alternative to a guarded heart – Vulnerability.
Exposure is the price of freedom.
A guarded heart is a heart imprisoned.
An exposed heart is free.
An exposed heart is vulnerable to hurt. This is the price of freedom; to not defend yourself, but to accept life as it happens. Vulnerability requires the courage and strength of the Warrior.
Think of the Grinch:
A guarded heart is clenched and shrinking. Fear begets fear.
An exposed heart is open, relaxed and growing. Love begets love.
32. Open Your Heart
Learning to have an open heart, to not be defensive, is an on-going, day by day challenge. Fear is not banished once and for all, but it does become more manageable and less frightening.
I am learning to not be afraid of fear. I can now look at it: “Fear is happening” (rather than “I am afraid”), and be curious about it, “Why is there fear?” One of my most useful tools for discovery is journaling. When I feel my heart constricting with fear or anxiety, I sit down with pen and paper and I start writing, describing the feelings I am experiencing. Once I begin, I listen carefully to my inner voice. Sometimes an echo of a memory appears (write it down), or I might be arguing with my own feelings, “Don’t be an idiot…” (write it down). I watch for ways that I am acting or feeling based on ancient history, or assumptions that I know to incorrect. I watch for ways that I am being unreasonable or dishonest or judgmental to others or myself, and I work at being compassionate to myself and others.
And then I breathe, to open my heart and cool my brain.
Most often a path forward appears. A path based on a relaxed heart and a better understanding of my feelings. Sometimes I end up with an action plan based on baby steps and staying rooted in the present moment.
33. Out of Control
Have you ever thought of being “out of control” as a good thing?
Fear and anxiety can keep us up wrapped up pretty tight. My fearful younger self worked very hard to bring order into our family life by anticipating any possible problem and controlling every detail. This was my way of keeping us all safe. I was afraid of being out of control. I’d had enough of that growing up and I wanted a more stable life for my children.
One of the ways that I strove for safety was through my involvement in the evangelical church. Evangelical Christianity came along when I was a teenager, like a lifeboat in a storm. They seemed to have all the answers to life’s difficult questions. And they were happy and fun and had purpose in their lives! Give me some of that please!
Later on, the Church promised to keep my children safe, if I would just keep them involved. Awesome! Sign me up! That worked well when my kids were young, but eventually my teenaged children, and my husband, refused accept the prepackaged answers to questions of creation, sexual orientation, sin and judgment, Heaven and Hell (i.e. being “saved”). They would no longer to come to church. My carefully constructed Safety Plan began to crumble.
Eventually I would leave too. It was not easy. I was losing my entire worldview as well as my community. Instead of having the answer to everything, I had no answers. Well…I had one answer: “I don’t know.”
I stepped into the void, crying, “I DON’T KNOOOOOOW!”
I jumped off the cliff, and learned to fly.
“I don’t know…I am out of control…I am free…!”
What is Freedom to me?
Cessation of judgment and resistance: of myself, others, the world, anything and everything.
Letting go of regret and fear.
The release of expertise:
I don’t knooooow…
Relaxing and rising into the rhythm of the universe,
Taking in the beauty and joy of what is right here, right now,
I find Lightness of Being
35. A Surrendered Heart
Opening your heart – surrendering your heart is risky.
To that I say, “What have you got to lose?”
- A guarded castle complete with tower and moat?
- Being “right” all the time?
- A braced, constricted, atrophied heart?
- A “safe” protected life of control and predictability?
A Surrendered heart is a trusting heart – surrendering fear and trusting in the ultimate goodness of the universe.
For me, this is a choice. I choose to believe in the ultimate goodness of the Universe.
I could be wrong, but this is how I choose to live.
In these mid-Pandemic Days, this trust in the goodness of the Universe is being tested, all around. We are all looking for evidence of the goodness of humans, the resilience of nature and hope for the future. Meanwhile, peaceful anti-racism protests on our city streets demand the rights of all humans to be treated as equals. Change is in the wind. Breaking it down and starting again.
I choose to believe that, in the end, love and goodness will prevail.
And if I’m wrong, well, this is how I chose to live anyway- living each day with an opening and surrendering of my heart.
This is the song that keeps running through my mind these days: (starts at 1:22 after drum solo)
At the Centerline by Brian Blade
Give me serenity to accept the things
I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
We won’t be forsaken
Mercy holds us when we fall
So leave the past behind us
Let the moment bring another chance
‘Cause in my heart, I love you
And only love can make a way
While the war is raging,
Can our peace be still
At the centerline,
We will find our balance
A sister’s heart and a brother’s hand
At the centerline
We will meet the challenge
Tear it down and start again
36. Infinite Energy
This is the final sketch from the illustrated journal I created during the final two years of my mother’s life. Revisiting them and writing about these drawings, ten years later, has been an amazing journey. They were healing when I drew them, and healing again as I reflected on the lessons learned through that difficult passage.
I am reminded, again, of the power of journaling as a tool for reflection and insight. Without this journal I might not have had this opportunity to remind myself of how far I have come. I have learned some pretty great life lessons through my personal challenges, and I continue to learn and relearn them.
I continue to look for and focus on the good. These days, I don’t have to look very hard. My life is very good. I have so much to be grateful for.
And to my mother’s spirit, wherever or whatever that is now – Thank you for your love, and for bequeathing me with a life-long passion for learning and growth.