Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Healing the Traumas of our Ancestors

I'm currently reading two books by Thich Naht Hahn. One is called, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, and the other is No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering. The books are quite similar, with many overlapping themes and guidelines for practicing mindfulness. 

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Mindfulness is a meditation practice in which we focus the mind in such a way that we become fully present with each and every moment. This typically involves coordinating our breathing with the mental repetition of mantras, or phrases, which quiet and focus the mind, relax the body and sow the seeds of aspiration for a happier life.

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The mental repetition of these phrases can calm us down in a stressful moment or at the start of conflict. They can also lead to the discovery of what is at the source of our suffering and ultimately to heal it. In other words, mindfulness practice can lead to less suffering and greater happiness. Who doesn't want that?

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One of the most interesting ideas put forth in Thich Naht Hahn's books is that we may carry not only the residue of our own early (or previous life) traumas, but also that of our ancestors - passed to us through their genes. At first that idea seemed a little far-fetched to me. But in thinking about it, I realized that there are times when I feel sad or down for no reason. I've done a lot of work to understand the sources of my own suffering and to work on healing it, so I think I do have a pretty good handle on most of my "triggers" - the things that can set off anxiety, fear and sadness in me. So when everything is otherwise fine and none of those triggers are at play, I have to wonder if there isn't something to this idea.

Well, lo and behold, just the other day, my teachers posted a link on their Facebook page about a genetic study of Holocaust survivors and their descendants. This study seems to definitively show that the genes of the descendants have mutations not found in their peer population, and that these mutations can only be attributed to the trauma of their Holocaust survivor ancestors. So our genes, it seems, actually are carrying the suffering of our ancestors after all. 

I know - it's kind of a freaky idea! But then I thought about my mom and her mother, and realized that some of the issues they struggled with have been issues for me too.And I had to wonder, what if if their unhealed wounds are still affecting me

So as an experiment, I began focusing my mindfulness meditation on healing these wounds for all of us. In my practice, I invited the wounds to arise and I invited my (deceased) mother and grandmother to be with me while I mentally repeated the phrases of comfort and healing. And you know what? Those periods of unexplained sadness, fear and anxiety have diminished significantly. 

My grandmother was hard to love. But I did love her, in the way that you love people who can be so difficult, yet who belong to you and to your life. Yes, she could be a cruel, raging narcissist, but she was our cruelraging narcissist. Knowing something about her young life helps me have compassion for her journey and a little insight into how she became the way she was. Since focusing my practice on all of us, I have felt forgiveness overtaking any lingering anger toward her. 

I seldom remember my dreams, but the other night, I dreamed about little yellow chicks. Yes - you know, like Peeps, only alive. Little fuzzy yellow baby chickens like these:

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When we were small, Grandma used to bring us a small box with several fuzzy yellow chicks in it on Easter. They were adorable and we loved them - until they grew into chickens and roosters - at which time we gave them to local farmers. I hadn't thought about those chicks in years. I think that dream was Grandma's way of saying hello and thanking me for understanding and for forgiving her and helping her heal what she was never able to heal herself. 

Who knows? None of us do, we just choose to believe based on observation and experience. And my experience has taught me that there is tremendous healing power in mindfulness meditation, for myself and for others. I'm a believer.

Here is the link to the study about the holocaust surviors: LINK

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Where Were You?

After John F. Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, when someone asked the question, "Where were you ...?" they didn't even have to finish the sentence. For those who were old enough to understand, it was like the images from that day (and the days following) were frozen inside a snow globe. Images of a smiling and waving JFK and Jackie in the open convertible, images of Jackie holding JFK after the shots were fired.

Among my most vivid memories is that of Walter Cronkite taking off his glasses, his voice wavering as he delivered the news that President Kennedy had died. It was like his whole body deflated from the gut punch reality of the news he had to report.

And in the days after, images of the funeral procession, Jackie and little JFK Jr. - John-John as we knew him, and Carolyn. And then of course, that image of JFK Jr. saluting his father's casket as it passed.

"Where were you ...?" In November of 1963, I had just turned 8. It was our bus driver, Mr. Christopher, who asked us to be quiet on the bus ride home from school, because our president had been shot. At home, my mother was watching the news. I remember her hand to her mouth in disbelief and the tears in her eyes.

Images from days like that are engraved on our minds and in our hearts.

There were other tragic events that came later, including the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I'm sure that many people can say exactly where they were when those tragic events happened too. But for me, JFK's assassination still stood alone as what instantly came to mind in response to the Where Were You question for 23 years.

Then, on January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on live TV, killing all seven members of its crew, including the first Teacher in Space, Christa McAuliffe.

"Where were you ...?"  In January, 1986, I was 31. My husband and I worked for the same bank and had decided to go my parents' house to watch the Challenger launch. Together we watched in horror as the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after lift-off. I remember that I'd had a bad feeling ahead of time, like a premonition of disaster. But then, I think many people did because there had been so many problems and delays before that launch.

The Challenger didn't replace JFK's assassination in answer to the Where Were You question for anyone old enough to remember both. But now there were two of those kinds of days frozen in memory.

Another 15 years passed before the question had a new answer - one that, even for those who remember as far back as JFK's death - replaces it in the hierarchy of tragic national events. September 11, 2001. For those who were alive then and old enough to understand, there is no need for me to resurrect the images of that day.

"Where were you ...?" In 2001, I was 46. We were at our home in East Boothbay, Maine, packing up for a move to Arizona. It was a spectacularly beautiful morning - the bluest, most cloudless sky. I think we all remember that - the juxtaposition of incomprehensible cruelty, inhumanity and horror against the backdrop of a spectacularly beautiful early fall day. Again, one of my vivid remembrances is of the deliverer of news - I remember Peter Jennings, not wearing his suit jacket, clearly exhausted and still in shock and wiping the tears from his eyes as he ended his broadcast.

All you have to ask is, "Where were you?" and people know exactly what you are asking, because everyone who remembers that day remembers exactly where they were and exactly what they were doing when the Twin Towers fell.

Our youngest generations have no memory of this day. As they grow and learn about it, they come to understand that it was terrible, but in a kind of abstract way. There is no way to feel what we felt that day, if you didn't feel it that day. For them it is probably just like Pearl Harbor was for my generation - a terrible day that our parents remembered as the worst day in our nation's history. But for us, it was just part of a history lesson. We didn't feel what they felt that day. Every generation, it seems, has a defining tragedy like this - maybe several of them, as my generation has had. One event though, tends to rise above the rest - like Pearl Harbor and September 11th. I find myself hoping beyond hope that our children and their children will somehow miraculously escape that fate.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Storm Comin' (Maybe...maybe not)

In between the time I started working on this post (yesterday) and now, when I am finishing it, Tropical Storm Erika has gone from being a potential Category 1 Hurricane headed straight for us, to a much-weakened storm heading off to the west.

The governor had declared a State of Emergency (which I think in these days of unpredictable and catastrophic weather events is the right thing to do). We filled up the gas tank, got food and cash, and charged up all the battery-operated everythings.

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(actually, I have no idea what that last thing is and we definitely don't have one ....)

fellsman2012-01-10.jpg (450×300)We had conversations about whether or not to put up the hurricane panels (over the doors and windows) and at what point we would make the decision to sit tight or head for the hills.

We are originally from New England and we got our share of hurricanes up there too, not to mention ice storms and Nor'easters. And, we are used to the media hype that comes ahead of time: "IT'S HEADING STRAIGHT FOR YOU! YOU'RE ALL GONNA DIE!" followed by "oops! our bad...AND NOW IN OTHER NEWS," when the storm turns out to be a dud.

It's not a secret that my husband does not like storms that involve high winds and heavy torrential downpours (well who does? but he REALLY doesn't like them). When he is worried, he often picks up his paintbrush, and last night while I was at a yoga class he painted this:

Calm Before the Storm
I like how he turns his worry into a work of art...

So we are not the type to be blase when we hear that a storm is coming. Compared to other people we probably over-prepare. We fall into the Better Safe than Sorry category, like this guy:

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marsrover_mer_big.gif (2500×2000)The thing about storms is that they are beyond our control. No matter that there are satellites in the sky and little robotic space thingys wandering around Mars - we still can't control the weather down here on earth.

And you can't be sure about what is the right thing to do. Do we stay put? Do we leave? In fact, in situations like this, I always remember the story of this little house at the foot of a mountain in New Hampshire. An avalanche came down the mountain, heading straight for the house. The people in it ran outside to escape. But the avalanche split and went around the house. The people who had run outside were killed. I think it's true story, but if it's not - well, who cares; it illustrates the point. We can try to keep ourselves safe, but we never really know if we're making the right choice until ... well, until the avalanche either hits us or misses us.

a1f6453b55d3205b9e5cab93265c3c75.jpg (525×343)I'm not sure what this post is about really... It has something to do with weathering storms; with finding balance between obsessive worry and appropriate planning; with riding out the storms with as much grace as possible; with not forgetting to enjoy today's sunshine because we are worrying about tomorrow's rain. At least those are the things I was thinking about when I started it.

We can't escape storms - not the weather ones and not the ones in our lives. We can't have a plan for every possible scenario. Nor should we, because that would mean we are always living in the negative possibility, which of course means we are not enjoying the present moment, in which there is no storm; no avalanche. Still, we can't be foolishly la-de-da either. It's about balance. It doesn't hurt to think about what we might do in this or that situation; how we might handle it. So we are ready for Erika, whether she comes or not. But this afternoon, there is no storm. So we are are going to enjoy the sunshine, read books and watch the ducks and birds on the pond behind our house. They don't seem worried...

Adding a P.S. to this post:

Storm Erika fell apart and headed off in a way that we were barely affected at all. We got perhaps an hour of rain, and that was less than we'd gotten the day before from a random non-Erika-related thunderstorm. We listened to the forecast and ended up just bringing the furniture in off the lanai but didn't put up the panels (which I am glad of because it is a Big Chore and I would want to have put them up for nothing). Today dawned pleasant and now it's overcast but this storm has passed.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


Everything is changing...all the time...

That's what they say, though sometimes it feels like nothing at all changes, for long periods of time....

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Or, it feels like EVERYTHING changes all at once....

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When we are in a happy phase, we immediately think, "Well this won't last." For some reason, when things are good, we leap ahead to the knowledge that it will, eventually, come to an end. Even while we are in our happy period, we begin to fear or mourn the end of it.

But when we are in a sad or unhappy phase, we think it will never end! I wonder why it is so easy to believe that a bad phase will last forever, but that a good one won't last for long?

I think about impermanence a lot in my life and in my yoga practice, which are pretty much the same thing now. In fact yoga is, in large part, about coming to terms with impermanence, because yoga is about learning to live in the present, and that is all about accepting that things will change; that things in fact are changing now, and now, and now.

Breath+hold.jpg (400×384)In yoga, we bring our attention to the breath and stay with each breath as it comes and goes. The breath changes; no two are alike. If we tried to hold on to the last breath, or if we pushed away the next one - in either case, we would die.

It is this practice of being with each breath, without clinging to the last or anticipating the next, that is the first step toward understanding how we learn to live with change.

Yesterday morning, we sat on a beautiful beach. The sun warmed us; the breeze cooled us.

Yesterday afternoon, the skies darkened and pummeled us with rain.

Impermanence ....

For many, many years, my parents were healthy. Then, suddenly, they were both ill.

Impermanence ....

For years before they died, I feared my parents' deaths. I thought I could never survive that. I grieved for years while they were ill and after they passed. Now, I miss them, but I do not grieve them every day.

Impermanence ....

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When I was younger, I worked for many years at jobs I didn't like. I thought it was supposed to be that way; that it was normal to just stay at a job you didn't like because you wanted and needed the money. I thought it would ALWAYS be that way.

Then one day, the company I worked for changed and that offered me the opportunity to make a change too. I leaped at the chance to leave behind this way of working, and have never looked back.

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Impermanence ....

Once, I was a child. I thought I would be a child forever. Now I am an adult moving into older age.

Impermanence ....

When I write, it often seems like I am getting nowhere. And then, after some months, I have finished a book and I'm not sure how it happened.

Impermanence ...

Our year of living on the road in our RV really heightened my understanding of impermanence. One night we stayed here:

A week later, we stayed here:

Impermanence ....

My favorite quote about change is this one from Faye Weldon:

"Nothing happens and nothing happens and then everything happens."

Change. We can see it as the enemy. Or we can see it as liberation. We can see it as something to fear. Or we can see it as opportunity. I've experienced it as all of these.

Or, we can just see it for what it is: The Way Things Are. Learning to let go of what is past; to stay right here, now, rather than rushing ahead to the future; to accept that "now" is already changing - this is the work of life.

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Work of Art

"I think everything in life is art. What you do. How you dress. The way you love someone, and how you talk. Your smile and your personality. What you believe in and all your dreams. The way you drink your tea. How you decorate your home. Or party. Your grocery list. The food you make. How your writing looks. And the way you feel. Life is art."
                                                                                            ~ Helena Bonham Carter

In my last post, I mentioned that I'd been teaching a workshop series on the yamas, which are the ethical principles of yoga that guide how we conduct ourselves in the world. (Non-harming, Honesty, Non-stealing, Moderation and Non-possessiveness or Greed). We wrapped up our discussions with the understanding that these principles provide us with a set of guidelines that can help us lead happier lives. How does that work, you ask? Here's how:

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If, when we got up each morning, we said to ourselves, I think I'll try to live by those yama - thingys today, at the end of each day we would likely find ourselves with fewer regrets about what we wish we had said -- or not said; less second guessing of how we handled situations that arose; less often feeling that we have something to apologize for; less guilt; less fear of repercussions for our behavior. Less anxiety.

Let's talk about karma for a minute. We tend to think of karma as something that is "gonna get us" for the naughty things we do. We use the phrase "karma's a bitch" to console ourselves that an invisible force will exact revenge on people who have done us wrong.

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But karma isn't punishment, it's action and reaction, action and result; an exchange of like energy. You do this and the result is that. You create a certain kind of energy and that same kind of energy will be returned to you. Living by the yamas assures that the karma you generate will be positive.

Understanding karma this way takes us from being victims to being empowered. Instead of being at the mercy of this vicious karma that is out to get us, we actually have the power to create our own good karma and, with time and dedication, we can even negate bad karma from our past actions! So if we believe that karma is a real thing, then it means that we actually have the power to create our own lives!

What an idea ....

I thought that the Helena Bonham Carter quote was a nice complement to the yama discussion because it's another way of expressing this idea that we are the creators of our own lives, and the quality of those lives, every single day.

What if, as Carter suggests, we thought of everything about our lives, everything we do and say, as ART? What if every day we got up and said, My life is a canvas, I am an artist, and today I will try to make my life a Work of Art?

Would we really choose to create a life that resembles Edvard Munch's The Scream?

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Or would we create something more like Monet's Water Lilies?

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If this idea that our lives are a Work of Art were forefront in our minds, wouldn't we: Think more before we spoke; act with more kindness; be more forgiving of ourselves and others; speak our truth; be grateful for all that we have and not begrudge others their good fortune: nourish ourselves with good food and rest; follow our dreams; be more generous? I think we might.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Lightening the Load

This week I finish up teaching a five-week yoga workshop series on the Yamas. In yogic philosophy, the Yamas are the ethical/moral guidelines for how we interact with other people and our environment. This week we are discussing aparigraha, or non-hoarding; not being greedy; sharing what you have.

This topic has been in the forefront of my own life lately, as we recently moved our belongings from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they have been in storage for three years. Some of you know that we sold our home there, bought an RV and lived and traveled in it throughout 2012. We settled here in Florida, where we rented for two years and just recently moved into our newly built home.

Before we left Santa Fe, we gave away a great deal of what we owned. What went into storage was furniture that we liked and thought we would use again, along with things that we weren't ready to part with for sentimental reasons or to which we were just still attached. Three years later, we honestly felt that if the storage unit had blown up, we wouldn't miss a thing that was in there! In fact, it would be a relief.

Despite having gotten rid of so much already, that 10' by 10' by 10' storage unit was still pretty full. This is how it looked when we opened it up last month after not having seen it for three years:


After living in an RV, you realize how little you need. The idea of bringing all that stuff to our new home felt overwhelming and suffocating. So we kept the pieces of furniture that we knew would fit here and gave away the rest. That included a beautiful antique church pew and a lovely chair that had been my grandmother's. I gave away my parents' wedding china and my mother's tea cups. I gave away my collection of dolls and all my books except my yoga and poetry books and a few books I have from my childhood, like Winnie the Pooh and Mary Poppins.

We went through as many boxes as we could open before moving day and ruthlessly purged. We were able to give most of it to an appreciative family and the rest was donated to charity. By the time the mover came, we had given away at least half of what was in storage - stuff that three years ago we just couldn't let go.

This is how it looked after we we purged:

And this is how we felt at the end of move day - no more albatross of stuff in storage 2000 miles away; no more $150 a month to store STUFF....

We didn't have the time (or the energy!) to go through all the boxes, so we knew that there would be more to get rid of when the moving truck arrived here in Florida. The idea of filling up our cabinets and closets actually made me feel depressed - I just couldn't do it. So when everything arrived here, we purged again.

There are some things we are delighted to have back and there are a few that we got rid of that we wished we hadn't - I was especially ruthless about purging and gave away our salad spinner, some bowls and a few other items that we actually had to go out and buy again. Oops!

The moral of the story is that we don't need all this stuff to be happy and it may even contribute to our unhappiness. We don't need two or three of everything. We don't need closets full of clothes we don't wear. We don't need every gizmo and gadget under the sun.

Throughout my life, I accumulated. I think most of us do. But eventually we realize (hopefully) that our value is not judged by how much stuff we have, or how much it is worth in monetary terms.

Letting go of things with sentimental value can be hard, but I realized that my mother's tea cups are not my mother. They have been in boxes for years. I don't even drink from tea cups, but maybe someone else would like to, or would just like to appreciate them for their beauty. Mom would like that.

Living with less made me realize how little I need - or want. Stuff weighs you down, it really does.

Aparigraha refers to this dynamic: that, when we let go of excess baggage, the space created is like a vacuum into which what we really need can flow to us. Over the last few years, I let go of defining myself, my worth, by my home and my stuff. It was tremendously freeing! I didn't even know if we'd ever own a home again, and that was all right. And when I let all that go, we were suddenly blessed with the unexpected opportunity to buy a lovely new home that beautifully suits our needs now. During this same time frame I also let go of friendships that no longer felt good and into that vacuum came new friendships that feel healthy and easy. I let go of what dragged me down, and suddenly lots of things that lifted me up came my way.

I know from personal experience that this phenomenon of opening our hands and letting go results in much better things coming our way, so I wonder why it is so difficult for us to let go - of anything. We hold on, we hoard, we cling - to stuff, to people, to places, to ways of living and doing things. Maybe we're afraid that if we let go of something we have, we'll never get anything as good again; that we'll never get what we want. We seem to have this idea that the bounty of the universe is limited and we won't get our share - like in the game of musical chairs, we'll end up the odd man out. But it isn't true. It's really a very abundant world. And the things of true value, like the beauty of nature, the ocean, a sunset, flowers and birds, love and friendship - those can be found everywhere, in vast abundance.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Fresh Start

This is my first post in what I think of as returning this blog to its humble beginnings.

When I started WriterYogini, I was completing yoga teacher training, and one of the requirements was that I do a self-study project. I chose to write essays about the Yamas - which in yoga, are the ethical guidelines for life. Before you go thinking they are some kind of strange, restrictive rules that only Buddhist monks might live by, let me tell you what they are:

Don't harm yourself, other people or this planet
Be honest and truthful
Don't steal
Don't overdo it with sex, drugs, alcohol etc.
Don't be greedy or hoard stuff

Those sound pretty familiar, right? Like the kind of rules we all grew up with.

Anyway, at the start, this blog was just for me. I didn't know if anyone else would even find it, much less read what I'd written.

At the same time that I was becoming a yoga teacher, I was also coming into my own as a writer. When my first book came out, my blog evolved into a place where I could promote it. And then that's what it turned into - a blog that a writer has so that people will find out about her books.

Now I want this blog to go back to being a place where I just write about whatever I feel like. So that's what it is. Officially as of this post.

I hope you'll still stop by sometimes and let me know you've been here.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Tra La, It's May!

"Tra la! It's May!
The lusty month of May!
That lovely month when ev'ryone goes
Blissfully astray.
Tra la! It's here!
That shocking time of year
When tons of wicked little thoughts
Merrily appear!"

From "The Lusty Month of May" from Camelot, music and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe

It's MAY! Where is the year going? That's what I always wonder when May arrives; when it seems like the year just began a minute ago, but now it is about to be half over....

When we were kids, we had a record player - you know, one of those things with a turntable and a needle that you lower down ever-so-carefully onto your record, and the record spins and somehow, the needle against the turning record makes music! I know! Magic!!

When you think about it, in its day the record and record player were just as magical technology as being able to download songs to your cell phone is now....

Anyway, as children, we listened to the soundtrack from the original Broadway version of Camelot (the only one that counts in my book), starring Richard Burton as King Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guinevere and Robert Goulet as Lancelot. I listened to this record over and over and I think that even today if you were to quiz me, I'd be able to sing just about all the lyrics to not just this song, but the WHOLE musical.

The song is about  breaking out of winter doldrums into spring and letting loose. When the birds and the bees do their thing and love is in the air. And so it was for Guinevere in Camelot, though her own lusty thoughts brought things there to rather a bad end....

Down here is Florida, May is the end of what we call "season." Season is basically the first three months of the year when the snowbirds are here enjoying the beautiful weather. By the end of April they've begun to migrate back to their northern climes and by mid-May they are mostly gone. 

For those of us who stay behind, May is not so much a time of breaking free and making merry, as it is a time of regrouping and figuring out how we will make the hot and humid summer months feel a little less long.

I use my stuck-inside summer season for writing. So I hope to make good progress on my two book projects this summer. I'll keep you posted!