These 3 easy practices, done together, might even manifest an adventure.
Five years ago, I started an inner journey and stumbled upon three easy yet different processes that I, fortuitously, did at the same time. These three things shook up my life and sent me on an adventure that continues to this day.
It began with a picture I’d cut out of a magazine of a lithe, ballerina-like figure balancing on a tightrope with the aid of a tiny, black parasol. The background was dreamy and verdant. I responded to this picture in a visceral way, but its meaning remained a mystery. I placed it in the center of my poster board and just let intuition run rampant and continued to cut away other visuals and words/phrases that sparked a response. I’ve dubbed this my Mining the Unconscious Board.
At the same time, I dusted off the cover of Julian Cameron’s wonderful book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, and started writing three, stream of conscious morning pages right after waking up each day.
For the umpteenth time, I also tried meditating, but this time I stuck with it. I took the advice of a friend who recommended the lectures and guided meditations of Dr. Joe Dispenza, a meditation expert and neuroscientist.
Guided by a higher power, I practiced these three things together, and my life hasn’t been the same since. I’ll go into these in depth in a minute, but first, you might relate to what precipitated this discovery.
In 2015 I was living in a state of what I considered “quiet desperation.” Divorced, with an empty nest, and feeling stifled in my teaching career, I longed for change. The thought of my life cementing into a numbing routine terrified me. I wanted to feel alive again. The new year and upcoming birthday would allow me to take my retirement without any penalties, but it would be a risky move financially.
For months I agonized over this decision. Seeking answers, only I could find within, I haphazardly began this practice of three. Then in June, a week before school let out, I literally jumped off that high wire into the unknown and retired. Well, semi-retired.
My friends and family were shocked.
Not one for bucket lists and without a plan for the future, I found myself both exhilarated and petrified. Mostly exhilarated. The only thing I did know was that I would change things up.
In August invisible gale forces gathered me up and suddenly blew me into action. A close friend from Perth and her daughter from the Kimberley of Australia came for a visit. Upon discussing my recent news, they in unison asked the question: What are you waiting for?
A month later things magically fell into place. I had my house rented for a year to the perfect couple, a friend offered me free rent in the interim, and I began plans for a solo trip to New Zealand and Australia for nine months…on a budget. At the same time, I started writing, something I’d wanted to do for years. I left on January 11th 2016, and published 30 blogs. It was a trip that changed my life.
And it didn’t stop there.
After being home again for two and a half years, I started feeling unsatisfied. Then one day I discovered a box of books I’d misplaced, and in the box I found my The Artist’s Way book and a binder of the morning pages I’d written before. I figured it was a sign and started writing them again.
I had never stopped my meditation practice and thought it might be time to create another mining the unconscious board. Pictures of lovely rooms spoke to me and a map of Brooklyn, NY, were posted along with words and phrases about adventure and new beginnings. For years I’d always wanted to move to New York City, but the time was never right.
In July of 2019, things magically fell into place again. It’s hard to explain but it’s like being caught up in a wild surge of electrifying energy. Invisible hands ushered me forward, and in November I found a sublease in exactly the Brooklyn neighborhood I wanted that included a separate room for a studio. In December, I sent a piece I wrote about finding a roommate in the millennial world of Brooklyn, which resulted in an interview and then a half page feature article in The New York Times Renter’s column in March of 2020.
Vision boards and dream boards are nothing new. They are powerful visualization tools that allow you to create a tangible representation of dreams, goals, and your ideal life. But they tend to be externally focused on material things you want to manifest in your life. I am more interested in having experiences that will make me feel alive, and by mining my unconscious, I look for pieces to the puzzle that prompt questions such as What is this revealing to me? which in turn, eventually lead to answers.
Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, believed that there is a whole world of fears, desires, and feelings that lay hidden in repressed memories, in repressed memories, in our unconscious, that can have an effect on our current behavior. The analogy of the iceberg is often used to help conceptualize the workings of the mind. “The things that represent our conscious awareness are simply ‘the tip of the iceberg.’ The rest of the information that is outside of conscious awareness lies below the surface. While this information might not be accessible consciously, it still exerts an influence over current behavior.”
Tapping into the unconscious isn’t easy. Freud used dreams and free association. Cutting out pictures and words that you react to in a visceral way is a form of free association, and it’s fun.
So get your magazines together and let your intuition be your guide. Cut out pictures, words, and phrases that speak to you. Once you feel you have enough, begin arranging and rearranging them on the poster board. What picture(s) are especially intriguing? What word, or words put together in a sentence, resonate? Once you’re satisfied, glue them in place. Put your collage where you will regularly see it, perhaps a night stand in the bedroom.Then marvel at the mystery of what it means!
This is also a great creative writing tool. Find a picture, then arrange your cut out words phrases into sentences to create a narrative. Often stories reveal themselves.
2. The Morning Pages
The morning pages are another form of free association, and they are done upon waking when our brain is still in a theta wave, twilight state between sleeping and waking. Right after getting up, I grab my notebook, make my coffee and sit down to do my three pages. It takes about 20–25 minutes. Done in longhand, you simply write stream of consciousness.
This cathartic writing frees you to dump any negative monkey mind thinking. For instance, you can let that inner critic rip, and then he/she is silenced for the rest of day allowing you to be more open and receptive to creativity. Just write whatever comes into your mind. Cameron recommends writing morning pages for three months, which is what I did in the past, but I’ve been doing them daily now for a year, and they’ve become part of a routine of good habits I’m cultivating.
3. Daily Meditation — Start Small But Start
I’ve known about the benefits of meditation for years, and reading Eckhart Tolle’s bookThe Power of Nowmotivated me to start. But I just didn’t keep up with it until I was introduced to Dr. Joe Dispenza, who for years has been studying the effects of meditation on the brain. His scientific approach and combined research in neuroscience, quantum physics, epigenetics, and more appealed to me. He has numerous, well articulated videos available on YouTube. His teachings worked for me.
Regardless of where you draw inspiration, the point is to start. Begin with just five minutes each day then gradually work up to ten. It gets easier with practice, and you’ll notice perks right away. I noticed I felt happier more and more and less stressed. No small feat during these crazy times.
Any one of the above three will improve your life, but done together…well… the results can be extraordinary.
So give it a go! What have you got to loose? In any event, you just might experience, as Joseph Campbell put it, “…the rapture of being alive.”
Over these many months of 2020, I’ve developed this animal instinct of being on high alert sensing an impending disaster… but it never goes away and relief never comes. This flight or fright state leaves me weakened and easy prey to impatience which makes my stress levels soar.
Since early childhood I’ve been pretty slow on the uptake practicing the virtue of patience. I-want-it-now-tantrums morphed into impulsive bad decisions, into faulty reasoned thinking that I had some control over outcomes in my life. But I’ve learned these last few weeks, with a lot of time for reflection, that succumbing to the art of patience has brought me some peace.
This past May, in the midst of the pandemic, I applied for a large scale art commissioning here in NYC. The deadline was the 31st, and applicants would be notified late summer/September. I realized this was a long shot, but I told myself regardless of the outcome, I was proud of the quality and effort I put into it.
I managed to enjoy a summer vacation back in my home state of Maine but began to dwell on how an acceptance would impact my life. My lease was up November 1. Very soon I would have to make a decision to stay in NYC or return to Maine. Late summer turned into September. I was getting impatient.
Obsessing about it didn’t help, and I was making myself miserable, so I sent an email September 15th asking when they were notifying applicants. Two days later I received a reply: “…hopefully late September.”
What?! I complained, stewed, agitated, then tried maturity and prayed and meditated for an answer. On September 29th, it finally came: “…the notification timeline has shifted slightly, and we are notifying all applicants by late November.” !x#*!
And there it was.
Patience delivered me a painful noogie.
But I got it.
I simply had to wait and trust in the process, surrender to the present moment and the unknown. I know this in theory, but now I have to let go and live it. I have to soften myself to be more receptive to what is. Not practicing patience is like dialing up the universe and then getting a busy signal. This quote from the book Lab Girl underscored it:
“Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” Hope Jehrens
A second lesson presented itself a week later after completing another art application for a museum open call. I carefully filled it out and uploaded my photos, but one of the questions was asking for a web site. I have a blog site but not a art site except for a Facebook art page. For some reason, I considered posting this, but when reviewing my app, I impetuously hit the submit button leaving it blank… even though I had another 24 hours to do so.
This impulsivity nixed any chance of being considered since the review committee has no other work to support a decision. This same jumping- the- gun impulse to hit “publish” catches me up too. One more revision might have made a big difference. If only I’d taken a deep breath and stepped away for a while.
“A patient man has great understanding, but a quick tempered man displays folly.” (Proverbs 14:29)
My heightened awareness brought in to focus just how often we are challenged to practice patience and how our reactions to it can either add negativity to an already too stressful world or alleviate it.
After waiting in line at the post office, I finally stepped up to the window to mail an overseas package. The clerk greeted me curtly and it kinda went downhill from there. This time I did take a deep breath and rather than biting back felt a degree of empathy for this person. Any number of difficult things could be going on in her life. I didn’t take it personally and, instead, felt a kind of kinship with this woman. Maybe even a little love?
I read numerous posts on social media about practicing kindness. Kindness requires patience. So just take a deep breath before you blare that horn in traffic, show annoyance with that slow poke holding up the line, or respond with a nasty comment to a differing political belief.
My high alert feelings of impending doom are moderating. I’m still running, but it’s to a different higher ground, and I’m trying to be more helpful modeling for others how to get there too.
We need to develop the Buddhist practice of metta or lovingkindness…and the benefits are worth it.
When I read the phrase To reteach a thing its loveliness…just let that sink in for a minute… it felt like a lifeline, like a comforting beacon of light after being lost on an uncharted sea of anxiety, fear, and growing anger.
Reading further in Sharon Salzberg’s book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, I learned this is the nature of metta, which can be translated from Pali, the ancient language of Buddhist scriptures, as unconditional love or lovingkindness.
It is the first of the brahma-viharas, heavenly abodes, and supports the others that include compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The metta meditation is an opening of the heart and a wish for not only our happiness, but also for all beings. The Buddha first taught the metta meditation as an antidote to fear when it arises and feels overwhelming.
Could there be a better time to practice this?
Hitting month three of quarantine here in NYC, along with the ensuing explosion of the BLM movement, I needed a soothing balm to quell the guilt and an almost self loathing, for not having contributed more to society in some meaningful way, for being an elder and higher risk burden.
The pandemic has become more and more about politics and the economy uniting us in different camps of hatred: the haves vs. have nots, liberal vs. conservative, red vs. blue, entitled vs. essential, black vs. white. Social media, originally created to feed our very human need to connect, has, instead, amplified our separateness, and it has spilled on to the streets.
I’ve read about regular people lashing out verbally at others for not wearing a mask or social distancing. Plenty of times I’ve passed pedestrians on the street and police at protests and silently judged them for being arrogant and selfish for the same thing. Hating this reaction, I found myself stuffing my feelings to lessen the pain. This is where we get in trouble as Salzberg aptly explains:
Sometimes as individuals, or as members of a group, we may sacrifice the truth in order to secure our identity, or preserve a sense of belonging. Any thing that threatens this gives rise to fear and anxiety, so we deny, we cut off our feelings. The end result of this pattern is dehumanization. We become split from our own lives and feel great distance from other living beings as well.
When I read the words, To Reteach a Thing Its Loveliness, I was blown away by the beauty of the message and recognized instantly this was something I could do, as just one small person, to be an agent of change.
The practice of metta begins with loving/befriending ourselves, no small feat. I know. I’ve been a heavy weight titlist in the “beating myself up”ring for decades. But we have to begin with loving ourselves…despite our weaknesses and failings…before we can mirror it back to others. This mirroring brings it full circle.
The practice of metta begins with short meditations that begin with oneself, and then work outwardly to a loved one, someone neutral, and, the most difficult, an enemy. The meditation focuses on silent repetitions of phrases such as “May you have ease of well-being,” May you be free from danger,” “May you be healthy and strong.” Yes, it gets more difficult as you move outward. It is especially hard to wish happiness to an enemy, but this is the work of unconditional love, the driving force of healing. Even if you aren’t feeling the love, don’t give up. You are planting a seed, setting an intention, and that is enough.
As if the nature of metta isn’t just beautiful in and of itself, the Buddha outlined eleven specific benefits. Your practice will reap the following rewards:
You will sleep easily.
You will wake easily.
You will have pleasant dreams.
People will love you.
Celestial beings and animals will love you.
Celestial beings will protect you.
External dangers ( fire, poison, weapons) will not harm you.
Your face will be radiant.
Your mind will be serene.
You will die with a clear mind.
You will be reborn in happy realms.
If you’ve always wanted to start a meditation practice but felt it might be too hard, this is a great place to start. A few minutes a day is all you need to begin. I’ve recently added metta meditation to my regular meditation practice, and I’m feeling more hopeful and optimistic.
On daily walks now there are more frequent, tiny moments of connection with total strangers I pass on the street or on a front stoop. It might be a verbal hello or a silent, mutual nod of the head that says I acknowledge you. Smiling eyes behind the mask. It’s a small moment of connection, a much needed dopamine hit of goodness. Lovingkindness is a powerful energy to radiate.
And I’m sleeping better.
So, if we should ever pass each other on street, know I am silently wishing, “May you be safe from harm,” “ May you be healthy and strong,” “May you be truly happy.”
After searching for an answer, the big reveal is, yes.
I kept asking myself over and over again, Why now? Why the hell now?
In October of last year, I fulfilled a life-long dream of moving to New York City. After months of journal writing and mulling it over, I made the decision it was the perfect time. The winds of change propelled me forward, and magically things fell into place. My adventure manifested, and I was challenging myself doing new things and working hard. In February, as a result of a written piece I submitted, I got an interview with The New York Times, in one of their regular feature columns.
And then … BOOM.
After a short, four-and-a-half months of New York City WOW, disaster struck. The greatest city in the world suddenly crippled. Its beating heart of creative energy, suffering cardiac arrest was left an ICU patient with no visitors allowed.
Without notice, and cut off from all the art and culture I was drawing inspiration from, I found myself alone in quarantine. Like everyone else, I was left reeling in a state of confusion and fear. At the same time, I kept wondering why had this happened when prior to the pandemic all systems were go? My adventure was looking more like a quest, and my biggest trial was facing an invisible foe who could, quite literally, take me down. I was going to have to dig deep to answer this one.
Nagged by this question of why, I, nevertheless, held steady and made the best use of my time writing, painting, reading, and observing.
And then one day going through some old notes, I came across a quote I had written down . It was from a list of “68 pithy bits of unsolicited advice” to the young, compiled by author Kevin Kelly, who helped launch Wired magazine. Even though I’m old, it hit like an resuscitative electrical charge:
“When crisis and disaster strike, don’t waste them. No problem, no progress.”
Well, I certainly was experiencing a crisis, but how was I going to change my perception and make it positive? I had come to the city to foster my own curiosity and creativity. Maybe quarantine and sheltering in place were just the environments I needed to buckle down and make real progress with my writing and painting. Feeding a passion takes solitude and focus.
So I dove in and keenly observed the changing world around me. Every day I wrote or painted with an energy that surprised me. I discovered a new painting medium using recycled trash and even submitted a couple of articles to different publications.
I had nothing to lose.
But it washard.
Any creative endeavor or change of habit requires us to access our higher nature. And you will know you are on to something because resistance, in its many forms, will rear its ugly head . For me, resistance comes from things like Netflix, social media, and Zoom constantly calling me to come play. Of course, I enjoy these things, but only after I’ve completed some work time. Wrestling resistance requires a Herculean effort, but staying focused yields results.
My confidence kept growing.
As further proof that I was on the right track, I happened to read through more notes I had taken several years ago and was jolted by another message that was waiting for me. In Letters to a Young Poet #7,written in 1904, the poet Rilke( only 27 himself) writes back to a young man looking for advice about his writing. Rilke’s response echoes the very same stumbling blocks of resistance and hard work. That in his practice of solitude, the young man might find himself distracted by the conventions of his day, might be tempted to take the easy route rather than trust in what is difficult, which would reveal his true artistic self:
“…it is clear that we must trust what is difficult; everything alive trusts it, everything, in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason to do it.”
So crisis and disaster have struck, and I’ve found the answer to my question, Why now? I’m choosing to see this problem of a pandemic as a personal challenge in making progress towards becoming the best that I can be.
I’m currently working on a series of paintings I hope to show in the near future and writing articles I hope to see published. I’m even entering a large scale commissioning art program here in NYC. Completing the application has been mind bending; I know it’s a long shot.
Working on it is hard.
But when I hit the send button to submit my proposal, regardless of the outcome, I will be happy I gave it my all, knowing…
“…that something is difficult must be one more reason to do it.”