Listening to the Wisdom of the Body

Your body holds onto all the stress of your life unless you become aware and consciously let go of it.  I’ve known this for quite a while, and on some level, I’d bet you know it too.  For me, the trouble spot is between my shoulder blades, extending to my trapezius muscle and up  into my neck.  It’s an area that sustained a physical injury when I was young, and it’s never been quite right since, and now it tends to be the focus point for all my stress.

If I’m having a particularly difficult time, that area will tense up, and sometimes go into a very painful spasm, necessitating rest, heat, and conscious relaxation to un-clench.  When I feel it start to tense, it’s become a signal for me to pause and reflect on the level of stress in my life, and adjust accordingly.

For you, stress may show up as migraines, digestive issues, shallow breathing, or tensed up areas similar to my upper back. If ignored, it may show up in more serious physical issues.   Sometimes, it’s unconscious.  You don’t even realize the connection between what you’re feeling and what’s happening in your body.

This past week, I had an experience that really drove home to me the importance of listening to the wisdom of the body-mind-spirit, tuning into what issues are floating around at the edge of my consciousness.

I had a dream, and in my dream, I had signed some sort of documents to adopt a person as my child.  This person is an adult, but an irrational child in terms of behavior. Very irresponsible. Prone to chaos and trouble.  My dream-self was very upset at the prospect of now being obligated to him in any way, and aghast at the thought that he was now my child  and legally no different than my own children.  How could I have been so stupid? Why didn’t I understand what I was signing?? Now I’m stuck.  My dream-self was in full panic mode.

I woke up, and immediately was distracted by the familiar spasm in my upper back.  Damn.  Must’ve slept on it wrong, I thought.  I popped a couple ibuprofin, and went on with the day.  Later that afternoon,  I recalled the dream, and suddenly it all made sense.

The spasm wasn’t because I had slept in a bad position.  It was my usual response to a stressful situation!! The only difference was, it wasn’t real.  The dream had just floated up from my subconscious, playing as dreams do with various aspects of memory, along with the random flotsam and jetsam of my days.  Obviously, it had (literally) struck a nerve…or a muscle as the case may be.

So what was it exactly that my subconscious was trying to say?  Boundary issues, perhaps. Learning to distinguish between what is “my problem” and “not my problem.”  In my dream, I had somehow taken on a responsibility that was not really mine.  This person was an adult, legally responsible for himself. So, what in my life mirrors this?

I mentally scanned my personal relationships. Not much there, really.  But then I thought about the wider world, the endless parade of bad news that crosses my computer screen (and the TV, and the radio) every day.  The Middle East is in full meltdown.  Undocumented children flood the borders of the U.S.  Climate change. A thousand global injustices.  I care about them all, but in the big scheme of things I am relatively powerless to effect major change.  Could that be it?

Perhaps it is. Yes. I think so. Caring and doing what I can do within my own sphere of influence is one thing. But personally taking on the burden of global issues?  It’s too much.

And in the end, I think this is what my body was trying to tell me.

It’s become a cliche, but it’s true that the body, mind, and spirit are one.  So I leave you with a few questions. What is your body trying to tell you?  Are you listening?

 

Rebecca Hecking writes from her home in northwest Pennsylvania.  

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Thinking Beyond Duality

I read a rather hilarious article this week, written by a far-right American pundit who-must-not-be-named, stating that the slowly growing popularity of soccer (aka football to the rest of the world) in the U.S. was evidence of our cultural decline.  Just looking at it, I had to laugh.  It was completely absurd.

To this talking head, the football played by the entire world was foreign.  Other.  And therefore, automatically in the BAD category. Here was a person deeply entrenched in their views, unable to see the world in any way other than black/white stark contrast.  It’s us vs. them.  If you aren’t with us, you are against us.  My way or the highway.

No mushy, wishy-washy, shades of grey middle ground allowed here.

Seeing the world in stark good/bad categories is comforting to many, because of course, we always put ourselves into the “good” category.  This is especially true for religious dualities.  Whether it’s hard-core ISIS militia in the Middle East, die-hard orthodox Jews erecting settlements in the West Bank, or creationists putting up a museum in Kentucky, the mindset is the same.  We have the truth, and they don’t.  We are good. They are bad. We know God’s will. They don’t.  We are right. They are wrong. We are the true believers. They are not.

Tone it down a few notches but keep the mindset, and we wind up with the crazy Tea Party uncle, or that neighbor down the block who goes to the fundamentalist church, or the atheist co-worker who thinks all people of faith are complete idiots.

But it’s really the mindset itself that can be destructive. Seeing anyone exclusively as other strips them of their humanity. If we are to grow in spirit, we need to stretch beyond dualistic thinking. We need to soften our sharp edges and be open to looking beneath the surface.  This doesn’t mean that we necessarily  agree with or condone the actions of others. It’s not that simple. It’s never that simple.

I am appalled by the violence of the ISIS militants, but yet I know that they, like all of us, started out life as somebody’s child.  What happened along the way to radicalize them?  I can try to see the big picture of artificially imposed national boundaries in the Middle East.  I can learn the history.  I can stretch myself to see their humanity even as I condemn their actions.

Seeing them this way might not change what’s happening in that region of the world (it may take centuries for that hot mess to settle down), but it does change me. It opens my heart just a tiny bit more.

On a more personal scale, we can make a conscious effort to listen to those with whom we disagree, even if our own position on any given issue doesn’t change. Just listening has value.  We will certainly fail and lose my temper now and then, and slip back into dualistic thinking, but that just proves that we are human too.

And that crazy, idiotic, hilarious pundit with the xenophobic rant about soccer?  Well, she did have a point about low scoring. The game would be a bit more exciting if goals weren’t quite so rare.  She’s somebody’s child too.

 

Rebecca Hecking is learning patience as she awaits news (sometime in August!) of her second book proposal. In the meantime, she enjoys the sunshine and tries to listen just a little. 

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Bacon Cheeseburgers and Ultimate Causes: Considering the Roots of Cultural Misogyny

Over the past few weeks, the #yesallwomen discussion that followed in the wake of a particularly misogynistic mass shooting in California was loud and passionate, and rightly so. A broader conversation over cultural misogyny in the supposedly enlightened developed world (and the U.S. in particular) is badly needed.

It’s true that the proximate causes of any one act of violence against women center on the mental state of the perpetrator, his access to weapons, his personal history, and the like, but the proximate causes are only the beginning. Dig a little deeper, and you find the ultimate causes.

Consider this: when someone dies, a heart attack may be the proximate cause, but the ultimate cause may be a lifetime of bad diet, lack of exercise and high stress, all of which caused clogged arteries and eventually the heart attack.  Of course, one can’t draw a direct causal connection from the consumption of one particular bacon cheeseburger to the heart attack itself, but put it in the context of a lifetime of behavior, and it is a contributing ultimate cause.

Likewise, the ultimate causes of misogyny are found in the culture itself, the aggregate effect of a million small things, played out over the past eight or ten millennia.  Turning the tide toward a truly egalitarian partnership culture is a massive undertaking, itself composed of a million small actions, which will play out over generations to come.

I’d like to toss out one not-so-small idea in this very small blog. For some of you, this is old hat, and you may nod politely. For others, it may feel impossible. Radical. Forbidden.

Decades ago, feminist thealogian (no, that’s not a typo) Mary Daly famously said, “If god is male, then male is god.”  Read that quote a couple times, and let it sink in.

One of the deepest, most embedded, most hidden-in-plain-sight ultimate causes of cultural misogyny is the exclusive image of the Divine in male form.

Most people of faith, if pressed a little, will acknowledge that God is Spirit, without genitalia. Then why is He a he?? Those of us from the Western cultural tradition will point to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for validation.  And certainly, masculine imagery is found there. So is feminine imagery when one digs a bit, especially in the original languages.  But on the face of it, culturally, the dominant cultural symbol for the Divine has been historically male.  That symbol still functions, not just in the subcultures of religious communities, but deep in the psyche of post-modern, secular culture.

Helped along by countless misogynistic writings by major theologians (everybody from Augustine to Martin Luther) the image of the feminine as inferior, sinful, and evil took root in Western culture. Those roots run deep, and the idea that women must be dominated, contained, tamed, suppressed, and controlled are the cultural result. Even today, in some churches, women are urged to be submissive and quiet, based on a few select verses.

Everything expressed in the “yes-all-women” discussion is connected by a cultural thread back to this cultural ultimate cause. If god is male, then male is god.

Thomas Aquinas said, “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten…”  Right there is one cultural “bacon cheeseburger,” an ultimate contributing cause.  Mix it together with a thousand others, and bake for centuries in patriarchal culture and institutions (secular and sacred), and the end result is a shooter in California who thinks he is entitled to sex with any woman he sees. 

Undoing this damage is the work of generations. It won’t be accomplished in a day, or a year, or a decade. But consider the gender of God, what it has meant historically and culturally. Learn about it, reflect on it, and then allow Feminine images to exist alongside the Masculine in prayer, contemplation, discussion, and thought. Even if you are not religious, challenge yourself to not use masculine pronouns in completely secular discussions of atheism. It changes the conversation. It changes the tone. It is a beginning. It starts in the minds and hearts of people of all genders who are ready for change, ready to begin the work of creating an egalitarian partnership culture to replace the hierarchical, patriarchal culture based on dominance and fear.

Step away from the bacon cheeseburger.

 

Rebecca Hecking considers the big questions in northwest Pennsylvania, USA.  She is waiting to hear hopefully good news on the proposal for her second book.

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Spirit in the Garden: Deep Roots and Old Roses

It was touch and go there for a while. The roses were looking dead.  This past winter was especially harsh here in the northeast U.S., with extended periods of extreme cold. The roses had endured brief (a day or two) cold snaps in the past, but not weeks on end.

April came and went with nary a bud in sight. Normally, the roses wake up in April.  I trim back the winter die-off (usually a few inches) and by May they are green and budding. Not this year.

The first sign of life came from the old Van Fleets. These were roses that originally came from my grandfather’s garden many years ago.  They were transplanted to my parents’ garden sometime in the 70s, and then transplanted again just last year when I sold my parents’ house. They were just getting settled into their new home when BAM. Winter hit with a vengeance. But, these are tough old roses. They differ from most today in that they are not grafted. They grow on their own roots.  As of now, I think they’re going to make it, but they may not bloom much this year. Their energy needs to go into simply recovering from winter’s ravages.

By contrast, the Royal Bonicas seemed completely gone.  Only in the past two days have I noticed some tiny new shoots coming up from the ground. The canes that had grown for 20 years are dead. If they have any chance of making it, it will be from the new shoots. I pruned them back to the ground and am hoping for the best. Royal Bonicas date from the early 90s. They are a new-fangled type, resistant to this and that, and yes, grafted onto root stock. In essence, their roots are not their own.  But, they’ve been growing for about 20 years in their beds. Theoretically, they should be well established.  At the moment, it’s touch and go for them.

The more I ponder the roses this year, the more I find them to be a rich metaphor for one’s spiritual life.  We spend much of our lives as grafted roses, grafted onto the spiritual tradition we received in our childhood, likely the one our parents received from their parents. It may well become a rich source of strength for us, but unless and until it becomes truly our own, and we put down our own roots in it, we remain grafted roses. A received tradition sometimes sustains us into adulthood, and sometimes not. Especially when times of great difficulty hit, we may find that, just like the roses, we struggle to survive.

The old roses, by contrast, grow on their own roots, and they are tough. They are survivors. They are like someone who has done the hard spiritual work of wrestling with the difficult, deep, mostly unspoken questions of their received tradition (perhaps leaving it behind, perhaps not), ultimately listened to the voice of their own soul, and followed their own path. Despite upheavals and assaults, they are going to be okay.

I adore my garden. I love to putter around and watch the miracle of new life unfold every spring.  I will tend and fertilize all the roses, and hope they all survive. But as I do, I expect that my thoughts will wander on soulful paths, putting down deep roots as I go.

I wish you deep roots and new growth as you work your own garden of spirit.

 

Rebecca Hecking is hard at work in her garden and on a proposal for her second book. She is the author of The Sustainable Soul: Eco-Spiritual Reflections and Practices from Skinner House Books.

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UU Lent and Campus Holi: Religious Melting Pot or Tradition Theft??

In our multi-cultural, increasingly secular world, when (if ever) is it appropriate to mix, blend, re-think, re-imagine or adopt a religious tradition other than one’s own??

I’m an agnostic Unitarian Universalist living in a religiously and politically conservative pocket of the northeast U.S.  Around here, Easter and to a lesser extent Lent,  is serious business. The faithful are a powerful and dominant presence in my community, and their voices speak loudly and clearly.  Lenten meditations appear in our local paper.  Services are well-attended and prolific in number.

When the UU Fellowship of Fayetteville, Arkansas (not anywhere near me) proposed the idea of a UU Lenten spiritual practice (posting a photo on a daily theme to Facebook) I decided to take it on. It was fun, and offered a way to have a short-term structured practice concurrent with the dominant culture that surrounds me.

I based my decision on the fact that many UUs identify as Christian, and that we count the Judeo-Christian scriptures specifically among our wisdom sources. So, I figured, we have a connection. It’s all good.  But is it??  Many Christians in my community would probably give a resounding NO to that question.  To them, it would not be appropriate for someone like me to engage in a practice and call it Lent.  Who gets to decide? I’ve also heard of “Pagan Lent,” observed between Imbolc (on Feb 2 in the northern hemisphere) and the spring equinox in March, but that to my knowledge is not widely practiced.

Many Native Americans (and First Peoples around the globe) vehemently object when non-natives co-opt their spirituality, and try to “go native.”  They find it highly offensive when the dominant, historically oppressive majority tries to dance their sacred dances, decorates with their sacred symbols and the like.  Rightly so.

Some traditions seem to be more open to being adopted/adapted/re-imagined than others.  Buddhism falls into this category, and (at least in my perception) seems to be more relaxed about ecumenical blending.  I’ve heard Buddhist teachers welcome non-Buddhists to adopt whatever Buddhist practices they find enriching.

The college where my son attends recently celebrated Holi in a fashion, and the college where I teach is also planning a Holi celebration. Holi, the festival of colors,  is the Hindu  festival celebrating the victory of good over evil and the arrival of spring.  Part of the festival involves participants singing, dancing, and throwing brightly colored powder on each other. Participants end up looking like a brightly colored, living, breathing Jackson Pollock painting.

It might be great fun, but I wonder how a devout Hindu would view it? Would he or she be pleased or offended? At least at the college where I teach, the demographics of the student body are such that it’s likely that there is not a single Hindu student on campus.   Would it be better if the colleges attempted some religious education beforehand? Or not?  Or is it best left as just a fun way to blow off steam before finals?  But then, why call it Holi?

Ultimately, it’s all in the eyes and minds of the various beholders on all sides, with the end result being a million different opinions. Even so, I think that situations where the traditions of a historically oppressed group are involved, we need extra sensitivity, and should err on the side of not adopting a tradition.  What about when things are not so clear cut?  Like on-campus Holi, UU Lent, or the Buddha on my shelf?

My personal background is Christian (Anglican), and the overwhelmingly dominant view of where I live is Christian.  I swim in the cultural waters of Christendom even if I am more frog than fish in that particular pond. Historically (at least since 313 C.E.) Christians have been the ones on the giving end of oppression, not the receiving end.  So, UU Lent?? Fine by me.

And the rest?  That gets quite blurry.  I suspect that if you would ask a million people about this, you’d get a million opinions.

So where does that leave me? Probably somewhere different than you.  Such is life.  What I think we can agree on is to approach all traditions with respect, kindness, a spirit of love and with what those friendly Buddhists call “beginners mind,” a mind wide open to possibility.

Blessings to you, wherever you are, whatever you celebrate.

 

Rebecca Hecking is hard at work on a proposal for her second book. She is the author of The Sustainable Soul: Eco-Spiritual Reflections and Practices  from Skinner House books.

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The Hokey Pokey and the Meaning of Life

A couple weeks ago, I saw a bumper sticker that said “What if the hokey pokey is what it’s all about?”  In the week that followed, I found myself actually dancing the hokey-pokey (something I hadn’t done in at least a decade) not once, but twice.  Naturally, the synchronicity was irresistible, and this post is the result.

For the uninitiated among you, the hokey-pokey is a silly song that has various versions in the English speaking world. It’s been around as long as I can remember, and is a mainstay of children’s parties. It’s simple, doesn’t require much coordination and mostly involves putting various body parts into the group circle (put your right hand in…) and then shaking said body part.  Like I said, silly.

The bumper sticker question at first glance looks like a joke. And it is, on one level.  But dig a bit, and you find something else entirely.  The question of “what it’s all about” is really an existential one. What is it all about? What is the meaning of life? Religion of various sorts posits an answer, usually along the line of serving God in some way by helping others. Another answer is to work on our karma, but that often ends up in the same ‘help others’ place.

Now, helping others is a fine thing, but if we are all here to simply help others (and those others, presumably, to help us)  by God’s decree, what is the meaning of that?? Spiritual growth? Learning some sort of cosmic lesson? Fair enough.  Go with that if it works for you.

For those of us without a magic deity to guide our path, the question of what it’s all about is a bit more open.   I’m all for helping others. Don’t get me wrong. But that alone isn’t enough to truly answer the question, at least not for me.  Some say that life has no meaning. In the big cosmic scheme of things, I’d probably have to agree. We are tiny beings on one little planet spinning around in universe of billions of galaxies filled with trillions of stars and planets.  What I do or don’t do doesn’t change the course of this grand unfolding of existence.

To me, part of the picture is that we get to create our own meaning. We get to decide what is meaningful for ourselves, and live our lives with that understanding. This is the ongoing work of a lifetime. Amazingly, the goofy hokey-pokey can actually give us a few nuggets of meaning, if we are willing to consider it.

We all stand in a circle to dance. We dance alone but yet with others. We follow the pattern of the dance all together, putting in our right hand, our left foot, our head, etc… along with others. But we “shake it all about” in our own unique way. Sometimes we are “in,” sometimes “out.”  We turn ourselves around. We laugh. We make fools of ourselves.

Here we all are in the circle of life. We live in our own unique individual reality, but yet we are not alone. We share our lives with others. We follow the pattern of the dance (birth, childhood, adolescence, career, family, elder-hood, death) all together, but we “shake it all about” as we live our unique life.  Sometimes we are “in” (the group, the crowd, the job, the club). Sometimes we are “out” (lonely, struggling, depressed, ill).  With every twist of our personal plot, we turn ourselves around to new possibilities.  We laugh.  We make fools of ourselves, but if we are wise fools, we don’t take it too seriously.  It’s actually rather Zen.  It’s all about being fully present to whatever we are experiencing.

Is that ALL that it’s about?  Nope. But I think it’s a piece of the ongoing puzzle, and for now, that’s enough.

So, get busy. Figure it out for yourself. Learn. Grow. Help others. Explore. Breathe. Sing.

And dance the hokey-pokey.

 

Rebecca dances the hokey-pokey while trying not to trip over her own feet. She writes from her home in northwest Pennsylvania, USA. She is the author of “The Sustainable Soul: Eco-Spiritual Reflections and Practices.” She is at work on a proposal for her second book. 

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Living with Uncertainty

As of this writing, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 has yet to be found.  It seems astonishing to us that in these days of dashboard GPS systems and Google street view that anything as big as an airplane should possibly get lost.  How can this be??  Haven’t we mapped the whole world down to the square inch?  Aren’t we in control?

My heart sincerely goes out to the families of the missing.  It is unimaginable to me to try to fathom the depth of their suffering as they process the latest news (or lack of news).  I wish them healing and peace.

The rest of us all over the globe  just want to know.  It’s as if we’re watching a movie, and are all just sort of waiting around for the surprise twist that will tie up all the loose ends of the story and bring things to a conclusion that helps us understand all that has gone before.  Because there has to be an ending, right?? Maybe not a happy one, but still an ending where we figure it all out, right?

But what if there isn’t.

As the days tick down on the battery life for the flight data recorder (black box), the chances of just not knowing steadily increase. For the families, this is  of course tragic and incredibly painful. For the rest of us, the television gawkers and interested onlookers, it just doesn’t feel right.

We are so used to having massive amounts of granular data at our fingertips that we have lost touch with the ability to just accept not knowing.  Just a couple generations ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a loved one to immigrate to another part of the world and never be heard from again.  With only snail-mail post for information, it was easy to completely lose track of a family member.  If such a one met a tragic end in an accident, and no one thought to send a letter back to the old country, the family might never know.  Imagine the mothers of centuries past whose sons went off to war, never to be heard from again. Imagine daughters married off in arranged matches, gone. Or worse, slaves sold away from family and dear friends. Gone. Today’s global connectivity is unprecedented in human history.  Before that, not knowing was the norm. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t pleasant. But it was the experience of countless millions over the centuries.

It is unsettling not to know.  All that massive data at our fingertips gives us an illusion of control.  We have tamed the beast. We are in charge!  To know is to feel some measure of psychological control, even if the actual event is completely out of our control.  Although we might not like to admit it, in reality there is an awful lot we will never know, and the feeling of being in charge is an illusion.

Not every question has an answer.

Not every mystery will be solved.

A wise soul said that if you can’t find the answers, love the questions.  While we might not ever be able to “love” the question of what happened to Flight 370, we (the gawking public) can sit for a while with the mystery and just let it be what it is. We can consider the unknowns of our own lives without trying to fill in any blanks.  The lacunae in our understanding will always be there, resisting our attempts to fill them with fluff and GPS coordinates.  We can learn to accept the difficult gifts of not knowing.

 

Rebecca Hecking writes from her home in northwest Pennsylvania. She is working on the proposal for her second book.  

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For now…

For now,  this blog will be on hiatus.  Off to dreamland.   In the luminous, fertile void.  In the liminal space where creativity happens.

You get the idea.

I’ve been feeling like it’s time to take a break for a while. From here at least.  Not sure how long it will be.  It may be a month. It may be a year. I have no idea.  But I do know the muse is calling me to different places for now.

I wish you love and light, peace and joy.

Namaste.

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Requiem with Joy

I lost a dear friend this week.  Jenny was a very young 73, and died after struggling with cancer for the past few years.  She was quite a character, and was a sister in spirit.  Remembering her and considering her life, I realized just how much she taught me.  In her memory, I offer a few life lessons gleaned from her.

Don’t let the world define you.  By the standards of the world, Jenny was not terribly “successful.”  She didn’t have a large house, or a large bank account or even a “real job” with a corner office and a fat paycheck. She sometimes struggled to pay the bills.  But she was one of the most creative people I have ever known, and managed to find joy in whatever life threw at her.  Even her cancer was a great adventure.

Follow many blisses.  “Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell advised us. And it was good advice. But the implication was that it was singular, and finding that ONE special thing was the journey and the goal.  Jenny taught me that there is no one magic thing- no one source of all-consuming happiness.  In the 13 years that I knew her, she made her living by catering, baking, sewing, quilting, and running a folk art shop. She was also an ordained minister (Presbyterian, I think…)  and performed weddings, funerals and christenings on the side.  Every one of these was a bliss.

Never stop learning.  In the back of her art shop was Jenny’s library. Shelf after shelf of books on everything from gardening to literature to theology.  The evening when I first met her, a bunch of us were gathered for spaghetti in the back of the shop. The conversation somehow took a literary turn, and Jenny promptly ran to her shelves, grabbed a book, and recited Lewis Carroll’s nonsense-poem “Jabberwocky” with mock dignity, and with a lot of laughter.  She knew literature. And nature. And scripture. But she never knew enough to be smug or complacent in her own quest to understand the world.

Relax into your boundaries.  Good boundaries are essential for peace within oneself and with the rest of the world.  Knowing the difference between my problem and not my problem, or my responsibility  and  not my responsibility can mean the difference between being a nervous and stressed control freak, and being at ease in the world.  Jenny could be outspoken, but she didn’t push herself or her thoughts on the world. She didn’t especially need the validation of others.  She knew her own truth.  She rested in it.

Savor small pleasures.  A walk in the woods.  A cup of hot tea. Stargazing. Creating just for the fun of creating.  Jenny owned a few acres of wilderness land where several of us retreated over several summers in the early 2000′s.  Part of the fun was her outhouse. It wasn’t the usual stinky box. It was a throne, right out in a clearing surrounded by pine trees.  Sky above. In Jenny’s opinion, a good scenic view was essential for the task at hand.

Choose joy.  Jenny’s life wasn’t always happy, but it was always filled with joy.  Joy is deeper than surface happiness based on stuff and fluff. Joy is like oxygen for the soul. Even in the face of her own death, she saw beauty in the world around her. She lived. She loved. Right up to the end. She embodied joy.

 

Rebecca Hecking is savoring memories this week from her cold and snowy home in northwest Pennsylvania.

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Happy New-ish Year: Exploring Resolutions, Themes, and the Journey Ahead

Happy New-ish Year!!  Hey, it’s still January, right? And I’m still mulling over my resolutions. I have a love-hate relationship with the whole idea of new year’s resolutions.  On the one hand, I like the idea of a fresh start, sort of a reset button for life.  We could all use one of those now and then.  On the other hand, I don’t fancy the impossible expectations, the self-imposed unhealthy pressure, and the inevitable sense of failure that follows in the wake of realizing you’re not Superman.

So how can we keep the positives and ditch the negatives?  First off, we can toss the idea that as of one magical date (in this case, January 1) that we will suddenly become entirely different people, with different (of course, better) habits and none of the issues that followed us for the previous 12 months.  It’s just not realistic. In fact, it’s self-sabotage.

Secondly, let’s get rid of the notion that we must do it all at the same time.  We may want to make changes in our health, relationships, finances, education, and spirituality. That’s an awful lot to chew on at once.  Thirdly, we must acknowledge that we will inevitably at some point fall short of our highest hopes.  Allowing for our own imperfection can actually be freeing.  Just a nod to ourselves that we know we aren’t perfect allows space for us to move forward, instead of becoming paralyzed with an all or nothing mindset.

Okay, now what? Say you want to become healthier, save more money and take up a spiritual practice like meditation.   So, you make yourself a list:  exercise 5 days a week, stop eating red meat, no snacking on junk food,  stop wasting money, get a new job or a raise,  wake up at 5 a.m. for an hour of sitting zazen each and every day followed in the evening with another hour of yoga….

Ugh. I get tired just looking at that list! It’s impossible.  And yet, many people start out on January 1 with just such a list, and a couple weeks later (about now) are either exhausted or depressed.

I’ve been working with the idea of exploring themes instead of a hard-line to-do list. Let’s look at that list again…  if the goals for 2014 are healthier, save more money, and spirituality that’s great.  But we’ve got all of 2014 to explore these. Not just January.

I might decide to make January’s theme  healthy snacking.  It supports the goal of health, but is specific enough to be manageable, and not overwhelming.  I can decide to explore the idea of healthier snacking for the whole month.  How can I ditch the junk and incorporate new ideas?  Allowing the whole month gives time and space to try various ideas (new recipes or new habits) and at the end of the month I can decide what works and what doesn’t, and adjusting accordingly.

In February, I might decide to continue the health theme by focusing on better sleep habits,  trying things like short naps, changing bedtimes, etc… Or  I might decide to focus on a completely different part of my original goals, maybe financial this time.  I could spend February researching ethical investing.

And then there’s March. And April.  And a whole year to go.  If I fall short, no matter. I’ve got the rest of the year.  Maybe I’ll do an entire goal  re-think in June.  Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll fall away from whatever I’m doing and slip back into old patterns. But that’s okay since every month I get a mini re-boot, and I realize that imperfection is part of the journey.

And the journey, of course, never really ends.   The beginning of a year or the beginning of a month are completely arbitrary constructions.  Our lives flow onward, as does time.  Realizing this, we know that there are a thousand new beginnings, a thousand fresh starts. The months and years are just markers on the way.

I invite you to do some new year’s reflection. It’s still January after all.  Don’t be afraid to hit the re-boot with a resolution or two, but consider approaching them gently and mindfully.  Themes can provide a bit of structure, but still lots of freedom and flexibility as you journey through 2014.

 

Rebecca Hecking lives in northwest Pennsylvania, USA. She is the author of The Sustainable Soul: Eco-Spiritual Reflections and Practices.  She is spending January observing her energy flow.

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