Be Soft

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard.
Do not let pain make you hate.
Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness…”
~ Kurt Vonnegut

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(sunrise, photograph by me)

I was very fortunate to be able to do quite a bit of traveling with my father, a minister. One of the most powerful trips was to India.  On this particular trip my father was to mentor a group of college students in a Comparative Religions course.  India is home to 4 of the world’s great religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. I was in my middle teens, and not particularly interested in comparative religions. I knew precious little about any of the these religions. But in India you are not given the option of not caring about religion. You can not escape religion. It greets you in the morning, at every corner you turn and is the the last thought you have when your eyelids fall silently on your cheeks at night. The brightness of religion in India makes you squint your eyes from brilliant glare of color and light. The smell of religion in India is overpowering with burning funeral pyres, dung fires and the pungent smell of marigolds strung into garlands intermingled with the heady aroma of jasmine. Religion in India fills your ears with ringing all the time with the sounds of humanity: crying, singing, begging and praying. Religion in India coats your taste buds with slippery ghee butter made from the milk of the sacred cow.

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(Ganges River, Varanasi India, photo by me. People come here to bath their sins away, to be purified by the water, to cure illness, to die here, to make a pilgrimage and be here once in your life is a priority)

In Nepal, you are nearly at the entrance of heaven above….there is no sight like the Himalayan mountains. No air so pure. No sky so blue. When I was there, Kathmandu was almost sleepy. Religion was everywhere. In fact, the eye of “God” was always gazing at you from atop the white and gold stupa.  The “wisdom eyes”  look out in the four directions to symbolize the omniscience (all-seeing) of a Buddha, enlightened one. Giant prayer wheels spun endlessly and tirelessly, sending prayers to the heavens and the Gods above. Prayer flags hung from buildings, doorways, trees…..fluttering wishes and hopes to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. And here, the most beautiful greeting, freely given to any and all, “Namaste”, the light in me honors the light in you. Here I did feel close to “something” divine.

I lived in Greece on the island of Crete for awhile when I was 19 and 20. Religion there was also inescapable. Crete is home to possibly the oldest civilization known. Full of mythology and brilliantly colored frescoes, the ruins speak of a life that revolved around trying to understand and tame the unknown.Women played an important role in culture and religion. In Crete orthodox icons are everywhere. There are saints, crosses, the Virgin Mary, Christ’s birth and Christ’s death, all painted in brilliant colors flecked with gold. They hang in churches, homes, places of business and on the front of doors and buildings.  Baaaing, whimpering lambs are carried onto buses during high holidays and served with pride and solemnity. Perhaps reminiscent of sacrifices in the past. During Holy Days parades and festivals clog the streets, people sing and dance, and bow and pray. Priests dressed in silks and gowns lead parades with floats of the Virgin Mary. Candles spread the light of hope and faith and the flame is passed from one to another as “Peace to you” is bestowed with kisses on both cheeks. Incense fills your nostrils and lingers with you in your hair, clothes and skin for days.

After I was married I lived in Japan. Here religion is a bit quieter but no less brilliantly beautiful. Temples well over a thousand years old are adorned with gold and silver. Pristine gardens for silent contemplation are  alive with moss that looks like velvet. Other gardens are almost barren, with raked gravel in intricate pattern with no hint of footprint or tool that was used to make them.  An occasional twisted, serpentine tree or huge boulder dot the pattern. Temples are entered barefoot. On occasion giant temple bells weighing over 100 tons and 30 feet high, are struck with a tree trunk held by 20 monks. The vibrating deep tones can sometimes be heard 30 miles away. The chanting of sutras, which means the thread that binds things together, brings to the present the spoken words of Buddha and honors the history of the oral traditions. Meditation offers a way to for the mind to engage in calm-abiding and “clear seeing”. Song and prayer are replaced with meditation and chanting.

In these four countries I had to pay attention. I was wrapped in the mythology, history, ritual, and dogma of religion like a baby is wrapped in a swaddling cloth.

These experiences opened a door to curiosity. I walked through.

Fast forward. Forty years later. India remains in my thoughts daily. India ignited the spark of my interest in world religions. I still process India. Every. Single. Day.

Recently I let go of my early religious upbringing. For years I knew I could no longer embrace what was my father’s belief. I tried very hard. Very hard. But, I remember as a child not being able to get “on board.” I rebelled whenever I could.  Sunday school teachers did not like my questions. The nun who lead communion classes didn’t like my questions.  I wore a red plaid wool jumper to my confirmation….the Bishop was not pleased. My father hugged me.

Now, like the quote above, my “religion” revolves around being soft. Not hard. Pain and suffering does not give rise to hate. No thing can turn sweetness to bitterness. It is a choice I make. I do not practice submission or devotion. There is no imploring or petitioning. When I “pray” it is more of an internal, deeply personal song to the mystery of things I do not understand, to the magnificence found in nature, to the bond of our common humanity. When I am still, and quiet it is self inquiry that moves me forward and challenges me to be compassionate.

In Softness I stand in awe of the beauty of Nature. In Softness I find peace in silence. I Softness I do not fear death or “where” I will “go” when i “die”. In Softness I value compassion, kindness. My path is to love, be gentle and offer comfort and support. My focus is on the moment, of being present. This is moment I have to Be. THIS is the moment I have.

“My path is the path of stopping, the path of enjoying the present moment. It is a path where every step brings me back to my true home. It is a path that leads nowhere. I am on my way home. I arrive at every step.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh

I Am Not Beautiful

Ah Saturday. This morning was yoga and meditation group. I never really know what to expect from myself. Sometimes yoga feels great. Sometimes it “hurts” my hip or shoulder. Some days the meditation is quiet and calm, not too many thoughts drifting by. Other days I cannot stop the endless ribbon of ego wanting to chat about something or analyze something else. I just never really know what will surface until I get started.

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(Sept. 18 sunrise looking south east, photo by me)

Today the yoga part was especially nice. The breathing sequence was balanced and fluid. The poses all kind of melted into one another without too many little rebellion attempts from my hip or shoulder. I felt the little tension and stress I had wash itself out and a physical, mental and emotional sense of presence and ease flowed in.

As I settled into meditation later, still feeling light, I heard thoughts begin to chirp not unlike the birds at my birdfeeders….First sing songy, then agitated, then ceaseless, then snappy. Oh boy.

When I meditate it is the same as yoga, I never know what it will be like. Every single sitting is different. Some days the mind is quiet, thoughts and emotions are few and drift past quickly. Other days they rain on my meditation and I have to remember the storm clouds will pass on the breeze too, and be gone.

So, I settled in. Breathing softly and stilling everything. Then, it came. Like a megaphone cheer: “You’re not beautiful.” Well.

I listened to the rhythm of the words, the song it became.  While the words may seem rather harsh and perhaps mean, they did not hurt or really fluster me very much.

I am not beautiful.

Later, as I had coffee with Bruce, I thought about the words. As I walked through Lowes, I thought about the words. As I was in the grocery and later cooking, I thought about the words.

They were actually liberating.

Searching on line, I found this blog, and this post was just what I was feeling: http://feministsatlarge.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/you-dont-need-to-call-me-beautiful/

I gave up trying to conform to someone else’s idea of physical beauty a long time ago. I was seen as too thin, then not thin enough, not tall enough, not short enough, not dressed right, or styled correctly. Media’s image of beauty and the fashion industry’s idea of trendy never “fit” me. It has taken me 50 years to love myself without the label of beautiful or pretty or anything else. I am just me. I am healthy. I am happy. I am content. Whether or not I am seen as beautiful matters not to me. I feel that when we say what matters is that someone is beautiful on the inside, it is like giving everyone a trophy for trying. It is more important to me what kind of person I am. It matters to me that when others look at me they feel I am approachable, present, open. It matters more to me that when someone gets to know me that they think of me with words like kind, compassionate, intelligent, thoughtful, helpful, supportive, loving, generous.

I’m not looking for sympathy, or reminders that “of course” I am beautiful.

I am not beautiful. I am me. And I’m okay with that.

 

Mowing the Lawn

Setting the scene: a comfortable living room. Sunlight is filtering through the open window. Bird song can be heard. Kathryn and her husband are sitting, talking.

Husband: ” I feel kind sluggish. I think I’ll go do a few errands and go to the gym to work out.”

Kathryn, light bulb flashing over her head. Inner dialog revolves around kindness, “OK, that sounds good. I’ll mow some lawn if you’d like.”

H: “That would be GREAT!!!”

About two hours later Kathryn is in kitchen and looks out the window towards the garden. “Oh crap!! I forgot about mowing the lawn!”

Kathryn’s inner dialog involves something along the lines of not mowing the lawn, what was she thinking, did she REEAAALLLLY have to do it? Finally, with solid intention and kindness in her heart she says out loud, “Yes. I do need to do it and I will. Now.

Outside, wandering around the yard trying to find the lawn mower and the ear protectors. The sun is hot. There are no clouds in the sky. No wind ruffles the leaves. Far away a rooster crows. Kathryn  tucks her pants into her socks as a precaution against ticks which have been abundant this year. She has her blue snow flake buff over her forehead to hold her hair off her face. Sunglasses are on. Ear protectors on. She gives the lawn mower pull cord a tug. Nothing. Again. It starts.

With determination Kathryn gets going on the yard on the south side of the house. Here we find gardens, a fire pit, a small lily pond, a stone wall, trees. And all the lawn furniture. It doesn’t take long before Monkey Mind is in  full onslaught.

Monkey Mind/Kathryn; “What EVER got into you to offer to do this? This is hard. It’s hot out here. For heaven’s sake, you’re sweating. OMG, I think a drop of sweat just fell off you forehead. How are you going to move those chairs without stopping and restarting. WATCH OUT, don’t go IN the lily pond. Was that a mosquito or a tick bite? Is your nose getting burned. Geez it’s hard making all these turns. LOOK, you missed a spot now you have to go back. I’m thirsty. These ear protectors are really uncomfortable. Should I have worn gloves? How long is this going to take? Ouch!! I didn’t see that branch. I think you mowed over some flowers. UH OH, I didn’t mean to mow over that big rock. Achooo! Where did all these branches come from? How long is this going to take????AAARRRGHHHH!!! MONKEY MIND STOP!!!!!!

West side of house. Lawn mower is still running. Sweat is still dripping.

Monkey Mind has been shooed away. The sky is still blue. A few cotton ball clouds have rolled in. The air remains still.

Kathryn has a conversation with her Self: “I’m mowing the lawn. Just mowing the lawn. The lawn is really green. The grass has a wonderful fresh smell. (deep breath) That Japanese Red Maple really contrasts with the green. So pretty. It will be lovely when it gets a little bigger. It looks like the ornamental plum got over that blight thing. Is that a toad?? It is!! Move little guy…move. Oh look, there’s a red tailed hawk. I wonder if it’s Big Red or Ezra from the University. Boy, the birds sure are singing loudly. I should fill the bird feeders. I’ll remember this warmth this winter. The sky sure is pretty. I’m glad we planted all these trees. I’m mowing the lawn. I’m mowing the lawn…oh wow. I’m finished. That was fast.