A Gift of the Highest Nature

We are all familiar with asking a friend to “save a spot” for us, or requesting someone to “hold a space” for us. But what about holding interpersonal, emotional spaces and spots for others?

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 (Sunrise March 26, 2015)

I recently read a wonderful article on the Courage and Renewal Facebook page that begins with thoughts on palliative care and the idea of “holding space” for someone. It then moves on to the idea of holding space in our lives, our being, for anyone. (The link will be at the end of this piece.)

Holding space for someone.

“Holding Space” means holding space in your being, your life, your heart, where someone else can enter and be safe, free of judgment and hurry. It means allowing there to be space for someone else to feel and be vulnerable. A space for them to process whatever needs to be processed: grief, sorrow, anger, fear.  Anything that may cause someone to feel broken, tender, raw.

Why? Because we are all fragile. Flawed. We all feel frightened, saddened, embarrassed. Maybe even shamed.

James Tolles breaks down the art of holding space into four key components: “Letting go of judgement, Opening your heart, Allowing another to have whatever experience they’re having, and Giving your complete undivided attention to the situation/other person.”

Letting go of judgement: no thought of what the other person should have or should not have done. No thought of right or wrong.

Open your heart: just open it up. Let the other person in. Let them know you’ve let them in. Care enough to be present to them.

“However we do it,
when we hold space for someone in need,
we are offering a gift of the highest nature.”
Daily Om

Allowing the other person to have their own experience: It’s not about you. Put your ego in the closet. Just listen to their story and let it be theirs alone. It is not about you.

Giving your complete, undivided attention to the other: Don’t take the phone call. Don’t make an excuse to leave. Be there.

Why? Because we have the ability for compassion and empathy. We have the capacity to want to make  things better for others. Because we can make a difference in the life of someone else. It is our humanness.

Of course our first responsibility is to hold space for ourselves. We have to cradle and nurture our own being.

And then, we open our hearts and create space for those who come into our lives. A place for them to know that here they will always find a little space, protected and respected, to mend and rest. A place to pick up pieces from whatever has broken: a heart, a life, a dream, a boundary, faith, hope, belief, purpose, will, security……

I know many people who have experienced and suffered almost unimaginable things in life. I know many people who have been blessed with a good life and admit to not having experienced too many difficult times. But every person hurts. Every person has doubt. We all feel sorrow, grief, deep joys, love.

Every one of us has had a time, or will have a time when we stumble and fall. Maybe we trip over a shattered dream, or the loss of someone we have loved deeply. Maybe we have experienced betrayal or shaming, abuse or injury. Maybe our life has been rattled to it’s core and all that seemed secure is gone.  Perhaps our whole world has not only been turned upside down but shaken so vigorously we fear we might fall off.

Our common humanity calls us to hold space for others. Our humanness requires us to protect and shield those who are suffering, hurting, lost, afraid.

“May I be the healing medicine for all who are sick.
May I bring healing to myself and others.”
Buddhist Dedication



Hands Unfolded

I heard this wonderful story the other day. A young father talking with his son during a recording for Story Corps.


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The whole story was one of love and hope, with a bit of reality included. One part that was very beautiful was the father sharing a proverb:

“My dream is for you to live out your dreams,” Albert told him.
“There’s an old proverb that talks about when children are born,
children come out with their fists closed because that’s where they keep all their gifts.
And as you grow, your hands learn to unfold,
because you’re learning to release your gifts to the world.
“And so, for the rest of your life,
I wanna see you live with your hands unfolded.’

I love the thought that we are born with gifts. Each and every one of us. We are born with something to give. And as the father so sweetly says to his son, “I wanna see you live with your hands unfolded.” Such a profoundly beautiful wish for a parent to give to their child.

GIVE your gifts away. With open hands. Unclench, unfold your fists and give.

Author Mitch Albom has a slightly different take on the clenched fists. Equally as thought provoking. We are born wanting to grab everything. We believe the whole world is ours. Only near death, or with death, do we understand the true lesson….we can take nothing with us when we die.

“When a baby comes into the world, its hands are clenched, right?
Like this?” He made a fist. “Why?
Because a baby not knowing any better, wants to grab everything,
to say the whole world is mine.
But when an old person dies, how does he do so? With his hands open.
Why? Because he has learned his lesson.”
“What lesson?” I asked.
He stretched open his empty fingers. “We can take nothing with us.”
― Mitch Albom, Have a Little Faith: a True Story

Personally I would rather work on unclenching my fists now to release my gifts to the world and others . While I don’t always have a clear picture of what my gifts are…sometimes I am not sure I have much really to offer, I try to be a kind person, a compassionate person. I’d like to think that in offering kindness and compassion to others that I somehow give them something of meaning.

Lloyd Alexander offers,

“We hold each other’s lives in our open hands, not in clenched fists.”

We can’t physically hold anything in a clenched fist. Not a child or loved one, a flower or even food or glass of water. We are unable to receive with a clenched fist. Spiritually and emotionally we can’t hold the gift of love, or joy, or healing, or comfort or compassion with a clenched fist in our heart and mind. We are connected each one of us, to the other. We do hold the lives of others in our hands.

Elie Wiesel reminds us,

“Life is not a fist.
Life is an open hand
waiting for some other hand
To enter it.”

Our hands are made beautifully for holding another hand. For  sharing ourselves, life, love, joy and pain with another. We cannot do that with a clenched fist. Our hand has to be open to receive. To give. To do both.

There is so much pain and suffering in the world. (Yes, I know, there is good too.) Perhaps we should all look at our own hands and think on these things. Are we gripping tightly to what is “ours”? Will we only be able to open our hands at the time of death because of the realization we cannot “take it with us.”?

Or do we learn to perhaps slowly, unfold our fists to open our hands in order to share our gifts with others? One seems lonely and sad. One seems softer and full of hope and promise.

Unfolding our hands, opening them to the gesture of giving and receiving these gifts is a choice. We can “protect”, “preserve”, “save”, “conserve” our gifts, only to discover that at the end of our life they have little meaning  because we cannot take them with us. Or, we can bring increase and partnership to each other and be supported and uplifted by the offering and acceptance of each other’s gifts.

I feel I already have unfolded my fists and opened my hands to others in my life. It is an act of trust and love and hope. I offer unconditional love, acceptance, tolerance, support and compassion. I receive their gifts with humility and constant presence and awareness, trying never to take for granted what they extend to me…a part of themselves.

I will continue to keep my hands open and unfolded to release whatever love, empathy, compassion, and support to and for others that I can. Perhaps along the way I will also be offered the hand of another to join me on this journey of unfolding and sharing, of offering and receiving.

Light As A Feather

Most of us are familiar with the expression “Light as a feather.” or “Light at heart.” We understand it to mean we aren’t worried about much, are happy and easy going. Nothing weighs us down.

This week at school a little girl said something that got me thinking. At a group time we were taking turns going around sharing answers to the question, “If you could explore anywhere or anything, what would you want to explore?” One little friend offered that he would like to explore Mars because it is dark there and he is not afraid of the dark. One child wanted to explore a tooth. Underwater exploration was popular. Soil and trees were also of interest. Then one little girl raised her hand and announced “I would like to explore love. I’ll have to cut a hole here (over her heart) to get to my heart.” A kerfuffle arose over the fact that cutting a hole in her body was not a good idea. Reminders were made that this was just “pretend”, anything is possible in our imaginations, and the discussion continued.

So, here’s what got me thinking. What is love? Where, if anywhere, does it “reside”, and why is the heart most often considered the dwelling place of love?

walnut heart

I’ve always been interested in the mythology of religions. Religion fascinates me because it offers a lens to look through to understand our history, ancient thought and it’s relationship to current thought and life practices. It helps us understand what mystifies us, what instills fear, as well as hope and compassion in us. It sheds light on our ideas of good and bad. It defines our sense of morality.

Many years ago I became interested in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, also referred to as the Book of Coming Forth By Day.  In ancient Egypt, the Afterlife was of great importance, and one had to be certain that steps were followed in life and after death to ensure a peaceful Afterlife. The Egyptian Book of the Dead contained the beliefs and dogma of ancient Egyptian religion in relation to death and Afterlife. The instructions were intended to guide the spirit through the various trials that would be encountered before being allowed to continue on to the Afterlife. Having the correct knowledge of, and being prepared with the appropriate spells and answers was considered essential to achieving entrance to the Afterlife.

Upon death, the soul of the person would travel to the underworld to begin the journey to the Afterlife. One of the most important parts of the journey was the weighing of the heart on the Scales of Maat. (Maat is the goddess associated with cosmic order, justice, wisdom, law, truth, balance, harmony and morality. Maat keeps the stars in movement, changes the seasons and  maintains order in Heaven and and on Earth.)  Here the person’s heart was weighed against the feather of Maat. The heart represented the person’s conscience; the feather represented Truth,  Justice,  Morality and Balance. If the scales balanced, the soul continued on to the Afterlife and The Fields of Peace.

The ancient Egyptians placed great importance and symbolism on the heart. It represented Life itself. When a person died they believed the heart had left the body. It was so important that it was the only organ allowed to remain in the body for burial.

“Do not diminish the time of following the heart;
it is abhorred of the soul,
that its time be taken away.”
The Instruction of Ptah-hotep

And so, with the ancient Egyptians upon their death….the doings of the heart were looked at and judged by the Gods. The confessions of the soul were a litany of things the person in Life had NOT done…not stolen anything, not lusted after anyone, not hated, not spoken unkindly of anyone, not killed anyone, etc.  The symbolism is that the heart is NOT full of these heavy, burdensome things, but light and free from the weight of transgressions. The heart, although full, is full of light, weightless, good deeds, love and compassion.

“A man’s heart is his own Neter (Afterlife).”
Egyptian proverb

Another religion, Sufism, also places great value on the doings of the heart. Sufism is regarded as the Path of Love. The Sufi is always traveling the way of Love. Always circling back to God through Love. The journey takes place in the heart.  It takes place by looking inward.

“You have within you more love than you could ever understand.”

My little friend wants to explore love. Shouldn’t we all? Doesn’t it make sense, now and then, to imagine our hearts being weighed on the Scales of Maat? To see if the scales are in balance? To see if our hearts are heavy and weighted down with anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, or feather light? To check our actions towards others. To pause and journey inward as the Sufi’s do, to the Heart?

Why does love dwell in the heart? Because the heart is what gives us Life. It is the home of compassion, concern, empathy, caring, reaching out and nurturing. As such, we choose the path for the heart to travel. What’s your path? Where is your journey taking you? Is your heart heavy or light as a feather?

“You are love. You come from Love. You are made by Love. You cannot cease to Love.”

The heart, where Love resides. If you traveled inward to your heart to find love and explore it, what would you find? My little friend, I am sure, is going to have a wonderful journey. The “simple” choice to wonder about Love is a place of curiosity children naturally come from. It’s pure. Full of goodness. The ways of the Heart matter. Even the children know this.

Through The Eye of Someone Else

“Sometimes the easiest way to appreciate ourselves
is by looking through the eye of someone who loves us.”
~Tara Brach

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(Feb. 28, 2015)

I carry a fair share of self doubt and lack of confidence around. I am prone to feeling I could have/should have done more. I trip over thoughts about whether I am smart enough, creative enough. We all have thoughts of self doubt and experience lack of confidence.

During the past few years I’ve been working on listening to others…hearing them and the words they speak. I try not to interrupt or interject my thoughts and perspectives. I try to listen through their experiences not through mine.

Curiously, there have been a handful of times when the words I heard opened my own heart and gifted me an unexpected blessing: to be able to appreciate myself by looking through the eye of someone who loves me.

The experiences were humbling. The insight made me feel foolish for wallowing in self doubt and holding tight to the lack of confidence.

When those pesky thoughts of doubt and uncertainty creep into my thoughts I take that little, tiny moment, like the pause between a breath, and recall those life stirring words. I am uplifted.

The words that provided this new lens to look through, to see how others saw and felt about me were not grandiose, ego inflating words of praise. They were the words my daughter shared about when she  had her own moment of insight into her love for us, her parents. They were the words of my son who thanked us for being who we are and raising him as we did. They were the words of a niece who commented that I seemed so comfortable with who I was. They were the words of a young parent who was grateful for my stories of parenting. They were the words of a friend who thanked me for friendship. Words and thoughts that could have fallen victim to the spell of doubt and lack of self esteem if I had not had the courage to listen to the spoken words and hear them. To hear them as the individual’s personal truth that could not be subjected to my self doubt. I am guilty of sometimes feeling my love is not strong enough, that my choices may be flawed, that my perspectives may be unbalanced, that my caring for a friend may not be strong enough. Self doubt at full strength.

Listen to and hear the words offered to you that unlock the lens to see through the eye of one who loves you. Understand that you are of importance to others and take a breath in and allow yourself to appreciate you for the person you are. The real person you are. Unadorned, imperfect, growing, fallible, honest, truthful, rough around the edges, caring. It matters. Those may be the qualities that matter most to those who love you. They may be part of your secret beauty.

“When we see the secret beauty of anyone,
including ourselves, we see past our judgment and fear
into the core of who we truly are –
not an entrapped self but the radiance of goodness.”
~ Tara Brach


Every Single Day

This is a different kind of a post. It’s about something I think about every single day. Forty or so years ago I traveled to India. I was in my teens. The experience was so profound, I am still processing it all these many decades later.

I was having a bit of a difficult time finishing the post I had planned for today, when I stumbled on this picture from that trip long ago.

bathing ganges1

For me this is a significant picture…it brings back sights, sounds, smells, tactile memories, tastes.

When I was 15 I traveled to India with my father and a group of college religion majors. I read the same books they did for preparation. I talked to others who had recently been to India. I understand now there was probably a little concern about my reaction to India and precautions were being taken. I had to have several vaccinations, one or two of which made me very sick. I had a friend at the time from Poland and she would come over with herbs and teas her mother had put together to help my body’s response to the vaccines. I remember they tasted horrible.

So, now I was all prepared. Informed and vaccinated.

We landed in Calcutta, or Kolkata, on the eastern side of India. Today the web site Lonely Planet describes Kolkata as “India’s second-biggest city is a daily festival of human existence, simultaneously noble and squalid, cultured and desperate. By its old spelling, Calcutta conjures up images of human suffering to most Westerners. But locally, Kolkata is regarded as India’s intellectual and cultural capital. While poverty is certainly in your face, the dapper Bengali gentry continues to frequent grand old gentlemen’s clubs, back horses at the Calcutta Racetrack and tee off at some of India’s finest golf courses.”

When the airplane door opened the smell of dung fires from the slums slowly wafted through the plane, I looked at my father and said, “I am not getting off the plane.” Welcome to India.

Obviously, I did get off the plane, and the experience of India changed my life in a subtle way that remains beautiful and hauntingly influential, every single day.

Why was it transformative? What did it activate in me? Now, as an adult, with much more life experience behind me, and many decade of processing, this is what I have come up with.

India literally threw Life and Death at me. Things a 15 year old from the middle of New York state doesn’t really think much about. So much in our life depends on what seems to be “chance” (you can call it Divine Will, God’s plan, the cycle of re-birth)….the time in history when we are born, the place we are born, the social status we are born into, the state of political thought and maturity of our birth country and world, the religious and social culture and climate of our birth country and world, etc. It does matter. While individual choice and determination can allow a person to climb up and out of a particular situation, it is also possible for a person to be sucked in and pulled down. Some life circumstances are beyond a person’s control.

I have realized over the years that my experiences in India shed light on many things I couldn’t have understood at the time.  These include the ideas of privilege, poverty, suffering, starvation, caste/class, prejudice, fear, tolerance, death, faith and the sacred. Although I intellectually and emotionally could not possibly have processed these concepts 40 years ago, they are what I experienced and witnessed. The processing continues every day.

India changed me. Even at 15, without being able to put into words the meaning of the sensory, intellectual and emotional experiences, I soaked them up like a dry sponge and they changed the blueprint of my being. I was porous. As my being absorbed these experiences, it swelled from the collision with India. Memories were made that were filled with thoughts and ideas, visions and sounds, smells and sensations, realities and rawness that could never be wrung out of me. India melted into me.

The picture above is in Varanasi, on the Ganges River. Varanasi is about  460 miles north and west of Kolkata. What you cannot see in the photograph are the funeral pyres. Some just being constructed, some already in flames. What you can’t see are the bodies being borne to the pyres. What you cannot see are the Sadhus, the ascetic, holy men of India. What you can’t see are the colors…like an artist’s palette on steroids. What you can’t see are the tears. Tears of relief and hope, faith and peace, calm and healing. What you can’t hear is the cadence of the chanting and praying. You could feel it pulse in your heart. What you can’t smell are the burning pyres and flesh. You can’t smell the pungent, brightly colored flowers, or the scent of humanity. When you licked your lips along the Ganges there was a taste, something indescribable that caught you a little off guard. Your skin was dusted in fine, powder-like flakes of life and death that mingled with your sweat.

Dead or alive, these people made it to the shore of the Ganges River. Making the pilgrimage to the Ganges is a life goal for most Hindus. It is a sacred place. The water transforms and heals.  The Hindus believe that if a “deceased’s ashes are laid in the Ganges at Varanasi, their soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth. In a culture that believes in reincarnation, this concept called moksha is profound. The holier the place, the better the chances you achieve moksha and avoid returning to Earth as a cow or a cricket in your next life.” (http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/07/the-pyres-of-varanasi-breaking-the-cycle-of-death-and-rebirth/)

Each person in this picture is swept up in a holiness and passion that is hard to imagine and stunning to witness. There is no doubt in any one of these hearts that they are experiencing the sacred. Rich or poor, Brahmin or untouchable, being on the shores of the Ganges River, dead or alive, is what mattered.

Today, I see what I saw in those faces on the steps of the Ganges River, in the face of every person I greet. I see that they have beauty and worth. I see that they are bound by some things that are unchangeable. I see that they have hopes and fears. I see that they have dreams, convictions and determination. I see that they love and are loved. I see that they suffer and hurt. I see they have joy and happiness in their lives. I see their humanity and their mortality. And I understand I share all of these things with them.

“Who sees all beings in his own self,
and his own self in all beings, loses all fear.”

~Isa Upanishad, Hindu Scripture

When I look at this picture I see something that is beautiful and powerful, raw and indisputable. I am very grateful to have had the “privilege” of colliding with India and being forever changed by her.