Courting the Caves: Honest Self-examination Isn’t Afraid of the Dark

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“Pain, instead of being something to avoid,
can actually bring us closer to the truth.”

― Pema Chodron

Courting the caves.   I first coined that term, and reference it repeatedly now in my life, when I was writing my grief memoir about the days surrounding my mother’s death. The first of my referring to the term is in Chapter One of this book that I have yet to publish:

I write and chronicle and document and work out knots, and have done this for as long as I can remember, tapping the unconscious well, going to that place where cave spiders dwell, taking darkness on. Even as a child I was the one who befriended monsters and made them my allies. In adulthood it’s been a little trickier to spot the shadowy demons, but once spotted I am never afraid of foraging through the tangled, weedy backwoods, of courting the caves, of sticking a finger in their horrific faces and starting a fight. I’m afraid of everything else in the world, but not that. I’m a true believer that the way out of the hole and into a peace of spirit is with a good, bloody brawl.

It seems I’ve spent my life soul-searching and self-examining. I’m an overly-analytical person anyway. I’ve been told that before, and I do know it to be true. Just the other day I ran across a note I’d written to myself  (rather than the traditional journal volumes many keep and amass over years’ time, I just amass little post-its all over the place with thoughts I don’t want to lose). This one read:

You don’t need to know why. Stop needing to define this feeling. Stop talking it to death. Stop thinking it to death. Stop decoding. Just have the feeling, without needing to intellectualize it, or understand it. It doesn’t need to be shushed away. Allow it. You don’t need to be talked down from it. Go through it. It exists for a reason. Listen. Your body is a pristine barometer for what’s happening in your world. Honor that knot in the gut. That racing heart of foreboding. It has something to tell you. Don’t quarantine it is some kind of bubble that can’t allow you to feel unless that feeling is a happy one. That is a dangerous aspect of the Positive Principle movement, a movement that is an inherently good concept while having its kinks, such as the practice of a denial of feelings that are actually valid and whole, in order to wear an inauthentic mask of  IT’S ALL GOOD. Sometimes it’s not all good. That’s OK.”

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a post-it. But do you see what I did here? I was trying to talk myself out of overthinking something, only to evolve the thought into something quite overthinking. I can’t help my brain. And the truth is, while that trait can sometimes burden me and others, it has also been a gift, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the person I am because of that self-understanding seeker’s road.

I’ve read all the books. Everyone from Deepak Chopra to Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve jumped on that bandwagon of trying to be a more evolved version of myself, of trying to reach some kind of higher consciousness, of trying to heal old “pain bodies, ” as my good friend Eckhart says.  Yeah, no, Eckhart Tolle isn’t actually my friend. But you had to know that he would be one of the many I’ve read on this trek, and he feels like an old friend. I have a dear sister-girl who shares this path with me, more or less, and we’re both constantly asking each other, “what would Eckhart do?”  We say it with tongue in cheek, and are usually following it up with laughter over some crazy thing one or the other of us has done. But it actually does help ground us. Just to be able to step back for a minute and re-frame. It always manages to bring us back from the crazy brink.

I wrote a little credo years ago, and it has been my email sign-off ever since:

  1. Create  ― even if you’re not an artist
  2. Support artists ― especially the independents
  3. Live well ― doesn’t take money to do it
  4. And be whole

This is my most heart-centered request of mankind, beyond the obvious one of do no harm, and it has everything to do with self-nurture, which means it’s really a request of myself. Lately, I’ve had to really think about what #3 means.  What does it mean to live well? I don’t mean to live affluently. Pretend money and status don’t exist.  Then ask yourself if you are living well.

Without giving it too much thought (yeah, nice try Angela), my instinctive answer to what living well means is the ability to be as whole, centered, and conscious as we have the potential for. Living a life in that higher agreement state. If we can make ourselves whole, we can (and do) minister more authentically and more willingly to the global family and to the planet. And that ministers to us. It all rounds back in often inexplicable ways.  Likewise, if we take the steps toward ministering, it can’t help but foster wholeness. But what does wholeness mean? Everyone has a story, a history. Some call it baggage. It shapes us. And it is most beneficial to us (yes, baggage can be beneficial) when we are able to face it, identify it, HEAR what it has to tell us, and then take the steps toward transcending it. Then we stand a chance of getting whole, and getting happy. That’s what it means to live well.

The “hear what it has to tell us” part is where I do my best to live when it comes to my spiritual journey. And one of my self-discovery practices (of the many I have) is one I find too scrumptious not to share here.  It’s called SoulCollage®, and it’s the brainchild of the late artist and psychologist Seena B. Frost, who developed this incredible practice as a way for the artistic and therapeutic layman to participate hands-on in his/her own self-discovery, and to create beautiful works of art in the process.

SoulCollage is, quite simply, the making of collage art. Beyond that basic modality of creating something artful, however, is a therapeutic process that taps into the subconscious with its vivid mood and collision of imagery, and cultivates the powers of the intuitive.  Through the seemingly unrelated images of a collage work, much can be revealed about the deepest parts of who we authentically are.  You need not be an artist of any experience.  You need only be hungry for an extraordinary journey of self-excavation and growth.

I became a student of SoulCollage through one of its facilitators in Los Angeles, folk artist and radiant spirit MARGO GRAVELLE. For many years now I have met with a group of like-minded seekers to make collages toward the purpose of the ongoing creation of a “deck” that might be likened to a Tarot deck, the result of which reflects and represents the varied and many aspects of each person’s emotional and psychological pantheon of characters (called “the committee”), as well as a discovery and identification of archetypes, which dips a bit into the work of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Carolyn Myss, etc.

My own experience with SoulCollage has been a deeply sacred and life-changing one for me. I have sought many healing modalities, including cognitive therapy and grief counseling, and have never felt more clear about who I am (the good, the bad, the ugly, the brilliant) through any means more potent than through this extraordinary, and completely non-judgmental practice. And often, it is the shadow images in the collages that give us our greatest dawning and light.

“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”
― Joseph Campbell

This post isn’t about selling SoulCollage on you (I’ve got no investment other than the personal healing in it), but if you’re interested in finding out more, please visit Seena’s site: SOUL COLLAGE.   If nothing more, it’s absolutely fascinating exploration, and may even help you to find a class in your area, which I recommend for anyone on a self-seeking path for transformation.

Why I adore this particular practice so much is because it seems to me that the self-examination movement has taken an odd and, I feel, uncourageous turn. I have spoken of this in past blog posts, but here is where I’ll try to elaborate. There is a trend, a force, a movement, within the self-help world that abhors conflict, that does everything in its power to manifest a rosier view of life, without the planting of the groundwork first, without a visit to the caves, and to encourage the practice of denial in its followers. Conflict is an interesting word to me, because I want nothing more in my life than to live with some measure of peace of spirit, and it’s what I strive for every day, yet as a writer what I know for sure is that conflict is everything. There is no story without conflict. A story without conflict is just an ad. Exploration of the human condition, and that means conflict, is what any story should be.  Sometimes that conflict is resolved in the story, but the more interesting ones really just pose questions that make us think, that give us varying perspectives, and that expand the palate of our understanding of the human race.  That’s what the best writers do.

So, here’s the thing.  Because I am a writer, and have a pretty specific opinion of what a writer should do, I tend to approach my own personal journey in the same way as I do my writing.  By courting conflict.  Not as a way to wallow, which brings to mind the Native American parable:

A grandfather says, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful, angry one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.” When asked which wolf will win the fight in his heart, the old man replies, “The one I feed.”   

It’s a wise parable. There is a danger to the spirit that wallows, because it is kept broken, and then we find ourselves just perpetually running with stuff, and letting it be the loop we’re in.

What I’m referring to is the wisdom in courting conflict as a means of transcending it, not denying it, but of being willing to face it, challenge it, figure out what it’s feeding to make it stick around. That one lodged in my head, like a mighty slap, from the Tony Robbins retreat I attended a couple of years ago.

Carl Jung from The Philosophical Tree says: “Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

And so I go back to the idea of our baggage being beneficial. It will always teach us something we need to learn. But only if we are willing to identify and face it.  That’s where we stand the chance of transcending it.  There isn’t a breakthrough in existence that wasn’t accompanied by some pain, but what comes out on the other side, always, is freedom. A freedom worth cultivating and renewing and re-strengthening every single day (I just quoted myself, again, this time from an earlier blog post).

Lately, I see a lot of seminars and courses on “healing yourself with….” fill in the blank with your preferred motif. And I’ll always look into them, because I’m always on a path.  What I find in far too many, however, is a process of uncovering all the ills in your past that anyone else has ever inflicted on you, so that the blame can begin. The last part of that phrase is mine, and IS being judgmental, admittedly, because I do believe that’s what the bottom line of these modalities tends to be. Looking under everyone else’s hood except your own to find the culprit of your suffering and damage.

I’m not saying it’s illegitimate to identify an external source of harm to you. It’s important to do so. But it is only a part of the process. The pretty crucial other part is the courage it takes to identify our own complicity in our internal disrepair.  Not to mention the harm we cause others.  And we have all caused someone harm.

I have a friend, Frank Ferrante, who was recently the subject of a documentary called May I Be Frank. And there is a moment in the film, during his own battles with self, and ultimate transformation, when he recalls punching his younger brother badly in the ribs as a young boy.  And he never even put it together that a constant and chronic pain in his own rib area, that he had been living with for years, might’ve actually been a manifestation of his guilt over that act.  I do believe we carry our transgressions against others in our bodies as pain, sometimes even literal and physical.  So when that moment of revelation happens for Frank in the movie, the first time I saw it I almost crumbled, myself, because I fundamentally understand and believe in the power of that kind of purgation. Going through the process is so ultimately purifying, even if painful, that it can’t help but begin to lift burdens, lighten our existence, and allow the door to be opened to a genuine peace of spirit and to happiness.

Frank was so brave to have walked the path illustrated in the documentary.  And because of his bravery, he has experienced a jaw-dropping transformation of body and soul.  It ain’t for sissies, this self-exploration stuff.  But I believe in its absolute cruciality, toward the purpose of delivering oneself out of suffering and into a place of compassion, empathy, and peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In 2017, I…

In 2017 I... Blog Banner

In 2017, I…

Lost my father.

Lost my brother, too, in a manner of speaking.

Found my voice as a poet.

Found my brother.

Endured whiplash, of both the physical and the emotional brand.

Found a spiritual home for myself, for the first time ever.

Got spooked by the nature trail that had given me life.

Fostered anxiety.

Thought about my father.

Read some of the most amazing books of fiction, memoir, and poetry that I’ve ever read.

Lost my feline girl (though technically it was at the end of 2016, but it was THE moment that launched this longest year).

Blocked out the White Noise of the White House.

Watched my city burn, and a few others nearly drown, while feeling the haunting wail of a planet in trouble.

Witnessed the unfettered power of #metoo, and the spiritual vacuum cleaner that got unleashed.

Lost my brother again.

Bonded with family in an unprecedented and crucial way.

Found baby bro yet again.

Learned to love and let go in equal measure.

Re-learned it every single day.

Experienced pain and beauty in fairly even amounts.

Thought about my father.

Wrote about my father.

Conquered my fear of the nature trail (had to do with a bobcat sighting), and drew her into my bosom again, after nearly a year without her.

Lost more and more people, in too heartbreaking a number.

Had a talk with Death.  It was a come-to-Jesus moment, with a few side-eyes between us.

Got back to yoga (how I missed you, old friend).

Did Goat yoga!  (seriously, Google it)

Wrote my 1st short story.

Wrote my 118th short story…and 30 poems.

Deemed myself officially (if it’s not obvious by now) addicted, fixated, obsessed with words; an addiction from which I hope to never recover.

Submitted pieces like a mo-fo.

Got rejected.

Got rejected.

Got rejected.

Never wavered.  I am a poet.  A wordsmith.  Begone now, before someone drops a house on you!

Had/did/received loads of healing, of both the spiritual and the biological kind.

Grew more thankful, and more in love with the random nature of life (that helps in the forgiveness department).

Felt my age.

Killed a plant.

Went vegan.

….ish.

Made a movie with my orchestra (a very sick day, but too much irreverent fun).

Had the exhilarating honor to interview some amazing wellness-seeking human beings for a tiny documentary I made.

Had the exhilarating honor to be interviewed by a couple of amazing young women for a grand and extraordinary documentary that they made, with 2017 being the launching year for screenings all over the world.  #thegoddessproject

Lived up to my hype.

Didn’t live up to my hype.

Failed my hype miserably.

Decided that hype was not a word worthy of my time.

Talked to my father, my mother, my stepfather, the ancestors, all those who have left this earth but are never far, and who give me living tips daily (sorry, Daddy, that you had to join the League of Gentle Council. Really thought you’d be the one to make it to 100).

Wrote these thoughts to usher out an old, and to usher in a new. To ritualize the idea of rebirth, renewal, and restoration, because I am a New Year’s baby, and so it is in my DNA to ritualize, to chant, to pray, to dance, to give auspiciousness to the concept of new beginnings and rites of passage, to participate in burning bowl rituals, to summon the rains and the gods, to burn sage, to close my eyes, shut off the valve and listen. Listen to the wind in the trees tell me what I need to know next, what I need to do next, how I need to sing next.   And then I sing.

The very last thing I did in 2017 was sing.  As it has been, since forever ago and auld lang syne.  I sang, and sang.

And baby brother is home.  Nestled in all the love his family has to give.  We get to remember my father together.

All of us. Together.

Welcome 2018. Be nice now.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Phone Message 1/1/92.   Hilarious chaos ensues.   But best of all, my father’s voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belligerent Romance : song. heart. bravery.

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“…the only answer is to recklessly discard more armor.”
― Eric Maisel

 

I re-post this every year.  An anniversary of sorts.  So, if you’ve been down this road, please bear with me.  If not, enjoy.

On this morning 8 years ago, I was awakened rudely by construction in the neighborhood. I fought it for a time, but eventually gave in and hastened my exercise gear on. I got myself outside for a good walking meditation, and couldn’t get Hans’ song out of my head.

Angela.

There are actually lots of songs with my name in the title. The music from the television show Taxi is actually called Angela’s Theme. There’s Helen Reddy’s Angie Baby. Of course, the Stones’ iconic Angie. The Bee Gees have a song. Even Motley Crue, stealing lines from Hendrix’s The Wind Cries Mary with their own “when the winds cry Angela” lyric.

It can be heady, this idea of your name inspiring song after song, but then again none of them were written for me. So, how heady can I really get?

Until Hans. I was to be giving him a kidney in just two more days. This anticipated event had dragged out for nine excruciating bureaucratic months. My best friend pointed out the symbolic time frame as indicative of a kind of birth. But now it was finally arriving, and both of us (Hans and I) were bouncing off the walls in our own way. Me, I’d been doing these walking meditations every day for a month solid in preparation. It was equal parts exercise (I really hoofed it) and opportunity to live with my own thoughts before my day officially began with and in the world; to level myself and clear out my brain for the big day. I chanted, I did mantras, I worked out problems, I talked myself down from ledges, I rationalized behavior, I asked for forgiveness, I defended myself in imaginary arguments, and I thanked the Forces That Be for everything.

But on the walk 8 years ago today, all that activity got shoved to the various corners and crannies of my obsessive brain to make room for memories of the night before, going to see Hans play his guitar in a coffee house, and open his set with Angela . . . written for me.

Interestingly enough, almost all of the romantic relationships I’ve ever had have been with musicians and composers, and yet none of them has ever written a song for me. It is either a great poetic juxtaposition, or a really unsettling indication of the impact I have on the people I’m involved with. Of course, I’m also a songwriter, and I’ve never written a song for any one of them either. So, okay, maybe all it indicates is that every one of us is jaded and crusty and we’ve lost all sense of romance and inspiration.

Picasso painted every woman he ever fell for. What has happened to that kind of belligerent romance? The terrible compulsion to celebrate another human being?

So, hearing this song, sung by teenager Hans and his girlfriend and the drummer in his band, was a moment that had left me speechless and tearful. A moment that had made me realize that inspiration and romance do still exist…. they’re just hiding among the young. And if we still want to be touched by it, then the young are who we need to surround ourselves with.

So there I was, walking my regular route in the neighborhood, and trying to chant my daily mantra, which usually began with “Love, reign over me…” (I have tended to find much more prayerful intention in rock songs than I’ve ever found from anything biblical.) “ . . . make me mindful . . . give me grace . . . deliver me from need . . . fill me with wonder . . . ” etc. Sometimes I chanted for winning the lottery, but I do get that that’s not really how it works, and so those requests always came with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But on that morning I didn’t care about money or enlightenment.

On that morning, I was intoxicated by having had a song written for me, for the first time in my life. I felt like Marie-Thérèse, or Anaïs Nin, or Beethoven’s “immortal beloved”; women who have been painted, written about, composed for, dedicated symphonies. I highly recommend it. Being someone’s muse. It’s a high like no other.

As I walked, I completely tuned out the music that was blasting through the iPod buds wedged in my ear. Explanation: It’s easier for me to do my mantras against music; it’s a deliberate sensory overload; somehow things just stick themselves deeper in the subconscious when they’re too overloaded to have surface impact. It didn’t matter that day anyway; I had abandoned my Pete Townsend-inspired mantra and my downloaded pop tunes, to be flooded with Hans’ song. Or rather, the idea of Hans’ song.

A complete stranger who was walking my way held her palm up, and shouted “high five” as we passed each other. I obliged. First time I’d ever been accosted in that way. And I thought of this woman’s completely loopy bravery. Just to infiltrate a perfect stranger’s sphere, for a split second, and engage. What if I had refused her? Treated her the way we treat the bag ladies who pass us by? I wouldn’t be brave enough to throw my loopiness out there in that way; too afraid of rejection, of having someone look at me like I was nuts. And then I thought of the oddly shaped angle that I was practically on the eve of having surgeons cut me open and pull a kidney out of my body, yet here I was assured that I would’ve been too afraid to be silly on the street with a passing stranger. Which one really takes more bravery?

It takes a special kind of bravery to write a song for somebody. It takes letting down one’s cool guard and daring to show a little vulnerability. Letting the world peek into your opened and exposed heart. And most especially, letting the person for whom the song is written peek into your heart, daring to let them know that you feel, and that they have impacted your life enough to inspire public song.

I once had a boyfriend, a brilliant composer, who, with me, was one day listening to a song written by a friend of ours with a woman’s name in the title. He said, “I don’t think I could write a song with some woman’s name in the title.” He said this with a kind of pride in the claim. I felt sad for him. And sad for myself, as well, because I think that claim was my truth too. We’re all just too cool. Vulnerability is not attractive.

Leonard Bernstein’s Maria, from “Westside Story”, a song of truly loopy and delirious love.

Tom Waits’ Martha, an invocation of sweet, melancholy reminiscence.

The Beatles’ Michelle.

Elton John’s Daniel.

Brian’s Song.

Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.

The list goes on, and on, and encouragingly on. Who knows which of these is based on an actual person, or is merely the playground of fiction? And who cares? Either one still requires a level of unadulterated celebration, and a willingness to abandon cool, which makes someone ultra-cool in my book.

Hans is brave. He is brave to be a musician, going out there in the world for the scrutiny of the jaded. He is brave to have withstood years of debilitating dialysis, countless surgeries, stem cell experiments, catheters and fistulas implanted beneath his skin, and finally a transplant. But perhaps the bravest act of all was his daring to expose his great heart in so many ways, only one tiny example of which was the writing of a song entitled Angela.

 

(Two days later, on July 22, 2008, I successfully donated my kidney to Hans San Juan, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles, and Hans has been healthy ever since.)

 

 

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is a published author, a recipient of the Heritage Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums as a singer/songwriter, and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on INSTAGRAM & YOUTUBE.

An Elm & Houston Revelation

Elm & Houston Epiphany copy

 

Last week, for me, saw four intensive days in seminar with the iconic Tony Robbins and his “Unleash the Power Within” doctrine.  If you’re not familiar, look him up on YouTube. There are hundreds of lectures, TED Talks, etc, on the man.  If you ARE familiar, I’ve found, you’re either behind him with a sense of devotion that just about any other motivational speaker out there would be hard pressed to rival, or you’ve concluded that he’s a modern day Jim Jones. I find almost no one who has a tepid reaction to him.

Yes, I did the firewalk.  No, I was not injured.  Yes, it gave me a high like nothing else, for what it was designed to symbolize; the power to accomplish anything, even the seemingly impossible, a subject-matter I am painfully intimate with.  I had a personal stake in doing this.  And it delivered.

And finally, yes, we’re talking about the same UPWDallas2016 that blitzkrieged the news on the firewalk night. “Hundreds burned in failed Tony Robbins Firewalk!” As someone who was there, I can vouch for the real thing being nowhere near as dramatic or perilous as the coverage made it out to be, because, of course, “if it bleeds it leads.”

Dallas is a city I’ve barely been to, in all of my many trips to Texas.  It’s usually been a case of flying in or out of DFW and picking up connections to other destinations.  So in preparing to come to this city for the Robbins conference, on my menu of intentions was to visit Dealey Plaza, the site of the assassination of JFK. I really have a thing for visiting these kinds of historical landmarks, and this one especially has been on my list to visit, because our nation changed radically after (perhaps even as a result of) the assassination that day in 1963.

We only had the last day in town, after the seminar was over, to check it out thoroughly, though we did actually run across it by accident on the first night of the seminar.  The friend I was traveling with, and I, had decided to walk a few blocks away from the Convention Center to get our Uber, since eight thousand other people were all trying to get back to their hotels too. And at a certain point, a few blocks into our midnight walk (the night of the firewalk, so we were already on a kind of high), my friend suddenly stopped in his tracks, looked around, as if he was lost, and then said “I think this is it.” “What?” “Yeah,” he continued, ignoring me. He then proceeded to stroll across a grassy knoll (I’m still not catching on), and pointed to an X in the street. “This is where Kennedy was shot.”

It was a quiet night.  Clear sky.  Bright moon.  I was already open-veined and euphoric, because I’d walked on hot coals tonight, baby!  And I had not burned my feet, because I had applied the fierce focus and intention taught us earlier that evening.  And it was not a parlor trick; the coals were freaking hot.  And so, when everything finally came into dawning for me, and I saw the corner street signs of Houston and Elm, and the picket fence where the fourth bullet had allegedly come from, and the building formerly known as the Texas Book Depository, I stood there, having just experienced something rather larger-than-life, and cried a little, just to myself, at this other larger-than-life historical ground zero.  It was an eerie and haunting thing to stumble upon by accident at midnight.  We spent a bit of time there, as one does, then called for our Uber.  And then proceeded to end every night of the conference with the same agenda.

So, by the time we got to our last day in town, and had the seminar firmly behind us, and had a cousin of mine who lives in town escorting us for the day, to go experience this thing in the daylight, do the museum, and be official tourists, we had already experienced it the way everyone should, I’ve now concluded.  The midnight visit had been a sacred, internal moment that had allowed me to feel that bit of history in an intimate and private way, and to have an emotional reaction to it.  In the light of day, it was an entirely different experience.  All the opportunists were out in droves, selling their bogus copies of “the actual newspaper headline from The Dallas Morning News!” and their angle on what really happened that day.  Every wild theory was flying out of the mouths of the carnival barkers, creating a cacophony of chatter that was almost musical.

And then a most interesting thing happened.  One such barker that I was standing near, and trying to listen to, as he explained to a huddle of tourists about the fatal shot, couldn’t’ve been more than 50 years old, and yet was saying things like, “and that’s when we all hit the deck, and then ran across here behind the picket fence…”  He then pointed to a blurred figure, in a crowd of other blurred figures, in an old, dog-eared photograph he was holding, with the doomed presidential motorcade in the foreground, and said, “that’s me.”  Even though blurred, the figure he was pointing to was clearly an adult, someone who was not an infant, which, at a stretch, is the only way this guy could’ve potentially been present at this 53-year-old moment in history.  So yeah, we were dealing with crazy, I concluded, and he officially lost my interest in listening any longer.

From a distance, however, I continued to stare at him do his thing.  I sort of couldn’t take my eyes away, because I was suddenly reminded of the most profound thing that I had learned from Tony Robbins during his game-changing seminar intensive.  That all of our problems, struggles, dysfunctions, etc., exist and linger because they serve a need.  And as long as they continue to provide a benefit, they will not be repaired.  There is something that they fulfill.  I remembered that one stopping me dead in my tracks on, I want to say, Day 2 of this thing.  And so, as I stared at this man, who was more likely mentally ill than a simple con man, I was suddenly softened from the earlier eye-rolling, head-shaking, dismissive stance I’d taken against him, and wondered what need his story was fulfilling for him.  A sense of significance in a world that had rendered him insignificant?  Combating a crippling loneliness by surrounding himself with people who could potentially find awe in his story, and him?  Whatever the benefit was, it certainly wasn’t a financial one, since everyone around him had him nailed, and no one was buying his story, or his wares.  Yet they were continuing to hang on his every word, because crazy is entertaining.  And it was at that moment that I realized I would probably never look at any other situation again, neither another’s nor my own, without asking that question:  What need does this serve?

That changes the whole playing field, doesn’t it?

There is a plethora, a right worthy grocery list, to be honest, of struggles and hiccups that my own personal growth seems to be bombarded with these days.  Much of which I’ve chalked up to a case of what I do, or don’t, deserve.  Or I chalk up a certain behavior, which is nonetheless frustrating for me, to being a hardwiring.

For example, one sentence I’ve claimed for years as part of my story: I’ve spent my life not being picked.  Or at least believing, always, in that outcome (which pretty much means it’s guaranteed).  Case in point:  My boyfriend in 8th grade literally moved on from me to someone else without a word my way.  How I found out was when his “new thing” and I were racing against each other in a track meet.  The girl had actually been my friend, and the boyfriend and I had not had a single conflict, so while I get kids just moving on from each other thoughtlessly, I never understood the venal nature of the moment.  He stood at the starting line where she and I were poised to run the 50-yard dash, and he muttered, but for everyone to hear, “Beat her, Albertine!  Beat her good!” Albertine didn’t win that race that day.  I did.  But it gave me no pleasure in the victory, because I was also the one beaten.  I didn’t understand my breed, and I didn’t get what I had done so heinous to have deserved such malevolence.  Today I can see clearly how that one incident has been so indelibly stamped on me that I have always tended to enter into an agreement with isolation and outsidership.

I’ve just thought of it as a hardwiring, a simple case of, “This is who I am. I don’t fit into circles and clubs.” But here’s the danger in that; chalking anything up to a hardwiring presupposes that there’s nothing that can be done about it.  It takes the power (if it’s a plight we’re actually interested in fixing) right out of our hands.

And if I have taken nothing else away from this seminar, I have taken with me a new understanding that any emotional baggage we have only sticks around, and is given momentum, because there is a need it serves.  That one just blew my head right open.  Done.  Brains on the dashboard.  Blood and guts everywhere.  Absolutely nothing I’ve ever learned in my years’ long pursuit of self-examination has made more sense than that.

And so, rather than tossing off my penchants for outsidership, for example, as a hardwiring I can do nothing about, I need to figure out what the role of outsider in my life has been serving all this time.

One thing I know for sure is that it’s been a bit of a badge of honor.  I do love my solitude, and marching to my own drummer, and I have a natural penchant toward inward-turning and contemplation.  So, what it’s feeding is pretty obvious.  But it’s also a dubious badge, as there is always an overtone of loneliness and missed opportunity that is a part of the outsider landscape.  So, maybe it also feeds a kind of “poor me” comfort?  I’m not sure yet, but there is so much to play with here.  So much to discover, to answer for myself, so many lids to pry open, so that maybe I actually stand a chance of delivering myself from some of these frustrations, and finally give myself the permission to pursue just exactly what I want in this life.

As for Crazy Grassy Knoll Man, he will likely remain who he is, though we never know who or what comes along to change our state, and our stake.  But my attitude toward him (once I got past the stun of him cursing me out for not buying any of his wares) became more compassionate and empathetic to the battles that must be his, the battles we all experience to varying degrees of crazy.  And to know that there is an answer, somewhere, somehow, for every one of us.  I just want to be that little sprite whispering into Crazy Grassy Knoll Man’s ear, “I see you.  You are seen.”

This was merely one of fifty hours worth of ideas that were drilled into our heads by Tony Robbins during his four days of exhaustive saturation.  I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface on what this seminar did for me.  And honestly, I’m not sure I’m meant to share any more of the experience than this one example, because it was such a deeply intimate odyssey for me, one of identifying belief systems, and transforming them.  It was so intimate, in fact, that when my friend and I couldn’t get a seat together on Day One, we ended up not doing any part of the seminar together, as it was nice not having to be self-conscious around each other.  And that was easy enough to accomplish, in a sea of eight thousand people.  We just met up on dinner breaks and when it was over each day.  We didn’t even witness each others’ firewalk.  Instead, upon completion of the walk, I cheered for my triumph with the people around me, who were all doing the same, a communal pep rally.  New bonds got formed.  In fact, my firewalk partner and I decided to remain friends.  The experience was intimate and expansive at the same time.

I’ve been changed by this four-day event, that’s for sure. To what degree will be discovered in the days to come, as I venture forth to apply these tools and get out of my own way.  But I don’t think I truly got hit with that feeling of difference until my revelatory moment on the corner of Elm Street and Houston, the same corner that was John F. Kennedy’s last.  A setting ripe with ghosts and guile.  And maybe even a little grace.

 

 

Dedicated to my dear friend Ross Wright,
who gave me the gift of this experience,
went through it with me,
and who roots for me always.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is a published author, a recipient of the Heritage Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums as a singer/songwriter, and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on INSTAGRAM & YOUTUBE.

THE REAL : Radical Self-Care or Tyrannical Task-Mastering?

Peekaboo shot

 

We all want the same things.  Happiness.  Love.  Health.  Me, I’m a fine-tuner, a tweaker.  I once read a birthday book that described January 1 people as chronic self-improvers.  It’s the word chronic that has me suspecting that the inference might not have been positive.  Whichever position the book was taking on it, it did nail me. That is my nature in a nutshell. When the lug nuts are loose, on my life, my soul, my character, I tighten them. The thing is, the little suckers do get loose again; that’s just the normal wear and tear of living. I can either keep my tools at the ready in order to re-tighten and keep going, or I can beat myself up for not doing the job right in the first place. Even though the definition of doing the job right – when regards a lug nut – does not guarantee that it’ll never have to be tightened again.  In fact, the only thing that is guaranteed is that it will.  And yet that is where I get seriously tripped up.

Let’s take today.  My first completely non-agenda day in more than a week.  Very stressful week prior, and I’ve been looking forward to this day, all week long, of powering-down and blissfully thinking of nothing.  I’ll just give a few bullet points on how this “day off” unfolded.

I wake up this morning – no alarm clock – and instantly, instinctively, ritualistically, catch my naked form in the mirrored closet door that spans the wall’s entire length and width.  Judgment.  Instant.  Merciless.  Am I bigger than yesterday?  Smaller?  I do this assessment every single morning, because I’m perpetually trying to lose weight.  It’s so routine, in fact, that I’m not even shattered by it anymore.  What I am, though, is unhappy.  I will at least give myself this much credit; I no longer talk disgustedly about my weight gain.  These days, when I do speak of my desire or my efforts to lose weight, it is with a conscious gentleness.  I just can’t be the one who starts a frenzy of self-loathing among my women friends of a similar age, most of whom are trying to lose their middle-aged weight too.  I’ve seen it happen, and have even been the instigator of that soul-crushing domino effect of “my disgusting arms, my disgusting belly,” but no longer am I the one who starts or participates in that avalanche.  Make no mistake, though; I am not happy.  I wish I could let go of an idea of how I used to look, and embrace where I am today. That has been a great challenge.  And where I find myself divided to points of utter hair-pulling confusion is: Do I believe in embracing self-acceptance of my present, or do I believe in going after goals? Or is there a way for both concepts to work together for the benefit of body AND soul?  I actually do practice a radical self-care lifestyle. I eat whole, clean food, I hydrate like crazy, I walk and hike and do yoga, I meditate, I make certain to get some nature time in, I have therapeutic and creative outlets.  I am so much healthier, and feel so much better, in this lifestyle, yet still I judge myself everyday for not looking like I used to. Such a miniscule part of the whole schematic, yet I make it larger than everything else. That particular lug nut gets loose an awful lot. I catch myself in the mirror and furiously try to dissect why my body changed the way it did. Menopause! Laziness!  Depending on the day of the week or my mood, there’s a different culprit to blame. And so, the ritual of judgment. Every day. And today, my DAY OFF, is no different.

Next I check email.  Brush my teeth.  May not shower today since I have no obligation to leave my house.  Still, a twinge of guilt hits me at this decision.  I should take a shower. I don’t feel like it. I’m utterly exhausted from a busy and emotional week (a dear friend was in the hospital), and I won’t be encountering anyone today, so why should I care so much about a shower?  Yet the twinge lasts. Apparently not enough to make me turn the nozzle and hop in, but just enough to make me annoyed with myself, and harshly critical at what I have decided is laziness and apathy.

I start breakfast with my second annoyance of the day already in gear and it’s barely 10 a.m. Leftover ginger soup, made with turkey bone broth, and fresh spinach tossed in. Yummy. I should walk today. That’s my mode of exercise. Vigorous walks through my lovely neighborhood, or hiking the nearby canyon. But I can’t think about that right now. Really very tired.  My soup is so delicious, and I love the smells it puts in my home. I don’t smell! Why can’t I shake the shower thing? I’m home alone. Why does it matter? Mmmmm, savory ginger soup. I should really walk.  Goddamn it!  See?

I’m already exhausted from the ludicrous back flips my thoughts are doing, all while trying to eat my breakfast.  I should sit in silence and eat my food mindfully.  Uh oh, is that another should ? And if you read my blog article, Mindful Eating, you’ll know why this is even in my head.  But I don’t sit in silence. I turn on the TV to Kelly & Michael.  It’s my morning ritual on days when I have to go to my part-time office job two days a week.  On those mornings I bop around getting cleaned and dressed, making breakfast and feeding the cat, all while Kelly’s and Michael’s sparkling repartee provides white noise.  I don’t tend to do the ritual on days off.  I prefer a quieter morning ritual on those days, a ritual more befitting my Mindful Eating essay.  Except that today my brain is romping like crazy, so I’m looking for television’s dynamic duo to help distract my head while I sip my ginger broth.  Of course the guilt arises that I am giving any amount of my morning to this vapid time-waster.  So, now I am killing two birds with one stone, as I judge both the TV show and my indulgence in it.  I’m on a roll.   I need a day off from my day off.

I don’t need to give you the full play-by-play of the remainder of my day.  You get the gist. Nothing much actually happened, which was exactly the point of the day, and yet by the end of it I was thoroughly spent from all the noise.  My head was so filled with guilt, and judgment, and shoulds, and the niggling pressure to DO something, and the harshly critical indictment that I even chose to have a down day, as if it is something shameful.  Because what are we, as Americans, if not putting all our value in doing and accruing, as opposed to just being? Meditation always helps. But even just getting myself to the proverbial mat is really tough when a day like this occurs. Today it was impossible.

I can’t say I don’t know where the penchant to punish comes from.  I do.  I have made a decent but very humble living for a long time now, all the while trying to get something of mine to burst wide open, whether it’s the music or the books.  And my attempts at this have been largely futile.  You don’t deserve a day off, my inner imp whines at me.  You need to get in that corner and do some thinkin’, young lady, about all the missed opportunities and wasted potential.  And you need to nitpick at everything.  And so . . . I punish.

Take the DVD I chose to watch later on of this “day off.” Twenty Feet From Stardom deserves the Oscar it won. It’s a powerhouse movie that I’ve been excited to re-see for sometime now. It’s also a movie that takes me to a melancholy place, because of the subject matter. I’m a singer. I’ve made my living at it for a very long time. But if some of the remarkable singers in this movie are, to a certain degree, bemoaning their lot of always being the session and touring singer and never the star, I watch it bemoaning my lifelong inability to reach even THEIR heights of being the sought-after voices for some of the most iconic songs in pop history. My own history, and deeply grateful living, has been quite a ways humbler than that. Most days I’m incredibly happy with the career I’ve had, and the musicians that have given me work as well as their ardent respect. But a movie like this can, on occasion, take me to a pretty dark place. So, why would I even choose to see it a second time?  The easy answer is because it’s a wonderful movie. But is it purely coincidental that I chose to watch this particular movie on my day of chilling out? Or is the pesky little deep-seated self-punishment imp deciding to hang around, brilliant saboteur that she is, and telling me that I have not accomplished enough in my life to deserve to chill? That I need, instead, to be up on my hindquarters in white-knuckle anxiety. Guess what, Miss Thing? You’re not gonna get to relax. You’re gonna exhaust yourself with all the doubts and the what-ifs and why-didn’t’cha’s that can be mustered. Because you SHOULD be further along in life, and shame on you for not being.

By the end of the movie, just as I did when I saw it in the theater, I am in tears, and standing up and applauding these women of extraordinary talent and their compelling stories (my own cousin being one of them . . . an original member of The Blossoms, who did every major vocal session in the 50’s and 60’s).  I am deeply moved by these stories.  I am also taken to my couch.  And not in the good way, the hammock and a good book and a mason jar of lemonade kind of way that is exactly what a day off should be.  Nope. I am taken to it in that crippling, fetal position way that fears life passing me by without having left the mark I’ve always felt was my calling to leave.

Likewise, I’ve managed to get nothing going with my book. I have three of them already out there, but the latest is really THE book. The one I feel is my opus. And except for a handful of dear friends and awesome moral supporters, it has gone largely unread and unknown. I keep trying to say that I’m not lazy. Hey, I produce content, baby. Six albums, as many full-length books, a one-woman show. That canon does not get produced by a slacker. I keep trying to say that something else is the reason I’ve never gotten any real shots. But after exhausting all other possibilities, and coming up with no clear answers, I think I may, after all, be lazy. I’m certainly tired. Everything I have to give goes into what I create (which, ironically, never tires me). But after all of that, there’s just nothing left over to give to hustling, and promotion, and marketing, and going out into the world, and meeting and networking, and being witty and quick and charming and all those things that seem to be what is required to get anyone to give you and your work the time of day. I don’t have it in me. It’s not in my nature. And from one day to the next, as I am on this constant road of self-examination, my tune is either that I’m genuinely at peace with my nature, and am happy with the blessed life that this nature has given me, and I clearly see the power and beauty and enlightenment in that . . . to believing . . . No.  Get up.  Do. Make it happen. It’s not too late. Don’t collapse now. Collapsing is giving up, and there’s nothing evolved or enlightened in that. And I am split wide open and right down the middle with trying to determine which principle I actually do align with.

The spiritual work that I have been doing has been truly transformational. But spiritual transformation is not a neat and speedy ascension to that higher place. It is a resolute road of one-step-forward-two-steps-back, filled with amazing moments of insight, daily challenges to our better angels, and THIS!!! . . . this “day off” that has just sicked Ronda Rousey on my ass.  It’s also not (or at least, should never be) a tyrannical slave labor camp.  And that’s where I can sometimes get stymied.  My passionate embrace of radical self-care and self-inquiry is so all-encompassing that it even led me to start this blog to explore the vast landscape of that consciousness. But I think that days like this can sometimes happen because I tend to fill my life with stringent standards that I’ll beat myself up about not reaching. And if not managed with some semblance of balance and breath, the whole self-care thing can actually backfire. And by breath I mean that proverbial, symbolic inhale and exhale of not having to be perfect, not having to be in ballet-dancer-upright stance 24/7.

I think that I have given myself so many tasks towards this spiritual evolution (don’t forget to meditate, don’t forget to bless your food, don’t forget to buy organic or grow your own, don’t forget to be of service to others, ad nauseam) that I can begin to crumble under the weight of them. And with the crumbling comes the self-punishment, the why can’t you get your act together? inner talk, when the crumbling is only because of all the weight I have put on my shoulders. But the answer is not to snap the whip when those tasks are not completed. The answer is to remove, I don’t know, maybe a couple hundred of those cinder blocks that I’ve heaped on my shoulders. Because otherwise, one of two things happen. I either crumble into that fetal position, self-berating and sinking into depression in reaction to the tyrant in me, as I did today, or I implode and rebel against her. So, how do I remove the weight and heft in this journey to be a better me? How do I let go, and let gentleness prevail?

The way to it is through forgiveness.  I’ve been writing about forgiveness a lot lately (read Unexpected Angels : A Perspective On Forgiveness), because it is a crucial key to stepping up a little higher on that ascension, that higher realm, and it has truly been tested in the world lately.  I find it easily the most important principle to explore, to put into practice, and to understand what it truly means.  And I have lately neglected putting those principles into practice on my own self.

If I were someone else talking to Angela, I’d have this wired.  I would passionately grab her by the shoulders and say:

“Forgive your body for daring to evolve from young to old.  Whatever society says about you because of your age is society’s flaw, not yours.  Forgive your efforts for daring to be committed to art, and not marketing.  Everyone can’t be everything.  Forgive your talents for not getting you certain gigs.  They are unique talents, and clearly didn’t belong in those boxes.  Maybe there is no box yet created for your gifts. Maybe there never will be. But you keep renewing your agreement with the universe to make sacred art anyway, you keep cultivating your own unique voice, and you let the rest go.  Forgive your needy, needy need to reach a certain status in order to be acceptable to society, and your human moments of faltering in the mission to elevate yourself in consciousness.  Your life is so beautiful, with friends and family that rival most folks’ friends and family any day of the week.  You have love in your life.  You have food on your table.  You have health and wellness and compassion.  You have a curious brain and a heart eager to evolve in spiritual consciousness.  You have a very special gift as a creator of books and music and art.  You deserve a day off.  To sleep in, to read your juicy book, to watch vapid TV, to walk on the beach, to surf the net, to look into the mirror and love your magnificent vessel that has carried you through fifty-five years on this earth in effortless mastery.  It has even saved someone’s life! So, take that, Self-loathing Thomas (lesser known and even more deep-seated brother to Doubting)!  You deserve a day off to do absolutely nothing except swing on that proverbial hammock with that mason jar of lemonade and CHILL.  And to know that you are not less to do so.”

Forgiving ourselves for not being perfect specimens may be the hardest thing we ever do.  We all have a wart or two, or ten, don’t we? We try to buff those warts up, better them, put a little spit shine on them.  Or we try to tuck them away and pretend they aren’t there. We rationalize them, justify them, or we self-berate, as I spent an entire day off doing.  But it really all comes down to this:  We can transform, evolve, improve who we are, learn something new every day, open our hearts, practice compassion, and yet at the end of the day we are still not perfect specimens in 24/7 upright ballet-dancer stance.  We aren’t designed to be.  And so all of those rough edges, the warts, the fears and guilt and defenses that still insist on lingering there, even with all the soul work we may do – that’s where forgiveness comes in. That’s where we’re tested to see if we can love and embrace every part of ourselves.  Because every part has a role to play in shaping who we are, and how we walk in the world.

As for my day off, well, it came and went, and my world didn’t crumble.  It just left me a whole lot more exhausted than any day off should.  But I ended it with pouring this onto paper.  That’s something. A stab, always, at trying to work it out. Trying to listen to the higher voice. Trying to be understanding and patient when the lug nuts loosen.  Hey, all that really means is that the tire covered a whole lot of great road.  And I truly am okay as long as I’ve got my tools.

I suspect I make some uncomfortable when I write about my humanness in such a public forum. But please don’t mistake this, ever, for self-immolation. It is the voice of rigorous honesty, of getting really, really real, and coming out on the other side.

One more quick story, but it’ll tell you everything about my penchant for this kind of writing. When I was an early teen, I saw a movie where a band of ski-masked looters burst into a fancy gala, and held the entire party up with rifles, and had everyone strip down to their delicates, so that their jewels, furs, and wallets could be raided. It was a scene that mortified me, and has remained as a lodged nugget of anxiety in the back of my brain ever since. This idea of being exposed, of having all of one’s bodily flaws and secrets stripped down for everyone else in the room to judge, laugh at, and shame. Here’s the light bulb though. Everyone else in the room is in the exact same vulnerable circumstance, even if, in that instant for you, there is only you. I’ve revisited that scene so often that it’s beyond counting, and yet I can’t even recall the film itself. Telling our stories is a bit like that. If we’re honest, we expose more than what advances the agenda of being totally together. And while that idea can be terrifying, it is also brave to do so in this present culture of spin and image consciousness. And a remarkable unburdening has the chance to occur, because the world of public opinion will instantly assure us that we are not alone. And by that process, we are not only unburdened, but connected. For me, there is no greater purpose in telling our stories.

There isn’t a breakthrough in existence that isn’t accompanied by some aches and pains, but what comes out with us on that other side, always, is freedom.  A freedom worth cultivating and renewing and re-tightening every single day. That’s my healing motif. The voice I’ve cultivated.  I believe it can be of benefit to others too.  That’s why I write.

J.M.W. Turner understood that.  I saw his works at the Getty recently, and was blown away by the naked pain, and storms (as symbolic as they were literal), that he portrayed.  And yet, his way with light is startling.  That is the way with light, isn’t it?  What does Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem say?  There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.

 

 

 

Photo credit: Drea Rewal for Timestamp Photography

 

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.

MINDFUL EATING : Letting Go of a Bad Relationship To Forge a New Loving One

Mindfuleating2

 

“To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint,
all things are friendly and sacred,
all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

It has lately occurred to me that food, and one’s approach to food, even the enjoyment of it, would be greatly enhanced by looking at the whole affair from a sacred, spiritual standpoint.   It’s hardly a new idea.   Religions the world over have historically had rituals regarding the consumption of food.   From the Holy Communion of Catholicism to the Kosher Laws of Judaism to the spiritual fasting observed by many religions, food and the consumption of food have played a pivotal role in the development of the soul.

I have struggled with food my whole life.  I’ve either seriously dieted and lived in grumpy privation, or I’ve emotionally eaten and found myself in food stupors, blocking out some deep pain body, or I’ve thrown hands up, not cared, and gotten real depraved with it.   Actually “not cared” isn’t exactly accurate.  I’ve always cared, always been preoccupied, always been obsessed, always felt the pressure from society, boyfriends, even colleagues (because I happen to be in a business where what I look like matters greatly), to look a certain way and to maintain that, in no uncertain terms.  I was pretty successful at maintaining a look and a weight for most of my adult life, but not without the help of a lot of compulsive behaviors.  When menopause hit and I gained nearly 50 pounds, and then kept that on for the better part of the last ten years, making the new weight my body’s new set point, efforts to get back to where I’d mainly been my whole life were proving insurmountable, and really only succeeded in enhancing what was already a fairly dysfunctional relationship with food.  I’ve never starved myself, or binged/purged;  my issues surrounding food have been a lot subtler than that, making the whole panorama of eating and body dysmorphic issues much more complex and nuanced than popular media ever gives us to understand.

That’s my eating background, in a brief nutshell.  Nothing devastating, just the nuanced struggles of a middle-class American girl pressured by a quintessentially middle-class American pastime – dieting.   And so now to this recent dawning.  I’ve been on a spiritual road for some time now, some of it documented on this blog, some of it hinted at in the various memoir I’ve put out there, some of it, as well, remaining deeply private, and all in the service of bettering who I am, healing what has ailed me, and coming closer to the divine and to an internal peace in the realm of higher consciousness.  I made a recent decision to start approaching the ritual of eating from a sacred standpoint.  So now, what exactly does that mean?

To begin with, the world is filled with far too many people who are without food, who would give their right arm for a bowl of porridge, and would consider that bowl sacred, because it is so rare.  How can I possibly continue to live in this life where I have never once had to go without, and not value the privilege that I have been given?   And so, a new commitment is beginning for me.  It is my effort to heal what is sore between food and me.

I want to rise above my animal self, the hungers, the desires, that root chakra governance that is primal and is all about brute survival by any means, and instead appeal to that higher seventh chakra state of grace that is beyond the limited senses.  I wonder if that isn’t what’s behind the spiritual practice of fasting.  The idea of denying those base urges in us, in order to push through a veil to experience what’s on the other side.  When we’re stripped of our animal nature, what’s left?  What are we?  What are we capable of?  What are our limitations?  Our possibilities?  Fasting is not an easy thing to do, and this essay isn’t about that, but I think we can make that same journey by deeming the act of feeding ourselves a sacred one, like baptism or the Eucharist.  It’s a wacky thought perhaps; this largely social covenant (think of the countless meals portrayed on Sex and the City) reduced to a stodgy sacramental rite.  Yuck, you may be thinking.  “Taking the joy right out of eating, Angela . . . gee thanks!”   Well, maybe.  Bear with me for a minute.  Because for me, the way things have been for awhile now is that there are far more meals I consume than the number of them that I actually enjoy and have a wonderfully epicurean experience with. I am moved by this idea that the experience can be so much more, and consistently so, and at the same time achieve a transcendence in consciousness.  It doesn’t have to be one or the other.  And, for better or for worse, I am moved by it just as compellingly as it is also my belief that this will be incredibly difficult for me to adopt. But I’m giving it a go. Have already begun so, in fact.  And I’ll let you know how it works out.  Here’s the basic game plan.

  1. Blessing each meal.  It’s such an old-fashioned notion.  My childhood always involved grace at the dinner table, usually done by my father, or my grandfather if the meal included extended family.  But once adulthood hit, I sort of never really thought about it again except for those occasions of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with the family, where it’s a ritual that’s still employed.  My brother Mike is usually the designated grace-giver, because he is the one person who never gave up the practice.  Privately from me was always a reaction of, “isn’t this charming?”  And yes, I admit, there has been a bit of condescension, as well as actually being charmed, in the thought.  But at a recent family gathering, I found myself reacting very differently for the first time to my brother’s bowed head and earnest mutterings.  The word charming never entered my head.  Powerful, meaningful . . . these were the words that hit me this time, and I couldn’t possibly tell you why, so out of the blue, but it actually re-purposed the experience of eating the meal that was in front of me.  Gratitude is the theme with this one.  Many in the world go without.  So, because I have never had to, the need to give thanks for the bountiful straw that I drew in this life suddenly became compelling.  I talked about this very briefly a couple of articles back.  I just need to be truly thankful every day, and putting that practice in a ritual form is the surest way to keep me always in grace (pun most definitely intended).   When every meal becomes meaningful and cherished, it makes just grabbing a handful because you’re passing by the bowl, or grazing mindlessly and finishing the whole bag out of boredom or restlessness, increasingly meaning-LESS, even, dare I say it, disrespectful in the face of those for whom a meal is a rare, momentous, and lifesaving gift.
  1. Preparing as many of my meals as possible with my own two hands.  There will be times when I go out with friends, and we commune over lunch or dinner.  That is a ritual to cherish, for certain.  There will be times when I’ve been invited to someone’s house for dinner.  There are certainly times every week when I’m on a job, and I need to eat.  But other than those examples, gone largely now is the choice to grab take-out when there’s only me, when the option to prepare my food at home instead exists.  I’ll almost always choose the cooking.  And I am choosing to cook and prepare my meals from a Zen perspective.  Meaning to notice and appreciate every move, every moment, every flick of the wrist in mixing ingredients, every whisk, every rinse, every dice, every spice.  Even the selection of ingredients, which means I am having to adopt a more mindful approach to grocery shopping.
  1. Shopping local and organic (or growing my own!).  I don’t presently have a living situation where I can grow my own, other than to try my damnedest to keep my apartment windowsill pots of mint and basil alive.  But if the means exists, I can’t think of a more perfect way to cultivate a sense of the sacred than nurturing one’s food from seed, bulb, or stalk, to fruition with one’s own hands?  I know more and more people who are growing or raising their own, and the practice has changed their lives.  For me, for now, the very least I can do is make the commitment to finding stores in my neighborhood that promote and support local farmers, so that what goes in my body is clean, and is no longer supporting the corporate machinery of factory food production, which is dubious at best.  I’ve been nutrition-conscious for many years, actually.  I’ve read every health guru from Andrew Weil to Gary Null, and have largely tried to live by whole food tenets (while, of course, veering recklessly enough whenever the emotional components to my eating would kick in).  But this experiment marks the first time I’ve actually sought to minimize my participation in Food Incorporated, and support local and organic.  This also means that if I have to go into a mainstream grocery market, I choose to shop on the end aisles where all the unprocessed, unrefined, LIVE foods reside.  Everything in the middle aisles is boxed, canned, packaged, processed, and prefabbed, usually with far more than just the food itself inside, making it a very iffy proposition from a health standpoint.  Our bodies deserve better.
  1. Listening to my body.  But also listening to my urges.  Urges and cravings exist to compensate for something that is missing.  It might be a nutritional lack.  More often than not, it’s an emotional one.  That’s the time to slow down, examine the urge, not judge it (also a challenge for me), and respond to it in a way that only supports the sacred nature of this experiment.  If the answer I get from my soul is that I need to be addressing something, or letting go of something, then I need to do my best to go about that task, instead of burying it with nullifying food. Because here’s the thing:  Food can be our greatest enemy OR our greatest ally; the trick is in determining exactly what our relationship with it is going to be.  Abusive or cherishing.
  1. Being done with “diets.”  And punishment. And needing to answer everyone else’s call about how I’m supposed to look, with none of those pressures any more obnoxious than my own impatient, unforgiving self-demands.  Instead, allow my eating in a mindful and sacred way to do the job of transforming my brain, my heart, and the rest of my body into a precious, godly vessel.
  1. Eating without distraction. And instead, putting my focus on the ritual itself.  Appreciating every bite, every swallow; once again, the Zen approach.  As opposed to stuffing my mouth mindlessly while watching a movie, or checking email, or grabbing food on the hurried go, and juggling a jaw full of food and a steering wheel at the same time, and not even paying attention to my eventual fullness, or to the taste experience. That one is hard for me. I have such a restless, antsy brain that JUST sitting and eating, and doing nothing else except enjoying the sensory experience of a delicious meal goes completely against my life’s experience. I’ve always eaten while multi-tasking, if I’m eating alone. Doing nothing except eating my meal is essentially a meditation. And while I’ve been an ardent meditator for many years, this idea is easily the most radical of them all for me. And therefore the one I am most determined to accomplish.

I am a firm believer in food as medicine. Food can change our brains and our health, because it contains information that talks to our genes.  It’s serious stuff.  So, why have I lived my entire life regarding it sloppily and cavalierly at best?  That’s the question I’m trying to answer even as I write this, and as I venture forward in this experiment with a new appreciation for every meal I’m blessed to partake in.

The first night that I tried shutting off the TV and the computer, and putting my phone away, and just cooking a meal . . . and then setting my table . . . and then putting on some music (actually the music was playing during the cooking . . . very peaceful evening this was), and then sitting down and eating my meal, it was a transplendent experience.  I was truly in the moment.  I blessed the food I was about to cook, and then I blessed it again as I sat down to eat.  I took my time. I didn’t go back for seconds, because I didn’t need to.  I’m accustomed to going back for seconds.  Usually because I’ve shoveled my food into the trough so fast, while watching some fast-paced movie or something equally agitating online, and so the rhythm of my external stimuli would be matched and mimicked by the fork-to-mouth action, and simply wouldn’t stop.  Plus I’m a musician for my living; having a 15-minute break on a gig that’s designated for the meal they offer you has borne some very gastrically-abusing habits among my musician cohorts.  I learned to be a fast eater, and then the habit stuck even beyond being on a gig.  This first night in this new experiment, I ate slowly.  I thoroughly enjoyed the taste sensations.  I relished in the art of food pairing.  And I let the world and the evening go by, as I luxuriated (yes, I can actually claim luxuriating) in the experience of my dinner.  I also realize that not nearly every night, nor every meal, will be that magical.  There will be the occasions when my mood is terse, perhaps my day has been a challenge, and I won’t feel like cooking, or I won’t feel like gracing, and all I’ll want to do is mainline the drug that food can be with the wrong infusion, into the gullet, and numb out.  But I figure, it’s a one-day-at-a-time kind of thing, like AA.  Like any program that attempts to repair something that is out of spiritual alignment.  It’s a mountain.  And I’ll need to be prepared to climb it daily.

During the formulating of this idea, and writing about it, I’ve had to ask myself (if my creed here is truly vigilant honesty, and that’s been my claim) if all of this isn’t just a new scheme, of the gaggle of them that I’ve tried, toward trying to lose weight.  And while I can’t say that isn’t a factor, the truth is I am looking for something deeper.  I’m in this whole thing for a spiritual revolution.  An uprising from my innards, pulling at every thread in my sight lines and my insight lines, that will help to weave me right into the tapestry of interconnected consciousness and the frequency of infinite realms and possibilities.  I know, I know, I’ve gone off the reservation a bit with the flower-child rhetoric.  But I assure you it isn’t without focus or substance.  And it’s already happening, this personal revolution, unfolding layer by layer by layer, a tiny bit each day.

I heard an anecdote recently about some Buddhist monks who, in an effort to protect their sacred Buddha monument from Burmese soldiers, covered their beloved statue in mud, knowing that the soldiers would find no material value in a statue made of clay, when what was hiding beneath its clay cloak was a monument made of gold.  And the story was told in the context of the very fitting metaphor for this idea that our true value can often be hidden beneath layers of mud, or, in our contemporary parlance, baggage.  And what that parable is meant to suggest is that the spiritual journey is really more about subtraction than addition.  We are already complete beneath our wounds and our fears, and through the process of shedding layer after layer to reveal our sovereign splendor, we become lighter and lighter, freer and freer.

This new eating thing?   It’s just a layer.

 

“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food.” – Hippocrates

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.

Spiritual Algorithm: A Prescription For What Ails In 8 Steps

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If algorithm means a procedure or set of operations for solving a problem in a finite number of steps, then consider the following eight to be a kind of spiritual algorithm that I’ve recently devised for myself, and which is changing my life.

Though, even as I’m writing this, I must pause to tell you I am experiencing an emotional tug-of-war over the idea of sharing this “prescription” forward.  Because on the one hand, I am genuinely excited by some new, and some merely renewed, experiences happening in my life recently, and the reality that actual tangible results of their impact are before my very eyes, and that those results are almost touching mastery, and this, mind you, from someone who tends to be gravely self-critical, and has come from a long, long arc of nuanced depression and irascibility and disappointment, built up over years and easily masked by a generally friendly disposition, and I am turning corners left and right, and I wanna wanna wanna share so badly, because I’m feeling extraordinary.  On the other hand, in any piece that serves as a how-to (think MindBodyGreen, which I love and read regularly, and yet . . .), there is an assumed authority on said subject, and the implied self-importance of owning that you have something to show someone else.  I have never fancied myself in the role of teacher to anyone; never been especially in touch with my Inner Deepak.  Plus, as always seems to be my thinking, what if I fall?  Here I’ve made this public pronouncement of some wisdom to impart, and now I’ve dared to go on with my life and be imperfect.  Nothing pleases some people more than to catch you in your failures: “I thought you were giving up sugar?” smugly coming from that friend when you’ve been caught eating your See’s butterscotch square is always fun.  So, I’m usually uncomfortable in this area.  Even this blog, my beloved Bindi Girl Chronicles, is rife with pieces that are really tapestries of discord and imperfection and stumbles and growing pains and learning curves, as I navigate the turbid waters of self-discovery.  Sometimes I have answers.  Most times I’m just posing questions.

But something’s happening, something, as I said, nearly resembling mastery.  There are more and more exquisite little grace notes in my life these days that have me in the perpetual state of wow and wonder than ever before.  And I can only credit eight little rituals that I call my spiritual algorithm, or my prescription for what ails, and that I have only just recently put into daily practice.  Visionary teacher Eckhart Tolle has often said that there are three words that encompass the secret to the art of living:  One. With. Life.   One with life.  He is quite stunning in illustrating the importance of recognizing that we are all interconnected, of being here now, of having experiences for their own sake, and of seeing beauty in everything.  The predicament for me, in truly meditating on this, is always, “of course, but how?”

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Well, I have found it. At least for me.  And I am champing at the bit to share. Without making assumptions that we’re all ailing, I simply offer that if you’re anything like me there’s always a spiritual nip and tuck and tweak that can be had in order to be more present and to maximize your experience here, to be truly one with life.  I came up with my eight without even thinking of the eightfold path or the eight limbs (these are Buddhist and yogic references, for those of you not in the dharma know). That was purely a matter of coincidence. And so now, I like to think of this spiritual algorithm, this prescription for the art of living, as sort of my own personal eightfold path.  It’s working for me, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s meant for you.  I tend to believe that everyone benefits best from a custom-made chariot for that road to enlightenment. But the chances are at least 50-50 that my prescription could indeed resonate with you.  So here it is.

 

1. Turn away from the anxiety-fueling news programs that litter television and the internet.

Just refuse them.   They are designed for one agenda only: to whip us into a distracted frenzy, and by virtue weaken us and our pocketbooks at the seams, because having an entire culture in panic mode is profitable, and is never about being in the public’s interest.  Find your current events through more legitimate sources.  Do the homework needed to figure out who and what those are.

 

2. Read for pleasure.

As a writer I want to encourage books. I want to encourage good books.  I want to encourage literature.  But hey, read a magazine, just read . . . for pure enjoyment and expansion.   And try as often as possible to do it outside of the digital and electronic universe.  Kindles and iPads are fun and convenient, but don’t let them be your exclusive source for reading.  The brain needs a good chunk of quality time every day to be removed from electromagnetic energy and social media, and to be reminded of the world of imagination and connection that does exist beyond our digital screens.

 

3. Meditate.  OR . . .

. . . at the very least find a way to simply be in silence and stillness for a few minutes every day.  The more minutes a day you can find in that quiet, the better able you will be to heed the inner voice, and the better everything will be.  Guaranteed.   (Yes, I am actually being brazen enough to say guaranteed).   I recently read the memoir of Sara Maitland on her experiment of withdrawing from the world, in pursuit of silence.  There is a whole world of discussion to be had on the topic, and its impact on a society, and which is utterly fascinating.  For now, for this, however, just allow yourself a few minutes each day to power everything down.  And listen.

 

4. Connect with Higher Power.

This term is as wide a berth as the ocean, so even the most ardent atheist can find his or hers. Something that is greater than your pedestrian self, and that has something to teach you, offer you, feed you.  Maybe it’s the collective unconscious.  Maybe it’s art.  Maybe it’s nature.  Maybe it’s the source within.  Maybe it is a source out there. Whether deity or principle, it will show up for every individual on the planet, and is that unquantifiable something that maneuvers us around the land mines and connects us to each other.  There is no need to affix a label; simply be with it.  Find yours, and plug in regularly.

 

5. Create, even if you’re not an artist.

Artist is only a label.   We all have creativity and imagination in us, and it can show up in the most unexpected cloak, which is usually how it works anyway.   Feed that.  Promote that.   The spiritual benefits are untold.

 

6. Be a child again (closely linked to the above, and which is not the same as being child-ISH).

There is so much obligation and commitment and management and planning and fortune-making that governs our adult lives that we can easily allow it to bog us down and collapse our spirits.  Easy to get so caught up in building the life of our dreams that we kind of forget to actually live the life of our dreams.   So, let it all go once in a while, regularly, and do what children do.   Play fiercely and with joyous abandon.

Or the flip side of that same spirit . . . do nothing.  The Italians have a delicious term for it:  dolce far niente, literally translated as the sweetness of doing nothing.  They have raised it to an art form, but in our ambition-worship culture, we have put the label of shame to it.   THAT is the shame.   We do not need to be in the constant state of planning, producing and consuming.  Smile at nothing.  Sit and gaze.  Daydream.  Decompress.  It is the crucial yin to our workhorse-mountain-conquering yang.

 

7. Create a daily gratitude ritual. 

It can be a prayer, a journal log, a mantra, a meditation.  Even in the various spells of my life of not feeling especially spiritual or connected, I always found such beauty in the tradition of blessing one’s food.  What a lovely idea to express out loud, in a ritual, our thankfulness for the bounty on our plates, and not taking a meal for granted, but cherishing it for what it gives us.  Especially considering how many don’t have that luxury.  Now imagine employing that gratitude practice with everything.  Just imagine.

And finally . . .

 

8. Be in nature.

Now, I honestly don’t think any more expounding on this one is necessary, except that I am compelled to share what’s happened to me with this one, because it seems to be the mother lode.  I never truly got the phrase, “be in nature,” that spiritual directive, as I now view it, until I began the recent ritual for myself.  Out of the blue, it seems, I began hankering for nature.  And I think, at least in part, it’s because I’ve been a meditator for a good many years already, yet have been growing intermittently flustered (as business for me has gotten busier . . . knock on wood!) by the struggle to truly burrow deep, and my belief that it has had to do with the inability to remove myself from the world’s distractions.  One truth about meditation is that doing it is possible even if the sky is falling all around us, but that’s a pretty hardcore level of meditation bad-assery that I have never achieved.  I need an environment that promotes moving out of the world for a few chunks of time each day.  Enter nature.  Fortunately I live in a community that smacks right up against a set of mountain ranges, the ever sprawling Angeles National Forest, and its various canyons and parks.  Although, I don’t believe there exists a community that has zero access to some brand of nature.  We can all find some.

I’ve been hiking Aliso Canyon at the very north end of the San Fernando Valley, and which is nearly in my back yard.  It’s part crest, overlooking wide sweeps of mountain, part enchanted forest, taking one into the bowels of nature with trees bridging overhead and creating a canopy.  What I never saw coming was the way in which this daily ritual would become something I would crave, the way one craves coffee.  Runners talk about the runner’s high.  I even know gym nuts who are antsy if they miss a day of working out.  That has never been me.  But I crave this.  And I have found that not only has it been working as a meditative pursuit, but it has begun to shift my whole health & wellness, it has brought literally more oxygen into my lungs and life, and it has, most profoundly, most surprisingly, opened my heart chakra in ways I couldn’t have predicted.  Communing with creatures beyond our pets and other humans, listening to their concert, moving among the wise old trees (read  Herman Hesse some time on trees….whew!…), or strolling along a shore, recognizing the cruciality of taking care of the earth, and understanding the dire consequences of continuing as we are, in promoting carbon footprinting and the decimation of the ozone.  This daily experience has inadvertently made me live in and practice gratitude for what I have and where I am in life and what is precious. It has brought me to a manageable, even peaceful, mental place when life is challenging me or throwing roadblocks in my way. It has actually shifted my receptor paradigm, meaning that I feel myself being more open to receiving, or perhaps, and more pointedly, feeling worthy of, blessings; as well as nurturing the ability to see that blessings are flying all around us like gnats, and are in everything that happens to us.  Not only in the stuff that feels good, and is about comfort, and is easy to see as a blessing. But even the stuff (or people) we consider bad news, because these are what serve as lessons and opportunities and teachers, and may actually be where the real gold lies. And it’s ours to either choose to recognize, or not. But why wouldn’t we? And this whole shift for me has been a direct result (I could be wrong, but the timing’s too uncanny) of my daily communing with nature.

It takes a great deal of courage to keep our hearts open.  So much easier (maybe even irresistible) to clamp the heart down, to bear the armor of hurt, to be the suffering martyr, and to garner the quiet awe of others, because maybe we have no real clue who we are without our wounds.  But keeping our hearts open is the greatest kind of surgery our bodies can undergo.  And I dare say, for us ALL, that being in nature is quite remarkable at opening up that vessel within, for our daily access.

 

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So, there you have it.  My sacred eight.  The prescription for what has been ailing me.  The spiritual algorithm that has shifted me just ever so subtly, yet indelibly.

Navigating the murky waters of life is a job with tenure.  All the enlightenment in this world, and for that matter all the prosperity in this world, won’t reprieve us of the task.  Navigated with the right tools, however (and I offer this eightfold prescription as one tool of many), life becomes not merely a road to endure but an experience of riches beyond measure.  Maybe my eight can offer you something as well.  Or, hey, if you’re way ahead of me, please share your own discoveries back.  I would love to hear of them.  Remember, I get MindBodyGreen in my daily inbox.  I’m THAT gal.

But for any who are searching, or feel lost, or even just looking for a top off, I encourage you to try it.

Costs nothing.

Big Pharma has no equity in this medicine.

 

 

 

Dedicated to my lovely friend Kelly Phillips,
who illustrates the prescription simply by living her beautiful life,
and allowing me the honor of observing it.

 

Photograph of ACB is by Holli Rae

 

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.