Clients often confront those of us engaged in the healing arts with perplexing and demanding dilemmas. It is part of what draws us into this work. Frequently, the queries stretch us with challenges that are either outside our life experience or too familiar from it. Either way, we can view the questions as threats to the presumption of our competence or doorways to new dimensions of understanding for both client and coach.

I was reminded of this recently by two events.  Last month’s annual Touched By A Horse Summit included the graduation ceremony of several persons who had successfully completed the intensive two-year coaching certification program. Having coached many TBAH students and graduates in past years and having shared in the launch of our own business, I am aware of questions that arise.  Sometimes they can be almost immobilizing, threatening our forward progress with the specter of inadequacy or failure.

The second recent event – the arrival in my email of one of my favorite poems by Denise Levertov – provides a tender reinforcement of the power of embracing questions as pathways to new insight and appreciation.  And remember, we need not be in the helping professions to embrace the questions of those whom we value most.

A Gift

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

(Sands of the Well)

 

Daily life is filled with our encounters with others.  Many meetings are in person. Many more arrive on our digital devices. Sometimes, like ocean waves people can lift us off our feet and pummel us. At other times, they can elevate us to see new possibilities.

It’s a mixture isn’t it?  Every day we meet people doing the best they can to live their lives, and we realize they are us and we are they.  As we compare ourselves to others, we see those who inspire or intimidate us with their virtues and achievements. We also encounter those whose beliefs are repugnant to our values and whose behaviors repel us.  What can we acquire from all whom we meet?

In Pocketful of Miracles, Joan Borysenko nudges us with two entries during the month of August. The first is to ask the question: “What can I learn from this person?” If it is someone who inspires, what steps might I take to emulate their path or prowess. If it is someone with whom I disagree, what truths about my values do they clarify or reinforce for me, and what actions might I take in response?

The second suggestion builds on two dynamics in psychology. The first is projection, a defense mechanism in which we attribute to someone else thoughts, feelings and ideas of our own that we consider unacceptable. The second dynamic is identification, in which we seek to pattern ourselves after those whom we admire.

Borysenko encourages us to be aware of any judgments we hold about another’s behaviors or attitudes and the truths our judgments may hold for us.  She also commends a mantra that Ram Dass uses to manage his own projections and aspirations: “And I am that, too.”

It has been a week rich in re-connections with friends – four consecutive days with four different couples and, in one case, three generations of their family. There are many common touchstones, including the college that educated and employed us and the vocations we pursued developing human potential, delivering a variety of healing arts and extending our physical and spiritual ties with the earth.

The backdrop for these gatherings included visits to a special island in Lake Winnipesaukee, the annual loon count on Squam Lake, an Arlo Guthrie concert in Maine and an annual family reunion located this year on Lake Winnisquam.

Over dinner last night a friend of our children’s generation asked what I was up to these days. My reply included culling the files and correspondence of many years and looking to connect the dots of meaning. In response he shared a phrase that struck a chord.

Years ago, on a three day trip to see a Grateful Dead concert he and some friends picked up an older hitchhiker. They had plenty of time for conversation while driving and camping out en route. Explaining his journey, the stranger shared that periodically he took stock and realized that his perspective on life had changed about every five years. He summed up his approach to the future this way: “I just want to stick around to see how the view changes…”

Shifting our perspective can serve us all well, no matter what our age. Are we stuck in the expectation of a pre-ordained outcome? How do we open ourselves and our relationships to new possibilities? How can we continue to make a difference in the lives of those most dear to us and the communities we call home?

 

Are you stuck in your hesitancy to step into dreams or duties deferred?  If so, perhaps this post will encourage you to move forward.  This week brought a valuable reminder of how quickly time is passing along with a wakeup call to fill the days remaining with overlooked opportunities.

The occasion was my college class reunion. Given that it was our 55th, attendance was much less than five years ago.  However, connecting with a cadre of companions who have shared many of life’s milestones sparked some new insight and energy.  Our physical and mental capacities are waning, but the lights of our accomplishments and connections shone brightly, revealing occasions that still beckon.

This morning I received the following message in my inbox.  It is from Joe Riley who shares poems periodically through Panhala.  It reminds us that it is never too late to seize the day and the blessings it holds, even if the actions appear to be small.  May it strike a chord with you.

Variation On A Theme By Rilke

(The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem 1, Stanza 1)

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me — a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic — or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self saying and singing what it knew: I can.

~ Denise Levertov, (Breathing the Water)

 

Over a year ago a friend who harvests timber presented me with a freshly cut maple burl.  Soon afterward I roughed it out and put it on a shelf to dry.  This past week I mounted it on my lathe to finish turning it.  In addition to its beautiful grains, it yielded a valuable insight.

A burl is an unusual growth that results from a tree undergoing the stress of an injury, virus or fungus. While the burl may be detrimental to that portion of the tree, it is prized for its beauty and rarity by those who work with wood.  Its grain is twisted and interlocked, extremely dense and inevitably distinctive.  These same qualities lead both to its unpredictability – it can shatter easily – and its unique character uncovered by the gouge.

Turning the burl got me thinking about the gnarly bumps in my own life and the stresses that led to their formation.  With perspective from standing on the other side of them I also realized that without those injuries and setbacks, I would not be where I am today.  Nor would I have the wisdom I have experienced through their healing and the joy of the new opportunities that were opened to me.

What about you?  Are there some rough patches that are disrupting your grain?  If so, how can you gently turn them to expose their lessons and the possibilities they reveal?

 

In her Pocketful of Miracles meditation for March 21st Joan Borysenko commends the vernal equinox as an occasion to review the forces of light and darkness in our lives and to find the balance.

…how magnificent is the cycle of the seasons and the coming of the spring. As I awaken from my winter sleep, let me seek balance in my inner life and outer life.  Let me value equally the part of me that is healed and in the light and the difficult traits in my character that are grist for the mill of growth.

I know that for those confronting devastating floods and other crises, spring’s advent this year affords little opportunity for reflection. May they and all who support them and their animals find the resilience to persist and prevail.

For others of us the equinox provides the occasion to look at our inner climate and its weather, the gifts that shine brightly as well as the trolls of our shadow side. I find it relatively easy to embrace the light with much gratitude. My blessings are manifold. Dealing with my demons of the dark?  Not so much.  No doubt, the first step is to name them as grist for the mill of growth. Three come to mind for me.  What are some of yours?  Once identified, what do we do with them?

I have found an inspiring resource in The Book of Joy and highly commend it. A chronicle of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the book also contains exercises for overcoming obstacles to living in joy. From two persons well acquainted with life’s dark sides perspective, faith and humor shine as beacons of hope for all of us seeking the balance.

 

Reflections on what lies ahead are natural for any stage of life. What possibilities will the future bring? What will my life be like? Will I be fully engaged or merely a visitor? What decisions can and will I make to affect the outcome?

These musings are especially true for those of us in our senior years. How do we continue to show up? How and where do we offer our gifts, knowing that diminishing capacities may have dulled their shine?

In 1992 Mary Oliver opined on the subject, inspiring us all with the map of her chosen route.  It was a path filled with curiosity, wonder and amazement.

…when death comes/ like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything / as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common / as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth / tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something / precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

 

Over dinner this past week the joyous birthday celebration of a friend turned somber for a few moments to process the pain that a local tragedy recently inflicted on all those involved. Our conversation covered a range of feelings and judgments, as no doubt occurs in many social gatherings these days, whether the conundrums being discussed are local, national or global.

The next day, while reflecting on the previous night’s exchange, I was led to a recent column by David Brooks in which he linked each of us to these larger challenges.

We all create a shared moral ecology through the daily decisions of our lives. When we stereotype, abuse, impugn motives and lie about each other, we’ve ripped the social fabric and encouraged more ugliness. When we love across boundaries, listen patiently, see deeply and make someone feel known, we’ve woven it and reinforced generosity.

In addition to writing, Brooks is working with the Aspen Institute to promote Weave: The Social Fabric Project, an initiative that encourages each of us to do our part locally.

Social fragmentation is the core challenge of our day. We long to be together, but we are apart. We are isolated by distrust, polarization, trauma and incivility. We live in a hyper-individualistic culture that pays lip service to community but which actually values success above relationship, ego above care, the market above society and tribal divisions over common humanity.

The question for each of us is: What can I do today and tomorrow to replace loneliness, division and distrust with relationship, community and purpose?

How do we answer that question? What threads can each of us weave into the moral ecology of our day? “Listen patiently?”  “Make someone feel known?” “Love across boundaries?” What other gifts of presence or purpose come to mind?

 

I remember a rhyme painted on a pottery pitcher in my parents’ kitchen. “Little duties still put off will end in never done. By and by is soon enough has ruined many a one.”  Beyond the judgment on procrastination this potentially guilt-trolling little ditty may offer another insight.

Without knowing it a friend challenged me recently. She went looking for my latest blog and found that it was six months old! Fortunately, it offered a boon to her spirit, a fact she shared with others and me.

Reflecting on the hiatus in my writing led me to realize that I sometimes balk on the brim of forward movement. Does that happen to you too? Do you also find an excuse to postpone taking what you know are the first steps down the path to a fuller expression of your heart’s truths? I know from coaching that there are many who block themselves at the brink.

What if the “little duties still put off” were owed to self and led the way to the potential that beckons from the other side? What if, as David Whyte says, the step is simpler than we had thought? My step today is to begin writing once again. What is yours?

It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer than we ever could imagine, that in fact, we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities clouded by fear, the horizon safely in the distance, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.

From “Beginning” in Consolations

 

Most of us have experienced dark times in our lives. The source may be the actions of others or a random turn of events. Our wounds may be self-inflicted. Regardless of the cause, the pain is real. What we do with the ashes of adversity shapes whether and how we move forward.

Looking back over the difficult times from the vantage of having gone through them, we can see that most of them were stepping stones to new awareness and understanding. However, while we’re in the throes of our challenges, it is often difficult to take our leave from the drama.

Perhaps, the leaving is tied to a relationship or a chapter of one’s history that was filled with significance. While this sort of leaving may certainly be accompanied by the anguish of what was and will no longer be, the free fall of letting go sets the stage for what is to come.

David Whyte reminds us that often the ashes of our vexing conundrums or old hurts point the way to the next chapter of liberating possibilities – arriving to begin again.

The Journey

Above the mountains the geese turn into the light again

painting their black silhouettes on an open sky.

Sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens

so you can find the one line already written inside you.

Sometimes it takes a great sky to find that first, bright

and indescribable wedge of freedom in your own heart.

Sometimes with the bones of the black sticks left when the fire has gone out

someone has written something new in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving. Even as the light fades quickly now, you are arriving.