Heart to Heart. Mind to Mind. Body to Body. Soul to Soul. I am with you. You are with me. All is well.
A big ‘lick hello’ from some of the creatures at North Star Ranch! I thought I’d make a short video of my horse Tux, pony-lady Tinker Bell and my dog Bagheera walking from the barn to their pastures, but then this little clip is all that wanted to happen this morning.
Every day the four of us walk through the magical surroundings here at the ranch, the sounds of our hooves and feet blending with all the other natural rhythms and rhymes around us. I often think how every step each one of us makes is a short moment of flight followed by a short moment of touching down. Every time we touch down Earth absorbs these small, buzzy energy fields that our feet transmit. In my mind’s eye, they are little, concentric circles that vibrate from the inside out, little rhythm stamps that expand, touch, overlap, intermingle and celebrate when they meet before spreading out even further. How far no one can say. It doesn’t matter. The universe is big enough.
The interesting part is — and this may just be the ramblings of a woman whose many friends and family members are spread out all over the globe and who is spending a lot of time with the animals in the woods — the interesting part of this inner eye vision is that when you see how these little rhythm stamps are flying and touching down all over the surface of the Earth, you can not really, in all seriousness, uphold the veracity of the idea of non-belonging.
If you were to find yourself in outer space you could see these millions and billions of buzzy, little energy stamps wrapping the Earth in a pulsating net of iridescent dots, a planet covered by a sea of tiny, sparkling glow worms, each one forming its own little pool of radiance, adding luminescence to itself, its surroundings, to the planet, and beyond. It looks as if the image of the twinkling stars is being reflected by an orb-shaped mirror -- a giant disco ball -- all made up of little YOUs and MEs, all melting into one big, beautiful ONE.
No matter who, what and where we are, it’s always the same, we momentarily rise before we touch back down. We may be walking, skipping, running, swimming, dancing in silk sheets or dragging in rags, flying an airplane or riding a horse, we always engage in moments of flight followed by moments of touch downs, creating our unique stamps of rhythm and adding light to the universal symphony that moves our lives.
We’re all always connected. There is no ‘all by myself.’ The idea of being different, separate, an outsider or not part of this world in some way is an illusion the egoic part of our mind creates to keep us from changing, from growing, from moving forward on the paths that are ours to follow. It’s just a matter of perspective, inner eye or outer space, but something in this vision tells me that we can’t ever not belong. Again, this may just be the rambling of a woman who spends too much time in the woods with the animals and in her head, but perhaps, just for a moment, consider the possibility, feel into yourself and see what’s true for you.
I rarely engage in politics on FB or other public platforms, but the events in Charlottesville are revealing with such brutal clarity how unfit and dangerous Donald Trump is as a president for this country. Today I can’t be quiet.
I was born in Germany and lived there for the first 26 years of my life. My family history, my cultural background and my own encounters with violence have taught me a lot about the horrors of naziism and white supremacy. At school, when I was 14 years old, we were shown three hours of continuous documentary footage of what precisely (!) happened in German concentration camps. The pictures never left my mind. Or my heart.
My first reaction to the latest news about the terrors in Charlottesville I saw on various media outlets over the last few days was utter disbelief and shock. Donald Trump’s nightmarish news conference yesterday and his ongoing insistence on being supportive of growing racist and anti-semitic hate groups leaves my heart throbbing with ache. Three people are dead and many more injured. A memorial service was held today for a vibrant, young, brave woman named Heather Heyer, the mourners wearing purple, her favorite color. A group of people surrounding Jalane Schmidt, organizer with the local Black Lives Matter movement and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, had to stay in hiding inside of a church in order to keep themselves safe from white supremacist violence. A family whose son was killed by white supremacists in Charlottesville lives in more fear than ever. Is this really happening? Does history really have to repeat itself? I know silence can not be the answer. I have been battling with myself to post these thoughts, but I can’t stay quiet today. I am heartened to see that people from all walks of life are starting to speak up, that CEOs are leaving economic councils in the White House, and that Republicans are beginning to be more outspoken about the unspeakable behaviors displayed by the man who is supposed to lead this country.
But there is so much more that needs to happen, more words, more learning, more opening, more listening, more actions, more courage, and above all, more crumbling of the armors that hold those who hate in rigid cages.
Please, if there’s a god, please wake us up! Let us find where we are hurting so that we don’t have to hurt others anymore. Let us find compassion for ourselves so we can find compassion for our brothers and sisters. Let us heal ourselves so that humanity can heal. Let’s come together as brothers and sisters, not colors or belief systems. Let’s wake up before it is too late, again.
Lately the subject matter of fibromyalgia has popped up in my life a lot. I have been living with this chronic pain condition for over 17 years, and over the last few weeks people in different situations, especially some of my coaching clients, have been asking me about it. I think more and more people, especially women, are starting to put the often puzzling symptoms together and are either being diagnosed or are starting to realize themselves that they may have fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia is a serious condition, and its symptoms are often baffling, so I thought I’d put together a few things I’ve learned.
First, a general definition: ’Fibromyalgia syndrome affects the muscles and soft tissue. Symptoms include chronic muscle pain, fatigue, sleep problems, and painful tender points or trigger points, which can be relieved through medications, lifestyle changes and stress management.’ This definition is from http://www.webmd.com/fibromyalgia/default.htm, a website I find helpful, but there are many others, and ultimately everyone who suspects that they have fibromyalgia or similar/related symptoms should, of course, see a physician (often rheumatologists are a good starting point) before going down the dark, gloomy spiral of self-diagnosis.
Another definition is this: ‘Fibromyalgia (FM) is a medical condition characterized by chronic widespread pain and a heightened pain response to pressure. Other symptoms include tiredness to a degree that normal activities are affected, sleep problems, and troubles with memory. Some people also report restless legs syndrome, bowel or bladder problems, numbness and tingling, and sensitivity to noise, lights or temperature. Fibromyalgia is frequently associated with depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Other types of chronic pain are also frequently present.' *
There is of course a flood of information to be found online, but here are some things I wished I had known when I first started to learn how to live with fibromyalgia:
The main symptoms, chronic pain in the soft tissue of various parts your body, and the ensuing depression (sadness, anxiety, frustration, self-loathing, fear, irritability, loss of sense of purpose, etc.) come and go in waves. A lot of the symptoms have to do with the levels of stress you’re experiencing at any given time in your life. Although it may seem that stress is unavoidable, much of it can be managed and changed. This may require updating and implementing new skills when it comes to practicing better self care and setting healthy boundaries. It may require to get some help so you can monitor and manage the severity of the pain levels as you learn to minimize your experiences of stress. This was a game changer for me. It put me in charge, at least to some degree, and taught me how to manage the varying symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Physical pain causes mental pain. And mental pain causes physical pain. The cyclical nature of this condition was one of the concepts along which my initial therapy at a clinic that specializes in fibromyalgia in Germany unfolded. Once I realized that physical pain causes mental suffering, and vice versa, over time I was able to arrange my life in a way that would break the cycle at its strategic weak points.
Let’s have a look what stress means and what it does: ‘Stress is your body's way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger—whether it's real or imagined—the body's defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or the "stress response.” ’
So, living in a state of ongoing mild, moderate or severe stress is putting our minds and bodies into a state of constant hyper-vigilance. Hyper-vigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect activity. If you were an animal in this mode you’d be ready to run or fight at the slightest sound, like a branch cracking, because it may or may not represent a threat to your life. Hyper-vigilance may bring about a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion.
Stress leads to hyper-vigilance. Hyper-vigilance leads to exhaustion. Exhaustion is another word for fatiguing our minds and bodies over long periods of time without sufficient, regular opportunities for deep rest, joyful mobility and mental replenishment. Exhaustion and ‘driving on empty’ over prolonged periods of time can lead to the physical and mental symptoms currently classified as fibromyalgia.
I find it important to mention that fibromyalgia is a classified illness. ‘The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) lists fibromyalgia as a diagnosable disease under "Diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue," under the code M79-7, and states that fibromyalgia syndrome should be classified as a functional somatic syndrome rather than a mental disorder.’ *
Another interesting fact: Fibromyalgia predominantly affects women — as many as 90 percent of cases are diagnosed in females, according to U.S. government statistics. Men get the disorder too, but they experience it very differently. Males tend to get fewer and milder symptoms than women.
Many people, including physicians and other health care professionals, have used fibromyalgia as a throw-away label for otherwise undiagnosable symptoms. As a result the term fibromyalgia has gained the dubious reputation that it is ‘all just in her/his head’ which, combined with the fact that its symptoms usually don’t show any visible manifestations, causes many fibromyalgia patients to feel isolated and unseen, or even worse, doubted or dismissed while struggling to manage their daily pain levels. The majority of people I met in the treatment center for fibromyalgia in Germany named their family’s and friend’s doubt or dismissal of their symptoms as one of the main reasons for their experienced stress and suffering which in turn exacerbated their mental and physical pain levels.
So what does the mind do in this situation? In order to cope with mental and physical pain our mind offers resistance to the suffering it is experiencing. The mind uses coping mechanisms that often manifest themselves as egoic expressions of our unhappy selves. The ego tries to make us feel like a victim (sadness, shame, self-pity, hopelessness, etc.) or it tries to hijack us into a state of superiority (denial, anger, irritability, etc.), both of which I have experienced and continue to deal with in various ways. To me, the key to staying in charge of my mind’s undulations is to find and practice ways to break the pain cycle at strategic points.
In order to make the physical pain more tolerable I have found ways to incorporate several practices into my daily and weekly life. Resting, napping, gentle or vigorous physical activities, joyful mobility, interacting with animals, spending time in nature, energy work (Reiki), and being present with supportive and understanding people are some great ways to regulate the pain levels. It took some time to cultivate these things to a point where I could sustain a somewhat ‘normal’ life, but the important thing is to get started with whatever seems doable and then expand from there.
In order to make the mental pain more tolerable I have tried and found the following measures useful: Presence/awareness work, meditation, being coached, thought-dissolving practice, communing with nature and animals, conventional and unconventional forms of therapy, medication, and again finding a supportive group of friends and people whom I can trust to let me be who and how I am on any given day.
I made the graphic called the ‘Pain Cycle’ to illustrate what I’m talking about in this post. It may offer a different perspective on what you or a loved-one may be going through. I always find it easier to navigate things when I have a way of orienting myself.
Seeing my active life style, now and then people have asked me what my secret is when they find out that I have fibromyalgia. The answer is, there is no secret. There are many ways to get educated and options to choose from to help yourself. Let me reiterate some of the things we all know but can’t be reminded of too often:
- Watch how much stress you allow into your daily life. Reorganize, delegate, be vocal about things you need and enjoy. Minimize or eliminate things that are too much. Become brave(r). Don’t be afraid to break conventions. It’s your life. You’re in charge of it. You deserve to be happy.
- Rest. Sleep. It is crucial for a healthy energy reservoir and well-running metabolism. Nap — yes, really! :) — 15-30 minutes can do wonders. Take ‘slow time’ for yourself — and not just to recover but to sustain and have reserves for the things that are meaningful and joyous to you.
- Speak up. Don’t suffer silently. Let your loved-ones, friends and colleagues know in your own words what’s going on. Secrecy will worsen your symptoms. Speaking up in a clear, objective manner is a great way to deal with your own inner turmoil and a welcome piece of information for those who would like to know how to support you. Remember, you are in charge.
- Don’t isolate yourself. Take time out as you need it, but reach out and be part of a community in whatever ways feel good and right to you. To find local support groups click on this link: https://www.fmcpaware.org/support-groups/browse-support-groups.html?sid=54:Support-Groups. There are many ways to live your life to its fullest with fibromyalgia, and reaching out to communities of people who are on similar paths and who are educated and able to help you is the first step.
- Let go of as many thoughts and activities that have to do with notions of ‘I should’ or ‘I have to.’ Watch for egoic thought patterns that no longer serve you and increase your pain levels. If you don’t know how, find a coach or a therapist to guide you. Start new practices — meditations, walks, joyful mobility, yoga, tai chi — and again find guidance if you don’t know where to start.
- Spend time in nature, be present with plants, animals and Earth. This is where you came from. This is what you will always be part of. This is what will always allow you to find your way back to peace and compassion for yourself and others.
- Find ways to express yourself creatively. This can be anything that lights you up and lets you tap into your natural gifts. Develop and share your gifts. Sharing is a big part of wellness, health and healing.
- Oh, and did I mention rest? I usually have a list of things I want to do this day/week/month, and after organizing it by priority I usually have to figure out how to do what I want to do by weighing how much can realistically be done given a finite amount of energy each day. Being by nature a workaholic this took some time to learn and it still takes daily discipline not to revert into overdoing. But. It. Can. Be. Done.
- A great book that helped me with all of this is ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle. He speaks of the importance of separating yourself from the 'pain-body' which can otherwise turn into an overwhelming entity with paralyzing powers over a person's sense of suffering. Other works by Byron Katie, Don Miguel Ruiz and Thich Nhat Hanh have been essential to living in a more peaceful state.
As I’m writing this post I realize how blessed I am to have found a way to write, ride, coach, teach and work with horses and people on a daily basis. I live a somewhat simple life, but it is perfect for me. It allows me to follow my calling and lets me live my life (for the most part) at peace and in balance. I’m hugely grateful to the animals and people who understand, support and accept me for who I am — passionate horse person, quirky coach, animal lover, hermit-like writer and person that can’t be hugged too tightly on certain days — what can I say, life is good.
Whether you are a person afflicted with fibromyalgia yourself or you know someone who is dealing with it, be mindful to acknowledge what is going on. Have a look, think about what it really means and what you can do to make things better for yourself or a loved-one.
Above all I encourage every brave soul to see what life has in store for you — not despite of, but because of this condition that may in fact become a valuable navigational device for how you want to create your most joyful and amazing life. Hooray to that! Let’s live life to its fullest! :)
‘Hallo?’ his voice sounds muffled.
‘Hallo lieber Papi, this is Katzi!’ I say. ‘How are you doing, my dear one?’
‘Shhh! I can’t talk right now.’ my father whispers. ‘They found me.’
‘I’m sorry?’ I say.
‘They got me now. They’re right outside.’ he says in a breathless voice.
‘What’s going on?’ I ask. ‘Are you ok?’
‘I’m in great danger.’ my father says. ‘I can’t talk right now. ’ I can tell he means it.
‘Is there anything I can do?’ I ask.
‘No. That’s all I can say. I’ve got to go now.’ he says.
‘Ok, Papi.’ I say. ‘I hold you dear, Papi.’
‘Thank you for the flowers. Good bye.’ he says and hangs up.
I sit in my chair, put down the phone and take a deep breath. My dad has Parkinson's disease. As the illness progresses his delusions often take him into worlds filled with danger, corruption and people who mean him harm. He’s caught in places where bombs are just about to go off, collapsing buildings threaten his life and thugs with weapons hunt him down. It must be hellish to think you are in terrible danger, and everyone around you either tells you you are imagining things or placates you to calm you down. I try not to talk him out of what he sees and feels. It doesn’t help and aggravates him more.
At least he knows I sent him flowers. Sometimes my dad tells me that he has an unknown beneficiary who keeps on sending him baked goods, chocolates, books, clothes and all sorts of useful things. I tell him I am glad.
The hallucinations aren’t always malevolent. Sometimes he tells me about a dog, a big salt-and-pepper stray, that comes to see him. And there are two cats that climb up on the outside of the building and sneak into his room through the window to visit him.
‘I never feed them.’ he says. ‘But they always come back.’
Sometimes the cats are there when I call him, and it’s in those moments when he lets me join his world. I’ll ask him where the cats are, and he’ll tell me they’re sleeping on his bed.
‘They’re very, very quiet.’ he’ll say. ‘You know, they don’t allow pets in this place here. But they are so quiet, and so smart!’ I can hear the smile in his voice. ‘No one ever notices them.’
I know that calling him back right now wouldn’t make things better. It’s evening in Germany, early morning here in California, and the spells that hi-jack him into a different dimension of reality usually get worse at night. Sometimes I can bring him back into the here and now, but there are places he goes where I can’t reach him. Today he’s there. I’ll call again tomorrow to see where he may be.
It’s time to turn out the horses. My dad’s words echo in my mind. I’ve been through this and worse with him before. My brother, a physician himself, oversees my dad’s medical treatments. Several specialists are doing every possible thing to help him, but the inevitable truth is that he’s not going to get better. The medication that treats the Parkinson’s disease increases his dopamine levels which in turn amps up the hallucinations.
I’m trying to get out of my head and check in with my senses. My right hand feels a slight tug backwards. It’s holding the lead rope that’s fastened to Tinker Bell’s dainty, red halter. Taking small, leisurely steps toward wherever we might be going this confident, bay Shetland pony is in no particular hurry. Chewing on some left-over hay in her mouth, batting her long eye lashes, she takes the occasional look to the left, and then to the right, as we are walking down the tree-lined dirt path. The tender morning light breaks the spell of the night.
The leash that keeps my charcoal-colored Border Collie, Bagheera, from running and barking at anything larger than herself, sends surges of energy through my right hand. She’s still a puppy, and all she wants to do is run and play. Sun rays dance as bird songs celebrate the brand-new day.
On my left side, Tux, my spirited, black, eighteen-hand Thoroughbred, towers over all of us. The lead rope dangles loosely between us as his long legs keep in perfect step with mine. A gentle breeze moves leafs and bees and other fairy creatures.
The four of us are walking down the long road from the barn toward the pastures where, speckled with wild flowers, precious green grass will keep the horses grazing and happy for the rest of the day. Calcified oyster shells and other fossilized sea creatures imprint the sandy ground beneath our feet. We’re walking on what used to be an ocean.
I look back at Tinker Bell. She makes me smile. Trailing behind, she owns her space and takes her time. When I was little my mom would read the story of Peter Pan to my brother and me. Tinker Bell, the little fairy who mended pots and kettles, was so tiny that she could only hold one feeling at the time. One moment she’d be terribly ill-tempered, jealous or spoiled, and then she’d be incredibly sweet and helpful to Peter. No warring emotions in that little elf. What you see is what you get — shapeshifting and all — but only one feeling at the time. Sort of awesome. Talk about being present!
As we walk past the riding arena, I look up at the pile of natural rocks underneath the old oak tree that spreads its arms as if to say ‘I’m here for you.’ Those rocks mark the spot where my Kelly, my sage and cherished Border Collie, found her final resting place last summer. Sometimes I feel her spirit linger where she used to sit and watch me ride. A soul wiser than many, her death, paired with my beloved mom’s passing last year, left tender markings on my heart. Waves of loss and sadness wash over me. I breathe and let them pass. There is a sweetness in this moment. I see Kelly rest in the sun by the oak tree. I see the wind blow my mom’s hair from her smiling face. There’s kindness in the past as well.
Bagheera, my ember-eyed familiar, tugs on my right hand now. She keeps my thoughts from drifting straight into never-never-land. Let’s go, who cares what might have been? Her movements free and weightless, she keeps my footprints moving, away from dark and gloomy moods.
One morning this spring, I woke up, and I knew it was time to find her. A specter of this dog that was going to come into my life had landed in my conscious mind. It had nothing to do with replacing Kelly or getting a ‘new dog.’ Kelly is irreplaceable. And the word ‘new’ in the context of connecting with someone— dogs, horses, humans or other animals — in meaningful ways often seems strange to me. The longer I live the more I trust the deeper knowing, that place of almost instant trust and recognition I feel when I meet a ‘new’ old friend… again.
I spent hours scanning animal rescue websites, dog profiles, stories and photos online. When I saw the picture of a black dog with yellow eyes behind a row of thick metal bars, I knew I had found ‘my dog.’ Bagheera was located at the police animal shelter in Hollister, a four-hour drive up north from where I live. The officers at the shelter were surprised that I was calling to adopt this dog without coming to see her first. They cautioned me that the fees for the adoption, spaying, vaccinations, micro-chipping and registration were non-refundable and to be paid upfront. It was fine, I said. And she is, they said, almost completely black. Black dogs were often passed over by adopters and last to find a home. I filled out forms, paid and waited for the process to unfold.
When it was time to bring Bagheera home, it felt, indeed, as if we’d both been lost and found. I cried, I couldn’t help myself, when this beautiful, black hurricane came flying toward me. ‘Bagh’ means tiger in Hindi. She resembles her namesake, the black panther in Rudyard Kipling's popular story ‘The Jungle Book,’ in more ways than one. I guess it’s not surprising that people like to name animals after characters in fairy tales, stories involving fantastic forces and beings such as fairies, wizards, and goblins.
Bagheera turns her head. Her eyes touch mine. This energy, this easy love, the wild abandon in her play! She makes things brighter, lighter, leaving darker scenes behind. There’s magic in her stormy joy, her bold exuberance, and this sense of not a care in the world when, suddenly and with utter trust that all is well, she’ll fall asleep right by my feet.
What if this dazzling energy, this untamed, wolf-like creature, has come to be my wizard and my teacher? What if, in some strange way, she’ll wake me up to be this worry-free and young again? We play, we run, we roll around. She makes me laugh so loud, at first it seems to echo. In play, I find, there is no past and no tomorrow. And yet, there’s room for innocence and knowing, a slow and fast awakening to utter bliss right here and now.
My black horse stops. His head so high above us, his muscles taut as arrows, it seems absurd to think a few pieces of leather and rope could contain this unbridled power frozen in time. Absolute alertness, absolute stillness, absolute readiness to move, or not. We’ve all come to a halt with him. We melt into this stillness, all minds and bodies one. The quiet moment seems to stretch, for how long I don’t know. Then, out of nowhere, as it seems, three deer are climbing up the brushy hillside. Tux snorts and clears his palette. The moment passes. We breathe and walk again as one.
Tux. My beloved horse. He is presence. His given name is ‘Wunderkind’ (Wonder Child) which turned into ‘Tux’ (Tuxedo) as he grew older. Bold, black, with four white socks and a diamond-shaped, white mark on his nose, he is a vision to behold. His movements big and silken, he started out as one of those horses whose potential put a price tag on him that was well beyond my reach. His exuberant temperament, his dominant character and his unyielding intelligence paired with the early onset of arthritis in all four legs changed the course of his life, and mine, in strange and wonderful ways.
Tux and I, since we first met, have come a long and sometimes challenging way. We carry each other, often walking side by side. Unfazed by health and other matters, this horse with his larger-than-life presence and his incorrigible sense of joy has inspired people’s support and kindness over and over again: Tux’s breeder, her heart as big as the sea, decided to buy Tux back from the ‘wrong person’ so that he could stay in training with me. A kind surgeon at an acclaimed veterinary clinic, well aware of my inability to pay the twenty-thousand dollar fee for the service at the time, decided to go ahead with Tux’s colic surgery when he was young and subsequently refused to accept any of my attempts to pay my dues. A precious group of friends and mentors supported my emotionally charged decision to buy this horse (how can you buy a soul mate?!), and have stood by us when my own health issues and stubborn mind allow for nothing but a very simple life.
Three years ago, two of my most treasured friends invited me to move with my animals to their ranch because they ‘had always wanted a beautiful, black horse in the pasture’ that spreads out in front of their family home. Granted, that may not have been the only reason, but who’s to say what makes true magic really work?
Another morning dawns, and I try to reach my dad again. The ringtone sounds weary, monotonous and sterile. No answer. I’ll try again later and go to feed the horses. When I come back I see a text message from my brother on my phone.
‘Hello dear Katzi, Unfortunately Papi was so aggressive and combative with the caregivers at his facility yesterday that he had to be transferred to a psychiatric hospital. He has been taken to a very good, new clinic in Preetz. I will keep you posted.’
I sit and try to understand what all this really means. A row of inhospitable and down-right scary images flash in front of my mind’s eye. My dad is in a psychiatric hospital. How can this be? It doesn’t seem that long ago that this vibrant, funny, smart, kind man was, despite all of his troubles, still boisterous and for the most part at peace with his fate. And he’s only eighty-four! Isn’t that supposed to be ‘not that old’ these days? A bunch of feelings try to flood me. Breathe, I think, try to be present, think of Tinker Bell. One emotion at the time, please. After a while I find the place in my head where I can hope that my Papi may be able to get better care in a modern place that specializes in psychiatric disorders than in a regular senior home. My heart goes out to him. I hope they’ll help him not to live in fear. I hope he took his virtual pets, the dog and the two cats, with him. I read somewhere that people in the final stages of dementia often see furry creatures that come to soothe and comfort them. It makes complete sense to me. And who’s to say what’s real or not?
I humbly bow to all the animals — goblins, wizards, spellbinders — light bearers all of them. What better teachers could we ask for? What better soothers of our hearts? What kinder builders of our trust? I cannot think of any. Although the darkness claims its places and offers contrast to the light, our lives are rich and filled with magic. Let’s open our eyes and see each world for what it is, one miraculous moment at the time.
Last night I woke up with a startle. I thought I’d heard the ringtone on my phone that is assigned to my brother, Christian, who lives with his family in Germany. The weird thing is, this ringtone is muted. I couldn’t possibly have heard it.
A few months ago, late last summer, this ringtone had started to haunt my nights. Imagine a handful of tiny silver bells echoing as they hit the surface of a frozen lake. That’s what I used to think of when, mostly in the middle of the night, I’d wake up from this eery, tinny jingle. I sleep in my contact lenses, and once I wake up it takes a while for my vision to adjust. Blurry-eyed I’d grab my cell phone, trying to decipher the words on the luminous screen. I’d fumble in the dark to find my eye drops, usually without success. Waiting for my eyes to become more lubricated, I’d lie back down and close my eyes for a moment again.
A familiar picture would take shape in my mind. Surrounded by a huge body of black water, a very small, wooden house seems to shiver in the cold, blue night. Dark waves are lapping at its doorsteps. The house feels nauseous, its throat is tightening. Frozen fingers grip its heart.
During those summer weeks, Christian would text me updates on our mother’s disintegrating health status. He is a busy surgeon, and Germany is nine hours ahead of our time here in California. Waking up to the nightly sound of the silvery tinsel bells, usually announcing more bad news, turned into something I would learn to dread. Over the course of several weeks my mom’s scheduled heart surgery turned into a nightmarish sequence of complications, strokes, heart failures, moments of hope and multiple surgical procedures that ultimately couldn’t save her. My mother passed away as I was on my way to Germany. I spent two weeks in my home town to take care of the funeral arrangements and to help my father, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, settle into his drastically changed life at an assisted living home.
Back in California the chameleonic onslaught of grief caught me off guard. Mingling with the deeper layers of depression I became wary of its many shapes and moods. I yearned to connect with my brother, to talk, to write, to share — if not our feelings — then at least some moments of open awkwardness, of clumsy silences, of saying something unexpected, of strained laughter that might turn into tears, anything really. Anything but trying to bridge the gap between us via text or email and waiting for replies that never came. For reasons I haven’t completely unraveled yet, our modes of communication have rarely gone past the written, digital word since our mother passed away. Perhaps we are too busy. We both live active lives. Perhaps having to be the closest relative and contact person for our father weighs more on my brother than I know. Perhaps he wishes that I didn’t live in a far-away country, that I could be of more help. I wish I could do more.
Perhaps it’s just that each of us has to stay in our individual bubble of grief for a while longer. Perhaps talking to one another can not mean, as it might for others, the finding of mutual comfort by sharing our feelings. Perhaps we are both afraid of touching each other’s raw spots. When I get lost in the maze of stories in my head, sooner or later I find my way back to what I know is true. I’ll always love my brother. The best way I know to love him is to let him be. And the best way I know to take care of my grieving self is to mute his ringtone.
Last night, when I woke up because I thought I’d heard the sound of the icy silver bells on my phone, I felt the familiar fear again. The fear of more bad news. The ringtone, real or imagined, revived the image of the little house, the surrounding dark water rising dangerously close to its entrance. My mom’s sweet face floated by. And then my dad’s, more serious and drawn. The disorienting, nightly darkness took a hold of me again as I fumbled for my phone only to realize that, even if I could have made out the words on its screen, there would be no message from my brother. It was just a dream. Fear gave way to sadness. I lay back down. My hand reached over to the far side of my bed and found the purring warmth of my cat, Cassidy. I don’t know who fell asleep first.
I wake up from the pulsating vibrations of my muted cell phone on my nightstand. Dawn fills my bedroom with its grey-blue light. I look at my cat as he yawns and stretches. I remember the weird dream of my brother’s ringtone last night. Cassidy gets up, walks across my stomach and settles down on my chest for his morning cuddle. I pet him, glad for the warm, rumbling weight on my body. His reverberating breath against my rib cage comforts me. For a moment I close my eyes again and drop back into last night’s dreamscape. The ringtone. Christian. The little house in the black water. Mom. Fear. Sadness. And then the fear again.
‘What is the fear about?’ I ask.
‘What do you think?’ It asks.
‘I don’t know.’ I say. ‘I’m anxious. And sad.’
‘What is the sadness about?’ It asks.
‘My mom passed away last summer. My dog died a week later. I wish I could do more for my dad. My friend Warren passed away a couple of weeks ago. I miss my brother. Last week Velvet, one of our horses, colicked and had to be put down.’ I say. ‘There’s been a lot of death and dying lately.’
‘What does that mean to you?’ It asks.
‘It means I’m losing loved ones.’ I say. ‘It means I miss them. It means things end.’
‘And what happens when things end?’ It says.
‘It hurts.’ I say.
‘Ok.’ It says. ‘I can see that.’
We breathe into the silence.
‘Can you surrender to the pain?’ It asks after a while.
‘What do you mean?’ I ask.
‘I mean, can you be ok with it? Can you accept it?’ It asks.
‘I don’t know…’ I say.
‘Can you see that the pain is not all of you? It’s there but it can not overtake your being unless you let it.’ It says.
‘Yes, I remember. Eckhart Tolle. The pain body.’ I say. ‘And what about the fear?’
‘What about it?’ It asks. ‘What does it mean to you?’
‘It’s fear of loss. Fear of darkness.’ I say. ‘Fear of being left alone.’
‘Can you surrender to that fear?’ It asks.
‘I don’t know. It seems so big and overwhelming.’ I say. ‘It’s like the black water that rises all the way up to my neck.’
‘And then what?’ It asks.
‘I don't know. It feels like it’s going to swallow me.’ I say.
‘And then what happens?’ It asks.
‘I just want it to go away.’ I say.
‘And then what would happen?’ It asks.
‘I’d be without fear.’ I say. ‘Fearless.’
‘And how would that feel?’ It asks.
‘Wonderful.’ I say.
‘How about breaking it down into smaller steps?’ It asks. ‘Could you fear less?’
‘Hmm.’ I say. ‘Fear less?’
‘Yes, rather than jumping into the deep end of the dark water, you could take it slow. Get your toes wet, then your feet, and so on. Give it time. See what happens until you know it well enough to fear it less. Eventually you may go from fearing less to feeling fearless.’ It says.
‘Hmm.’ I say. ‘It’s worth a try.’
‘Remember, surrender can mean coming to terms.’ It says. ‘Coming to terms with your fear will take you to accepting it. Acceptance will take you to healing.’
‘Hmm. I can see that.’ I say. A warmer, lighter feeling spreads through my being. ‘Thank you.’
I open my eyes and look into Cassidy’s face. We stare at each other for a while. I reach over to check my phone. I can see clearly now. There is a text message from Christian saying that our father has had a bad fall, that he has been taken to the hospital with a fractured femoral neck and that he is scheduled for surgery early the next morning. I take a deep breath. Fear less.
How creating peace on the inside can become your ultimate power tool to help you create change on the outside
Step 1: Take an honest inventory of your current situation
Something is bothering you. It’s not just the varying sensations of disbelief, helplessness, fear and even anger at some of the more recent political events — globally as well as in your own backyard. It’s not just the occasional turmoil in your close relationships, at work or within your community of family and friends. And it’s not just the overall sense that things are less and less foreseeable, that even some of your best plans aren’t making you feel confident and calm anymore.
No, what I’m talking about is of a more subtle nature. At least at first. Something has been bothering you for a while. It may have started out as a lingering feeling of unrest, a steady note of discontent or unhappy undertones that have become familiar companions in your otherwise quite well-tempered life. As time passes you may notice how even little things are prone to raise your temper, tears come easily, and sudden sadness or a lack of energy are right there underneath the surface.
But you keep on going, doing all the things that are making up your daily routine, perhaps numbing yourself with an overly ambitious (yet quite doable!) work load. You find yourself spending your days and nights in a constant state of stress which, even at low levels, causes your mind and body to be in a continuous mode of fight or flight.
This is what Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh calls habit energy. If you are resonating with what I’ve outlined above you are most likely living in a state of low-frequency or negatively tainted habit energy.
You may rightfully point out that there’s a lot going on in your life. Your thoughts may revolve around health concerns, aging, money, relationship issues, retirement, supporting yourself and others, caregiving for an elderly parent — you name it, the list goes on. And somewhere way down on that list there is a little place that says ‘And what about me?’ This is your essential Self talking, the part of you that knows that you are inherently precious and worthy of being heard and seen in this world.
You don’t like to look at that last point on your list very often because it immediately brings up feelings of guilt, maybe shame or even fear of wanting more for your Self. These thoughts and feelings are what your social Self has been taught from early childhood on. Familiar notions such as ‘you should be grateful for what you have’ and ‘lots of people have it way worse than you’ have trained your mind and turned it into an obedient, little monkey that will ignore the voice that whispers ‘what about me?’ and quickly go back into his little cage.
This negative habit energy — feeling worried, stagnant, anxious, sleepless, resigned, empty, tired, hopeless, frustrated, trapped and generally worn out— often has to do with a lack of perspective for your Self. In order to re-habituate your internal monkey mind it needs to learn to believe that other viable options are within reach. It needs to come out of his cage and have a good look around. Learning, in other words, broadening your self-perspective, is a big part of creating the change that will let you travel on a more meaningful, fulfilling life path.
And here is one crucially important thing to know about learning. A tense and tired mind will not let you absorb and process new information. If you want to learn how to create change you will need to learn how to create peace inside of your Self first. Sounds easy? A little rest, a little meditation, a little yoga, healthy food and reducing all stress factors in your life to a minimum, right? If it was this easy you probably wouldn’t still be reading this piece up to this point. Read on…
Step 2: Check your perspective
Imagine you are a bee that is caught indoors behind the clear glass of a big window pane. You can see quite clearly where you want to go: Out into the big, wide, open world where you are free to peruse the multitude of floral engagement invites, pursue your happiness and fulfill the purpose of your life. Except you just don’t seem to be able to get there. You expand enormous amounts of energy buzzing in front of the clear glass, flapping your wings with all the might you have, banging your head against an invisible wall — all this without getting any closer to your goal. It’s so frustrating! You can see the beautiful trees, the flowers and the blue sky. Everything is right there. All of these lovely treasures — and you just can not get there — no matter how hard you try!
Does this sound familiar? It’s a great metaphor for how many of us live our lives. We all have hopes and dreams and wishes. And we all have a right to go after them!
Let’s get back to the negatively charged habit energy I was talking about. The level of stress may vary, but never the less, it’s there almost all of the time. That means that we as an organism of considerable complexity never really get to be in a one hundred percent relaxed resting status. We don’t sleep well or long enough, and our days are filled with a continuous low-grade anxiety about one thing or another. Our minds and bodies are in a constant state of vigilance, sometimes hyper-vigilance. And because we’re so caught up in our go-go-go mode our ability to see what’s going on has turned into a very narrow perspective. Our monkey mind answers any question about change, any attempt to break a pattern, with the quick and witty auto-response ‘But I have to….!’ And it’s been saying it for so long you’re not even questioning it anymore.
But, and here is the big question: Is it true? Do you really have to…?
What if you were the bee (and yes, there is a tiny monkey in your head — bear with me) and you stopped for a moment, just long enough to gather your wits, maybe even take a little nap because, admit it, buzzing around and banging your head into an invisible wall doesn’t exactly lend itself to a particularly productive outcome when it comes to creating change. So you’re the bee — be the bee! — and you rest for a moment. You sit on the window sill and breathe. And suddenly your wings are starting to pick up the delicious sensation of a most tender touch. You are startled and turn around, but there’s no one there. Instead you notice a gentle breeze that comes from the opposite side of the room. You see another big, square opening, a window, on the wall that was behind you — completely outside of your field of vision — just a moment ago. It’s glass doors are open and white gauze curtains are billowing in the breeze, opening their arms to invite you to come closer. You can see the sky and the trees and the flowers in all their glory again. All you have to do is spread your wings and fly!
And what pops up in your head is a familiar thought: ‘If I couldn’t make it happen before, why should it work this time?’ In the world of behavioral science this is called ‘learned helplessness.’ You have conditioned your (social monkey) Self to believe that you are trapped and unable to (figuratively and literally) move forward — even if the window is wide open!
So you have tunnel vision and invisible breaks built into your modus operandi. Good to know. No reason to give up! Read on…
Step 3: Expose yourself to a conscious key experience
If you asked 20 people who have created enough change in their lives to live an awake, meaningful, balanced life how they got to where they are now I bet you they all have one thing in common. I bet you that each and everyone of them experienced one or several events — I call them key experiences — that made them come to a screeching halt, stop flailing and catch their breath before becoming very still. And I mean completely still. A level of stillness that is almost scary because it has become so unfamiliar in our noisy lives. But it’s exactly this level of stillness that is needed to get to the next place and that is — you guessed it — peace.
Peace is the place where you can breathe without going directly into the next ‘doing’ part of your life. Peace is the place where you can practice your ‘being.’ And when you’re in the place of being at peace your field of vision starts to widen and your sense of awareness is starting to tingle with anticipation again. Parts of you that have felt numb or asleep are starting to wake up and dare to come out into the open. You can stretch and yawn and look around. And for this moment in time nothing needs to be done. See everything with brand-new eyes! And before you know it your peaceful mind is going into a state of expansion. Expanding on what feels good and on what you will want to invite into your life next. How delightful!
So what exactly is a key experience? It could be anything — a health crisis, a loved-one passing on, a divorce, an unexpected change of your professional path and/or financial status — something that causes you to stop and know that life from here on forward will be drastically different. Sometimes you can track back the steps that lead up to a particularly cataclysmic event, and sometimes it comes as a complete surprise. These are events that fall into the category of life lessons that happen to us. Everybody goes through them as part of their human experience.
And then there is the second category, something I like to think of as a conscious key experience. This, my friend, is where you take on the role of an active student of life. It means that you say to yourself: “I, (insert your name here), am in charge if my life!” You say it. You breathe. You mean it. This is where you are committing to being the captain of your universe —even if your voice is quivering just the tiniest little bit.
This is where you consciously choose to expose yourself to key experiences that will help you understand where you want to go from here. You may decide to do something that you have never done before. Take an art class, go to a concert all by yourself, go on a trip to a place where you don’t speak the native language, book a spot on a retreat that seems unusual and intriguing, volunteer at a place that may rock your world, go sky-diving… Anything that will take you out your comfort zone enough to make you stop and think ‘Wow! I never thought I’d do this!’ Because whenever you go out on a limb — even one of your own choosing — you’re going to break an old pattern. You’re going to have to catch your breath for a moment, enjoy the high of conquering the fear of the unknown, feel the joy, recover from the unusual disturbance of your equilibrium, and realize that you’re still in one piece. And that you have landed at a new place. You are at peace.
Step 4: Find new practices and create new habit energy
So that was fun! Let’s do it again, right? Key experiences — especially the conscious ones — have a tendency to make us feel exhilarated and delightfully free. Before we get to the place of peace and clarity, endorphins are in full swing, and what could be better than doing it again? And again. And then some more, right?
Do you notice something? You’re going right into the place of ‘doing’ again! This time it’s with a lot more joy and pleasure in the forecast, but if you’re not careful you can loose yourself in another phase of doing without being and without creating meaningful change.
In order to stay in charge of your own most beautiful, meaningful life you will need to practice a conscious version of restraint. Restrain your desire to go into full-throttle-overkill mode of what you think is the most amazingly fun and beautiful thing you’ve done in a long time. If you don’t you may drift off into a thrill-seeking fog, chasing one high after another. You will loose your clarity, your sense of distinction between the ordinary and the exquisite which is your brand-new power tool, your vision guide, as you move forward and make some leeway on your quest to grow your precious Self.
Resist the temptation of over-doing, search for teachers and teachings, find guides and guidance, and choose practices that will serve you to change your habit energy to a more purposeful, well-paced and fruitful frequency. As you surrender yourself to the process, peace will become your companion, practice will become your path, and fulfillment will become your journey.
A beautiful way of expressing this concept comes from the movie ‘Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon’ where Li Mu Bai says to one of his protagonists to whom he offers his teachings: “No growth without assistance. No action without reaction. No desire without restraint. Now give yourself up and find yourself again.”
Remember: Be the bee.
The holiday season is upon us, and with it my perpetual tendency to avoid and dread all things having to do with Christmas.
For the last 27 years I’ve been living half a planet away from my family of origin in Germany. Over the course of these years each Holiday celebration has been different. Different places, different people, different food, different customs and traditions, different spiritual practices, different moods and music. This year it’s going to be different again. Once again I’m blessed to share the Christmas celebration within the circle of some of my dearest friends. I’m feeling grateful. I’m acutely aware how vastly different and not at all cheerful this time of the year can feel to many people all over the world. I count my many blessings daily.
And yet, here it is again. That sense of dread, the wishfulness to get it over with, the varying levels of anxiety over the need (real or imagined) to fulfill people’s expectations, to give meaningful gifts, to participate in holiday activities, to be cheerful and merry, and whatever else my imaginary Holiday Spirit may conjure up to make me feel uneasy.
I work with horses and people, so for the most part working through the Holidays is a given for me. The animals need care and movement, and the people need support of varying sorts during this festive, busy and often stressful time of the year. Working through the Holidays gives me that comfortable sense of purpose that comes with getting up before the break of dawn and keeping myself so busy throughout the day that going to sleep feels like being hi-jacked by the sudden, irrepressible need for deep rest once my face touches the pillow.
It seems that lots of people have a love-hate relationship with the Holidays. It feels good to think I’m not alone. I sneak a few more treats into each day and hope a few more in the evening won’t make me feel as badly as the night before. And then, I can feel the anxiety set in. Mildly at first, then a bit more insistent, another cookie, some cheese and crackers, maybe some almonds, oh, and just a few pieces of chocolate, frozen yoghurt, just a little… And yet, the funny feeling in my stomach won’t be humored. It’s been rumbling, moaning, fussing and mumbling discontentedly for quite a while now.
So, last night, just before reaching for that next ‘last cookie,’ I stopped myself. Rather than doing or eating one more thing I stopped and sat down in front of my fire place. I closed my eyes and asked my self ‘What makes me uneasy?’
I sat with that question in my mind for a while and focused on my breathing. I remembered the words ‘If a question arises within you, the answer is right there with it. It may just not reveal itself right away.’
The words ‘leaning into discomfort’ bubbled up. I started to notice aches and feelings of tension in my shoulders, my back and my legs, steady companions that come with living with fibromyalgia for many years. I’m used to discomfort, just haven’t been leaning into it with great enthusiasm.
‘Keep going…’ I thought. ‘Leaning into discomfort… What makes me uneasy?’
‘Feelings.’ It said. ‘What does your discomfort feel like?’
‘Aches in my shoulders, back and legs.’ I thought. ‘And in my stomach.’
‘Ok.’ It said. ‘And what else? What do you notice underneath that?’
‘I don’t want to think about my aches and pains.’ I thought.
‘Why not?’ It asked.
‘I’m afraid my thoughts will make me feel worse.’ I thought.
‘Thoughts.’ It said. ‘Thoughts are only thoughts. Some of them are useful. Others not so much. You get to choose.’
‘Hmm. I’m still worried.’ I thought. ‘Once they’re loose it’s hard to keep them under control.’
‘Ah. Control. And discipline. Such heavy shackles.’ It said. ‘Controlling your thoughts and feelings… about what?’
‘It’s the first Christmas my mom isn’t alive anymore.’ I thought and swallowed. ‘And my dog is gone, too. And I’m worried about my dad.’
‘Ok.’ It said. ‘And how do you feel when you think these thoughts?’
‘I don’t like those thoughts.’ I thought. ‘They make me feel real sad. And anxious. And there’s so much good stuff going on in my life. I shouldn’t feel sad.’
‘One doesn’t exclude the other. You can feel different things, and think different thoughts.’ It said. ‘You can allow as much or as little into the present moment as you like.’
‘Hmm.’ I thought about that for a moment.
‘Where do you feel the sad feelings?’ It asked.
‘In my heart. And in my stomach.’ I thought as the water gathered in my eyes and my stomach made a move that felt tight and as if it was reaching up all the way into my throat.
‘Ok.’ It said. ‘That’s ok.’
‘It is?’ I thought. ‘I don’t like these feelings. I’d like to keep them down.’
‘Down?’ It asked.
‘Yes, down.’ I thought. ‘Way down… and far away from me.’
‘So you put food on top of your feelings?’ It asked.
‘Yes.’ I thought.
‘Does it help?’ It asked.
‘No. But it’s something I can do…’ I thought.
It was quiet for a moment. I noticed my breathing had gotten a bit more shallow. I took a deeper breathe in and exhaled slowly.
‘They are your feelings, you know?’ It said after a while. ‘They’re part of you. They are telling you something.’
‘Yes, I know.’ I thought. ‘I’m feeling sad, and achy, and grumpy.’
‘Ok.’ It said. ‘That’s better. Know and acknowledge your suffering. Lean into it for just a moment. Feel compassion for yourself. Then you can heal.’
‘Hmm. Interesting.’ I thought. ‘Leaning into discomfort is part of healing.’
‘Yes.’ It said. ‘You must know your own discomfort.’
‘Hmm.’ I thought. ‘And then what do I do with it? Can I just sit with it?’
‘You can sit with it. You can look at it. Breathe into it. Feel it. You can lean into it.’ It said. ‘And when you’re ready you can lean out of it.’
‘Hmm.’ I thought. ‘I like that. I can lean into it. And then I can lean out of it. It’s like using advance and retreat, or pressure and release, with the horses. ’
‘Yes.’ It said. ‘It’s like any practice. Little steps will help you master your quest.’
‘I’m still feeling sad.’ I thought. ‘Will I be alright?’
‘You are alright, sweet child.’ It said.
‘Hmm.’ I thought. ‘Ok. I think that’s enough for now. I’m leaning out now…’
And then it was quiet. I mean really still. I could feel the warmth of the fire blending with the warmth inside of me as the calmness spread through my whole body. Then some more words bubbled up.
‘May you be well. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be free from all suffering.’
And so it was that I didn’t need another cookie last night. And tonight not quite as many. Little steps. Leaning in. And leaning out.
Happy Holidays to all of you, my friends! :)
‘May you be well. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be free from all suffering.’
You may have noticed that it’s been rather quiet in my corner of the world. I haven’t written a blog or sent out a newsletter in a while. Some of you know that not too long ago my mom and my dog passed away. Losing both of them fairly suddenly and in close succession was hard. And although I’m not a stranger to situations involving death and dying, this one took me by surprise. I’d like to share with you something I wrote about a month ago. Here it is:
My eye lids feel heavy and I want to sleep all the time. It’s as if all my sensory intake devices want to be left alone, close the doors and keep the outside world outside.
My nose feels stuffy. I can never get enough air. There is a slight tingling right underneath the surface of each breath that enters and leaves the inflamed entrance of my nostrils. If the outskirts of a random thought touch a memory of my mother or my dog, the tingling quickens and flash-floods the space above my cheek bones and the inside of my nasal passages with a stinging heat. Water rises in my eyes.
Every shallow breath touches the heavy hollows in my heart space.
My arms and legs seem to be filled with lead. I’m lying on my bed. It’s Sunday afternoon. Nothing needs to be done until it’s time to feed the horses in a couple of hours.
I watch TV and flip through the channels at random intervals. The sound is muted and the pictures don’t matter. I can’t bear any words or many sounds right now. The silent moving pictures provide a perfectly meaningless backdrop to the thoughts I won’t let in. Pictures. Flip. Pictures. Pictures. Flip. Pictures. Flip. My cat is snoring next to me on the bed. He sounds like mosquito that stops flying every few seconds.
I can either be in work-work-work mode, or I want to sleep all he time. It feels like hibernation time. Bears and turtles have the right idea. Take some time and go into a state of inactivity. Slow down your breathing and your heart rate. Let your body temperature drop. Take some time for internal processing. Rest. Recover. Renew. Surrender to dormancy.
My friend Marty said that my Mom wanted a dog, and that sounds right to me. That's where I can hold both of them right now. Everything else is making me want to shrink back into my internal sensory depravation tank.
I called my father in Germany earlier. It was morning here, dinner time where he is.
‘How are you doing?’ he asks.
‘Fine.’ I lie. ‘And you?’
‘Pretty good.’ he lies right back.
‘I’m sorry about your dog.’ he says. ‘Are you going to get another one?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘She was one of a kind. So sweet and smart and funny and lovely. She understood everything.’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I know what you mean.’ I wonder if we’re still talking about my dog.
‘What’s going on with you, Papi?’ I ask.
‘Oh, I’m going to the hospital tomorrow. I’m getting my eyes fixed.’
‘That’s great, Papi! You’ll be so happy to be able to see and read like you used to. Are you nervous?’
‘Yes.' he says, and I’m glad he doesn’t lie this time. ‘They are my only eyes after all…’
‘Yes, I know. I’ll be thinking about you, and I’ll keep you in my prayers. I’m sure you’ll be so glad when you’re done.’
‘And how are you, Katzi?’ he asks. ‘Healthwise, I mean…’
‘I’m alright.’ I say. ‘Back to work, keeping busy, riding, coaching, taking care of horses, you know…’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I know.’
‘I have to go now.’ he says. ‘It’s time for dinner.’
‘Ok, Papi. Take good care. I hold you dear.’
‘I hold you dear, too, mein Katzi. Take good care.’
‘Ok. We’ll talk again soon. Tschüß, mein Papi.’
‘Tschüß, mein Katzi.’
I need to sleep some more.
And so it comes and goes, like ebb and flow, this thing called ‘grief.’
I listened to a lecture by Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Zen master, about connecting with our suffering. He was talking about the bodhisattva Avalokite.
Avalokite is well known for his capacity to listen, to listen deeply to the suffering inside and the suffering outside.
He often goes back to himself and the practice of listening deeply to his own suffering.
As he gets in touch with his own suffering, understanding and compassion arise.
Transformation and healing follow. That is why Avalokite is able to look at other people around him and understand their suffering and help them to transform and heal.
This beautiful lecture brought me comfort. It reminded me that it is ok to have a look at my own suffering. As many of us, I was raised not to speak of or to dwell on pain or discomfort.
Getting in touch with my grief over the loss of my mother and my dog helps me understand my physical and mental state of being. Writing about it makes me listen to it more deeply.
As I listen and understand my feelings and my body’s reaction better during this time of loss, I can surrender more easily to the waves of heaviness that continue to sweep over my being. I am starting to notice the waves of lightness that follow and allow me to open my eyes, move my limbs and breathe with more ease again. The natural rhythm of waves envelopes me in what feels like a prolonged rocking motion.
As I’m writing about the rocking motion, water rises in my eyes. I blink and take a deeper breath. Of course, the rocking motion makes me think of Mili, my angel mother. And of course it makes me think of Kelly, my beloved boarder collie. Pictures and sensations flood my senses. I breathe into the moment, stop writing and let the wave take me all the way.
Ok, there, there. A gentle calm comes over me. I’m still listening to myself. And what I feel is… gratitude. Gratitude to have had both of these precious beings in my life. Gratitude for the many blissful and stormy times we shared. Gratitude for the many teachings I received from both of them. Gratitude for the love we share, the love that goes beyond time and space. Thank you, Mili. Thank you, Kelly.
And thank you -- people, horses and other animals -- who are holding space for me. I feel you, and I thank you, too.
So much for now. It’s time to feed the horses.
I spent the last few days of December and transitioning into 2016 at a Byron Katie retreat in Los Angeles that was graciously gifted to me by my beautiful friends Ashley Jansen and Koelle Simpson. It literally took the support and the love of a small village, the help of some of my dearest friends and my beloved ranch family, to turn this awe-inspiring experience into a reality for me. After initially declining the generous offer, I’m so happy that I got over myself, cleared my calendar, asked for help with my not-so-low-maintenance animals, left my self-imposed busy schedule behind and enjoyed a few days of complete immersion in this amazing learning opportunity which turned out to be a gift and a privilege of inestimable value.
I sat for several days listening to the many brave souls who shared their stories, soaking in their conversations with Byron Katie, the well-known speaker and author who teaches her method of self-inquiry known as "The Work of Byron Katie” with utter integrity, razor-sharp focus, and the highest level of kindness for ourselves and others.
Not only did I follow the stories of the many daring seekers, I was guided by Katie and one of her facilitators, Yvonne Omelianenko, to take a look at some of my own painful thought creations. Although I was familiar with and have used Katie’s work for a while, I learned so much more about doing in-depth worksheets, expanding on her method and, above all, about slowing down this very gentle process of introspection.
The four questions: 1. Is it true? 2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? 3. How do you react when you believe that thought? 4. Who would you be without that thought?
My mind was doing back-flips! I took a look at some of my familiar thought groves, those well-worn brain trails my mind traverses when it navigates the many tales of past and future troubles. The voices in my head, my day-time demons, my nightly specters, could it be true that you are wrong? Amazing, the dance-like undulations, the mind curling itself into a thinly-veiled ball of roller-coaster emotions, when it finds itself facing a looking glass. And then there is the breath that gives it all away.
Me: I am not safe. (holding my breath)
BK: Is it true?
Me: Yesss! (exhaling with the hissing sound of conviction)
BK: Can you absolutely know that it’s true, sweet heart?
Me: Yes, well, hmm, absolutely? (squeaky voice due to breath held-in too tightly)… Well, not exactly… (I sound like a four-year-old — oh, and the pictures in my head, my four-year-old eyes see everything so clearly!)
BK: Are you safe right now? Right here?
Me: Uhm, right now (what time is it?)… and right here? (where am I?)… Yes…? (breath slowly relaxing, voice maturing) … I think so… hmm… yes.
BK: Ok, sweet heart, alright. How do you react when you believe the thought that you are not safe?
Me: I am scared, I am abrupt, I rush myself… and others… (squeaky voice)
BK: Ok, darling, and who would you be without that thought? Take your time…
Me: (what? take your time?)…I…would be…(slower breathing, relaxing) …more in touch with myself… (lower voice) more patient with myself… (slow exhale) and others.
BK: Thank you, sweet heart.
So, yes, the magic questions, although not to be mistaken for a quick fix, enable a fairly sudden shift towards relief. They are in many ways the opening act for deeper explorations of the story underneath the initial painful thought, and there was such a sense of relief when I found out that speeding down that familiar one-way street of painful thoughts was not the only option.
I have a choice. I can choose to let myself be gently steered away from those familiar paths, to create a shift towards lightness when it comes to pain-inducing thinking. Pair that with the magic words ‘Take your time,’ and address yourself with the occasional term of endearment (sweet heart, darling!), and I’m on my way to stumbling toward freedom from my oppressive thinking and my caged identity.
Oh wait, is that true? Is your identity caged, sweet heart?
Can you absolutely know that this is true?
Hmm… (taking time)… maybe not completely.
How do you react when you believe that thought, darling?
Hmm… (taking time, breathing)… (more time)… I feel… caged… not free… I want to run away…
And who would you be without that thought, precious?
… (breathing, thinking, feeling inward)… Right now, … right here… I’d be a free person..., I am a free person... And that is true.
These days it’s hard to escape the heartbreaking news about violent terrorist attacks in more and more places all over the world. Thoughts and emotions of doom and darkness are lingering with fluctuating intensity as the number of victims increases and the open threats made by radicalized extremists are rising. Something has to be done! Nobody seems to know what to do. If only I could do something! Nothing can be done. Isn’t there anything I can do? Somebody do something!
It’s easy to get lost in the feelings of worry, sadness, anger, denial, grief, outrage and helplessness. What can we do to help fight the darkness? I mean you and me and every human being who feels the darkness closing in? We can’t all be hands-on involved in fighting what has turned into a massive killing venture of random people. Not everyone can or wants to be a journalist, medic, politician, soldier, security personnel – courageous professionals putting their lives on the line so more people can live a peaceful life. Not everyone can be directly involved in the imminent, ‘larger-than-life’ issues that cause these feelings of doom and darkness to spread by simply turning on the TV or by following the ever-present stream of information and opinions on social media.
But there is something we can do. We can be ‘darkness fighters’ in our own way! Dr. Martin Luther King said ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.’ We can feel the truth in this. We can take heart and act on our own individual mission to bring light and love into the world in whatever way we can.
Each and everyone of us has a very unique calling. We aren’t always aware of it and often times afraid to fail before we even get started, but we can make small steps, and we can ask for help. I am convinced that if we follow our heart’s road map toward a joyful, creative and fulfilling life, if we get in touch with our natural gifts, our voice, our mission, we can bring light into this world with every breath we take. Seeing those who fear to be seen, sharing a smile with a stranger, offering a kind word that wasn’t expected, being a grounded pillar in a sea of unsettled wanderers.
We can be loving parents to our own children or to those who have none, sources of artistic nourishment, courageous listeners, providers of delightfully clean spaces, advocates to those too weak to defend themselves, students and guardians of our animal teachers, sculptors of words, planters of hopeful seeds, supporters of our elders’ well-being and preservers of their wisdom, harvesters of earthly and unearthly treasures, living proof that love and faith can move mountains, carriers of burdens too heavy for others to shoulder, and treasurers of our own precious selves so we can be the bright light that allows no secrets or shame to hide in the dark.
So take heart! Be kind to yourself and to others. Share your gifts. And see the beautiful currents of light you are spreading by just being your most joyful, conscious and loving You in this world. Stand your ground and in your truth, stay in your integrity and set boundaries openly so those around you can see, love and respect you for who you really are. Draw like-minded people to you. Build community. Cherish each other, and cheer each other on!
The currents of light will multiply and spread farther and farther, touching other spreaders of light.
The currents of light are unstoppable. In this way none of us are alone. In this way we stand united. Take heart! And help to spread the light!
One of my favorite life-coaching tools is the type of dream analysis that allows the dreamers to explore each dream element as an aspect of their own psyche. I’ve had some of my own (sometimes freakishly bizarre) dreams analyzed by some trusted coaching friends, and every single time I was surprised to see what my mysterious, subconscious mind had to tell me.
There were times when through this type of dream interpretation I found out that certain aspects of my identity apparently no longer served me and were in fact ready to die. This was made visible to me, for example, through some murderous dream sequences that may or may not have involved my ex-husband. Upon further examination it seemed that I no longer needed to hold on to certain negative stories around relationships and my long-held protective mode when it comes to anything relating to the idea of inviting a (more or less) significant other into my life. You can see I’m still working on this one.
Another time I found some unforeseen comfort in a ‘message from beyond.’ Dreaming that I was riding with group of wild Mongolian horse people, my subconscious mind was telling me in its own peculiar way that ‘belonging’ can not only be a pleasant but perhaps even exhilarating state of being, even if there are admittedly more tranquil ways to experience this. But to each (subconscious mind) his own (message to the conscious mind), right?
As my life-coaching client base is growing and more people seem to like to talk about their dreams with me, this technique has proven to be a very powerful tool to produce insightful messages for those who are ready to explore. I think one of the reasons why this is such a great way to dive into some of our deeper truths is that the coach serves as a mirror, offering the slightly different perspective of an observer, asking the dreamer to answer each question directly, without pondering them for too long, so that the spontaneous, uncensored answers from the subconscious mind can bubble to the surface without inhibition.
I find that being a mirror is one of the most enjoyable and helpful qualities a coach can adopt when working with a client. The interesting part is that by offering the client the option to ‘Tell me where I’m wrong,’ the defenses one could come up against when looking at some otherwise well-hidden truths often just melt away. The dreamers get to ‘be the dream element,’ then define themselves as each one of the dream elements before answering the questions from the point of view of each dream element. So, with the help of the mirroring coach, the dreamers answer their own questions and often times are pleasantly surprised how benevolent and loving their Higher Selves truly are.
The more I use this technique the more I have become aware of the undercurrents of the divine feminine and the divine masculine energies that, regardless of our individual gender, run through all of us. So I have started to incorporate these two frequencies into my version of the dream analysis by asking the client toward the end of the session to pick one dream element that feels distinctly female and one that seems to have a decidedly more male quality to it. Then we go into question and answer mode one more time to see what these predominantly feminine and masculine dream elements may have to share.
It’s empowering and comforting for the dreamers to see and understand how the two types of energetic forces work within all of us.
offers tenderness, wisdom, patience, nurturing, flexibility and fertility. It contains qualities of compassion, emotion, creativity, empathy, collaboration, spirituality, holistic thought, and right brain thinking which is connected to intuition and artistic expression.
Our Divine Masculine energy offers courage, protection, leadership, loyalty, a sense of adventure and a desire to explore. It’s about being analytical and rational, competition, determination, linear thinking, logical thought, action, and left brain thinking which is linked to an affinity for math and science.
It’s interesting to know that we feel most fully aligned with our creativity and our potential when our divine feminine and divine masculine energies are balanced. This is when we feel most at ease, in the flow with our natural gifts and in sync with our calling.
Recognizing and acknowledging both energies in our awake state of mind can be tremendously reassuring. We can see how we are both strong and vulnerable – and sometimes perfectly at odds with one side or the other – but we’re always well-looked after while internal and external transformations unfold. Most importantly, we’re all perfectly equipped to handle the many questions on our paths. The answers lie within us. Sometimes we just have to ask for a little help to find them. What wondrous beings we get to be! What wondrous lives we get to share!
The other day I shared this additional part of the dream analysis with my dear friend and brilliant mentor Martha Beck. She loved it and gave it a big thumbs up, so those of you who are in the coaching world, feel free to play with it and see what added treasures you may be able to unveil!
Recently someone asked me where the ‘Heart to Heart’ mantra that I use for my work with horses and people originated.
This mantra came to me a long time ago, when I was working with horses, and it goes like this: ‘Heart to Heart. Mind to Mind. Body to Body. Spirit to Spirit. I am with you. You are with me. All is well.’
It started out as a way of thinking, feeling and moving when approaching a horse, a way to quiet my mind before trying to reach out to the precious, sometimes far-away horse soul in front of me. I’ve always entered a horse’s space with a sense of wonder and awe, without assumptions, waiting for this beautiful creature to say ‘yes,’ ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ to my presence. Thinking the Heart-to-Heart mantra gives me a chance to simply say ‘Here I am with you. I see and accept you in all that you are. I mean no harm. I am no trouble. I want nothing. Be with me if you like. Walk away if you need to. All is well.’
This sort of approach seems so natural and soothing to me. As a life-coach, I offer the same baseline of communication to the people I work with. I wish it would be more common among us humans to show up with no big questions or expectations, especially when we first meet.
As a horse trainer, often helping people with their ‘problem’ horses, the Heart-to-Heart mantra has helped me connect with the horses, and then to reconnect the horses with their owners many times. Often there’s a lot of shame going on in the way people allow their horses to be treated in certain situations, and as a result the stories I’ll hear from the owners are not always a perfect match to the stories the horses will tell. The mantra helps to bridge the gap between what was and what has a chance to be better now.
If you introduce yourself to a horse (for the first time or as a way to start over) by putting one hand on your heart and one hand on the horse’s forehead or shoulder, thinking, feeling and sometimes gently saying out loud the Heart-to-Heart mantra gives us a chance to start with a clean slate. On an energetic level we say to the horse, ‘I’m here. You’re here. No need to worry about the past or the future, just being together right here, right now, we are at peace.’
The Heart-to-Heart mantra as an introduction feels especially important to those horses who have lost their trust in human kind, and in human kindness. I remember spending many hours walking or standing in pastures, sitting in front of stall doors or on the dusty grounds of a paddock, in stillness, the mantra on my mind as a peace offering to the horses who, for the most part, had lost their desire to spend much time with humans. I know some people who feel much the same.
I remember Gio, a gorgeous dark bay mustang, who had been captured by the Bureau of Land Management and who had found a new home in a large pasture owned by a well-meaning family. He was so traumatized by what had happened to him he had never had the opportunity to learn that closeness to humans could be a good thing.
Do you know that feeling? Are you sometimes afraid of letting people getting close to you? Do you know what it’s like not to be seen as the wonderful, precious, free being you really are?
I remember Saracen, a beautiful, chestnut Arabian mare, who would, with ears flattened and teeth bared, charge up to the fence of her small paddock, fiercely protecting her space, threatening any person who would come too close to her. Her way to protect herself from harm was to say ‘I’ll hurt you before you can hurt me.’
Does your fear or anger sometimes make you wonder what it would be like to feel safe, at ease and whole again?
And I remember Maximus, a highly-bred warmblood, a beautiful mover, imported from Germany for the big game in Dressage, who had learned to regulate the enormous tension built-up inside of him by too many years of overly ambitious training by virtually catapulting off any rider daring to call his bluff.
Are you dealing with unresolved trauma, not daring to reach out for comfort, support and community?
Heart to Heart. Mind to Mind. Body to Body. Spirit to Spirit. I am with You. You are with Me. All is well.
I’d sit there and let my mind glide into the soft repetitions of my mantra, sometimes looping into the ‘I am with You, You are with Me ’ part until it seemed to turn into the softer ‘I am You, You are Me’ version that happens gradually when all meaning starts to dissolve and the balmy nothingness of non-expectation starts to blur the lines between you and me.
And so, in time, sometimes a lot of time, the lines between resistance and relaxation, between fear and trust, between you and me, the horse and the human softens. The learning and the healing has begun. It’s much the same for humans.
I use this mantra with the horses and the people in my everyday life. I use it walking around in nature, connecting with everything alive. Sometimes as part of my lessons, life-coaching sessions, guided meditations, and sometimes just to connect with myself. It’s so simple. And it always guides me to that place inside of me where I know, no matter what, all is well.
Are you a refugee? Are you on the run? Physically, mentally, in your heart, in your head? Do you feel safe? Frozen with fear sometimes, in your dreams, your memories, your waking hours? What is your story? What power does it hold over you? Are you ready to break free?
I recently went to Northern Germany to see my parents, my brother and his family, and some of my closest friends. It was a very joyful and thought-provoking time. This is where I grew up, in the wind-blown, rural area of a Nordic country with its rich history of Scandinavian, Germanic, and Slavic cultures and the beautiful seascapes around the Kieler Foerde, a fjord that cuts into the lush green land from the Baltic Sea.
One evening, Gerd Batzlaff, an old family friend, comes to my parents’ house and shares some childhood memories with us. Gerd had grown up on a large farm on a Baltic Sea island, Usedom, in the Eastern parts of Germany, Pomerania. By the end of World War II, Gerd, a then 8-year-old boy, and his family went onto a long, arduous refugee track, hoping to escape the Russian troops coming in as part of the Allied Forces to occupy Germany in 1945. The flight did not leave Gerd and his family unscathed. He had to witness his mother’s rape by Russian soldiers and almost lost his grandmother as the family barely escaped the deadly traps set by snipers in a forest near Berlin. They finally found shelter in a refugee camp near Kiel.
Hearing his story made me think how much my parents’ generation, children when the second World War ended, had to live through, how it marked them, and how strong they must have been to grow up under so much duress.
Are certain memories of experiences you’ve lived through still haunting you, influencing your life to this very day?
Another thing during my trip was unexpected. Germany is welcoming large numbers of refugees from Syria who have been pouring into the country for a while now. What started out as Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel’s serious address to her country as well as to the European Union, a plea to extend a helping hand to Syrian refugees seeking protection from Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, filters down to a call to action in even small communities, like the village my parents live in, to share food, clothes, and shelter with the continuous flow of new hungry, tired, often sick or injured, yet hopeful Syrians.
Food and shelter are the top necessities to help provide assistance to the many people of all ages and backgrounds. There is great need to help with communications between the refugees and those providing help. Smart phones are handed out to the refugees to enable the most basic conversations. Seemingly endless rows of photos and names are being printed in papers and on posters to help separated family members relocate their loved-ones.
Have you lost touch with loved-ones, or with yourself? Are secrets and fear part of your everyday life?
I see signs at many store fronts: “Refugees Welcome!” This makes me so happy! People reaching out to people suffering from this horrible humanitarian crisis, saying ‘we’re here for you!’ Given some of the darker parts of German history, this heartfelt gesture and the multitude of compassion-filled actions resulting from this very simple piece of communication feels right and good. Waves of gratitude fill the air -- and my heart.
Are you getting in touch with your desire for freedom and safety? Are you reaching out for help?
Refugees. A theme that keeps crossing my path, and my mind. When I look at myself, having left Germany some 26 years ago, never able to completely shake the fear of being tracked down by a long-term psychopath stalker, escaping into marriage to an American producer who took me away into the seemingly safe and colorful city of San Francisco in the late 80s – well, in some ways I’m quite familiar with the concept of leaving my home country, my family, everything known and loved, in search of a more peaceful, safer chance at life. Not to be dramatic, but seven years of behind-closed-doors abuse and living in real fear for my life and that of my family in my early adulthood did do a trick on my mind-body connection. Being able to speak about the trauma has only been a thing of the most recent past, encouraged and lovingly supported by my ranch-family here in California as well as my family in Germany. Not that I’d ever assume to know what it’s like to live under the horrific circumstances the Syrian refugees were facing, but living with secrets and in fear, common denominators of most dysfunctional relationships, that’s something I know about. And I’m ready to share what I have learned.
And so I’m wondering, is there something in your life, in your heart, that makes you want to run sometimes? Something that makes you want to leave the scary feelings and the dark places, trying to get away from what seems so terrible, so daunting, something so scary it may seem virtually unnamable? Are you a refugee? Looking for asylum, a safe haven, a community to hold you?
What is your story? I’ve just begun to tell mine, and although it’s not an easy process -- the learning to accept help, the giving in to the wish to have community, the healing that comes from allowing to be held, the opening up to receiving love and support, the subsequent shifts and chances to share the learning and to finally face fear and secrets with my shoulders straightened – those things are gifts of almost unfathomable dimensions when you’re just about to make the first step toward your own awakening. And if some of what I’m talking about here resonates with you at all, I encourage you to dare to make that first step, too! Let’s open our hearts, learn and grow and support one another! Refugees Welcome!
Copyright © Katja Elk 2015. All rights reserved.