Our kids are very fortunate to be able to attend a camp in mountains called “Hickory Nut Gap Farm Camp”. It’s like stepping back in time to 1910 or so, when the farmhouse there was built. The kids spend their days riding horses; cuddling kittens, baby chicks, and old farmdogs; getting covered in clay during pottery time; eating their lunch in trees; and putting on plays.
And eating fat juicy blackberries right off the bush.
Today when I was picking them up at the end of the day, I paused a moment to pluck a blackberry for myself and pop it into my mouth. Looking up at the clouds easing past the hills, feeling the sun on my skin, hearing the shouts of kids playing in the field, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of true happiness.
This was not a big moment, an exciting moment, a peak experience moment, a highly-anticipated moment. I was not at Disney World, or at the ballgame, or getting an award for something. I just popped a blackberry into my mouth. Nothing special at all.
I love lowering the bar on what makes me happy, because then more things do.
Courage is the ability to feel afraid and do it anyway. But Courage helps us transcend more than just fear. It helps us acknowledge excuses and limiting beliefs of all kinds – laziness, tiredness, doubt, self-pity, blame, confusion – and keep moving anyway.
Courage is not about denying our limiting beliefs or emotions. It’s not about repressing our fears or pretending they don’t exist. Quite the opposite. The best way to handle fear is to acknowledge it. Look it squarely in the face, extend your hand, and say, “Hello, my old friend Fear. I see you’re there, and I’ll take care of you.” Fear is like a crying child: it doesn’t help to pretend it’s not there. You must go to her, comfort her, let her know you’re there and everything will be ok.
It’s the same with any of the thoughts or feelings that keep us stuck. When you feel self-doubt (“Oh, who am I to do this? I’m not good enough…”), just go to it like it was a crying child. Say, “Self-doubt, I see you. I know you’re there, and I know you’re in pain. It will be ok: I’m here with you now.”
Then, do it anyway. That’s the power of Courage.
Imagine the Courage streaming into you like sunlight into the tiny leaves of the first crocus of spring. Feel the Courage warming the crocus within you, encouraging it to brave the cold, the snow, the perils of blooming. The crocus knows it’s facing an uncertain and potentially hazardous period when it first pokes its head up through the earth. But it feels the sunlight of Courage, and sprouts anyway.
You can do it, too. You can sprout anyway. You can look at your doubts, fears, confusion – smile at them like old friends – and do what you’re being called to do, anyway.
Choose to Be Courageous!
All I wanted was a little peace and quiet. A moment alone. I longed for the kind of happiness that a little self-imposed solitude might bring. And I had it all set up just as I had envisioned it: A cup of tea in my hands. A novel (enthusiastically recommended by a friend) sitting temptingly on the coffee table just beside me. The pillows on the couch supporting my back just so. And music cued up on the stereo. Something soft and dreamy with a sweet vocal accompaniment that sung of hope and light.
I settled myself in. Just right. It was just as I had imagined a happy moment might be. I was totally prepared to be happy. It was just one deep exhale away.
And then. BANG! The front door slammed open, sprang back from its own force and slammed shut twice as loudly. “MOM!” four small voices exclaimed at once. Immediately my brows knit together and my shoulders flew up towards my ears. “Mom, look what we found!” Our children came tearing into the living room – a laughing, foot stamping, mud trampling crew, eyes ablaze with some new discovery.
I held up my hand at arm’s length, palm out, like a vigilant crossing guard. I frowned. The happy moment I had long envisioned was crumbling like so many dried mud clods. “Your shoes,” I admonished them, “Look at your shoes.” They looked down at their feet, shrugged, kicked off their shoes, and quickly moved toward me once again, smiling hopefully. I shook my head and rubbed the two lines that were forming between my brows. I strained to hear the lovely music playing on the stereo, but could barely detect it over the sound of my temples throbbing. “Please put your shoes by the door before you take another step. Do you know how long it took me to clean this room up?” They looked at one another, picked up their shoes and lumbered back toward the door. But instead of placing their shoes down and tiptoeing back to me (as proper respect would demand), they sadly put their shoes back on and began to walk back out the door.
Now I was at the edge of fury. Not only had my peace and happiness been utterly destroyed by this interruption, now they were going to walk out without even telling me what they had come in to tell me in the first place. Could this get worse? “What?!” I asked, “What is it that is so important that you can’t even take the time to put your shoes by the door? And is it that much to ask for a moment of peace?”
“Never mind,” said the youngest as he gingerly shut the door beside him.
I took a deep breath, trying to restore my calm. But the moment had passed. My nerves were frayed and the moment of calm, peaceful happiness I had envisioned had passed. Oh, well – I thought dejectedly – I might as well get some reading in. And as I reached for the novel on the coffee table, I saw it. The first flower of spring. A daffodil. A bright yellow flower, as hopeful as a child’s smile, sitting on the coffee table next to some fresh muddy fingerprints.
Happiness had come careening into my life like a wild and fresh spring rainstorm and I had shooed it away because of some stale, airless notion of happiness that I thought would shelter me from that very life-giving force.
How often does this happen to us? Our idea of happiness blinds us to the real happiness that is holding out a flower to us?
We must take great care in our lives, that in pursuing the elusive butterfly of happiness, we do not trample the garden of happiness that is right under our feet.
Somewhere around the 5th grade, I became aware of bullies. Or, rather, they became aware of me as a delightfully easy target for their aggressive self-expression.
My parents stepped in to help me out by signing me up for kung fu lessons. Somehow my mom found a Babson College student named Mark Yee who was working his way through business school by teaching scrawny adolescents how to fight. He started coming to our house weekly for lessons.
We started with the usual techniques for punching and kicking. But he must have seen, at that early age, that I was more interested in the mystical side of the practice. He taught me how to meditate, and guided me through some experiences which were, in retrospect, quite advanced. We left our bodies and glided around the room like ghosts. We closed our eyes and practiced defending against punches using just our 6th sense. We felt the subtle movements of the qi energy ebbing and flowing in response to our motions.
At the time, I had no idea that he was training me in intermediate Jedi powers. I just thought this was normal. When a bully comes up to you demanding your lunch money, you wave your hands, Obi Wan Kenobi-style, and say, “This is not the lunch money you want,” and they back off slowly. I never got quite to that point, but we did work on moving with zero effort, diving through colors, and smiling while fighting. All this in my parents’ driveway, back yard, and living room.
I have no way of finding Mark Yee. He has slipped away – dissolved into the sea of humanity like so much salt in the broth. This man played a pivotal role in my adolescent spiritual development, and I have no way of getting in touch with him. How many Mark Yee’s are there in the phone book? Even the Internet can’t help reunite us.
I have no way of finding Mark Yee, yet he is not lost. He might be anywhere on the planet – it has been 30 years since we last bowed good bye to each other – and yet he is as close to me as breathing.
Because I carry Mark Yee around with me. I have no choice. He’s a part of me now. Were it not for Mark, I would not be the person I am right now. If he didn’t exist, then I wouldn’t exist in the way I do now. We are not entirely separate, because without Mark being Mark, James would not be James.
My left pinky is part of me, because I would not be the same if not for my left pinky. In the same way, Mark is part of me, because I would not be the same if not for him and his teachings.
Who have been your most important teachers? Maybe they are people you knew personally, like Mark Yee, or maybe they are the enlightened masters of the wisdom literature.
Take a moment and feel how they are with you right now. You carry them with you everywhere you go. They can always teach you, inspire you, and support you.
Your teacher is part of you. Your teacher is always with you.
I love having warm hands.
The other day I was running around the block in the cold, and by the end of my very short jog, my hands had become nice and warm. They had started out almost painfully icy, but after a few minutes of running, were red and toasty.
I also notice that when I meditate or relax deeply, my hands start off cold and get warm. I think that’s about the relaxation response kicking in and allowing the blood to flow out to the skin, as opposed to keeping it in tight to the core muscles needed for fight or flight. Whatever it is, it feels great.
And then there’s holding hands. It only takes a few minutes of holding hands to warm right up.
Holding a cup of hot tea on a cold day. Feeling the radiant heat of a crackling fire. Patting a dog or cat. All warm hands, all very nice, very healthy & healing.
So, I have this theory – do more things that make my hands warm. Conversely, when my hands are cold, I can tell it’s time to relax, or take care of myself, or re-connect. What makes your hands warm?
Why is it that I am always trying to squeeze in one more thing into my life, into my schedule, into my work — than is comfortable?
It’s sort of ironic, really, that in trying to get things done so I can freely move on to the next thing without worries — I end up moving into the next thing distracted and frenzied because I am running behind because I was trying to get things done so I wouldn’t be distracted and frenzied.
Odd how the desire to be “caught up” (as in getting-everything-crossed-off-the-to-do-list) in time leaves me feeling “caught up” (as in entangled) emotionally.
It leaves me with the question – what would happen if things were left undone?
What would happen if I paid more attention to my To Be List than my To Do List?
If you’re the same, you know the feeling of trying to cram in that one last to-do. It can really ruin a vacation. Or a date, or dinner with the family, or pretty much anything you wanted to enjoy.
Right now, think back to a time when you got wound up trying to check things off. What was the To-Be that you were really wanting? To be free? To be relaxed? To be peaceful? Whatever it is, put it on your To Be list. Think up a way to remind yourself next time you start getting wound up, “Remember, what I really want is to be peaceful. This is not helping! Instead, I choose to…”
May we all practice returning to our To Be List, and may it bring us what we really want, which lies beneath all our to-do’s!
Last night, I had a dream about a farmer.
This farmer woke up in the morning and wandered out to his field. He looked up to the sky and noticed how beautiful and clear the sky was. He smiled to see that it was filled with light and how beautiful it looked as the clouds gently drifted in it.
The farmer looked down at his feet and saw the soil that he tilled. The soil reminded him of the hard work that lay before him that day. He kicked a rock and gazed back up at the beautiful sky. How I wish the whole world were made up of just the light and beauty of the sky, he thought. As he thought this the ground under his feet began to shift and opened up to reveal nothing but sky. For a moment the view was breathtaking. But his amazement soon turned to panic as he began to fall endlessly through the wide open sky he had wished for.
He realized quickly the mistake he had made. Oh, how I wish the whole world were as solid as the soil that I till! he thought. And as he said this, his feet landed firmly upon the ground. He heaved a huge sigh of relief, but then the sky began to fill in with soil, and soon he found himself in a world that was constructed entirely of earth. He was in a cave where no light could enter.
The farmer sat for a moment in the darkness and made one final wish. He wished that he could be back at the moment where he began — with the rich earth under his feet and the open sky overhead.
And then the roof of the cave opened to reveal the sky. And bathing in the light of that sky was the rich and fertile soil that he spent his days tending.
And as he stood in that place where he had begun this odd journey, he smiled to himself and thought: I am grateful to the earth for being the earth. I am grateful to the sky for being the sky.
He realized that the ground could not be watered without the sky. And no one could stand and appreciate the sky’s beauty were it not for the earth that sustains our bodies. The sky and earth are interconnected within us.
Our inner lives are like the farmer in my dream. We are children of both earth and sky. We are body and spirit. One does not exist without the other. And we must appreciate each for the gifts it offers us. If we wish for a life that is dominated by spirit, we will lose our grounding. If we wish for a life that is mere physical survival, we will soon find ourselves living in a world bereft of light.
It is in the balance of these two aspects of our being that we find the richness and beauty of life. We needn’t lose our grounding in of our daily lives to enjoy the light of our spiritual lives. We needn’t lose sight of the broad vistas of spiritual beauty when we are engaged with the day to day work of being human.
Each of us is a farmer tilling the rich soil of our daily lives and we can at any moment stand in gratitude for all that grounds us and for all that brings light into our lives:
I am grateful to the earth for being the earth.
I am grateful to the sky for being the sky.