Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Commitment, or, The Sisterhood of the Nonexistent Pants

December 2013
November 2014




















Growing things used to be a mechanism much like breathing. Maybe because I grew up with my hands in the dirt, eating all the strawberries as they ripened. Maybe because I'm a woman and it's our biological inclination. Whatever the case, all this changed as I barreled into gypsy life just before Thanksgiving four years ago. In my very first blog entry, the 26-year-old version of myself mused that "our reality often unfolds in ways we never would've imagined" and blessed be, how naively wise she was in that assessment.

In the intervening months and years, I have suffered mightily in my desire for things to be other than the way they are. Of course hindsight is 20/20, and I encourage the weathered, wizened version of myself to be kind to the woman who struggled through so much illusion to come into this current clarity. Deep in her discomfort, she rushed to "get it" and move forward, sensing the mystery of the journey, but taking well over a year to understand that what was called for was not creation, but total destruction. She didn't yet understand that everything she had brought into being before was built on a mostly shoddy foundation that would never support the rest of her life. She had to burn everything to the ground and begin again.

While sifting through the wreckage, I have been repeatedly greeted by the theme of commitment, or a lack there of. It's startling to suddenly be alive long enough to observe how patterns have shaped your life over a span of decades and realize that unless you do some massive rewiring, you're poised to live in your history and not your potential...or in my case, your POLEtential (see what I did there?).

Almost a year ago, I was introduced to the positively earth shatteringly transformative powers of pole- not just as a fitness apparatus but as a way to reshape my entire sense of self. While yoga and other dance forms paved the way, pole has done more in this short time to change my life than anything before. As my physical strength grew, so did my emotional strength, and I found myself suddenly able to go All In with tremendous faith, intuitively leaping into a brand new life in New York.

Since I first emerged from the subway at Columbus Circle 10 years ago, New York has always felt like home, but I never imagined I would or could live here. It felt too different from California...because it IS different. Living here required a sudden, massive upgrade to my body's electrical system to take it all in. More importantly, New York asked me for a commitment. "How badly do you want to be here? What are you willing to do to make your life happen? How hard will you hustle?"

After about a month, it became clear that the answer was, "Not very hard." Worn out from living out of my suitcase and struggling to get enough money together to find a permanent home, I fell into escapist patterning with fantasies of moving back to LA where at least it doesn't snow. It wasn't until I fell a little bit in love (okay, a lot in love) and had my whole experience of this city changed that I found the hunger for the hustle. I had the incredible fortune of being warmly adopted into the most wildly supportive, loving, talented, diverse, hilariously inappropriate, open minded and hearted collection of women that I have ever met. My New York pole community is the shit, yo. We take everyone in and never let them go- like the good kind of cult you really want to be a part of! My pole family helped me love New York (and myself) with an unbridled passion, and have given me the confidence to be in my power.

Everyday I give thanks that I get to be here and for the first time in years, I feel a readiness to be deeply creative once more. My pole community and I are dreaming big dreams to build a sustainable home for us to grow and glow together. After setting a new inner foundation upon which to build my life, I know that whatever comes out of me at this time will be from a place of clarity and balance. It will be strong and sturdy enough to support not just me, but those around me who also crave a safe space for exploration and belonging.

The next chapter of my life opens with me hanging upside down in my underwear, being showered in love and money. My reality is indeed unfolding in ways I never would've imagined.

It's so much better.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Choose Ease

New York City is not known for being easy. It is known for being intense, fast paced, loud, crowded, dirty, culturally rich, diverse, beautiful, the best city in the world...but easy? Oh no.

Yet here in the mecca of highly productive, famously neurotic millions, something very slow and gentle is happening to my whole being. My anxious and neurotic mind has begun to still and clear. My control mechanism, forever tightly wound, has begun to relax. Where I used to see only one possible path, I am beginning to actively recognize the endlessly creative array of ways in which life can happen. My summer goal was to learn how to have fun again, and as we tiptoe into autumn, I feel the cumulative effect that a season of playfulness has rendered: so much lightness, so much ease.

Summer wasn't entirely joyful, though. True to form, New York put me through the hazing that seems typical for all new recruits. When I got the keys to my apartment after sweating through an insane handful of weeks of Craigslist hell, I experienced an incredible wave of satisfaction. I had made a list of things I needed and each was met in my new home. I closed my eyes and took a few slow, deep breaths, memorizing that feeling of having my prayers answered so directly. Like every time before, the God of Abundance who loves me had taken care of all the details.

And like every other time, I had forgotten. Fear and insecurity produces a contraction of my mind and heart, and I suffer the dense illusion of disconnection. I forget how loved and supported I am by those I know and by people I haven't even met who may never know how they've helped me. I forget that each of the breaths in our bodies is bound together as if we were all one great lung, rising and falling. Don't let the space and difference between our physical forms fool you: we are all made of matter and we all matter. There is no real separation.

Osho talks about the importance of doubt, about how in order to enjoy a rich faith, we must not believe blindly, but that we must keep seeking our own experience. Far too often I find, though, that even as I experience profound confirmations of faith, that I suffer terrible amnesia when faced with the next trial. I am almost immediately lulled back to sleep by the lie of separation, and the false power offered by control, anger and worry. Once again, I contract back into myself, folding over and over in lonely misery.

Until I stop and breathe deep into a moment of perfect peace and confirmed faith. There is always a point in which we have the opportunity to flip the script and rewrite the story. When it arrives, let the Truth carve down into your marrow, into new neural pathways that shape your personal reality, into your DNA. Let it change everything you knew. Soften and receive a new way to be.

The new way for me is the Path of Joy and the Way of Ease. Having confidence that I am connected, loved and supported, I am able to relax in moments big and small. When I feel my blood pressure and cortisol levels rise, I ask, "How can I bring more ease into this moment?" Most often, the answer is to breathe consciously, smile and drop whatever burden I've chosen to saddle myself with. If the subway is late, the subway is late. I can rage and fume, indulging my intoxicating addiction to anger, or I can let it go. I can disengage from the limiting contraction of No in favor of continuous expansion by embracing every moment. I am running late and stuck behind a slow moving mass of tourists. Yes! Something didn't turn out as I'd hoped? Yes!

Sometimes No is the more expansive option. This relationship isn't healthy anymore? No, byeee! Accepting dysfunction or trauma as normal or healthy may be normal (as in regularly occurring), but it's not healthy. As the prayer goes, we accept the things we cannot change, change the things we can, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

In every moment we have the power to choose how to receive and respond to our experience. We are the sculptors of how it feels to live in our bodies. Our choices and perspective change everything. What will you choose for yourself? Do you wish to live small, scared, contracted inward, feeling isolated, always lacking? Or would you rather live with grace and confidence, openhearted, connected, loved, supported, provided for, in joyful celebration of the reality of your life?

The latter may feel far too vulnerable and prone to heartache and disappointment. It is true that living bright does attract all kinds of attention from all kinds of people, some of whom would wound us. Relying on others does mean sometimes being let down. Yes, it is a risk, but the possible rewards are unlimited. However the former is a slow, lonely soulcrush, a long, hard road full of struggle, one battle after the other with no end in sight. It offers no room to breathe and grow, no support, heaviness, isolation. It may feel safer than living wide open and ready to receive, but there is nothing to receive when you refuse to open up.

It seems counter intuitive for hardened, badass New York to be my teacher in softness, but this city is really the perfect classroom. Every day is an assault to the senses, presenting constant opportunities to practice everything I've ever learned about keeping calm and carrying on. To become gentler and more loving in such a place is my greatest challenge yet, but I suspect that it will make my gentleness strong as iron, and my love bold and mighty.

How can you bring more ease into this moment? What will it take for you to choose a life of joy?

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Worth of Your Sex

Prostitution has always baffled me. It's not a question of morals. As my friend Darrin once said, "Giiiiirl, you gotta get it any way you can!" No judgement here.

What's confusing for me is how it's possible to put a value on sexual contact. It is something I consider to be priceless and (potentially) sacred. It is also something that I consider to be less valuable than other things like loyalty and honesty. Sex is powerful and can be a wonderful exchange of energy, but aren't we worth more than that? Aren't we worth more than our sex?

As you may know, I recently relocated to New York City and have been stumbling about like a giddy, newborn fawn trying to find my feet. In an effort to plant myself in a quiet place for a moment, I threw an ad up on Craigslist offering my services as a house and pet sitter. Although I should have expected this, I got a surprisingly large amount of dubious replies from men offering me lodging in their home in exchange for my "open mindedness"...read: my services not as a house sitter but as a live in friend with benefits. What is my sex worth? My own bedroom in a midtown penthouse, apparently.

And ultimately I can't help but think how silly this is because my sex is not my most valuable, important or interesting offering by a long shot. It obviously is to some, but had they eyes to see and ears to hear, they would know that it's not what's between my thighs but what's behind my eyes and in my heart that is the real treasure.

If you pay attention to pretty much any media form, you might've noticed that sex is the hottest commodity on the market, though. It seems to be the motivation behind much of human behavior, particularly among human men. I ain't hating on men or their sex drives, just pointing out a truth already widely acknowledged. Men go to sometimes outlandish lengths to get laid. One of my girlfriends once had a guy ride his bike a hundred miles to catch her on the side of a wild patch of California highway. According to Greek mythology, the Trojan War was started because of a fight over a girl. In the ancient Greek play, Lysistrata, the women of Greece end the Peloponnesian War by refusing to put out until their husbands put a stop to the endless fighting. Greek comedy and myth aside, sex is and seems to always have been a powerfully inspiring force.

We are not animals, living from the groin on instinct, though. We are human beings in possession of prefrontal cortexes which grant us the unprecedented ability for a profound awareness of self and others. Don't tell me you're "only human"! Do you even know what that means and how much rich potential lies within our humanity? And here we are, obsessed with our genitals. What a waste of talent.

Of course, sex is an integral part of the human journey. It is our genesis as beings. Aside from its necessity for the continuation of our species, it's also a pleasurable flavor of experience. But it is not the only experience. There is so much more to life and there is so much more to us as people than our sex. Women are particularly subject to having our bodies sexualized and commodified, but I see the ways in which the intense focus placed on sexuality does a disservice to men. There are men in my life who have so much of their sense of self tied to their sex that rejection wrecks them. They don't know who they are without sexual attention and they chase that feeling like junkies. Women do the same thing. None of us are totally immune to the ache for a good ego stroke.

What I see happening here, though, is that our sexuality becomes a burdensome trap rather than an enjoyable piece of a much larger puzzle. If it is the only aspect of ourselves with which we identify, we miss out on attaining a broader and ultimately less ephemeral understanding of ourselves.

We are intricately constructed, wildly complex machines vibrating with timeless, divine consciousness.
We cannot be bought or sold for our worth is beyond any unit of measurement.

When someone offers you something in exchange for your precious time and sexual attention, make sure they are offering you the totality of their infinite being because that's what you're worth...
everything that they are.

My everything in exchange for yours.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

SurThriving New York

New York City is the most electric place I've ever been. A month ago I plugged into the grid with all the other millions upon millions that call this place home and it lit me UP. I was so immediately electrified that I buzzed hard for about 10 days, fast talking, fast walking, fast living. So. Damn. Alive.

...until I blew a circuit, unaccustomed as I am to running such a high voltage through my heart and nerves. During my subsequent recovery, I began to grasp at a more subtle understanding of the current that moves this place and its people. Every time I stepped out of the house and into the flow, I could feel the urgent pull to move at lightening speed even if I wasn't in a hurry. It's a compelling force. I find it's giving my body and mind immense power and a sharp clarity that I've never experienced anywhere else at any other time in my life. Something different is happening here.

My friends and I declared 2014 "The Year of the Upgrade" and my move to New York has been no exception. New York is rapidly expanding my ability to receive. Evolution is triggered by crisis, so one might say that this expansion was evolutionarily necessary for my survival, and perhaps they would be right. With all the intense sensations that make this place what it is, there is so much to take in. In order to find this stimulating instead of overwhelming, I have had to continue to create the inner spaciousness that allows me to contain all this madness. I can be fed and nourished by the current without burning out.

But how? How am I able to do this?

Exquisite self care.

There's no way around it. Where I could skimp before, I will not gracefully or joyfully survive this upgrade of my body's electrical system without activating every healthy habit I've ever cultivated. I was already pretty good at taking care of myself, but it has become an essential part of my life. The question at hand is always, "What time am I going to yoga?" or "How much water have I had today?" or "When do I need to go to bed to get 9 hours of sleep?"

Are you moving to New York? Are you already living here and having a hard time? Get on my level, son. You can't live here with sustainable heath and enjoyment without learning to take the best care of yourself that you ever have in your life. New York will slowly crush you and devour your humanity if you don't consciously choose to fight for it every day...and it is a fight, as is so much of living here.

Upon rereading this I think to myself, "My God, what a terrible sounding place! What am I doing here?"

Then I remember that New York City is the best place in the whole world. You can allow the current to sweep you up and  blow you out, or you can learn to ride it like a boss. The current is really a teacher in excellence. It will push you harder than you've ever been pushed. It will test your resolve. It will chisel away at your bullshit, and show you who are and what makes you up.

New York is not for everyone. For the intrepid dreamers, though, this place holds the key to unlock our destinies. If we allow it, it will make us better, stronger and smarter than we dreamed we could be. It will make us great.

But first, we have to go to sleep.

Good night, urban lotuses. Tomorrow we rise again from the mud for another day of hustle.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dirty Summer

The air is wet like breathing underwater, as pregnant and expectant as a new mother long overdue. I never knew water to be so heavy yet so immune to gravity's pull. How can it hang so still there in the air? The tension reaches a climax as window panes tremor with the low rumble of war drums, lightening splits the sky, and rain spills out hot and thick until you are drenched through.

This is my tropical urban jungle, everything sticky and sticking to everything else. Sticky, warm, bare skin sticking to plastic subway seats. Sticky, damp clothing sticking to skin. The riot of sights and smells and sounds sticking and sinking deep into my subconscious, playing back in the late night/early morning when we finally dance home after having all the fun. This is my paradise and I am home.

The shaman of our over sized village is covered in tattoos, only his faced spared the bore of needle and ink. He leads us deep into meditation, reminding us that we ride the wave of our breath even in the middle of the sea of concrete. Our bodies can be sanctuary if we learn to make peace with the mind, to welcome every thought and memory with equanimity. In his presence, we cultivate a balanced awareness that can accommodate all the sensations. Everything experienced as one.

Teeming and trembling with life, the city hums all hours of the day and night. The trains groan and screech, winding through the tunneled earth. A two man band enjoys the echoed acoustics beneath the ornate underside of a rusty park bridge. Neighbors shout salutations and jibes from stoops. A berimbau keeps time for the rhythmic, graceful dance of a capoeira battle. The tinkle of the Mister Softee truck is ever present and mingled with children's joyful shouts. Air conditioners and fans never stop, a whirring white noise in the background of every household keeping cool.

We live here together, millions upon millions on top of and all around each other, everyone with a love so deep for this place that the call to come is undeniable. Every human heart here carries a story and a dream that brought them to this electric heart of the world, to what some call the greatest city on earth. We are running side by side, to catch a train transfer or a lucky break, to forge a path for ourselves through this wilderness of asphalt and stone and metal.

Even in this place so swift and wild, there are blips when time stops...with the exchange of genuine smiles and neighborly greetings, with the light that falls just right through the leaves overhead, with a magic moment that could only happen here. There is magic to be found anywhere but in this place it overflows. It is the city where dreams come true and anything is possible. Everything is happening here and I am home.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

All In

Summer 2011
In the spirit of radical honesty and transparency, I have a confession: I have been making fear-based decisions. For the sake of time, I'll avoid avoiding what I've been avoiding and tell you straight up that I've been avoiding vulnerability. While it's been healthy and helpful to be single and celibate, and I really am happy alone, this is not the whole story. I had the chance to be in the presence of my teacher in LA recently and he gave a talk on receiving what we've worked for in which he said, "Your desires will be ridiculous as long as you believe you can't fulfill them." While I have been going through the motions of romantic relating for years, claiming that what I wanted was real, lasting love, my actions spoke otherwise. There has been a part of me which does not believe in the viability of this desire; indeed, not only is it impossible but it is unsafe. The inner, subconscious script goes something like, "No one will ever love me like I want to be loved, and even if they did, I would just end up getting hurt, so I'm not going to even go there."

While I'm being honest, I have to admit that there are a lot of ways in which I've been living with one foot out. I limited the scope of my life and choices by refusing to get my drivers license until a few years ago. I've given up on passions as soon as the demand to excel pushes me beyond where I'm comfortable because of a deep fear of failure. When you completely invest and immerse yourself in something, it is obvious to anyone how much you care, and in my mind that caring can be a source of weakness, a chink in the armor that can be exploited. If you happen to not succeed, then everyone will know. They will see you fail. This is a crippling idea if you're like me and failure is (admittedly, illogically) a source of terrible shame. Rather than risk this pain, I have consistently chosen to shrink away from challenge and play small.

In theory, I actually love failure. I've been reading about the benefits of failure for years and watching inspirational speeches from the likes of Oprah and Steve Jobs, who both failed only to go on to not burst into flames but to succeed spectacularly in other ways. Zen Buddhism teaches me not to get too attached to the way anything is ever because it's all going to change. What is a disappointment now will transform into a sparkling blessing later. What I'm celebrating now will flicker and fade, or present unforeseen challenges in the future. We simply don't know what It Is yet, so don't get too excited. Just receive it, say "Yes, thank you!" no matter what it looks like, and keep moving. Someday I might really take this in. For now, the instinctual reaction is to have my parachute on hand, ready to bail at the first sign of trouble.

Peeling back another layer, the more frightening possibility is that I might actually succeed. Imagine! Imagine being a big, bright, wild success! Oh lawd! Then what? Then the failures become bigger and more visible. The more successful people become, the more the general public seems to relish their failure. The $3 billion celebrity gossip industry stands as proof of the public's rabid, voyeuristic interest in watching other people struggle. Scanning the comment section of pretty much anything on the internet (which isn't advisable) reveals how much cruelty people are capable of unleashing on each other. It can be a mean world out there.

Years ago I had happenstance meetings with two different psychics while on a trip to Washington DC. They both sized me up incisively, concluding that I was hiding who I was...which was true. It took a long time to admit, because admitting it meant confronting the shame which had kept me hiding away. When you carry a story of  shame and unworthiness, of course you don't want anyone to see you. I spent much of my life feeling like an ugly duckling bad girl misfit alien. Despite this, though, I was a performer from a very early age. The need to be seen clearly and honestly was always there, fighting the shame for dominance and demanding attention. This is a very human condition- it's the reason why theatre departments are so often filled with ugly duckling bad girl/boy misfit aliens. We feel the fear of vulnerability but we put it all out there anyway because our humanity demands visibility. Here I am. Do you see me?

A month ago, I decided that I would move to New York and threw a bit of energy in that direction just to see what would happen. To my delight and total terror, I experienced an opening like I haven't in a very long time. Yogi Bhajan has a bit about manifesting that has been resonating so much lately: "The Raj Yogi's presence performs her miracle. Others have to act and perform and do all kinds of things. But this is the path of the Queen. It is not the path of the slave. Just feel your presence is acting; therefore you have not to act." I did extend my will in a easterly direction, but just barely compared to how much effort I've exerted trying to make other things happen. And yet, like a long overdue exhale, my life began to move very naturally and obviously by the hand of God and there was nothing to do but buy the one way ticket and go for it.

This was a highly vulnerable, bold commitment for me to make, a sign of a turn in the tide of my life. As I approached my 30th birthday, I began to feel the straining limitation of allowing so many important choices to be guided by fear. I had already grappled with my mortality, but had not considered that I might actually live for a very long time and that I had better think about what I might want the rest of my life to contain. The conclusion? No matter what I choose, there is no way forward unless I learn to go all in. No holding back. No parachute. No hiding. I want it to be okay for me to be seen caring enough about something to pursue it far beyond where I'm comfortable, to the point of failure, or even wild success. I want you to know how important this life is to me, how much I really do care. I want to live with both feet in, boldly committed to every moment.

Spring 2014
Believe me, I understand how terrifying this is, but I urge you...
Feel the fear and do it anyway. Never regret your boldness. It is better to have bought the one way ticket to a new life and limped home a failure than to not go and always wonder...

Don't wonder.

Buy the ticket. Take or quit the job. Fail or succeed. Have the baby. Say I Love You. Ask the question. Speak the truth. Allow yourself to be seen.

Give expression to whatever desire stirs within you and believe in your ability to fulfill it. We are here to fulfill the desires of our sacred hearts. We are worthy of this. In fact, it is our one and only job here.

Let's get to work.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Happy. Alone.

Root deep and grow your branches
There is a strength, steadiness and comfort in aloneness that you cannot know until you are immersed in it. From the outside, all anyone sees is a tree standing naked on its own in the middle of the field. In their perception, this is a vulnerable, weak position. They don't see the roots reaching deep into an intimate connectedness with the earth. They don't feel the solidness at the core of the ancient, sturdy trunk. They don't know how full and satisfying it feels to be empty.

If I ever marry, I want the world to exclaim, "My goodness, what a man it must've been to finally tame such a wild heart!" Women of a certain age are far too often painted as tragic things that are saved from ruin when some savior man rescues them from a lifetime of destitute spinsterhood. Apparently some people are living in a Jane Austin novel in their minds. Women are supposed to aspire to marriage and family above all else, so of course if one has not achieved that or is not on that trajectory, there must be something wrong.

This weekend I was at a nightclub with my mother and grandmother (long story...). I got up for a moment and my grandma asked my mom, "She's so beautiful and such a wonderful woman. How has no one scooped her up yet?" My grandma is a strong, smart woman who enjoyed a long career as a drug and alcohol psych nurse at the VA. She has always been independent and traveled adventurously. When my grandpa died 11 years ago, she was deeply saddened, but didn't shrivel up and die. She has carried on living her life in a big way. However, she is the product of a time when getting married was just what you did. Had she been born in another era, she might've waited longer to marry or perhaps not done so at all.

The short answer, grandma, is that I have no interest in getting married as something to give my life a sense of structure, stability or meaning. My life is structured to my liking, and feels both meaningful and stable without the presence of a husband or children. I'm not a china doll in a shop of precious things, just waiting forlornly for someone to come along and take me home. The only way that I will consent to being in any sort of romantic partnership again is for the opportunity to share time and space with a truly remarkable man with much to offer. When I meet a man who compels me on a deep level to brave the possible heartache of love, then and only then will I consider giving up the glorious ease, grace and joy of flying solo.

If you are perpetually romantically entangled and have been bypassing being single, the concept of comfortable, happy aloneness may be entirely foreign or frightening. Being single can be lonely at times, but it reveals a wondrous richness after wading through the initial discomfort. You learn how to self-soothe and self-approve, building an emotional independence that gives you the power to feel okay no matter where you go and who surrounds you. You can move about the world confidently and free from the need to consider or compromise with anyone else. It's an experience I recommend for anyone, especially before deciding to marry. If you're unhappy on your own, being in a relationship will not make you happy. We owe it to ourselves and our partners to enter relationships offering the riches of our fullness, not begging from our brokenness and need. Our partners are not there to hold us up everyday. We must be able to stand on our own.

This is something I wrote about almost a year ago. Since then nothing has changed but the yearning I expressed at that time for my beloved. I spent some time considering everything my life could be and contain outside of the traditional, marriage and family path, and found that the limitless possibilities were exciting enough to assuage any longing for a partner. Out beyond sex and romantic desire, marriage and children, is an oft unappreciated world of freedom and experience.

We suffer from this terrible FOMO, though, which ropes some into walking the traditional path because they are afraid to be haunted by a lifelong case of the What Ifs. What if I never have children? What if I regret it later? I am honestly more afraid of what I will miss, or what will become difficult or impossible to experience or obtain if I do. Parenting is the world's most important and difficult job. I think I would be a marvelous mother, but taking on that role would (appropriately) change my life in ways I am unprepared to accept. If you have even the slightest real understanding of the demanding sacrifice of being a parent, you would take a long pause before diving in.

Perhaps "the right guy" at "the right time" would change it all. Yes, perhaps. For the time being, though, I am doing the impossible. I am a(n almost) 30 year old woman. I have been celibate for a year and single for even longer. I am not dating, nor do I have any plans in my future for marriage or children. Yet, I am happy and alone. Fulfilled and alone. Confident and alone. Having said all this, I will undoubtedly be married before year's end. However, for now...

No, I'm no one's wife, but, oh, I love my life.

You can keep your societal standards. I'm good on my own.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Weekly Tithe: It's Fun to Stay at the YMCA!

This week in The Weekly Tithe, I give a big shout out to the summer camp that raised me.

YMCA Camp Loma Mar
One of the ideas behind tithing is to give back to an organization which helped to form your faith. While I have passed through countless houses of worship in my life, few affected me as deeply as the sacred, magic woods of YMCA Camp Loma Mar. The YMCA has become largely secular over the years, but every morning we would bundle up against the coastal fog of the Santa Cruz Mountains and troop to the outdoor chapel for Inspiration. I've never been much of a morning person, but raucous, joyful clapping and signing about Noah and the ark, and feeling happy, healthy and terrific was an always enjoyable start the day.

When I was older, I took on the challenge of participating in the Ragger Program, which played a huge part in forming the woman I would become. The story goes that in 1914 the Program Director of Loma Mar, Thomas "King" Caldwell, was faced with a dilemma: at the end of the boys sports camp, everyone was being given awards for their performance, but one boy was left out because he was disabled and had been unable to participate in most of the activities. However, he had a wonderful attitude, standing by and cheering on everyone else. Caldwell wanted to honor the boy's tremendous character, so he went to the store and found a blue bandanna. After all the awards were handed out, the boy was called onstage and everyone cheered as Caldwell explained that the boy was being recognized for his rich generosity of spirit and positive attitude.

The Ragger Program developed over the years for goal setting and personal growth. There are seven rags, each representing a different theme and demanding an increasing amount of sacrifice with each step. I don't remember a point in my life when I wasn't interested in personal growth, but the Ragger Program definitely helped me to refine my focus in goal setting and self-study. I had the benefit of wonderful mentors for each rag I received whose wisdom and guidance I still refer to years later (a favorite tidbit: "Assumptions make an ass out of you and me"). I also became a member of a worldwide family of conscious humans of character, and the program introduced me to the first ever mantra I would repeat daily, The Ragger's Creed:

I would be true for there are those who trust me
I would be pure for there are those who care
I would be strong for there is much to suffer
I would be brave for there is much to dare

I would be friend to all, the foe, the friendless
I would be giving and forget the gift
I would be humble for I know my weakness
I would look up and laugh and love and lift

The Ragger's Creed, the teachings within the program and the sacred rag ceremonies, and the incredible friends who I shared this journey with all guided my choices as I navigated the rocky terrain of adolescence, and served as a powerful, clear touchstone when I fell out of alignment. I can honestly say that I would not have turned out as well as I did without this invaluable experience. For that reason, this week I tithe to YMCA Camp Loma Mar, who taught me what it really means to be a follower of Christ and kept my eyes on God when I was an angry young feminist raging against organized religion.

Summer 2000

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Weekly Tithe: Space and Freedom Behind Bars

This week in The Weekly Tithe, we celebrate the practice of mindfulness in the least likely of places: prison.

Photo credit: the great Robert Sturman
Prison Yoga Project
I first learned about PYP in December 2011 while seeking to expand public perception about what yoga is, who it belongs to and what it looks like. I had seen the incredible documentary, The Dhamma Brothers, a couple of years earlier and was aware of the application of alternative healing methods within the prison system but had yet to learn how widespread or effective yoga had become in this context. The project was started by James Fox, who began bringing yoga to at-risk populations when he received his certification in 2000. Some struggle to understand why prisoners should be taught yoga, something that's come to be considered a luxury. I will share PYP's statement on this, which was offered on their Facebook page today:

"Some people can’t understand why we teach yoga in prison. “Why cut a prisoner any slack at all? They’re getting what they deserve. Do the crime, do the time.” Or, “I’m against spending any taxpayer money on coddling criminals.”

The fact is, most released prisoners come right out into the community where they originally committed their crimes. Thanks to scant rehabilitative help in prison, more than 60% re-offend. Our work offers an inexpensive way to improve prisoner health with the possibility of reducing the rate of re-offense.

Most prisoners suffer from Complex Trauma -- chronic interpersonal trauma often experienced as children, such as abandonment, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, neighborhood violence, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, and witnessing crime; including murder. Sometimes horrors so unimaginable they don’t have a name. We call this “original pain.” These experiences, imprinted by the terrifying emotions that accompany them, are held deeply in the mind, and perhaps more importantly, in the body, with the dissociative effects of impulsive/reactive behavior, and tendencies toward drug and alcohol addiction, as well as violence. Carrying unresolved trauma into their lives impacts everything they do, often landing them in jail, where they experience even more trauma.

Traditionally, cognitive behavioral therapists have helped people process unresolved trauma, but more recently psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers -- many working with US military veterans -- acknowledge that embodiment practices such as yoga, enriched with mindfulness practices, can have more impact in alleviating the symptoms that lead to both reactive behaviors and stress related disease.

The Prison Yoga Project was founded in the belief that yoga, taught specifically as a mindfulness practice, is very effective in releasing deeply held, unresolved trauma, allowing us to address the resultant behavioral issues. We've learned from 12 years of experience in San Quentin and many other correctional institutions that a yoga and mindfulness practice can help offenders change trauma-driven unconscious behavioral patterns…usually the behavior that put them in prison.

We ask, “upon release, what kind of former prisoner do you want to bump into at the grocery store, on the playground, or when you’re fixing a flat tire on the side of the road? Do you want the guy stuck in his cell for 15 years? Or the one who has received some rehabilitative care?” We live with the results of their imprisonment, don’t we? Prisons are a dumping ground for people with addictions, trauma and mental illness. So we focus on impulse control, mood disorders, violence control, depression, despair, addiction and PTSD.

There’s a major breakdown in the criminal justice system in this country. The system is retributive -- mostly punishment -- do the crime, do the time. At PYP we believe in restorative justice. We believe in victim-offender education and we provide prisoners with tools for self rehabilitation. We've helped thousands of prisoners by instilling self-control and fostering accountability, addressing the damage they've caused to their victims and themselves."

If you believe in the healing effects of yoga and want to help bring them to men and women as a way to better all of society, please consider donating to Prison Yoga Project. If you're a yoga teacher or committed practitioner, you can train with PYP to bring yoga to at-risk, highly traumatized populations. I believe that yoga belongs to everyone, that it is good for every body and that at its best, it can make miracles. As always...

Give good, do good, feel good!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Uncommon Woman

For any woman who’s ever been told she’s too much:
You, who broke out of the mold before they even cracked it off you. 
You, who came out inventing your own how-to-scale-a-wall with only vowels. 
You, who fireflash in the eye of so many midnights, so many men who want to taste your hem, 
who dream of being desired by an Uncommon Woman, if only because
their dressers are empty of anything but brand name cologne and predictable portrait. 
Let them call you different. 
Let them bait the minnows of you heart. 
Show them your heart is a school of fish, a solar system of all moons. 
When asked, say, "My heart is always causing the mating season." 
When they call you full of yourself, say, “Yes.” 
Breathe in their scorn and breathe out Atlantis. 
Let them come with their saw blade smiles. 
Let them come with their saw blade hands.
Let them come to see if you slice small enough to replace their handkerchiefs, 
the ones they’ll loan to who they’ll call easier girls. 
Let them choose easier girls.
When he tells you he is tossing your broken root out his open window,
and holds up to the glass a more common woman, surrender. 
Gracefully surrender the pretend olive branch of his matrimony. 
The pretend complete protein he slipped onto your third finger while you stood
in shoes that were always too small for you. 
When he says she is easier to handle, live with, attach to, fuck, I want you to remember your neck.
The way it ascends space, and always has, above the rest. 
You were brought here for so much more than walking two by two up a ship plank. 
Anyone common enough to go coward at the depth of his love for you, wasn't meant to walk beside you.
So go live in the liquid bowl of gold you were handed for a skin.
Uncommon Woman, let the easier girls pick up the socks.
Embrace your splendid singularity.
And look to the rest of us Uncommon Women standing in the centers,
holding up the tents of our skirts, we call them cities. 
Love should not have us stoop to fit a portrait.
Love should have us elevate our infinity.
So, Uncommon Woman, don’t settle for less.
Instead, stride towards the ever shedding horizon.
Take her example of renewal. 
Wear your grief like a party dress!
Remember, the sun’s only lover is not the Earth.
She’s got moons on every planet.
-Tara Hardy


Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Weekly Tithe: Growing Community, and my charity:water birthday

Oy ve, so much for weekly. I've had a whole lot of life happening lately and haven't been grounded for long enough to keep up on regular writing. This week we return to The Weekly Tithe with a profile on Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project.

Deeds Not Words
My amazing friend Kelly started Acta Non Verba (ANV) in response to the gaping inequalities present in East Oakland in the areas of access to nutritious food, health education and extra-curricular activities for children and teens in the area. ANV uses the garden as a classroom to not only teach kids about where their food comes from, how to grow it and prepare it healthfully, but also leadership skills and community building. My favorite part of the program, though, is the seed fund. The garden sells fresh produce to the community, which is considered a "food desert," and puts the proceeds into college funds for the kids and teens in the program. This supports and encourages young people to aim not only to graduate from high school in an area with an almost 40% drop out rate, but to pursue higher education. Their time and effort working in the garden is rewarded not only in building invaluable life skills, but in actual monetary support for their future education. I don't know about you, but this makes me insanely happy.

There are lots of ways to support ANV! If you're local, you can volunteer in the garden planting or building, either on a regular basis or on periodic farm work days. You can also taste the fruits (and vegetables) of the kids' labor and purchase a CSA box or visit the farm stand- because who doesn't love locally and organically grown produce? If you don't have a talent for gardening or already have a veggie source, you can also send some money ANV's way to nourish their good work for years to come. Like ANV on Facebook to keep up with the goings on around the farm!

In other news, this year I have pledged my birthday to charity:water. They do amazing work building wells and bringing clean water to communities where lack of or difficulty in access mean high mortality rates among children under 5 and overall suffering for all people. I love their work and hope to raise $3000 for my campaign. That's only 100, $30 donations and at the time of this writing, I have already received 3, so it's only 97 more to go! Please help make my 30th birthday the best yet by contributing to my campaign and joining me in this truly life saving effort.

Tomorrow is Tax Day 2014, and it's the perfect time to begin thinking about Tax Day 2015 and the tax deductible donations you can make this year in order to lessen the tax sting next year. Donations to both Acta Non Verba and charity:water are 100% tax deductible, so you know what to do...

Give good, do good, feel good!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

One Breath at a Time

He went to rehab this morning for the fourth time...or maybe it's the fifth. My memory doesn't serve me particularly well normally and this is something I'm keen to let fade. I've been running for two weeks, living out of a tightly packed bag, moving about the world in search of the path of joy. I touched back down just in time to say a sad, strained good bye.

The first time they go to rehab, you will be bursting at the seams with equal parts wild hope and anxiety. You will visit the first weekend they're allowed guests, attend the afternoon AA meeting with them and take a walk around the property, talking idly about nothing. You will be proud of them and afraid for them. When they leave early, disappear and relapse, it will feel like the entire world is collapsing on your chest. You were warned that this might happen but that did nothing to prepare you.

The second time they go to rehab, your optimism will become cautious and jadedness will creep in quietly. You will sing Amy Winehouse together on the way to drop them off and laugh a little too loud. You will only come to visit once. They might complete the whole program this time, but they make the classic mistake of returning to their previous environment and will relapse again. And again. And again.

You might recall what it felt like when they first told you they were doing heroin- the immediate wave of nausea, dizziness and blackening vision. They say it's casual, that of course they're in control, and you want to believe them even if you know better. It will be a secret that you alone keep and the weight of it will crush you. You buy a one way ticket as far away as you can get. You become the heaviest living being. You weep like a baby when Cory Monteith dies because it feels too familiar. You have long heart to hearts with them that spark what's left of your hope but ultimately disappoint. They have become a fluent liar.

By the time they go to rehab for the fourth (or fifth) time, your heart is weathered and hardened. There will be syringes all over their room and residue from cooking dope on their desk. You will begin to grimly consider that this disease may very well kill them as it has so many others. You are forced to surrender any remaining illusions that there's anything you can do but love them. You cannot control them anymore than you can the weather. You can only voice your concerns and feelings, and pray in a more focused and insistent way than ever before.

My God, please, let there be healing in their lifetime.
My God, please, help them find their way back.

Few moments have ever been as important as this one. The threads of future possibility rest in the shaky hands of someone you've come to mistrust and even fear. There is nothing you can do. This surrender feels like a tiny death everyday. Your dreams are haunted by darkened streets, handfuls of pills and a nagging, hopeless trepidation. You don't trust them to save themselves, you want for nothing more than to be able to do it for them, but you cannot. The most meaningful salvation is self-chosen. This is up to them. Once again, you give them your faith.

You keep breathing. You keep loving. That's all that's left.

Monday, April 7, 2014

No Sex in the City

The last time I took a new lover I spent a few months learning about him and carefully considering his candidacy before shifting the relationship tone. This was a new thing for me. Sex with strangers is not a normal occurrence but jumping right into a sexual relationship with someone I already know has been. I used to say that all my sex was surprising because I never thought about it ahead of time. It would just...happen! Whoops! This area of unconsciousness began to stick out like a sore thumb in my normal life of thoughtful reflection and self-examination. I recognized within myself the tendency to only act in the interests of my short term self in the arena of sexuality, living from the groin on instinct, and how this short term thinking was negatively affecting my head and heart.

So I made an earnest attempt to properly vet my next potential partner. I asked him big questions, met his friends and family, and spent neutral alone time with him. I waited, yes, in this I was successful. But I also ignored the abundant and obvious warning signs- apparent alcoholism and unresolved trauma, general poor choice making and the creeping sense that I was not being adequately valued. I took the time to get to know him well, but then ignored the findings because they didn't agree with my hypothesis that he was going to be dateable. I liked him so much in theory, but in reality he was just as much of a poor choice of partner as all the others. And since what all the others had in common was me, my own judgement came into question.

This shift in consciousness around sex happened to coincide with a lecture series on freedom at Mosaic LA. We were asked to examine different aspects of our lives to determine the ways in which we were bound or limited. I clarified that the way I'd been conducting my sexual life was causing me to shut down my heart and shy away from real intimacy, and concluded that I would abstain from sex until I was with my beloved. I wrote, "For as long as it takes, I will wait."

Ladies and gentlemen, I have now been celibate for 11 months...not that I'm counting or anything.

This is not to say that I haven't swapped scandalous words and photos, or thought salaciously about all the ways that I could break this self-pact. My ovaries are almost 30 years old and they shriek violently about making a baby. Everything in my biological being wants to get laid. But I haven't so much as traded kisses in almost a year. I'm a lusty, passionate physical affection junkie- if the kissing is any good it escalates expeditiously to nakedness. It was all or nothing, and it's been a whole lot of nothing for a good long while.

"My lord, how?? How do you do it?! I couldn't do it." I hear this a lot.

It's not easy. I'm honestly not that good at celibacy. There have been instances where, if circumstances had been different, I wouldn't have made it this long. My "success" can be attributed as much to self-control as to poor timing. All the same, here I am, all city and no sex. How, then, have I done it?

Over the din of hormone rush, I managed to hear a higher call that couldn't be unheard; the truth of my sacred heart begging me to make choices that create a space for love and true intimacy to flourish. I wanted to feel safe to let my guard down and be soft and receptive, but had come to realize that I couldn't trust myself to maintain the right conditions for that to happen. Like my former lover, I have a history of poor choice making in this area. In order to break the pattern, I had to examine and rewrite my entire sex, intimacy and love story. This would take far more time than I realized, require that I keep my head clear by keeping my hands to myself and lead me into the murky waters of my own sexuality.

What you realize first is the raw, primal power of contained sexual energy. It must either be released or channeled- I'm convinced that stagnancy in this area causes madness. There was a period of time during this last year when I needed all the energy and focus I could muster, so I decided to stop making self-love and began working to move and distribute my sexual energy in meditation. This went on for about two months, during which I experienced the electric vitality possible in learning to mindfully master this energetic flow.

Raising and channeling my sexual energy in yoga and meditation has been an ever present part of my celibacy practice, but I added a seemingly contradictory method a couple months ago: pole and erotic dance. Suppressing sexuality is the source of all manner of societal problems (I'm looking at you, religious institutions), but involving oneself in an admittedly sexy activity seems to be inviting unnecessary struggle. Wouldn't you want to minimize the amount of sexual energy generated in your body? Had this occurred to me earlier it might've been a cause for concern, but instead I just jumped into something I instinctively knew to be good for me. Best not to think too much sometimes.

The result has been a noted rise in sexual energy but it is sublimated through the circular sway and shake of my enlivening body to give rise to a still, deeply rooted confidence. It's a fully self-contained positive feedback loop; the more I move, the sexier I feel, the more confidence arises, the more I want to explore my dance, the bolder I become, the sexier I feel, the more confident I become, etc. My dance belongs solely to me for my own exploration and enjoyment, revealing parts of me to myself that I have never seen. I am titillated by the thought of sharing my dance with my beloved some day, but for now it is the most delicious and satisfying experience of my life so far to be my own witness to this transformation. No one and nothing outside of me is required for me to feel okay about myself. I am enough.

One of my most deeply held patterns was the tendency to look outside of myself for validation from men. This is something I've had a vague awareness of since I was a teenager, but really started trying to curb a few years ago when it became a truly problematic entity. I was having a hard time in other parts of my life, and would lean heavily on the guys I was interested in for gloriously distracting attention that made me feel less overwhelmed and messy. When they would fail to deliver what I needed, I would become irrationally resentful. In giving myself plenty of love and support, and through the validation supplied through my dance, I find the need for this male attention waning. In arriving at this place, I see how bound I was by my reliance on other people's approval. Letting that go means being free to be exactly who I am without concern for maintaining this outside feedback. I am beginning to earn my own trust, knowing that I'm less likely to make compromising choices in the search for approval.

When you detox from something for which you have a strong attachment, you can begin to see just how much it is emotional as it is biological. This is just as true for reliance on substances as it is for food or sexual attention. Deeper, subtler motivations lie beneath our urges and cravings which are difficult to clarify when we are still actively using our drug of choice. I had to consciously choose to abstain from sex to understand what it was that I was really after in my encounters. It was not a big leap from there to see how the choices I had been making were unsupportive and far from healthy. My celibacy and everything that's come from it have shown me who I am, and who I have the potential to be.

Celibacy may not be as educational or necessary for you as it has been for me. It's certainly not an entirely pleasant experience. However, if you have ever felt that sex or your sexuality is a burdensome or otherwise unhealthy part of your life, I'm here to tell you that there's another way. Yes, it's possible to go days or weeks or even months without having sex. No, that doesn't make you a prude, and no, your sexual organs will not stop working. If anything, if you take your period of celibacy to do some thoroughly, bravely honest self-discovery, you may come out the other side with much more confidence and self-knowledge, and that can't help but make you a better lover. Our inner workings can be scary places to explore, especially in the realm of sex and sexuality, but without going there how will you ever know who you are and what you really want? Explore, clarify and rewrite your story. Free yourself to confidently live your most authentic life.

Sometimes, at least for a while, the best sex is no sex at all.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Fire Sale

Every time someone publicly dies of a drug overdose now, two things happen for me. First, my heart tears in two and I feel sick to my stomach. Next, comes the flood of relief and the selfish thought, "Thank God it wasn't anyone I know this time."

A very dear friend of mine is a brilliant, creative musician. In line with the terrible stereotype, he also has a very serious drug problem. Today my friend sold his guitar, the center of his musical life and heart, to a stranger on Craigslist. Were he not an addict and had this not happened before, I would've believed him when he told me that he just wanted to buy a new one. I asked him once, in a moment of clarity, how much money he'd squandered on drugs in all his many years of using. He told me that it was probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000.

I wonder how much time and money and health and brilliance has to be wasted before he returns to the land of the living.

I wonder how many times he has to almost overdose before he'll find his rock bottom.

I pray strong and sad and fearful and angry prayers every night for intercession, for healing, for peace.

I wake up wondering if today is the day we will find him dead.

Because there is no long term life expectancy for addicts who have such a deep disdain for themselves. The disease of addiction is a controlling, abusive, codependent relationship which he has chosen to engage with fully, forsaking what he loves the most. There is no way out until he is ready to sever those ties, to choose life.

How much more? What will it take?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Weekly Tithe: Sacred Sleep, Yogic Renewal and Harnessing the Nepalese Sun

True to form, the faithfulness of my tithing (and let's be honest, my sheer awesomeness) led to an uptick of work over the last two weeks. What can I say? People like to have me around and sometimes I even get paid for it. Mo' money means mo' to give, so this week's tithe was split between three projects which spoke to my heart. Sleep, yoga and light- all personally important to and well loved by me. Please learn a bit about these awesome projects and consider giving what you can. Give good, do good, feel good!

Sacred sleep at St. Boniface. Photo by Brent Ward.
The Gubbio Project
In my early 20s I decided that it was important for me to live alone but the only place I could afford to do that was in San Francisco's infamous Tenderloin. The Tenderloin is a tiny neighborhood known for its abnormally, disproportionately high amount of bars and liquor stores, pimps and hos, dealers and addicts, and public urination. It is also the home for people who contend with sometimes lengthy periods of homelessness. While San Francisco is a relatively temperate place to be out in the elements and the threat of freezing to death is nonexistent, sleeping outside remains a dangerous undertaking. Whether because of potential threat of bodily harm or theft of their few personal possessions, those experiencing homelessness rarely get a peaceful night's rest. In response to this, 10 years ago St. Boniface Neighborhood Center and Church created the Gubbio Project, and began opening their doors during the day to provide the homeless with a place to get some restful, sacred sleep. In addition, they also offer "availability of clean, safe restrooms; toiletries; weekly free haircuts; blankets; socks; monthly HIV testing; weekly community meal for 35-50 guests; and a listening ear." If you are as moved and inspired by their work as I am, please consider volunteering or donating to the project.

Me Siento Nuevo
Peruvian yoga flow.
My amazing friend Addy has been working in Peru with the Peace Corps for 15 months as a Community Health Promoter. Addy began teaching yoga to a few women in the community in her free time as a way to connect on a more personal level, and the classes took off. The story goes that, after completing warrior pose, a little boy proclaimed  “me siento nuevo” – I feel new. Yoga lovers everywhere can personally attest to the transformative benefits of the practice, and this is being experienced in this little village in Peru by people who had never so much as heard of yoga before now. Addy's family began a campaign to raise money for the little yoga program selling awesome "Me siento nuevo" t-shirts, which I personally cannot wait to rock. If you would like to support these fledgling yogis, please buy a shirt and/or make a donation. If you're looking for some life inspiration, Addy keeps a wonderful blog about her experiences that you can read here.

Michelle with her happy students.
Solar in Nepal
I was first introduced to Michelle Welsch through her smart, insightful writing on Medium. After grad school, Michelle quit everything and headed out to Nepal where she volunteered teaching English and had her life path altered forever. Nepal experiences lengthy, daily power outages between October and July which make basic functioning feel more like Little House on the Nepalese Prairie and less like 2014. Michelle is raising money to build a solar system in the community where she volunteered that will help bring consistent, needed light and heat to a school and a local monastery. There are 13 days left in the campaign and it is within $2,000 of the $8,000 goal- a modest sum considering the positive impact that it will have for the community. If you are a champion of renewable energy, Nepal and/or adorable kiddos, throw some money at this awesome project. There are even perks for specific donation amounts and Michelle will send you periodic updates on the project progress.
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Stay tuned next week as I continue my quest to make more beauty in the world by supporting good, life giving work.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Case For Tithing: Making Something Beautiful

Open to give, open to receive
Growing up in Catholic church, I never heard the word "tithe." The wicker collection basket would weave its way around the pews every Sunday, and my brother and I would fight over who got to put the money in, but I had no idea what we were doing. It wasn't until my adult life when I made a friend who grew up very Christian in the Midwest that I became aware of the practice of tithing, but it bore a very negative connotation. In her church, the pastor made tithing mandatory for anyone who worked, including young people, and would demand their checks to ensure they were giving the church their proper share. I've never liked being told what to do and this disturbed me deeply.

For those unfamiliar, a tithe is one-tenth of something, paid to either a religious organization or a government. Tithing is an ancient practice present in slightly varied forms in Judaism (ma'aser kesafim), Christianity (tithe) and Islam (zakat). While the details vary, the basic premise is the same: you give up a portion of what you have that is of value to someone or something else. During more strongly agricultural times, tithes were frequently given from peoples' crops (indeed, there are many references in the Bible to tithes as "first fruits"). These days, it is far more common for people to tithe with money.

It wasn't until I attended the FREE series at Mosaic that I got a different perspective on the practice of tithing. Pastor Hank explained the history and biblical reasoning for tithing, but then took a powerful stance. He asserted that he wouldn't insist that anyone tithe money to the church, but that we should all be tithing to something which moves us. He talked about how we are all resource managers and how we have a duty to be wise and generous with what we've been entrusted. Then he said something simple that reshaped the way I will think about money forever:

"Every dollar is a paint brush to make something beautiful."

The first time I practiced tithing was a month after hearing this message. I donated 10% of my income one week to charity: water and it felt good. Four months later, I received an email update to let me know that my money was sent out into the field to help build a well in Rwanda and my heart flooded with joy. The amount I had sent was humble, but it would be responsible for some small portion of bringing clean water to a region where about a third of the population struggles daily to attain this basic necessity. What a tremendously worthwhile way for my money to be put to use!

Since then, it's been my pleasure to wisely allocate my monetary resources to non-profit projects which serve war veterans, teen filmmakers and the homeless, and provide refugee yoga, art in Haiti, solar in Nepal, and support to two different young people battling cancer. I'm deeply moved and inspired by the variety of life giving work being done by big hearted people all over this beautiful planet. While today I am unable to go to Rwanda to dig a well, my money can go there for me and assist in the effort. Money can be cold and it is certainly the source of a good deal of trouble. However, it can also build bridges (or wells, as it were), serving as a warm, loving, supportive connection between strangers who may never meet.

We're not talking about large, lavish sums of money here. My income is relatively small, so at 10%ish, so are my tithes. I used to think that you could only be generous if you had a lot of money. I'd say, "When I win the lottery, then I will give so much!" This is a trap. The likelihood of winning the lottery is infinitesimally small, making the likelihood of never participating in regular, generous giving monstrously large. I'll admit that it was scary at first to let go of any portion of the little I had, but it felt so good that I kept at it and a funny thing happened: the more joyfully and faithfully I gave, the more opportunities for income opened up, the more I had to give. It felt like I had tapped into a sort of fluid money cycle, my participation in which created smoother and more abundant financial flow in my life.

Maybe it's coincidence. Feel free to raise a skeptical eyebrow. I understand- I disliked The Secret and am beginning to turn away from the notion of manifestation entirely. But I do believe that you reap what you sow, and that living with our hands confidently outstretched in offering puts us is a great position to also receive. No, I'm not advocating that you empty your savings today giving all your money to the many amazing, worthy non-profits and causes out there. We're supposed to be wise resource managers. There is wisdom in balance and restraint. We give what we can reasonably, within our budget, and if your funds are stretched thin as is, tithing becomes even more of a discipline requiring careful thought.

Of course, there are many ways to give back and create beauty in the world. Our time and talent are invaluable- we don't have to give of our treasure to be generous. Indeed, there are times when the most generous and appropriate contribution is your physical presence and effort. But until we create a new system of commerce, money pays for land surveys and permits, and puts operators behind drilling equipment to go deep into the earth in search of water. Non-profits need money to do their good work. Plus, I don't know how to drill a well, and you probably don't either, so the best help we can give may be financial. If you do happen to have a talent or skill you enjoy sharing, volunteer work is a lovely offering. I spent a year volunteering for San Francisco Suicide Prevention, and it was one of the most enriching, rewarding experiences of my life- the sort of thing, as they say, money can't buy.

You know what money does buy? Office space. Light and heat. The salaries of the professional staff who trained me to listen carefully and compassionately to the deeply wounded. Give of your time and talent if you can- love (and people) will always trump money. Money can't talk someone through a desperately low moment. However, combining money with talented, passionate people is a sort of alchemy that makes so much magic possible- the young woman who decides to live another day, the well that makes it easier for thirsts to be quenched. Money + The Right People make Hope, give Life, create Peace, generate Sustainable Solutions. Isn't that exciting?

Money is a sensitive, emotional topic. You have to do what is right for you. I certainly wouldn't want you to tithe because I said so. I don't tithe because Pastor Hank or the Bible says so. I tithe because I love the way it feels to create something beautiful in the world with my money. I love putting the resource that money is to work doing something positive and supportive instead of something negative and destructive. If this speaks to you, perhaps it's time to make tithing a regular practice. It has totally shifted the way that I think about money, generosity and gratitude. It has changed my life. Would you like it to change yours?

Beginning this week, I will be posting a reoccurring entry entitled "The Weekly Tithe," which will highlight the cause or causes that I'm backing that week. I hope to call attention to the incredible organizations which inspire my generosity and make my heart sing. Hopefully this will inspire your generosity, as well- if not for my causes, then for the ones which you hold dear. Please join me in the flow of giving.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Easy Way Out, Over, Under, Around

Roundabout or straight through?
As a noun, a bypass is a road that passes around, rather than through, a city. You can also receive a coronary bypass, wherein a vein or an artery from elsewhere in your body is grafted to your heart to create an open channel for blood flow when one of your coronary arteries becomes blocked. As a verb, to bypass describes personal behavioral decisions: go past or around, avoid, evade, dodge, escape, elude, sidestep, shortcut. Choosing to circumnavigate something rather than go straight through the center of it can be pragmatic (i.e. The Fire Swamp with its quick sand and R.O.U.S.). It can also indicate fearful avoidance. Are you being intelligent or cowardly? Thoughtful or weak? What motivation lies beneath your course of action?

There are places we may never want to go, towns to which we may never want to return. We would drive 100 miles out of our way to avoid catching so much as a glimpse of the skyline. No matter how far, deep and wild our travels may be, these places follow us like specters, lurking just outside our consciousness waiting to visit us in sensitive triggers and haunted dreams. Our fear, trauma, anger and sadness have fiery homes in our bodies and minds, and as long as we build bypasses around them they remain in residence, smoldering and dictating our direction.

Bypasses look different for everyone. You'll know you're engaging in bypassing when you reach a difficult point where you cannot go any further without being truly vulnerable and veer sharply to the left. What comes after varies based on what your poison is and what you're avoiding by its usage. Sometimes these behaviors are called "coping mechanisms" or "self-medicating." When we hit the wall and retract from the challenge it presents, it is these tried-and-true methods we use to come back into our familiar equilibrium and feel good again.

Being vulnerable would allow us to ask the illuminating and therefore possibly frightening question, "Why?" Why am I doing this? Why am I so afraid? Why am I so angry? The right questions are an upsetting force to our equilibrium. They shift our perception of reality and allow us to see what clouds the lens with which we view the world. Sometimes we already know the answers to these questions without having to ask, which can make our challenges all the more formidable. We know exactly what we're avoiding and are sure that confronting it directly will crush us under its punishing weight. No one particularly enjoys discomfort, thus our creative tactics and tools for maintaining a sense of the rightness of things, even if it is illusory. Let's examine some of these facilitators of bypassing...

Spirituality
A couple of years ago my friend was kicked out of a hippie house for being too negative. In reality, she was going through an intensely difficult time and was being honest about her process. If she was having a bad day, she wouldn't pretend otherwise. In hippie-speak, she was being authentic. However, her housemates saw their own darkness mirrored in her and found this far too confrontational. So she was asked to leave and ended up moving into a grunge house where she was accused of being too sunny and positive, but was loved and accepted anyway.

Spirituality is a tricky one because it usually looks healthy. If you're having a bad day, you throw on some uplifting worship music or take a yoga class. How is that a bad thing? Well, it's not unless these activities are band aids which get you out of asking the difficult but right questions. When bad days amass into a few bad months and you continue to feel the tidal pull of negative patterns, maybe it's time to examine the Why behind it all. This requires us to sit still in and learn from the "bad" feelings. If it supports this process, we should absolutely keep meditating, praying, reading scripture, going to temple, chanting or whatever else you like, but without fearless, stringently honest self-inquiry, none of it will assist in meaningful, long term change.

Spiritual practices can be a means of self-inquiry, but can also be used to achieve feel good feelings that are as temporary as the effects of any drug. It will leave you a mile wide and an inch deep- all smooth, glittering surface and lack of space to hold anything substantive. Learning to go deep gives us the gift of wisdom imbued by our heartaches and traumas, a gift which is only available if we look for it while grieving what happened. What we bring on to the mat, into church, up in our conversations with God is not meant to just be the parts of us that are neatly shined and pretty. We offer up everything, extending an open invitation into our light as well as our darkness. This is how we come to live as wholly whole, integrated human beings; we allow for the fullness of our experience, even if it makes us, or others, uncomfortable.

Busyness
Workaholics are particularly good at this and like spirituality, work is usually seen as healthy and normal, so no one will look down on you for working hard. It's a highly prized virtue. It may be an even better tool than spirituality because while that may be seen as frivolous, work is not. Depending on the work, it can be a wonderful way to improve our world, provide for our families and grow ourselves. It can also be a way to avoid ourselves and our families. You simply don't have the time to tend to your relationships or your inner work. You are just that busy.

This is productive escapism. You may be getting something done, but it's not the something that needs to be addressed. There are many types of work, each possessing its own value. Being home with and raising children is just as valuable as going out in the world to earn a paycheck. The work we do internally provides for us in a way a paycheck cannot. Learning who we are and what we need enables us to make choices that better support our long term health and happiness. Successful businesses are built on strong foundations, and successful lives are no different. If our personal lives and our insides are a mess, we cannot hope to maintain a healthy professional life. There is a cost to ignoring self-care and introspection that will be paid out in all the areas of our lives if we ignore this vital work.

Noise, Drama and Chaos
Have you ever known someone who could not stop talking? It doesn't even seem to matter what they are saying, they will talk about anything to avoid the quiet that allows their thoughts room to speak. Inviting or creating trouble in our lives is a sneaky way to bypass our important inner work. If we make messes outside of ourselves, or focus on other people's messes, then there's no time to look within. (Focusing on other people and their needs to our own detriment can also be a symptom of codependency.)

This is a much less productive version of Busyness that looks a lot like self-sabotage. Just when everything is peaceful, or you are right on the verge of greatness, BAM! You create or invite some obstacle in to block your way. To deflect responsibility, lovers of chaos and drama paint themselves as victims and offer up excuses. "I could've done that but this thing happened to me and there's nothing I could do about it." Sometimes things do happen that are out of our control, but if we respond well to the setback and keep moving, our progress will not be stalled.

Those who do not honestly wish to progress are ever on the lookout for moments or people who will upset the quiet. Peace and quiet are the enemy when one has something to avoid, for it is in peaceful, quiet spaces that our avoidances become all the more evident. So we talk and talk and talk and get too drunk and miss work and get fired and date inappropriate people and get in fights and invest in other people's problems, all in the quest to never look honestly at our own. This cycle will continue forever, unbroken by the advancement of age or passage of time, unless one becomes self-aware enough to see it. It requires that we give up the cheap attention we receive while in distress in favor of striving for the more meaningful, positive attention born of real achievement. It's much harder work, but we will have created something lasting with our efforts rather than just making a bunch of noise.

Romantic Relationships
There's nothing quite so intoxicating and enveloping as oxytocin surging through your veins as you fall in love. Perpetually being in or seeking out love and coupledom is a brilliant way to bypass learning several essential life skills, such as the abilities to be comfortably alone, to self-soothe and to self-approve. These are not easy skills to learn, though. The silence of aloneness is deafening to some, especially if you have something you're avoiding by being with someone else. Sometimes there is suffering in aloneness, and as vulnerable as it is to love another, there can be a distinct, sharp vulnerability to being alone. Being in partnership has much to teach, but aloneness is a space where you do work that cannot be done in the presence of a lover.

If you are unhappy alone, you will remain unhappy in partnership. Your partner won't really change you. They will show you where you need to change and it's up to you to choose that for yourself. I, for one, would not want to be in a relationship for the purpose of filling my own or someone else's basic emotional needs. Of course we provide emotional support to one another in all kinds of relationships, but I want to know that my partner can stand on their own, as well. It puts tremendous stress on a relationship when one or both parties are relying on the other to provide them with their sense of self and stability. It is also unreliable, unsustainable, and ultimately, avoidant.

The inability to be happily, confidently alone can be crippling to ones freedom. It keeps people in relationships that are unhealthy and have long surpassed any usefulness. We must be able to do for ourselves so that our loved ones are not burdened with doing for us every day, lest we fall apart. The ability to function with emotional independence grants us unlimited movement and space. We can be anywhere and be fine because we have a solid base within. But first comes the honest answer to the Big Question: What am I avoiding by avoiding being alone?

Drugs and Drink
People can be unusually forthright about their vices, especially alcohol. Reliance on substances to moderate our emotional life has been normalized to the point where it's completely acceptable to be dependent, so long as its not perceived this way. Addiction is a sort of love that dare not speak its name. I have watched countless family and friend groups dance delicately around the truth of their loved one's addiction, laughing hollowly and nervously when they've had too much, suggesting with a forced joviality that maybe they should cut back. No one wants to talk openly about what's really there.

There is great wisdom in the ancient Greek aphorism "Know Thyself." Honest self-knowledge and the exorcism of personal demons has the potential to pull addiction up from the roots. It is the inability to be honest with self and others that ushers us down the path of addiction. If we could boldly identify and examine that which haunts us, the need for the substance would diminish as the wound was healed and its power faded. With the right tools and support, there is a way out of anything.

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You will not feel the heat of the fire from 100 miles away. We fear the lick of the flames of our pain and anger, but if we continually bypass it and keep it at a distance, it will rage unchecked and burn us alive from the inside out. We are oftentimes not the only victims- our loved ones and our relationships suffer, as well.

We are meant to walk towards the light of these fires. Looking at them directly may sting, but it will illuminate all that we fear, all the ways in which we are wounded and limited. This process can be grueling and painful. We may be burned, but it will be a deliberate, controlled burning up and burning out of everything inside that hurts. And in the end we rise from this crucible as the phoenix- renewed, transformed and freer than ever before.

Freedom. This is the ultimate gift of bypassing the bypass, of getting to the heart of the matter. We can never be free if shackled by the fear of our own darkness. There is a way out, and it is almost never easy or around. The way around may cost us much more time and cause more pain. Our fear will burn us alive if we don't choose to bring it to light and burn it up ourselves.

With fear and courage in our hands, we walk straight into the fire.