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With a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree (Goucher College, August 2014), I am looking at a new phase in my life. From 1992 to 2009, I served as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House, a residence for homeless women living with AIDS. I left this position when Chronic Migraine Disease overtook my ability to do my job. Now I hope that a writing career will both accommodate the migraines and give me a creative, productive outlet. And soon, September 4, I will launch my Inkshares author page in a bid to hit the 1,000 pre-order goal in 90  days. The book I want to publish is "Nowhere Else I Want to Be," a memoir of ten of my years at Miriam's House.

22 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Open Hearted

There is no one I know who embodies more fully the essence of today's reflection than David Hilfiker. I have known David since 1991; since then he has been mentor, colleague and dear friend. Now he has Alzheimer's disease.

I think of David when I read the verse by Izumi Shikibu:

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

David has been able to love the moonlight leaking through the planks instead of focusing on the wind that blows through.

But read for yourself. Here is a link to his blog: Watching the Lights Go Out.

I would love to hear from you. Click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

19 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: No One Has The Right

Today's teaching and reflection is about men abusing women and women's response. To me, the most important sentence -- or at least the thought that needs to be first and foremost -- is this one:

"No one has the right to cross our boundaries in this way."
Our ability to believe and hold to this clear sense of our boundaries is essential for us and for our daughters. We must know this in our depths and teach it to our daughters' depths. And if we don't have daughters, we must teach it and uphold it where and when we can.

Even more, we must uphold the right of all children, boys and girls, to trust adults not to cross their boundaries into sexual abuse. There is no more important consideration than that of our vulnerable little ones and minors.

Sandy Boucher writes about pointing out injustice without rancor; she desires to remain  --

"...grounded in the compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity that are the heart of this spiritual path."

I admit to having a terribly hard time staying thus grounded when reading or hearing about the abuse of children by priests, ministers, coaches and teachers. And I have an equally hard time remaining calm when I hear them defended or their actions explained away by adults who have other matters at stake such as loyalty to a church or a team.

We have no more important job as a society than protecting our children. No church is more important; no doctrine. No sports team takes precedent. No person with authority over children, however famous, or successful, or beloved by others, has a reputation or life work that should be of stronger consideration than the well-being and emotional health of our little ones.

To me that means that justice demands the utmost of condemnation of abuse perpetrators and of anyone -- boss, superior, principal -- who has protected them. Until children are safe, priests and bishops must be de-frocked; coaches and administrators must lose their jobs; teachers and principals must be fired.

As long as sexual abuse remains rampant, I don't know that I can let go of my outrage about it and get to the place Boucher describes. I think that I just don't want to; as long as I hear of abuse and listen to or read the abusers and others who could have stopped the abuse being defended, outrage is all I feel. Until we have ensured that abuse of children is so wrong, so punishable to the ultimate extent of law and moral understanding, so much more important than a man's reputation or an institution's viability; until then, all I have is my outrage.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

17 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Give From A Sacred Space

A tantra is a saying that embodies profound and sacred matters and so brings liberation; another meaning is as a body of teachings, a spiritual science. It can also mean all of the practices and wisdom found in the tantric scripture. The word itself is a Western construct that explains Eastern spirituality to Westerners; as such, it is associated with the Hindu religion.

The verse for today in Mariechild's Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful, is called a tantra. It's a wisdom saying from the East, from Hinduism.

It reminds me somewhat of the Old Testament sayings about women in Proverbs 31. Strength and Splendor are her clothing and smilingly she awaits her last day. She opens her mouth with Wisdom and the teaching of Kindness is on her tongue.

When we women read such passages, do we believe them?

My fear is that, for most of us, we do not -- not inside our hearts, not at the core of our being.

We have heard too much for too long about how we are less worthy than men; how our essentially feminine characteristics and inclinations and intuitions are sources of weakness and dependency at best, savage excuses for our oppression and abuse at worst.

If, without overweening pride or self-absorbed egoism, we truly believed and lived into and made tantras of these sayings, what would we be like? What would the world be like?

There is no jewel rarer than woman.

She girds her loins with might and strengthens her arms.

In woman is the form of all things.
How can we touch each other, my sisters?
We keep our tenderness alive and the nourishment of the earth green.
Look at me
I am not a separate
I am a continuance
of blue sky...
A night wind woman...

What would we be like?

What would the world be like?

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

16 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Pain Management is Loving Myself

Two days ago I sneezed.

I can imagine what you are thinking. How does that make for the subject of a blog post?

Here's how: if you have a couple of degenerating discs in your lower back and you sneeze when you are in the process of lifting one foot to go upstairs while one hand reaches for the banister, you are off balance when you sneeze and the violence of the muscle contraction knocks you further off balance and wrenches your spine and...you throw your back out.

At the time, part of me knew it was comical. My little dog staring at me in confusion, me hanging for dear life onto the banister, trying not to collapse onto the stair because I knew I'd not be able to get back up, saying (well, yelling), "Oh my God, oh, my God, oooooooh my God."

And then breathing deeply; imagining the breath going to those spasming muscles and calming them, softening them; saying (I learned this little mantra from my mother), "I can do this. I can do this," one step at a time with a deep, slow breath for each lift of a foot to the next stair, up two flights of stairs and then baby steps, slow baby steps, into my condo. Getting the ice pack (you have at least two of those if you have migraines and a bad back) and finally, gratefully, gingerly, lowering my aching self onto the bed.

In Mariechild's reflection (Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) for March 15, she writes, ironically enough, of stiffness and pain in her back. But before that she has made this amazing statement:

"Spirituality is learning to make friends again and again with our shameful parts, our confusing parts, our wild parts, our silly parts, the whole of ourselves. Right now."

She writes this in response to the Pema Chodron quote at the top of the page:

"Our true nature is not some ideal that we have to live up to. It's who we are right now, and that's what we can make friends with and celebrate."

In my previous post, I wrote about shame and blame, about how we have learned them from childhood and how, if we free ourselves from shaming and blaming, we free up energy "to be used in the service of self-knowledge and wisdom." And now Mariechild says that we should make friends with our shameful parts, our confusing parts. Even our aching backs, our bodies that won't do what we want them to, our silly mistakes like sneezing at the wrong moment.

Mariechild says that the reality of her painful back "has to be okay. Cursing the pain or cursing myself for not unlocking the key to this pain won't help." As odd as it may sound, she has made friends with the pain: she has accepted it, stopped fighting or cursing it. And more, she tells us that what helps is "softening and loving myself."

What a neat way to think of pain management! At the moment that I was using my breathing and calming skills to manage the muscle spasms in my back, I was not thinking of loving myself. Yet isn't that exactly what I was doing?

Freaking out about being struck to near-immobility by pain would not have been very self-loving, now that I think about it that way. But having immediately handy those tools for managing the sudden, shocking pain and knowing how to use them for self-preservation, means that I had loved myself enough to learn and practice them so well that they have become readily available to me at a moment's notice. Pain management is loving myself.

Acceptance of who we are in this moment -- be it a moment of back spasm, embarrassment, ignorance, silliness, confusion -- is loving ourselves. It is spirituality.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

12 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Self-Responsibility

Learning to own responsibility for everything that happens to us is fraught with difficulty if we have internalized shame and blame. Many of us were shamed and blamed as punishment when we were children; we also used them to avoid punishment, or at least to get the punishment aimed at someone else. There is also a good deal of shame and blame in Biblical stories: Eve is blamed for offering the apple to Adam, and therein lie the seeds of ages-old doctrines that make women both culprit and embodiment of sin. Similarly, the Christian concept of "original sin" is and has been used to make us feel shamed -- the other phrase used is "hereditary stain" -- from before our birth.

These concepts are terribly destructive to our self-esteem. They stand in the way of  our learning how to take responsibility for our lives and our actions because we were taught that if we were responsible for a problem or an accident, we were bad and we deserved to be punished. And so we found ways to avoid responsibility.

But what Diane Mariechild says (in "Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful") is this:

"The development of self-responsibility without blame, either for self or others, leads to the lessening of attachment to the goodness or badness of a situation. We look to each situation in a less personal way. When the attachment is lessened energy is released."

The energy released when we de-personalize our life circumstances and events allows us to step away from the tangled mess of the shame we feel for ourselves or assign to others. It obviates the need to point out blame.

Perhaps it is the same energy, but employed instead for positive, self-affirming practices. Once we have turned away from the darkness of our emotional response and personal attachment, we no longer say, "It's her fault!" or "I am a terrible person for doing that." We say "What can I learn from this?" and "How can I grow?"

The energy is freed to be used in the service of self-knowledge and wisdom.

"We begin to see what we can change and what we cannot change and we develop the wisdom to tell the difference." Surely, Mariechild is purposefully echoing the prayer we know from the 12-Step programs, but which was first prayed by Rheinhold Niebuhr.

It seems to me there are three things Mariechild is recommending:
    that we release ourselves from learned habits of feeling shame and assigning blame;
    that we pray for the wisdom to understand what is in our power to change and what is not;
    that we bolster these new practices with a daily habit of meditation.

It is freedom we are talking about: freedom from the incessantly negative and blaming voices in our heads; freedom from searching outside ourselves for that which makes us victims; freedom from the binding chains of low self-esteem and suspicious thoughts. Mariechild says this freedom is about respect for all living beings.

Which, we have heard many times but cannot hear too often, can only be part of our world-view when we have first learned to be respectful of ourselves.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

09 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Without Thought is Freedom

We put a high premium on thinking. Aside from the fact that it is the mind's default state, our culture makes thinking the object of highest praise and highest priority. Thinking is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Where we go off balance in ourselves and in creation is that place in which we idolize the intellect by, among other things, discounting intuition and sensibilities. We also rob ourselves of our sense of the abundance of time, of the now.

Eastern spirituality has recognized this for thousands of years, hence the Buddhist concept, "no mind," or "Buddha mind," which is the center of Zen spirituality. Christianity, although of Western culture and therefore -- in my opinion -- too focused on thinking and analysis, also has its "centering prayer." 

So now we are reading Sue Silvermarie, who says that she, when living a day without time, moves "through her in grace / no more ahead of myself, or behind / than a tiger, than a seagull." Thinking eats up time; it's one of those things that make us believe we do not have enough if it. Silvermarie calls a day without time, without thinking, "a slow present." (There is a neat pun here: present in the sense of "now" and in the sense of "gift.")

Diane Mariechild, in today's reflection (Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) tells us that mindfulness -- or not thinking -- helps us "cultivate the awareness of a day unfolding." She makes several suggestions:

When you are sitting, know that you are sitting; feel that you are sitting
Wait calmly for the next thing to happen
When walking, be mindful of your feet on the pavement
Enjoy sensations
Focus on your breathing.

Don't think about it! Simply turn your attention to your body and the created world around you as it is in the present moment rather than to your mind and its incessant thinking. And when thinking intrudes -- as it inevitably will -- simply acknowledge that you are thinking (or planning, or worrying, or...) without judging it or becoming upset at yourself, and turn your attention back to the present moment.

It takes practice. But each time you practice, each time you have to label your thoughts and turn back to the present moment, you are becoming stronger in being attentive.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment below or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

07 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Breathe! Harmonize!

Inspiriation: a divine influence or action. Also, the act of drawing in air to the lungs. (From Merriam Webster).

Mariechild suggests that, in order to begin finding the harmony in our lives -- which is what Dhyani Ywahoo writes about in the reflection at the top of the page -- we breathe. Meaning, we both draw air into our lungs and we allow divine influence or action to come in. She calls it soul searching, and she writes that few of us do it until we are in crisis:

"Many people don't start soul searching until there is a painful situation in life, something that pulls the rug out from under them. Old coping mechanisms no longer work...It isn't necessary to wait for upheavals. We have the opportunity now in the breath." (from Open Mind -- Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful)

I just love it that the breath is the basis of so much wisdom and wise practice in our lives, and have written about that before, here and here.

We all breathe. How handy is that for a reminder for the inspiration of divine influence? It really is simply a matter of being aware of our breath. Mariechild suggest we try being aware of our breath for ten minutes. Frankly, I would have found ten minutes hard to manage when I was first practicing this sort of awareness. Perhaps two minutes is a more realistic beginning if you have never done this before. Then gradually increase the time to ten minutes...and more.

Another way to practice is to become accustomed to breath-awareness not only when you are sitting in a formal practice, but at less formal moments during the day and in the midst of life's random situations:

while sitting in the car at a red light
on the bus or in a taxi
while walking
when in a difficult conversation or situation
when you suddenly realize that you are tense or upset.

I have found that if I combine the two modes of practice -- both formal and informal -- it becomes more deeply embedded in my life, a part of me that I call upon almost unconsciously, automatically. That makes it not only a wonderful spiritual practice, but a great stress reliever.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

06 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Peculiar Magic

The migraines have been really bad lately, and although I determined years ago to refuse to indulge in victim-status, I admit to having felt very isolated both during the days of intense pain and afterwards. "I am in this all alone," I thought. I viewed it as a fact to accept rather than a problem to chew over. I let the regret and loneliness be, without judgement.

Today's reflection in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful gives me a new way to be with the aloneness. What she is saying is that we are all in this life alone. We are all on an alone journey.

Furthermore, "I could hold the experience in my heart and let it work its magic there."

Now, I am not so sure that pain works magic in my heart, at least not in the way Mariechild means: she is talking about intense, wonderful experiences leading workshops and retreats for women. But I do know that pain works in my heart. So does sorrow, so do all the emotions I experience. If I allow them to be -- without judgment and without denying or grasping -- I give them space and time to work their peculiar magic in me.

I once attended a workshop in which the speaker was a young man living with AIDS. He said this astounding thing: "AIDS is the best thing that ever happened to me." He told us that the shock of being diagnosed had forced him to look at his lifestyle, assess his emotional and spiritual health, and begin to make great changes in his life. He would rather not have AIDS, he said, but he also knew that it had made him a better person.

I would rather not have migraines. We all would rather not have to deal with things like our own difficulties; the mental illness or addiction of a loved one; physical challenges; death and dying. Yet these are life, they are the realities with which we live. We can choose to let them work their magic in our hearts. That, to me, is the most hopeful thing about being alive.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

03 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: The Witness

"The Witness is a natural aspect of our minds. It is what the mind does when it is at peace." So says Diane Mariechild in today's reading from Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful."

I love the concept of the Witness. When Eckhart Tolle writes about this, he usually calls it Presence: I have written about this before, here and here. It's an important part of both my spirituality and my pain management. And I really like what Mariechild says about it, that it is what the mind does when it is at peace.

I used to think that if I were truly meditating, truly centered in prayer, my mind would be perfectly blank. But it turns out that a mind at peace is not blank. It is calmly aware, grabbing at no thought or perception or image; it is witnessing, nothing more, nothing less.

I found a great meditation for developing the Witness. I reproduce it below, but you can link to it here.

From about.com -- Meditation to Develop the Witness

  1. Sit upright - either in a chair or on a meditation cushion - with your skull balancing happily right on top of your spine. Place your hands palms-down on your thighs, or else rest the fingers of one hand in the upturned palm of the other, with the tips of your thumbs lightly touching. Let your eyes close, and turn your eyeballs slightly downward.
  2. Take a couple of deep, slow and pleasantly-soft breaths. As you inhale, notice a rising in your abdomen. As you exhale, notice your abdomen relaxing back into its neutral position. Repeat this six or seven times, and with each exhale, release any unnecessary tension in your face, neck, throat or shoulders. Smile gently.
  3. Now, turn your attention inward, to begin noticing the contents of your mind: the internal chattering, or mental dialogue, as well as the images flashing across that internal screen.
  4. In this practice, we're simply going to name the thoughts arising as "thinking" and the images arising as "image." The spaces between thoughts and images - when neither is present - we're going to label as "rest."
  5. So every five or ten seconds, simply name (silently, to yourself) what's happening in your mind. If what is arising are thoughts or internal dialogue, simply say "thinking." If what is arising is an image (e.g. an internal picture of, say, the friend you had lunch with yesterday), simply say "image." If there are no thoughts or images arising, simply say "rest."
  6. As you label the thoughts and images, maintain the attitude of a detached but also kind observer, almost as though you were saying: "hello, thoughts" or "hello images" in a friendly and relaxed way. Make no attempt to change the thoughts or images in any way. Simply observe and label them. On their own, they will arise, have a certain duration, and then dissolve.
  7. Over the course of, say, one minute of this practice, your labeling might be something like this: "thinking" ... "rest" ... "thinking" ... "image" ... "thinking" ... "rest" ... "rest" ... "thinking" ... "image" (It will of course be different for each person, and will change from day to day, as you practice.)
  8. Notice this part of your self that is observing and labeling the thinking and images. This is called the Witness Consciousness, or the energy of Mindfulness - and is the part of our mind that remains forever untouched by its contents - by the thoughts and images arising within it. A traditional metaphor for this aspect of mind is that it is similar to the deepest part of an ocean - which remains calm, still & silent, even if at its surface, waves (of thinking, emotion, or sensation) are raging.
  9. When you're ready to end the practice, take another couple of deep, slow, breaths, with your abdomen rising with the inhalation and relaxing back with the exhalation. Notice how you feel, and then slowly open your eyes.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

02 March 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Purification Instead of Spiritual Materialism

After a couple of really rough weeks of migraines, my energy -- both spiritual and physical -- is low. The realization that I had not written a post in five days, along with the frustration of getting behind in my schoolwork, has me wondering if there is anything I can really do beside be in pain.

Then along comes the March 2 reading in Diane Mariechild's "Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful." Tsultrim Allione, whose words Mariechild quotes at the top of the page, tells us that

"One cannot force or grab a spiritual experience because it is as delicate as the whisper of the wind. But one can purify one's motivation, one's body, and train oneself to cultivate it."

And there goes my whining about what can I do beside be in pain.

Purification, in terms of preparing for spiritual growth, is possible even when I am in pain. In some ways, I am practicing it already. I have to be very careful about what I eat, consuming only fresh and organic foods and only home-made goods. It helps to lie still, blindfolded, and practice deep relaxation (I have written about this often, here and here.) If I allow stress or anger or impatience or frustration to flood through me the pain becomes worse, so I practice equanimity of mind and spirit.

I know that not everyone reading this post suffers from chronic pain, yet we all have barriers to the spiritual life: being too busy, too tired, too responsible. Whatever the reason, we all need to find the places that we can begin to practice purification measures. Mariechild says

"Purification means we purify our bodies by sensible living habits. We purify our minds from negative thoughts. We purify our motives, our intentions, by transforming our greed and self-striving and by our willingness to serve other beings...our desires by eliminating our wishes for material possessions or self-aggrandizement."

Purify our living. Purify our thinking. Purify our motives and intentions. Be in service.

None of us can do all these at once; indeed, trying that would be just another form of spiritual materialism, wouldn't it? So let go of the need to grasp at purity. Find one place in your life that could do with some purification. Are you holding a grudge? Do you make snide comments whenever that politician is in the news? Could you cut out one form of junk food from your diet? Do you have a goal that, however worthy and important it is, also includes thoughts about being better than others or getting revenge?

Knowing myself, I realize that it is possible for me to turn the desire for purification into spiritual materialism by grasping for it, berating myself when I fall short, letting my irritation at myself affect a relationship or interaction with another. So I remind myself of something a spiritual director I once had used to say to me at the close of each session:

Go gently.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.