Thought for the Day: My Guiding Mantra

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu = May ALL beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.

This is probably my favorite of all ancient Sanskrit chants.  It is not part of the original Vedic texts, but seemed to evolved from the desire to explain further the fundamental principles of ahimsa –  which means non-violence in all thoughts, words and actions.  The ancients declared the value of the Universal Spirit found within all living beings.

One of my original teachers sums it up quite eloquently:

If any prayer were to embody the spirit of the yogi, it would be this simple chant, whose 4 simple words translate as:

lokah: location (everywhere)

samastah: sameness or equality

sukhino: sweetness or happiness

bhavantu: unto all 

Notice that the transliteration says unto ALL living beings, not some living beings, and not the beings we love, or who are behaving in accordance with our expectations.  Nor does the prayer define ‘beings’ as human.  The mantra is clear – ALL beings deserve to be happy and free.  It’s simple, yet hard to practice, but has been my guiding principle for interacting with the world for nearly a decade (after I first heard it chanted in a yoga class years ago).

Some people ask, “what would Jesus do?”  As an atheist, I’m challenged to identify with Jesus.  I do think he was one of the original Yogis, when it comes to loving others and doing no harm, but I think I’m more challenged with the stance the Bible takes…namely the Old Testament which seems to focus more on defining ways we are deserving of love and ways when we are ‘bad’ or to experience the ‘wrath of God’.   Too many people like to pretend they are God, or God-like, when it comes to passing judgement upon others – they seem to forget we live in the era of the New Testament and what it was the Jesus actually taught.  Rather than dealing with confusing, or contradictory, text, I come back to this simple, astute chant when/if the thread of judgement begins to weave its way through my thoughts.

ALL beings deserve happiness, joy, and freedom – not just some beings, not just the beings you think are good or deserving – ALL beings: all black beings, all brown beings, all cis* beings, all gay beings, all beings who don’t identify within the confines of the gender binary, all animals, all plants, and the Earth itself deserve this.  It’s sometimes hard to reconcile this with the human mind, the one that calls for justice when we are wronged, or the one that lives in fear that there won’t be enough happiness and freedom for everyone (so we better restrict it to only a few).

We all deserve these things, but it should never be up to another to limit whether we heed joy’s true calling.  No living being should inflict suffering, harm, or pain on another.  That is a choice that we must make for ourselves.

I’ve missed you, Jack

It’s been five years since you passed away, Jack.  Those years went by in the blink of an eye and there is so much that I wish I could share with you.  Yet, I feel like you have always been here, to guide me through some of the hardest years of my life.  Mostly, I take today, the anniversary of the day we lost you from this world, as a time to reflect, to share with you and to celebrate, that I made it through.  When we lost you, Jack, I lost most of myself.  And, it was because of you, sweet baby, that I found my way back.

For some, losing a child makes them harden to the world, and I did for awhile.  The day you died, I fell out of love with life. I disengaged from normal daily activities, from caring about other people’s problems, and from wanting anything better for myself.    Those first few months after you had passed, I was in denial.  I denied you were gone. I denied you had existed. I denied that I worked for a dysfunctional, unethical company with leaders who were discriminatory, passive aggressive bullies, who were sucking the life out of me. I denied that I dating a man who was a lying, cheating narcissist with borderline personality disorder who treats people as objects.  I denied myself the gift of friendship from those who truly cared about me when I didn’t care about myself. I denied myself any opportunity to heal.

In the first 18 months after you were gone, I was so heartbroken that I dug myself so deep into a hole of sadness and there was no way for me to see any way out.  When I took an inventory of my losses that year – losing you, my job, a shitty relationship, my home, and friends – I lost my will to live. It took a tribe of beautiful souls to bring me back into the light – my mom, my best friend, my brother, my mentor, and the friends who didn’t turn away from the pain that I was in. They gave me the strength to work through the heartache of compounded loss, to see how some of those losses were truly gifts.

For most of 2011, I traveled because I needed to see the beauty that was left in the world.  I traveled alone because I needed to remember how I had once been intuitive and independent. I traveled great lengths because I needed the space to let go of my anger and find respite from all of the hurt.  I carried you in my heart the entire journey, listened to the whispers from your soul about forgiveness and finally came home a greater sense of compassion for myself and others.  The hard shell I had built was gone.

I met a wonderful man at the end of that year and I added new members to my tribe of beautiful souls.  Together, he and I have formed a partnership of deep respect, love and kindness towards one another.  Life these past three years has been full of joy, had some pain, but without fear. My fearlessness evolved from surviving so many massive losses and gave me the opportunity to truly understand and appreciate the impermanence of life.  It has made me grateful for what I have, but know that I can’t cling to wanting people and moments to be a certain way. You have given me the courage to live a life of no regrets.

During the times I am most challenged to be brave, to be kind, or to be humble, I reflect upon that fateful day we met at Children’s Hospital, when you were struggling to stay alive.  I come back to the instant I walked through the door to your hospital room and fell in love with you.  I carry that moment in my heart everyday, I reflect upon it every time I need to be empathetic towards myself and others.  You were so helpless and had been beaten so badly – all you needed was unconditional love.  Egos, agendas, and personal issues were set aside.  In those precious moments we had together, there was no time to be insecure and selfish, or make sure that our personal needs were met. All we could do was have the courage to love beyond our small selves.

Each moment that I come back to the reminder of how frail you were, and how we had no control over the outcome of your short life, is a moment that I soften to the world around me and I am grateful.  Five years ago, you taught me how to love for the sake of loving, simply because we all need to deserve to feel loved before we die, simply because withholding love from another being only does irrefutable harm to our own souls. You taught me that holding onto anger proves to be a futile mission and, in the end, only causes the one who is angry the greatest amount of suffering. You taught me to be kind and recognize when someone is hiding their pain.  You taught me to admit my faults, celebrate my strengths, and never be afraid of either.  You taught me to be unapologetic for who I am, but to apologize quickly when I am wrong. You taught me which battles are worth fighting, which ones I should walk away from and how truly liberating forgiveness can be. You taught me that failure is not the end of my story.

Your time on this Earth was short, but the lessons we learned from you have been long.  Five years ago when you departed this world, you taught us all how to live.  I will never be okay with how our story began, but I will always be grateful for ways you have enriched my life with your small, but mighty soul.

I love you, Jack.


Finding True Refuge

“Each time you meet an old emotional pattern with presence, your awakening to truth can deepen. There’s less identification with the self in the story and more ability to rest in the awareness that is witnessing what’s happening. You become more able to abide in compassion, to remember and trust your true home. Rather than cycling repetitively through old conditioning, you are actually spiraling toward freedom.” –Tara Branch in “Finding True Refuge”

Four years ago today, we lost Jack.  Each year, I think this day will get easier, but it still creeps up on me…the grief, the overwhelming loss of life through such senseless and violent means…..I end up weepy, irritated and exhausted as I cycle through the events of his short time on this planet.  Replaying those few months over again, I can say the experience, as a whole, was a tale that bore the worst of humanity, but also the best.  Knowing that someone, his own father, was capable of doing that amount of harm to a frail, sentient being, brings up feelings of anger and a distraught sense of helplessness.

Rather than run away, I have learned to allow those feelings to simply ebb and flow and as they subside I am able to shift my thinking to reflect upon all that Jack taught me in his short life….and all of the lessons that I have carried forward from that experience.  Because of Jack, I learned what forgiveness looks like, I learned what compassion truly is, and I learned so much about the dharma from my family blood line that put Jack in harm’s way.

Until I met Jack, I avoided this karmic pattern in my own life, using all of the normal distractions we all use as human beings, but after Jack died, the time came to bear witness to the suffering that all of those distractions were hiding.  When I let go completely, and all of the pieces fell apart, I could see more clearly the fractured causes and conditions that led Jack’s mother to make the mistakes she made, because I too had fallen for the wrong guy on more than one occasion and put myself into violent, life-threatening situations.

It wasn’t easy to look at these parts of myself, or to accept responsibility for the role that I played in the harm that was done to me, yet I knew that there was one common denominator in each of these situations throughout my life, and that denominator was me.  I didn’t treat myself with the utmost of care, so it was hard to expect anyone else to do the same.  Then, I got the idea to start looking at myself the same way that I looked at Jack, the first day that I laid eyes upon him in the hospital.  He was covered with so many bandages and tubes, yet I fell head over heels in love with that little boy.  Beyond the battered and beaten body, I saw how beautiful and truly perfect he was.

Why couldn’t I do the same for myself?

Then I learned I could. And I did. And, it didn’t happen all at once, but with lots of practice, it led me to freedom. Freedom from the patterns that led to suffering in my own mind and freedom to be able to truly love myself for all of the mistakes and the triumphs I had made.  I hope that it will one day do the same for his mother because we all deserve the chance to forgive ourselves and learn that we are all sentient beings.

Those we have held in our arms for a little while, we will hold in our hearts forever.

Three Little Words

As we truly begin to become aware of how often we make assumptions – about everything from why someone cut us off in traffic, to why our spouse may have left without kissing us goodbye this morning, or how we correlate someone’s physical appearance to their level of trustworthiness (or level of intellect) – it seems a little inconceivable that we could ever stop doing so.  Assumptions are deeply rooted into not only our interpersonal communications, but also our subconscious.  We have repeated this practice so many times that making assumptions is generally an automated response to our constant flow of inner thoughts.

A little over a year ago, I set an intention to change my agreements with myself, and others, to stop making assumptions.  The only concern (aka resistance) I had about this was that I believe there are times when I am not judging someone, but rather I sometimes get the sense that by interacting with a particular person, it will cause me harm.  Simply put, there are people I just don’t “vibe” with.  I am sure we have all had these experiences….say you are walking down the street and for whatever reason, the person coming from the other direction makes you feel uncomfortable, or say you meet someone at a party and can’t seem to get the conversation off the ground, but you might meet someone else, at the same party, and you just can’t stop talking to them the rest of the evening.  How do we know if what we are picking up on is really our intuition (that innate sense of security or trouble)?  What if it is just our judgments that get in the way of seeing a situation (or person) for what it really is?

The more often I pay attention, the more often I am surprised by my assumptions.

On a recent flight to Denver, I was sitting behind a woman who was chatting incessantly with the woman next to her, for the entire flight.  I took this as an opportunity to collect data about my  avalanche of assumptions and what judgements arose from those assumptions.

Assumption #1: By listening to the woman’s voice, I determined she was approximately 70-80 years old.

Reality #1:  She told the woman next to her she was 56.

Assumption #2: She talked so much, she must be lonely.

Reality #2: She told the woman next to her she was happily married.

Assumption #3: She talked so much, I decided I did not like her.

Reality #3: Who am I to say what “too much talking” is?  And I did not once speak to her, so how do I know if I would like or dislike her?

My judgement was not based on the content of her character.

Meditation has been the great equalizer to help guide me to a more balanced path between my judgments and my intuition.  To know the difference, you must first be aware of your own thoughts and reactions on both a mental and physical level.  By sitting and observing your thoughts, you start to become acutely aware of an emotion and/or physical sensation that is paired with a particular thought.  For me, anxiety resides in my chest and abdomen.  If I am nervous or fearful about something, my breath becomes short and rapid and my stomach does flip flops.  If I am being particularly harsh or critical of someone or something, my brow furrows, I hold my breath and I feel tension around the back of my eye sockets and my eyes dart about.  Yet, when my intuition sails across my body with smooth, even breath and a knowing with absolute certainty (even in negative, sad or upsetting situations)- it brings a deep sense of comfort.

The trick to understanding the difference is to remain open.

Intuition is paired with compassion.  When you sense you are in danger, you are not taking it personally, but you are aware that the situation is not the best one for you to remain in – the story as to “why” does not come into play.  Assumptions, on the other hand, play off our ego and our need to know why someone said something hurtful, or reacted towards us in a negative way.  We tell all kinds of stories to ourselves (or our friends) about why this person upset us.  Or maybe, we tell ourselves all kinds of stories as to “why” we think we are not good enough.  What if you dropped the story?

The best answer I could come up with when the conversation shifts to gossip, or I start to gossip to myself was “I don’t know.”  I have spoken these three little words many times over the past year.   When my father asks why someone was rude to him in the store – “I don’t know,” I replied.  When my girlfriend speculates as to why some guy didn’t call her back – “I don’t know,” was all I could say.  When I asked myself why I forgot a good friend’s birthday – “I don’t know,” I responded.

“I don’t know” removes opportunity to make assumptions from the conversation.

It also gives me a moment to step outside of my ego to admit that I can’t possibly know why people do or say the things they do.  It also reminds me that if I don’t know, I must either communicate with the other person to find out, or I must drop it.  When communicating with your own negative thoughts, remember to approach the ego in a friendly manner: speak to yourself as you would a good friend and try not to reprimand yourself too unkindly.

Fair warning: people may not know how to react to your use of these three little words.  They are used to the old agreements we made to gossip and assume things about one another.  I have noticed that people are a bit taken aback when I choose not to engage in gossip, as if because I admit that I don’t know something it insinuates that I do not care.  Sometimes, it’s true – I don’t care because caring about trivial or negative things takes up too much of my head space, my time and my energy.  But, sometimes when I say I don’t know, it’s because I really don’t know!  Then again, maybe i just don’t want to know.  Regardless, be prepared for the other person to take offense to your lack of knowing/caring and be prepared to be okay with that.  If it helps, tell them that you have challenged yourself to stop making assumptions and start asking more questions.

And one more thing: Good luck!