Monday, June 27, 2022

What I'm Reading: Feel-Good Book Five

When I lived in Washington, DC in the eighties, I met the meditation teacher Stephen Levine at a conference and bought his beautiful book, A Gradual Awakening. "Treasure yourself," he inscribed on the first page. I devoured the practical tips on meditation, the clear explanation of the benefits of becoming aware of "monkey mind" -- the mind's incessant chatter -- and found great joy in the guided meditations sprinkled throughout. 

One hot August day in 1988, I took this book and my lunch to the park at DuPont Circle for my lunch break from my job at the Institute for International Environment and Development. This park, surrounded by a large traffic circle and a magnificent fountain at its center, pulsed with life. Bike messengers, chess and checkers players, homeless people, others on break like me, and passersby filled the walkways and patches of grass.

Seated on a bench, I began to read the guided meditation on opening your heart in loving-kindness. I slowly read the words, "May all beings be happy. May all beings be clear-minded. May their hearts open. Slowly and gently let your love spread to all beings, everywhere."

"May all sentient beings, all feeling beings, may they be free from suffering. May they love themselves. May they come to their happiness. May they uncover the joy of their true self. All beings everywhere. Just let yourself sit in the light of this love, in this caring for yourself, for each other. Don't try to do anything. Just be. In love. In the light. May all beings share in this openness. May everyone experience this spaciousness, this openness of heart. may we all come home to our completeness."

As I read, sitting on the park bench in the summer sun, still wearing a sweater from the cold office, I felt the words crack my heart wide open. I ate my food, a delicious, peanut butter sandwich that I chewed slowly, appreciating deeply. I took in the others at DuPont Circle and loved each and every one, open to their sadness and their joy. I took in the whole city of Washington, DC.

My heart opened out to the country, touching my brothers' lives where they were, and my other relatives and friends. My heart opened out to the Americas -- including my parents who lived in Colombia -- and then to the world. As I meditated, tears of utter bliss streamed down my cheeks. Deeply, amazingly at peace with the whole universe. I saw my part in it, feeling the presence of a powerful force whose language is love.

All too soon, it was time to walk back to work. The world around me seemed to vibrate with life, with love. I felt wide open to others, to everything, deeply grateful for this beautiful life. 

But as hard as I tried to maintain that openness, it slipped away. It's okay, though. I know where to find it again; inside the covers of A Gradual Awakening.

PS My book Courage Without Grace takes place in DC, and Josie spends a lot of time in and around DuPont Circle. Here's Josie.

"For the first time since arriving in DC, I had hope. Pedaling past the many pigeons and bicycle messengers at DuPont Circle, I admired the park's fountain with its chalice-like shape, three sculptures, and low pool. On the Taft Bridge, I snapped pictures of my stone lion friends. The expressions on their regal faces looked pleased, as if they knew things were looking up for me and were glad to play their part. 

 Still giddy with new hope, I turned up my street, standing as I pedaled up the hill. Something rumbled nearby, and I checked behind me. I nearly fell over when I saw the black motorcycle. Dear God, will that man never leave me alone?"

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

What I'm Reading: Feel-Good Book Four

 I have no idea where I got The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living but it's been on my bookshelf for years, like a joyful reminder that happiness is possible. The book follows a conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, MD, beautifully capturing the Dalai Lama's joy and wisdom. Cutler uses examples from his life and his psychiatric practice to give the Dalai Lama's words more meaning.

One of the Tibetan Buddhist monk's most famous quotes is, "My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness." In this book, he expands on kindness. "Once you accept the fact that compassion is not something childish or sentimental, once you realize that compassion is something really worthwhile, realize its deeper value, then you immediately develop an attraction towards it, a willingness to cultivate it. And once you encourage the thought of compassion in your mind, once that thought becomes active, then your attitude towards others changes automatically. If you approach others with the thought of compassion, that will automatically reduce fear and allow an openness with other people. It creates a positive, friendly atmosphere." 

I first read this book about twenty years ago, when my daughters were one and four. It changed my life then, and with this re-reading, it's changing my life now. 

My girls and I attended a Mom's Club event where we had decorated our car trunk for a Halloween party. Prizes went to the favorite "trunk-or-treat" designs, and I did what I do best. I joked with the other moms, telling everyone to vote for the farm we'd created out of Fisher Price Little People. Sure enough, they did, and I won. I was mortified by the attention, and mentally kicked myself for having such a big mouth. But I stopped myself, remembering what I'd read about compassion. Why not have a little compassion for myself? Often I am an outspoken joker. Maybe, just this once, I'd accept myself, show myself a little compassion.

I opened my prize and laughed. "Welcome Home" said the fall-themed door hanger. Yes indeed, Jeannie, welcome home to accepting yourself exactly as you are.

This time around, I've taken from the book a way to create a more positive, friendly atmosphere in my life. As a retail merchandiser for Hallmark, I visit eight stores weekly to keep the greeting card displays organized. I'm often surrounded by people - who can be so annoying! As a result of Happiness, it occurred to me that I could practice compassion in my aisle by looking for ways to be kind. The first day I went to work with the intention, I was actually nervous! I felt vulnerable by taking the risk of making a fool of myself. It turned out really well; From a place of simple kindness, I had genuine interactions with people that made my day. And now I'm off to work again, preparing to share a little compassion with any fellow human who might wander up my aisle. Maybe I'll see you there! 

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

What I'm Reading: Feel-Good Book Three

Happy Yoga: 7 Reasons Why There's Nothing to Worry About is written by Hindu monk Steve Ross, a yoga teacher on TV. This yoga class is PBS's Lilias Folan on steroids, and I picked this book up at Barnes & Noble for the great title and awesome cover. I was not disappointed!

Chris and I have a garage gym, the Zokan Fitness Studio, and we love yoga. We've even begun a sunset yoga class that lasts between fifteen and thirty minutes and is strong on shavasana, the most relaxing pose. He and I are the only members so far, so if you're local, join us around 7:30 every night. As you can see, we have plenty of mats! 

Here are some quotes for you to get a sense of Happy Yoga. On Breathing: "Breathe deeply right now. Just breathing can take you from a state of fear into an open state of peace and well-being. Regular deep breathing regulates the heartbeat and calms the mind. Just breathing helps prevent disease, aging, and depression."

On Loving: "Practice loving. Anybody, even people you don't know, can be a target for your loving energy. Start exercising your power to love unconditionally. Take the emphasis off of getting love and put it on giving love."

Door Two Please: "Essentially, there are two ways to go through life: 1) Resist everything that happens and comes into your awareness, attempt to manipulate the world to the point of exhaustion, and think obsessively about yourself and your life situation. 2) Surrender to the perfect mystery and accept each moment as perfect and essential for your evolution. It's that simple."

On Enlightenment: " ... it's similar to uninterrupted happiness, awareness of the source of all and everything, and conscious oneness with the all and everything... This depth of awareness feels like being bathed in bliss and soaked in heaven, until the bliss seeps in and becomes your very being. You are a vibrating, spacious, calm breath of God, so perfectly alive and in love with simply being."

Light-Up Chairs: "Once enlightenment happens, limitations and suffering fade away. Everything is alive, everything is beautiful. Even a chair becomes alive and glows with life force. You naturally love everything and everyone, because all you see is you. You no longer identify with the body and mind: instead the whole universe is your form."

You Still Gotta Pay the Ticket: "There truly is no spot where God is not.... Where under normal circumstances you might only perceive a cranky, bitter parking-enforcement officer, in an enlightened state you see past the facade and recognize the radiance of God playing there." 

On Acceptance: "Everything is perfect exactly the way it is. You're exactly where you're supposed to be. If you wholeheartedly accept that possibility, a big relax can happen. And from this realization, an openness and receptivity to what is appears."

Along with a  number of yoga poses, Ross shares inspirational quotes in his book. Today's takeaway is one I've loved since my college years on the power of presence: "You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet." Franz Kafka

Want to try a challenging but fun class? Inhale with Steve Ross

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Courage Without Grace is the NIEA Winner for New Age Fiction!

I entered Courage Without Grace in two categories for the 16th annual NIEA awards, Women's Fiction and New Age Fiction, after reading an article by Abbey Campbell Cook called, "5 Reasons We Need More New Age Fiction." You can read it here: 
Writer's Digest

Thanks to Cook's article, I had a sneaking suspicion my book could fit in that odd little category. 

On a quest to find the truth, I discovered that New Age fiction has spiritual components, motivational psychology, growth in consciousness, and a worldview that respects the diversity of life and cultures. Also called Visionary Fiction, it can be inspirational and has no gratuitous violence. It's self-help with a story.

And guess what? NIEA chose Courage Without Grace as the winner in the New Age Fiction category!

To view the winners, go to this link: indie excellence 16th annual winners. The Existence of Pity was an NIEA finalist in 2017, so it feels good to win this time around!

Sunday, June 5, 2022

What I'm Reading: Feel-Good Book Two

When I picked up Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice from Open Books in Pensacola, I had no idea of the book's prominence. The publication came from talks given by Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, compiled by Marian Derby and Trudy Dixon, and published in 1970. Only now, after some research, have I discovered it is one of the top 100 best spiritual books of the 20th century. My copy, beautifully printed in Hong Kong with a deep red frontispiece and unbelievably soft pages, is from 1994 and in its 32nd printing. To learn more about this classic, go to Zen Mind or check out the Wikipedia entry HERE

Some of the weighty chapters I read without completely comprehending, but I hope you feel the peace I felt as I sat at the feet of a kind and helpful teacher and let his gentle words play at the fringes of my mind.

On Waves: "When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves, gradually they will become calmer and calmer. ... You yourself make the waves in your mind."

On Character: "Just continue in your calm, ordinary practice and your character will be built up. If your mind is always busy, there will be no time to build, and you will not be successful, particularly if you work too hard on it."

On Enlightenment: "Dogen-zenji said, 'Do not think you will necessarily be aware of your own enlightenment.'" 

On Wisdom: "Wisdom is not something to learn. Wisdom is something which will come out of your mindfulness. So the point is to be ready for observing things, and to be ready for thinking. This is called emptiness of your mind. Emptiness is nothing but the practice of zazen."

On Practicing Meditation: "Zazen practice is the practice in which we resume our pure way of life, beyond any gaining idea, and beyond fame and profit. By practice we just keep our original nature as it is. There is no need to intellectualize about what our pure original nature is, because it is beyond our intellectual understanding. And there is no need to a appreciate it, because it is beyond our appreciation. So just to sit, without any idea of gain, and with the purest intention, to remain as quiet as our original nature--this is our practice."

On Peace: "The best way towards perfect composure is to forget everything. Then your mind is calm, and it is wide and clear enough to see and feel things as they are without any effort. The best way to find perfect composure is not to retain any idea of things, whatever they may be -- to forget all about them and not to leave any trace or shadow of thinking."

The wrap-up is another quote: "There is no need to remember what I say; there is no need to understand what I say. You understand; you have full understanding within yourself. There is no problem." Reading this book is like taking a long, deep breath. Yes, it's okay. We are here, alive in this moment, and it's okay. This reminds me of one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard, It's OK by Nightbirde.