Posted by: Sue Engle | December 12, 2013

Present (for the moment)

Recently presence has occupied my mind… the art of attention, that is. For it is an art, or at least a skill, to be thinking only about this instant and not letting your mind wander around in the past or the future. Few of us have mastered it, I’m convinced. Certainly not me.

One thing life has taught me: if you are interested, you never have to look for new interests. They come to you. … All you need to do is to be curious, receptive, eager for experience. And there’s one strange thing: when you are genuinely interested in one thing, it will always lead to something else.
Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living (1960)

My son’s grandparents have met many famous people, largely through their work in the 1950s and 1960s with the Democratic party in Wyoming. One of the stories Ben’s grandfather tells is about meeting Eleanor Roosevelt. He said that she was not a pretty woman, but the minute she opened her mouth to speak, you completely forgot what she looked like — her voice was soft and sweet, and she paid complete attention to the person in front of her, as if there were no one else in the room. She wasn’t interested in impressing you with her presence… she was present for you.

Photo credit: Kaiser Permanente History

Photo credit: Kaiser Permanente History

Now, making allowances for his point of view (being brought up in an era where a woman’s looks were her primary asset — however, so did Eleanor), it still illustrates a remarkable person. How many of us give complete attention to not only the person in front of us, but also the task? How often do we stop to enjoy the beauty we see before us?

This is the view today outside the dining room window, near where I sit and write. Snow, sunshine, deck, birdhouse, trees. A beautiful composition in shades of brown and white, with a color pop from the birdhouse. Totally ordinary beauty that exists on its own… but gone until an appreciative eye shows up.

Photo credit: Sue Engle

Photo credit: Sue Engle

How much do we miss in this life? How much goes by without our seeing it? And how do we start catching what counts? We’re already cramming busy lives even more full.

I think these are good questions to be asking ourselves, especially during this crazy holiday season. Because until you slow yourself down, your life will continue to go by in a blur. Nobody else can help you pay attention. Nobody else can give you calm and quiet. And isn’t that the gift you really want?

I started this post five days ago, on a quiet Saturday morning. I am working on it again very early Thursday morning, snatching some time from sleep — which is elusive today, it seems. My life has gone from serene and orderly to more than a little hectic in the last six months. Time slips by without my presence; it takes more energy from me to pay attention. It’s easier to zone out when I am rushed, and so it takes longer to complete a post than I would like.

And while that may give me more time to think and compose in my head, it also symbolizes how life flows by us. If we are not present, it’s downstream before we know it. Everything is temporary — jobs, careers, relationships, family, homes, cars, possessions. We are temporary, when you think about it. So if we spend our time in the future, in a dream, in a TV show, rushing around, online, even in a book, we lose what is sitting in front of us, and that is all that is real.

I just spent a minute stroking Eddie, the long-haired tuxedo cat who likes to hang out on my computer. He is here every night, a reminder of what lives in front of me. Eddie does love me, but I know what really draws him — he loves the heat from the computer even more. Gotta be real about cat love; it’s pretty opportunistic.

The way we live our lives can be opportunistic as well, let’s admit it. We seize the moment to focus on making money, get through the “to-do” list, slip into work on time, grab a bite, or dash to the deadline. All of this focusing on the activity inside the buildings, inside our cars, inside our heads.

Yet all around us outside the buildings, cars, and yes, our heads, is the glory of God. Even in the dead of winter, there is the stark pristine beauty of snow, bare trees, blue sky, and a lone hawk lazily spinning. Walk in the woods and you see clear animal tracks, water captured in ice, and the earth resting up for the rush of spring. It doesn’t matter that humankind has largely retreated to home and hearth during the freezing cold, the Divine is still putting on a show, asking our attention to what truly matters… the home that sustains us all.

Photo credit: Glen Helen Facebook page

Photo credit: Glen Helen Facebook page

We don’t have to have a rigorous meditation practice, prayer rituals, or yoga poses. We don’t even have to go to church every week to worship the Divine where it is. All you have to do is open your eyes and see.

For God is everywhere you look. God is in your browned yard, the bare tree, the deer munching on the weeds, in the asphalt, the skyscraper, the frozen pond, the faces of your children and spouse. The Divine is in your workplace, the grocery store, on both the freeway and the country road you travel. The snowdrops poking through and the merry lights on houses both speak of the love that surrounds our beings.

I’m not sure we’re built to pay full attention to the present every moment. I’m not even sure we’re able to be fully aware most moments. But we can pull ourselves out of our heads periodically and look around us, taking in the glory of the world. We can remind ourselves that our personal universes are only a small part of the larger web around us. And we can breathe a prayer of thanks or amazement to the spirit that holds us.

For in the end, we will not remember the days we spent rushing from store to store. We will not remember the endless hours of striving for achievement in the workplace. What will stay with us forever will be the moments of astonishment at unexpected natural beauty, the first sight of a baby’s face, times when we are caught short by the sheer gorgeousness of life and pulled clear out of our heads to face the reality in front of us.

That is worship, that is what brings gratitude, that is how we know we are part of something far larger than ourselves. So just stop. Stop and stare. Take it in. Breathe. Be present, if only for the moment. It will flow by, just like all the others, but if you are lucky it will be stored and available for your smile later on. Amazing how that works.

Posted by: Sue Engle | November 23, 2013

Anger management

Another three dead last night from a shooter in Columbus, Ohio, including a seven-year-old on life support until he can be an organ donor. A wounded cop from the final gunfight that killed the shooter. Another case of exploding anger. Another person who sees no solution for their overwhelm but bullets.

What is wrong with our society that we have created people who see this as an option? Where has both our outrage and our compassion gone? Outrage that this is accepted as normal, compassion for those who see no other out for their despair.

These are complex questions, but these angry men (and most are men, but not all) are everywhere. It is time we ask the questions and search ourselves for answers and solutions.

I was raised by an angry man, as were several friends of mine. I have dated angry men. I have worked for so many of them. I have seen it as a deep and terrible rage, only barely held in check, and as more and more of them act it out, its extremes become normal.

It is frightening to have that anger directed at you. It seeks a target, someone to blame, a reason for whatever triggered the emotions that are rising like a tide inside that person, threatening to swallow them whole. And when you see that cycle in another, you begin to understand how scary it is to feel that level and depth of anger. All the angry one sees is red, quite literally. The details of people’s faces fade, and they are no longer three-dimensional, no longer seem human… so much easier to mow them down to get them out of your way.

I have been at the hands of that anger. I have felt that anger. And I know where it comes from.

Photo credit: Jay Simmons via rgbstock.com

Photo credit: Jay Simmons via rgbstock.com

Many years ago, someone in power in my church did another a serious injustice, which I was privy to (not many were), but was unable to stop. I felt the threat and I felt the helplessness, even though it wasn’t my own. And my reaction surprised and amazed me. When I found out about the full incident, blood red flooded my vision and so much rage flowed through me I nearly staggered. The person who told me about the injustice done to her was shocked at the change that came over me… she could see how affected I was.

I quit speaking to the one who made me so angry… quit speaking to him for years, which is very unlike me. I cut him dead in the halls, wasn’t open to his words, avoided him in public, would not serve my church in any capacity that would bring me close to him. The depth of unforgiveness I felt seemed endless. I had no context for this feeling, I just knew I felt it to the very bottom of my soul. And it forced me to honor it and not cover it up with routine politeness.

But finally, gradually, it faded. Before he moved away, we met for a meal and talked. We discussed the past and my rage, but not in depth and detail — we couldn’t. It was too long ago, most of it was lost in memory, we didn’t agree, and it was no longer important. Too much had passed and moved on. We reconciled enough to let it all go and forgive. I have not seen him since, and that’s fine with me.

Many years later, as incest memories began to crop up and be resolved, I realized where the anger I had felt so long before came from. This man who offended me so looked very much like the one who abused me as a young child. And it was the well of rage from that experience that was inadvertently tapped and misdirected.

This is what I think is at the root of so much of this anger that ricochets around us these days. It is anger due to injustice, abuse, confusion, and shame… acquired in earlier days, risen like yeast, and baked in the fiery oven of the mind. We ruminate the wrong, chew it, spew it wherever we can, let it spread, look for more justification, do anything but heal it. And it continues to grow inside us, where it can only fester.

The healing can only begin when we acknowledge the other is human, and made a mistake out of their own imperfect humanity… just like our own.

Forgiveness can be very hard when someone has acted horribly. But the truth, whether or not we care to admit it, is that someone did what we too might have done if we had been as freaked out by something as they were; if we had been as scared of something as they were; if we had been as limited in our understanding as they were. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable or that we shouldn’t have boundaries or standards. It doesn’t even mean we have to stay in contact with that person. But it does mean we can come to understand that humanity is not perfect. Just knowing that — that we all do the best we know how with the skills we have at the time — is a realization that opens the heart to more enlightened understanding. And that’s what we’re on the earth for, because in the presence of people with enlightened understanding, darkness ultimately turns into light.
– Marianne Williamson, The Gift of Change

I remember another time when I was having difficulty at work… actually, it may have been shortly after the incident above occurred. I was in the wrong place, not acknowledging it was time to go, overwrought, stressed, and at the mercy of my own thoughts. I had struggled for a long time to do a superhuman job where my own boss would not acknowledge I needed lots of help… and when I finally received assistance, it was almost too late. I was moving too fast to get things done to train another. The situation imploded (you knew this was coming), and my single position was replaced by a team of six… which I did not manage. Probably a good thing under the circumstances.

Anyway, I continued on the team, contributing where I could, but deeply unhappy and felt trapped by the situation — which was only true because I insisted on not taking a chance on something different. I doubt if I was much fun to work with. Finally one day, one of my teammates took a tremendous risk in a team meeting and asked me why I was always so angry. The manager literally held his breath and waited for the explosion he was sure was coming.

The comment took me completely by surprise. I had no idea I was projecting so much anger, no clue it was sticking out all over me like spikes. All the hurt, all the pain, all the rejection and inadequacy I felt was there for everyone to see, but no one could get close enough (or wanted to, I bet) to begin to soothe it. And it wasn’t their responsibility, anyway. We’ve all seen this in those around us… and I saw in an instant I was there, too.

So I took a deep breath and responded calmly, “Wow. You’re right. I’m sorry… I need to think about this.” The rest of the table took a deep collective breath, too. You could feel the tension leaking from the room.

This was a huge lesson for me. That was when I began to learn that my mood and attitude were mine to control, that I really wasn’t at the mercy of what battered me. I didn’t have to let it overflow to all the innocent ones around me. If I couldn’t direct it to the one responsible, I had to channel it some other way. It was key to healing the deep anger I felt for my fellow church member, key ultimately to healing the red rage underlying my very soul.

As I observe others who are deeply angry, as I see how we react as a society to shootings, how we never know who is capable of grabbing a firearm and finding what they think is a solution, I begin to understand that it could be any of us behind that gun. Any of us, that is, who haven’t taken the time to heal. Who doesn’t know there is life beyond that pain, that you don’t have to let it fester and infect your soul… and maybe inflict even more pain on the innocent, like that seven-year-old boy and his family.

We must begin to recognize all as human, to respect and cherish one another, and also understand the hurt and pain that overflows and burns all it touches like lava. It is up to us to extend the love that heals, every one of us. It is up to us to accept that love when it is offered. It is up to us to ask what’s wrong, what hurts, why someone is angry, and to listen to the answer. It is up to us to look within, to see our own pain, and to figure out how we can mend our own wounds.

We are here in community. We heal together. We accomplish nothing by casting another out to get better on their own, because it ain’t gonna happen. Only by acknowledging that violence is human and explainable (even if we don’t like the reality of it), will we begin to eradicate it. Only by deciding that love is supreme and expressing it, will we be able to heal another and give them reason to go on, even when in pain. Only by accepting that we are all wounded, that no one is perfect, will we feel worthy to receive the love we need.

I do not know what triggered the shooter yesterday. I know he had a history of violent behavior, which figures… it tends to escalate over time. It takes a lot of frustration and pain to get out a gun and start killing.

It’s probably not important, in the end, that we know what started the rampage. What is important is what we do about it. In giving thanks on Thursday, with our families around the table — not that we are all safe, but that we can love each other. In extending a pleasant greeting in the Black Friday crunch. In supporting those who are in need, hungry and tired and stretched too thin.

For it is in sharing our blessings, not to boast, but to help, that we heal ourselves and our society. It is in understanding our frailties that we cure another. It is in loving one another as the gloriously human beings we are, strengths and flaws alike, that we become whole and holy. For we are made of stardust and love, always golden.

Love to you all this Thanksgiving.

Related Links:
Bang bang
Bombs away
Facing The Darkest Side of a Beautiful Person

Posted by: Sue Engle | October 13, 2013

Second chances

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

– Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (1983)

I’ve been thinking lately about forgiveness and moving on. For me, forgiveness is the process of letting go of whatever pain I’m holding about somebody or a situation. Just letting it go, instead of allowing it to eat at me and fester. Even venting it isn’t always helpful, if it doesn’t resolve the situation. And if it’s unresolvable, all I can do is let it go.

It’s a difficult process, one that’s not easily completed… maybe never truly completed, since we can’t know where or how we’ll encounter what triggered it again, in the same form or another. For when we decide that we cannot go on in the direction we’re headed, that we need to change, then we have to let go somehow and move forward with our lives.

But what if the relationship, the career, the problem all comes around again? What if a second chance is requested or wanted? (Because you may be the one who wants another try.) Should you let that person back in your heart, see if this company is the right fit, find out if this new solution actually works?

One of the best teachers my son Ben ever had was in 4th and 5th grade. She led a special classroom for gifted children, and she had set it up specifically to teach a lesson they all needed — how to fail and recover. We have taught our children to fear failure — after all, success is so rewarded in our culture, shouldn’t we all strive for it? Well, no, not if it means we won’t stretch ourselves and risk failure. And gifted children are particularly prone to not risking failure. It’s part of the one-sided development that happens when we stress academics over all.

This teacher met with the parents early in the year and told us in no uncertain terms to keep our hands off our childrens’ book bags… and then she let us in on what she had planned. At the beginning of the week, she posted on the board all the work the students were expected to complete. Because of the mixed-grade classroom, she did a lot of small group work with them, so those who weren’t meeting with her or working on a project with their group had plenty of free time to finish up. They could take the work home to do as well. But there were many distractions deliberately placed in the classroom and available to anyone who wanted to use them — board and card games, books, and art materials. She set them up to blow it.

She expected each child to fail this test at least once, because any work not completed by the week’s end received a 0, and could not be turned in late. For a 4th grader who doesn’t understand about averaging grades, this was devastating. However, they could make up the missing grade with extra credit work, so they all had chances to redeem the mistake. The first time Ben didn’t get his work done, he melted down at home Friday night and could not be consoled. Tears nearly all evening long, he was so upset about failing. Thankfully I was expecting this situation and reaction.

It took several failures that year to get the concepts down — that he had to plan his week, follow through on expectations, and if he didn’t make it, figure out how to correct course and move on. I don’t think it was a problem at all the second year he was in her classroom. And after those two years, I rarely had to monitor his homework. Maybe a few times in middle school, but he was mostly very responsible, taught by his elementary school experience. And I never had a child who was ready to commit suicide over a grade of A-, something I had always feared. He learned failure wasn’t final.

We all need and deserve second chances in our lives, maybe even third, tenth, or hundredth. Failure is always an option, always a possibility, and it teaches us what we cannot learn any other way. When we succeed with flying colors, we can get lost in the triumph and the glory and the experience becomes about success instead of what it truly was. But when we fail, while we may be brought low, eventually we have to look at it all critically and learn from those mistakes if we want to rise again.

There really is no shame in failure, yet most of us would happily chew rocks rather than take the chance of failing. What brings this fear?

Well, I actually just gave you the answer — shame, or rather, perceived shame. We often see failure as final, as evidence we’ve wasted our time and resources, or worse, our lives. We don’t see beyond the first result. We don’t believe we really can succeed after failure. We think we have only one chance at winning, but that’s not true. We pin our self-worth to triumph and glory rather than effort, but effort is where we learn, and it’s through effort that we often succeed. It isn’t given to us as a reward for simply trying.

We learn through the failed relationship, through the 33rd run of the experiment, through the dress that doesn’t hang quite right or the essay that doesn’t flow the way you wanted it to. This is how we progress. It’s examining the path that isn’t straight, the lost status, the jail sentence, the bottoming out that shows us where we went wrong and how we get it right.

And if we are not given second chances to get it right, if we are not forgiven, not allowed back to try again, then we have choices to make with our lives. Sometimes we can salvage ourselves and go a different direction, and sometimes we fall further down. It’s really up to us to decide how to see it.

Many years ago, one of my faculty advisers was denied tenure. When that happens, generally your contract isn’t renewed and you lose your job at the end of it. That practice makes failure quite public among your peers — you’re not given the chance to slink away and lick your wounds in private. Instead, you have to show up for work the next day and continue to teach until the contract ends. You can’t get away from it.

He spent the next couple of years trying to get another teaching job, but always felt he was under a cloud, and it affected his attitude and outlook. Nothing worked out the way he thought it would or hoped, and gradually he sank under the weight of his old failure, trying to drown it every night in alcohol, steeped in resentment. I wish I could give you a happy ending to this story, but I can’t. It didn’t happen. He died a few years ago, an alcoholic who never tried to get sober. Part of it was his responsibility, part of it… well, maybe not. Sometimes life isn’t sweet. Sometimes you just can’t bear to take the risk. And sometimes you aren’t given the break you need.

Second chances aren’t guaranteed, much less the third, tenth, or hundredth. And sometimes that is what we have to recognize. There really are relationships you can’t salvage, along with careers or other problems. Doors and paths shut down. You have to go another direction, or drown in the sorrow and regret. And maybe, just maybe, that is the lesson.

For we cannot always count on our charm and wiles to bring us out of our own crap. We cannot always get the second chance. Sometimes we have to work harder than we think to reclaim our lives. Sometimes we have to work very hard, indeed. And sometimes we don’t get to go back and make up the work. The test lies in how we handle that outcome… do we continue to drown our sorrows, or do we start looking for another path?

But sometimes, when we least expect it, the second chance opens up. The path to redemption shows itself. We become aware that we can indeed figure out the way to go forward. We learn that it isn’t too late, that we can change, that we can make amends.

As I struggle with my craft, looking through old posts to see what I did — and did it work, or not, or even make sense — I begin to understand how “failing better” really operates. Because as I grow, I find that I relate differently to my work, or anyone else’s, differently on any given day. It depends on where I find myself, what I’ve most recently learned, and what mood I may be in. Luckily, second chances are more easily obtained with writing.

I’m not so sure about my life. I struggle also with it. I’m working on new projects, yes, but those are morphing almost daily. The direction changes, and I am not sure which way I’m going. I want to find time and space to write more often, but the fatigue from working full-time gets me down. I can’t beat my age… my energy is more limited than it used to be, even though I’m in much better shape than I’ve been, and fairly active again. I still tire faster and am more easily distracted.

So I am wrestling still with the idea of a second chance… maybe third or tenth, or God help me, hundredth.  Maybe this path will lead me to a second chance at a career, maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll do the work I feel I was designed to do, maybe I’ll retire on Social Security in ten years from the hardware store… well, not that. (I’m not sure I even want to record that possibility, in case it comes true!) Maybe I’ll win the lottery — even if I don’t buy tickets. Yeah, right.

Still, I don’t give up. I do the work. I show up, I meditate, I pray, I love what is around me and where I find myself. I know that the next chance is out there for me, even if I don’t see it coming. And that how it unfolds, where it takes me, how I grow and change and learn from it is a gift I must take, even if it looks like it is the wrong size or color. I open myself to that next chance, to ever trying, ever failing, failing better. For failing better can be success, too.

Posted by: Sue Engle | September 27, 2013

Working

Photo credit: David Ritter via rgbstock.com

Photo credit: David Ritter via rgbstock.com

I’ve been putting in a lot of hours lately, but not here. I’ve been working more hours, and with a longer commute, I’m not able to write nearly as much as I have been. It’s been a tough choice to make, honestly. I miss posting here.

But the other reason I have been and will continue to spend less time here is that two new writing projects with great potential have popped up in the last couple of weeks. I’m not free to say more right now, but my life is going in a fascinating direction with these. At the very least, I can put out some solid work I can be proud of, and that makes me happy.

I’ll try to post here, but it’s going to be an occasional thing for several months, at least. Meanwhile, wish me luck — hopefully these new projects are going to lead to bigger and better things for me! Have a great October!

Posted by: Sue Engle | September 15, 2013

Integration

Photo credit: Gavin Spencer via rgbstock photo

Photo credit: Gavin Spencer via rgbstock photo

I was on the bus one day recently and observed a woman, possibly in her 50s, aiming a monologue at anyone who would listen to her. She kept repeating it, and it revolved around these ideas:

  • I’m not attractive anymore
  • I used to be beautiful
  • I was married when I was 26
  • I’ve got to get attractive again
  • I’ve got to get married again
  • Then I’ll be happy

About one minute into the monologue, people turned completely away from her. I did, too. It wasn’t just the emptiness of the words, it was the desperation in her voice that kept escalating. She moved around the bus at least three times during a 15-minute ride, trying to find someone who would just sit there and absorb her spiel. I know she approached at least five other people, as well as me. When she tapped me on the shoulder from behind, I shook my head “no”… I was too busy meditating, sending her peace so I could maintain mine. I knew it was probably futile, but what the hell, it could only improve the situation if I didn’t engage her. She needed way more help than I could give in the next five minutes.

It was obvious to me that life had used her up and spit her out — overweight, messy hair, obsessively ranting on the same things over and over again. Mental illness of some sort, maybe addiction… present or past, it still had ravaged her mind. She was a soul in major trouble.

But one of the biggest troubles she had was her disconnection from reality and focus on “fixing” her appearance, as if she was only two-dimensional — what was inside her mind and soul didn’t matter, as long as she could present an unbroken facade to the world. If she was pretty again, the world would fall at her feet and she wouldn’t suffer anymore.

So many of us have skated close to that edge of reality, where we allowed ourselves to behave as though external things and appearances were all there was to life, where careers were worth dedication that became worship, where relationships were secondary to fulfillment. Isn’t that what our society has come to value?

I certainly have lived this way, beating my head against success at a career I chose, but truly wasn’t suited for, working for the money to acquire belongings, a sweet car, a lovely little house. But the truth of my life is that its greatest achievements so far are raising my son and getting myself emotionally healthy… part of which involved giving up many of those belongings, the sweet car, and the lovely little house. The facade had nothing to do with my real successes; it was listening to my own soul and following its call that ensured I was present as a mother and came back to my true self to live.

In the last two months, I’ve re-read two series of novels by the British author Susan Howatch — the Starbridge series and the St. Benet’s Trilogy — which follow an interconnected group of people over many decades, most of whom are Church of England clergy. They are fascinating character studies, each book focusing on the spiritual struggles of one person in relationship to others, referencing previous books, but not rehashing the same conflicts over and over again. The struggles of these characters are vividly human, involving ambition, lying, cheating, stealing, adultery, addiction, pride, the occult, prostitution, even torture and murder. Many of these struggles are depicted from all sides of the conflict — aggressors, victims, bystanders, collateral damage. None of it is glossed over, dismissed, or ignored. Howatch recognizes the interconnectedness of souls and that damage to one hurts all it touches.

One of the concepts that she discusses consistently is the human drive toward integration — our need to live according to our values in a healthy way — and how we get there, mostly on our knees. It’s never a forward march on our feet, no matter what anyone tries to tell you or that you think you see. We all stagger, we all fall, we all have dark nights of the soul where we cry out in pain and agony. But those dark nights are necessary to our growth, for that is where we integrate our actions with our values and figure out where we’ve come up short.

What I have found in my own life is that when I act out of anything but my own values, I become disconnected with myself… dis-integrated. Actually, it feels like I’m disintegrating, if you want the truth. I feel like I’m crumbling, as if my core is dissolving into nothing and I’m no longer sure of who I really am. I spent years this way. It took a long time before I figured out that friends who sucked my emotions dry with drama weren’t really friends. A long time to figure out casual sex meant nothing. A long time to figure out that if I put on a mask before I went to work in the morning I wasn’t going to know myself by evening.

We all lose our way occasionally, due to any number of causes. Crisis of any kind — accident, loss, illness — can send us into a tailspin. Sometimes the spin sends us into disaster, sometimes not. Sometimes it leads directly to a land where we no longer know what way is up. Every time we try to figure out where we are, we find more pieces to put together again. But as we heal, what happens is that the pieces come together in a different shape and all at once we are different people — we see our lives differently, see others differently, see ourselves differently, and better.

Because what happens when we lose our way and spin is that we drop any sense of control. In fact, the harder we try to hang on to it, the harder we are banged up by life… as if we are being dragged in a sack over rocky ground. If we let go, we still may not be able to see out of the sack, but nobody has to knock our mistaken sense of control out of our hands. The ride gets a little easier.

All of our power lies in choice, not control. Control and certainty are illusions at best, but it is completely human for all of us to want them. — Laurie Foley, from her Caringbridge blog

I found those first words of Laurie’s extremely powerful — “All of our power lies in choice, not control.” She is absolutely right. And when we listen to our guts to make our choices, we most often choose the right way… not necessarily the easy way, or the safe way, or even the logical way, but the way our souls would have us go.

What makes the most sense to me in this crazy life is that we are here to take a course in transformation — morphing ourselves into loving souls, changing each other one by one through love and caring. This is not an instantaneous process, nor is it meant to be easy. These are lessons that go down deep to our roots and recreate us as beings of light, belonging to each other on a soul level that connects us below any surface we can see.

However, these lessons are not forced on us… that is not the way of love. Instead we are wooed by how they connect with our deepest hearts. Susan Howatch started out her writing career by penning Gothic romance novels, some of which, like Penmarric and Cashelmara, became wildly successful. You can bet starting a series of novels about Church of England clergy was not a career turn she (or her editor) saw coming. Yet these are the books for which she is now known, these complex character studies in faith, love, and the integration of self and soul. She arrived at the point of writing them through a spiritual path that she could not have anticipated, requiring research into complex theology, psychological principles, and how the two disciplines mesh.

This is how we all arrive at the center of the life we are meant to live — through career paths we don’t foresee, through love, loss, and despair, through illness, financial ruin, disappointment and betrayal, through any number of twists, turns, and blind alleys that lead us to our lessons. Then we may start on another path, another way… but as long as we are integrated, firmly centered in our values, we travel less and less far from that path, we learn how to navigate it more easily and quickly, and we move deeper and deeper into our own gorgeous souls.

It really isn’t about getting married, being more beautiful, more successful, a better parent, or upwardly mobile (whatever that is). It’s about how we live, how we treat ourselves and one another, how we follow that still small voice that coos to us quietly… coaxing us along the way that brings us further along our path. Life may never be what you think it will be, but if your your heart, mind, and soul are fully integrated, you will be truly happy.

Posted by: Sue Engle | August 26, 2013

Released

Photo credit Adrian van Leen  (Perth, Western Australia)

Photo credit Adrian van Leen (Perth, Western Australia)

You’re not going to encounter, never mind clear or heal, what needs clearing or healing by having everything go your way with your best, smiling self humming through life like a character in a musical.

You can’t build the muscles that need building just by encountering a snarly comment from your favorite cashier or having one bad headache.

Life pushes you to your walls to make sure you get what you need — never as punishment or for random hard times, but for your most glorious evolution, so you can do and be the highest version of what you’re here to do and be.
– Jaya the Trust Coach (from her January 2013 newsletter)

I love to play a game online called Fitz. The board has varying colorful layouts that become more complex with each level you reach. You win the level by turning the board completely white. To do that, you match at least three shapes together by clicking two and swapping them… the matched ones disappear, the color in the space goes down a level or more (yellow to blue to white, for example) and the shapes above fall into their place. If you swap far enough down, you can see the board completely changing color through a cascade of matches and disappearing shapes. Every move changes it, so no real strategy is possible. Hmmm, kind of like my life.

I think one of the most difficult spiritual concepts that exists is letting go of what you want in order to have a chance to get it. This seems like a total paradox, but really, it isn’t: the tension of holding on to something often creates a deadlock. Letting go releases the tension and then it can slip into your grasp, or slip away. This concept is called aparagraha in Sanskrit. Either way, once you let go you’re free.

It’s kind of like the way monkeys are trapped: a hole is cut into a tied gourd that is just big enough for the animal’s hand to get through, then a tasty piece of fruit is put into the hole. The monkey puts its hand in to get the fruit, then it can’t get its closed fist through the hole. It’s caught in the trap because it can’t figure out that letting go of the fruit would free it, and it’s too greedy to let it go, anyway.

Men who don’t love you will treat you badly. A man who loves you but doesn’t want to will treat you even worse.
Something More, Sarah ban Breathnach

I have been in love from afar for over eight years with a man who has refused to be part of my life, except for occasional, usually awkward, communications. One of those “I love you, but I don’t want to” things. It’s been a process and a path all on its own — certainly not smooth sailing, nor has it been something I’ve accepted calmly throughout. I have fought it as often as I’ve accepted it, and there have been times I have fought very hard. It’s been a puzzle to me… it was never part of my plan to want someone who didn’t want to be with me, even though I received consistent signals he was seriously attracted as well.

We all know at some level when someone is attracted romantically to us. It shows in so many ways — the in jokes that pop up, the feelings that flutter in the stomach, the spontaneous changes in behavior — you never knew you were capable of that, did you? It’s all pretty unmistakeable, because we know somewhere in our bodies how we feel about a person when we look at them or think about them, or even how often we think about them. You can’t hide that body reaction for long. Voices even change when talking to or about the beloved. You can hear it if you’re tuned to it.

So I knew, even if he never admitted, that this was mutual on some level. But I also grew to know that it wasn’t ever mine to control. I certainly tried, though… damn, it never worked. But every time I fought it, tried to leave, tried to get this man clear out of my head, prayed and cried and begged the Divine to let me go, something random would happen showing me clearly that I was supposed to stay.

The most astounding time was the next day after one of those fervent prayers, I was leafing through Glamour magazine and in an article about men’s thoughts the last time they had sex, was one right in the middle of the page with my guy’s full name on it (much younger — knew it wasn’t him). And the quote? It was “How my wife does it better than anyone else.” OK, God… now you’re showing off. Who, me? Leave? Guess not. Oh, well.

I never knew I was patient until over 30 years ago, I fell in love with another man who was also scarred by a marriage gone incredibly bad and who treated me the same way. It took over three years of pushme-pullyou before I walked away from that one… probably right before he would have given in and made an effort to work out our relationship, because he knew he loved me. (And no, that wasn’t wishful thinking, either. I found that out when it was too late, then he died before we could try to pick up those pieces.)

I took some very deep lessons away from that experience — lessons whose significance I puzzled over until this latest man walked (maybe catapulted) into my life nearly nine years ago. The similarities between these two guys hit me upside the head pretty quick. So much became clear… not just about these men and my attraction to them, but also about the lessons life had cued up for me to learn. Kind of hard to miss that they both had the same thing to teach me from their pain.

Then there were the other things I put together about my latest love — that we’d met for the first time decades ago and again a decade before, the number of people we both knew, the shared values, the deep and true connection that manifested itself in surprising ways. Our lives circled around each other, even while he was spinning away. As much as I may have wanted to convince myself it was unimportant, I couldn’t.

One thing I have definitely learned from a lifetime of reconciling contradictions is that you have to be centered in yourself, to know as far as possible what drives you, what sustains you, what keeps you sane. This is living in integrity. You act out of your values (which may change) and you see your own behavior and its impact clearly, trying not to harm others by what you unconsciously do. You are whole. Only when you understand your own truth can you unravel a paradox.

Living in a split or fragmented way means that you’ve separated part of your life from itself — you act differently with one person than another. You put on a mask to go to work and “fit in”. You control your romantic partner’s every move, but you’re fine with whatever your friends do. You’re a competent adult in your daily life, but when you’re around your parents, you act like you’re five years old again. You boast about your achievements in public, but you constantly beat yourself up inside.

When we act out of integrity with ourselves and our core values, we betray not only those we love, but ourselves at the deepest levels. This creates wounds which are difficult to heal… but which must be made well in order to live our lives to their full potential. We can only soar on unbroken or healed wings.

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
– Dr. Brené Brown

Some part of me knows that I have explored plenty of darkness in myself. I’ve plumbed a lot of depths to bring up wisdom, truth, and joy. What were once contradictions are now insights. I’ve learned the rewards of vulnerability and the power it gives you once you finally give up the illusion of emotional armor. I can only grow, I can only create, I can only become who I am meant to be when I am fully open and allowing my heart and my passion to show. It is painful to be pushed to my walls, but anything else puts a mask on me.

The man I love has chosen someone else for a relationship, and thus turned his back on what is between us. While it certainly disturbed me, I’m not terribly surprised — I knew he might not make the same choices I have, and I’ve known for a long time he was dating other women. His privilege; his decisions aren’t mine to make. But this time, my decision was to cut our ties and I have walked away, and I know this is what I must do. When I act from my heart like this, spontaneously, I’m confident that I am doing the right thing. I don’t second-guess it any longer. And spirit hasn’t yet brought a miracle to tell me I’m taking the wrong path. It’s been a few weeks — I don’t think it’s happening this time.

The lesson for me with these two may have been finally to learn to expect more for myself from a man, that I deserve to receive the same deep level of love and commitment I can give. But I wonder. To me, while it is true, it isn’t quite complex enough to explain the twisty, winding path that these two men represent in my life.

Loving them has provided me with profound insight and faith through the miracles of synchronicity and mystery. In loving them, I have learned to accept their humanness and my own. And yes, there have been ways in which loving them as deeply as I have has helped me realize my worth and value as a person and a child of God. In the end, the path I walked because of them, even though it didn’t result in any permanent relationship, may be the greatest gift they’ve ever given.

You get in this life what you have the courage to ask for.
– Oprah Winfrey

So while I am grateful for the many lessons, I am also grateful for the gift of letting go… I did ask for it, after all, during those nights of crying and praying. Being released from this dream, rather than torn away, means it isn’t a hardship to turn my face away to another path, one where the blessing of mutual, deep love may be waiting just around the bend.

And through writing this post, I am able to give the man I love next the gift of knowing I am capable of releasing what no longer works, so that both of us can continue to fly. He will know that while I have deeply loved two men, I can open my heart once again to another. This may be my most glorious evolution, where I can do and be what I was born for. There’s more pieces to swap around to get to the next level, but it’s coming clear.

Posted by: Sue Engle | August 7, 2013

Somethin’ stupid

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Photo by: Crystal Woroniuk

I think I’m a testament to the fact that age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom with it. At least, it doesn’t mean you’re always wiser if you’ve grown older. I am wiser a lot of the time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t screw things up royally every once in a while.

I’m afraid I did that again on of all days, my birthday… the one day where I become most aware of growing older and time passing. Obviously I wasn’t thinking of that when I went off about an old, old grievance which I should have let go of a long time ago. I will say that once I said the ill-considered things I did, I became just as self-righteous about it as anyone else could… which was in itself stupid, because I also put the person listening to me in a bad spot with a third, who could have easily overheard my rant about him. Oops.

Sad to say there isn’t any time limit on acting like an idiot. An unfortunate thing, I suppose. But maybe not, because mistakes are how we learn and grow. Personally, I don’t think I’m going to stop growing until I die… well, that’s the plan. For when we stop growing, we stagnate and get rigid. Then it hurts to move, in any way possible, including opening your arms to wonder.

I just wish that growing didn’t involve mistakes. It sure would be easier if it didn’t mean cleaning up my own mess. Of course, then it wouldn’t be reinforced and I’d have to do it all over again to learn the lesson. Sigh.

And I guess that’s how it’s designed. Some days I have a hair-trigger mouth… well, we all do, don’t we? And it’s so easy to spray venom everywhere, when we get in the mood. I may not even see it as venom, just as “letting off steam” or “venting” (hmm… wonder if that has the same root word as “venom”). Anyway, it’s pretty simple to let things fly out of my mouth carelessly that have the power to sting, hurt, or even wound. And we’ve all been wounded that way one time or another.

You’d think we’d learn. But no, it happens time and again. I’d be willing to bet that about the only person on the planet who hasn’t done that lately is Thich Nhat Hanh (see below for a link), who speaks incredibly slowly. He radiates peace, and gives himself time to think about every word before he says it. Maybe that’s a habit I need to take up.

So what’s the lesson here? Well, maybe to understand that anything, absolutely anything, I say, no matter how justified I think it might be, has the power to wound. And wounding another often doesn’t accomplish anything directly… all it does is set up conflict, a war that nobody wins until artillery fire slows down enough to hear what the grievances truly are.

Then comes the OHHHH moment… and that is what supports our learning. Slowing down to listen to the hurts (even our own), to truly hear them and respond appropriately, is how we take in the lesson. This is how we change and grow.

Recently, a person who in the past hurt me deeply changed in his reaction to someone else I love, and how. It’s a complete turnaround, at least from where I sit. I feel as though all the crap was worth it to get to this moment. Although I didn’t directly witness these new actions, I saw them from afar (well, Facebook), and I softened. I finally understood that all of it, from his past to our shared past to our parting to my anger to my release to his relenting was part of a process, most of which had nothing to do with me. I had finally let go of enough venom, released enough anguish, and let in enough love that I could see the changes without a single “I told you so”… I don’t even have the desire to say it. There is no need.

We are all capable of making mistakes… especially “in the moment”, if we act before we think. We are all capable of messing up a situation beyond all recognition — sometimes even before we know we’ve done it. We are human. We flounder, we stammer, we lie, we manipulate, we accuse, we yell, we hit, we bully, we cower, we fall. No use saying we don’t.

But we also learn, and we learn most from those errors in judgment. We learn more from what doesn’t work than what does. We learn from miscommunications. We learn from screw-ups. We learn from failed expectations. We learn from disappointments. We learn from the path we don’t choose (and later wish we did).

Nothing that supports our life learning is wrong. Nothing that is truly done in love is wrong… even if it turns another’s life upside down. You have to assume that is the right thing to have done, for someone is going to get a lesson out of it even if it was completely unintended. The unintended is part of the Divine’s full plan for us, too. We cannot know the details of that plan (and certainly not for anyone else), for if we did, we wouldn’t learn. We’d just march in a line without looking around, without venturing off the path into the uncharted territory of mistakes. And our fear of making one would grow.

Ah, yes. The fear of making mistakes. That’s a big one. As a recovering perfectionist, I have to say that’s one of the hurdles I’m often facing. It’s a mistake all by itself, actually, because it encourages me to stay still… indefinitely. And by staying still, by not moving, by not taking a chance, I lose my power to influence the outcome. Now, I may never have had power over the outcome to begin with, but I’ve surely given it away by waiting for another to act or for an event to occur. Sometimes, action — any action — is better than passivity.

I often struggle with whether it is better to wait and know exactly what to do, or act and let the chips fall where they may. I can’t say I’ve got a headlock on this one at all. I’ve waited until it’s too late and I’ve moved too soon. Either of those results in a mistake to learn from, I guess. One leaves you in an endless limbo, the other kind of rescues you from it… but really all it does is remove the agony of waiting. You’ve acted. You have to deal with the consequences of that action, and so you have a situation to deal with. One way or another, it may be done and no correction is then possible. You just gotta live with it the way it stands.

But we also know what we don’t have the courage to pursue is often the course we are supposed to follow. The poke in your fear is part of the opening challenge. The limbo that makes you crazy is part of the tension driving you to act. The person whose actions you can’t predict, the roller coaster of events, the meaning you can’t make out or that seems way too crazy to follow, is all there to guide your way. Life isn’t intended to be mapped. There is no timetable to happiness, no project plan to fulfillment. We can’t predict what’s coming next. The wildest stuff may be what’s needed to unlock the door to a dream.

The thing is, no one can force you to listen to any of it. You don’t have to pursue any path that you don’t want to pursue. You can take the safe course, choose to steer clear of rocks, pick up the cargo and the trophies, sail back home without incident. No guarantees, of course, but you can make those choices. Life just might cooperate with your desire for complete serenity… maybe a few bubbles on the surface. No problems, few mistakes, the envy of all.

Those of us who thrash through our paths, who zigzag and flounder, never knowing completely what is the right way to take, may not come out whole. I’ve known folks who don’t quite make it through to happiness or any sort of peace at all, or they may take most of their lives to get there. There aren’t any guarantees on the tougher paths, no matter what any New Age guru might tell you about overcoming obstacles. Sometimes that just means you’ve got more to conquer… or you might not conquer much. But sometimes the struggle brings knowledge and growth that surpasses anything you ever expected, and wisdom is the reward.

When we are lost in our mistakes, I think all we can do is focus on what is in front of us here and now. See the changing landscape around us and under our feet for what it is, adjusting our stance accordingly. Breathe a little. For just this minute, don’t decide where you have to be next, no matter what clues you think you’ve been given… remember there’s no plan you can see.

Then make a small mistake. Deliberately, if you need to. (I can always rely on my instincts to take care of this step for me.) Break the pattern, take the the lens out of focus, cloud the view, skew it a little. Squint at it and see what appears. It may be that you see a different path, a faint trace of where you could be instead. Let go of what you thought you had.

My own path seems to have suddenly changed. The view is definitely clouded now. I may have said or done somethin’ stupid to put me here. I don’t know where I’m headed anymore… not even a faint trace has yet shown itself. I’m still lost in in letting go of the old, and trust in the new and not yet glimpsed is a tough thing to dredge up. However, I know that as I grieve what isn’t possible anymore, if I open up to spirit, if I can manage to keep faith in my larger purpose and abilities, something will reveal itself. It may not have the scope of my former vision, it may not contain everything I thought I wanted. But it will be a life, and it will be a full life. And that will be just fine.

The Great Bell Chant (The End of Suffering) from Thich Nhat Hanh. Worth the listen… a little peace for your day.

Posted by: Sue Engle | July 28, 2013

Sunshine award

Woo hoo! I received my first award from one of my fellow bloggers, Jill Winski of The Artist’s Nest! Jill blogs about the struggles that come with creativity. She is a certified Martha Beck Life Coach, and if you are stuck creatively, especially as a writer, she’s the gal to see.

sunshineaward

Rules for the Sunshine Award:

  • Post a picture of the award on your blog
  • Link back to the person who nominated you
  • List ten random facts about yourself
  • Nominate ten fellow bloggers who “positively and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere.” (OK, I could only come up with five, then I burned out… it’s the weekend, after all.)
  • Comment on their blogs to notify them of their nomination

So here are ten random facts about me:

  1. I started college as a theater major, but when I discovered I really wasn’t an actor, I specialized in costuming. I once worked on a costume that made an actor look like a giant potted plant onstage.
  2. Speaking of college majors, I majored at various points in theater, English, engineering, business, and finally settled in one I designed myself… writing and editing. My degree program is still in use by other students at OSU.
  3. I was 12 when I first earned a regular paycheck as a page at the local library. (Gee, maybe I should have taken a hint then that I was really a writer… ya think?)
  4. I’m allergic to champagne, one of the tragedies of my life, because I love it. I’m also allergic to bleu cheese, which I don’t regard as tragic.
  5. I’m the second of four girls, and the gap between the oldest and youngest is three weeks shy of 20 years. My oldest nephew is six weeks older than my youngest sister. Then there are nine boys between the four sisters, and the gap between the oldest and youngest is about three weeks shy of 40 years. For a couple who flunked family planning because of how they spaced their daughters (joke in my family), my parents sure figured out the pattern!
  6. I’ve written more than ten books through my career in Information Technology — all technical and user manuals or design documents, all over 300 pages long. Yes, I’m wordy.
  7. I love street rods… my favorite week of the year is the week before my birthday, when Columbus is overrun with souped-up old cars.
  8. I’ve had hair so long I could lean my head back and sit on it.
  9. I can tie a knot in a maraschino cherry stem using only my tongue and teeth.
  10. I can still wiggle my ears. Bet with a little practice, I could still stand on my head. Not bad for an old gal.

And the new Sunshine Award nominees are:

  • Thug Kitchen — a vegan food blog full of profanity, but funny as hell and good food
  • Life and Write — art, parenting, education from Dionne Custer Edwards
  • George. Jessie. Love — extraordinary writing from Julie Ross, the mother of a young boy who is transitioning to life as a girl
  • The Dalai Grandma — extraordinary writing from Jeanne Desy, a woman struggling with serenity and declining health
  • Rebelle Society — sassy opinion, great writing

See y’all later — working on a new post!

Posted by: Sue Engle | July 22, 2013

Sexual healing

One of the most interesting things I’ve ever had happen was during a class I teach at my church. I’m part of a team that presents a course in love, sex, and relationships to senior high students for half the year. It’s pretty intense, as you might imagine, and we include all the ways that these messages are communicated. One of the sessions that usually goes over big is when we talk about messages of love and sex in music, and we invite the teens to bring in songs that express them.

One year, when they brought in a bunch of songs, I played one from my era (YouTube below) that talks about old married sex… and its pleasures. And what I realized, and told the students, was that was the only song we played that day that expressed joy and love in sex. Everything else was mostly about sexual exploitation or grief over lost love. They didn’t even know what to say to me… and the other teachers (all younger than me) were just as stupefied.

I am a child of the 60s, raised in a very liberal small town that was probably the front lines of the Sexual Revolution in Ohio. I attended a sex ed class in high school Health (and there weren’t many of those around), read adult novels with my parents’ permission, and saw college students streaking in a local nature preserve. I found out later one of my high school teachers used to streak, too. The 60s was one wild decade.

My parents bought a copy of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) and kept it out where my sister and I could get to it privately; a rather daring move for parents back then. As a teen, I knew about a local wife-swapping club that had started several years back. I knew many divorced adults… I baby-sat while they went on dates with other parents I knew. Awkward when you saw a friend’s dad giving a hot kiss to someone who wasn’t his wife. People were pretty open about who was sleeping with who, and of course there was plenty of sexual experimentation going on with my peers. Yeah, me, too.

Even with all that worldly knowledge, I was still just as confused about sex and its place in my life as any other teen. And that had to do with a lack of life experience more than anything. I wasn’t taught about love, romance, intimacy, or the ins and outs of relationships. The stability of the 50s was eroding away by that time… many of my friends were enduring their parents’ divorces. Long-married couples were living apart and having affairs. That wife-swapping club I mentioned above? It caused a local scandal and every marriage involved in it broke up… some couples just rearranged themselves, others split apart from all of it for good. Women were getting out of the house and an entire society was changing. Sex wasn’t the only thing being revolutionized.

We are arguably still in that era. We still aggrandize sex, but can’t navigate love, relationships, or true intimacy. In our living rooms, bedrooms, and yes, even the workplace, sex is what is discussed and acted on… not love, not romance, not true intimacy. What we most often see in movies, TV, books, and the Internet is that sex is reduced to its most physical aspects… bodies slamming into one another, the only goal an orgasm. By contrast, love, romance, and intimacy are reduced to unrealistic sound bites. Unfortunately, this doesn’t prepare our teens for real life much better than in the 60s.

What I hear from the teens I work with is that they and their peers know little about how to navigate relationships except in the arena of friendships or sex. So if you have one, you move as a matter of course to the other. Sex is often the next step after friendship and/or attraction. But what I’ve found is that the youth in my class are much more interested in discussing relationships and love than sex. That is where the confusion lies… because if you can get to true intimacy with another, it is one of the sweetest rewards of life.

The mysteries of love and relationship keep us engaged. Growth, stimulus, novelty, companionship, deep interest, and openness fuel fulfillment. Fulfillment and growth are life’s goals and riches. Expectation and its henchmen boredom, detachment, disrespect, and contempt close relationship down. Why expectation? Well, expectation is another means of control. It doesn’t allow room for others to be who they really are, if you can make them behave as you want them to. Control in a relationship brings a power imbalance, and ultimately someone becomes untrue to themselves. Intimacy then leaves the building… no longer safe.

So many marriages and long-term relationships I’ve known have suffered from one partner or both insisting on control. Usually one of them is threatened by life changing, and so clamp down on what they think they can control… and every time there’s even a wiggle under those tightly clenched palms, they clutch harder. But it never works, not really, and what often happens is that they lose what they value most; maybe what they never even knew they risked by insisting on control. Emotions are masked, expression is stifled, and ultimately the partnership can be doomed, unless somehow, some way, the urge to control is exposed for the folly it is and both open up.

Boredom is another intimacy killer. I hear from so many of my contemporaries how they are bored by their relationships, bored by sex, don’t want it in their lives, feel it’s an obligation to their spouses or partners (yep, in lesbian and gay relationships, too) that they have to endure. Women express this more than men, but I doubt if we’re the only ones. So it’s almost as if when a woman reaches a certain age, if she’s lucky, she gets a free pass from sex. But it’s also passing on intimacy and expressing love. These are women who are hungry for affection, they tell me. But isn’t sex a form of affection? No?

Maybe because I’ve been celibate for so long, I simply don’t get it. We as humans crave touch — it’s built into us. Babies who don’t get skin contact and interaction don’t thrive. There is such a thing as “skin hunger”… the instinct for skin-on-skin. So why would you reject something that has the capability of bringing you closer, not just to your partner, but also to the Divine? We were given the joys of sex for a reason. Why would you not grab the chance to get closer to your own soul? Yes, menopause and hormones play a part in not wanting sex, but that’s only part — your mind is your greatest erogenous zone, as they say. That is where connection is forged, and sex helps to glue the connection.

Orgasm is the easiest way in the world to get outside yourself. Cheaper than drugs or alcohol, it is a transcendent experience unlike any other. You can do it alone or with a partner (I don’t recommend groups… not the intimacy I’m talking about), and your own body can briefly take you to a place where you are more than it is, beyond what it is. But, and this is a huge one, it doesn’t last unless you share it at the deepest level of openness.

Biologically, sex releases powerful hormones within the body. Surges of oxytocin and dopamine are set off in all of us, which are bonding hormones (although according to this article from Psychology Today, the levels drop off after orgasm), but I also don’t think you can ignore the realities of another person in your most intimate body crevices. Small wonder it may not take much sex to bond deeply, even to the wrong person. Even an abuser. (Now you know why it’s used as a weapon of war and subjugation… it’s very effective at quelling rebellion.)

However, sex, when part of a loving relationship where two are committed to growth and fulfillment, is a method of reconnection with both the other and the Divine. It is a way of cementing intimacy, this allowing of bodies to flow and merge, where you can know the other completely and yet discover more every time. This happens regardless of how the bodies can be matched — female to male, male to male, female to female, fat to thin, whole to missing parts, short to tall or vice versa, you name it. Contrary to what our society reinforces, the condition of the body really doesn’t matter… what matters is the love and connection between two people.

For it is love that creates intimacy, not sex. Modern society has openly pushed using sex as a shortcut to intimacy for over 60 years, and I’m here to tell you folks, that it just doesn’t work. We have all known people — hell, maybe even ourselves — who have jumped into bed on the first date, if there even was one. Or within a week of knowing one another. While those relationships don’t always end up broken, the long-term odds aren’t good. It takes time, shared new experiences, sharing past experiences, sharing your deepest self to build true intimacy. The act of sex itself helps build intimacy over time, but it’s important to see it in that light… it’s a growth experience, not always a peak experience.

When love is allowed to open the door, when the fear of change is met with compassion, when the illusion of control is loosened, then intimacy can walk back into a relationship. Romance returns. And growth, the one thing that really heals us, starts blooming once more.

Because growth is what we are here for, and sex is a part of that. We grow through the act of sex with selected partners. It’s not to be shared with everyone. Sex is not a drug, a balm, an anesthetic, a means of expressing mere affection. It isn’t simply a biological tool for procreation, or even less, a way to “get your rocks off”. Sex is a profound gift from the Divine to promote deep intimacy with another soul. Sex is a rocket that can explode in your hands — both a symbol and an act. It deserves profound respect and great care to maintain its primacy in our lives. It is a gift and a tool that makes our lives so much richer and deeper. It is a doorway to your soul.

Posted by: Sue Engle | July 10, 2013

Metamorphosis

Any transition serious enough to alter your definition of self won’t require small adjustments in your way of living and thinking, but rather a full-on metamorphosis.
— Martha Beck

snake

Photo credit Zoran Ozetsky via rgbstock photo

This is the Chinese Year of the Black Water Snake. I’m like a snake shedding its skin right now. I know I’m changing into someone completely different than I have been, but I’m not exactly sure what I will become. Yep… full-on metamorphosis.

Change can take us unaware. When we anchor ourselves in old roles, old personalities, old habits, the only way for change to happen is for it to kidnap you. It can come up behind you like the snake in your nightmares, grab you, and drag you kicking and screaming to a place you didn’t know existed… a place so ethereally beautiful that once you finally quit protesting and look around, it takes your breath away.

I find that kidnapping happens about as often as the slow, deliberate change that people may undertake in the name of self-improvement. Or perhaps you kick off some change that you keep under control, but the rug is pulled clear out from under you and all hell breaks loose. Then you’re in the middle of it and wondering what bomb you set off.

It’s difficult to navigate when you’re in a big life change you didn’t expect… or even if you did, it still may not be easy to ride it. “Roller coaster” isn’t necessarily the right description, unless you’re talking about something like Disney’s Space Mountain, which is a roller coaster that runs in complete darkness. It’s not the fastest coaster around, but no lights makes it much scarier. Life change feels like an endless run through Space Mountain, when all you can do is hang on and maybe scream.

But it really isn’t quite like that. After all, there are moments when you can raise your head and look around. Get your bearings. It kinda feels like you’re “prairie-doggin’ it”, which is what we used to call it when popping a head up out of the cube to see what was happening in the office. And those moments are invaluable to find out where you really are. Because the truth is these changes are soul-guided. Your mind may not know where you’re going, but your heart does.

Much is made of the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly… creepy-crawly to beautiful flutterby. And we talk about the incredible change that occurs inside a chrysalis, how the caterpillar turns to goop before it reforms with a new body and wings. It’s a great metaphor, but it can be misleading when it’s applied to humans in the middle of change, because it’s so quiet and still. What’s missing in that chrysalis, at least as far as our understanding is concerned, is noise and action.

For humans in the middle of transformation often generate plenty of noise and action. Since we never really know what the future will be like, we struggle and we flounder even if we have a clear vision. The unexpected always turns up and throws us for a loop. We go down false paths, dead ends, side roads that add adventure, problems, and boredom. We forget to listen to the gut for wisdom. We forget to meditate, pray, read, write, dance, sing, create, commune with nature… whatever brings us clarity, peace, and flow. And so we lose our way.

For me, it is only when I return to my center through reading, writing, prayer, and meditation that I am able to come back to the path and the rhythm of my life. No matter what living situation I find myself in, no matter what job I am working or who is around me, only quiet and peace lead me back home.

But we never go through change alone… our changes always affect those around us, sometimes turning them upside down right alongside us. After all, somebody’s on that roller coaster with you. You’re rarely alone on them. The real problem comes when that person wasn’t expecting the change and isn’t prepared for it at all. Ruh roh. Not good for a relationship. It can provoke confusion, resentment, and anger because they feel they’re being dragged along with you without purpose or reward. But not everything in life comes with reward, and often the purpose is obscure enough we really have to work to figure it out. Nobody’s exempt from that, you know.

We expect we can plan our lives, but that doesn’t really happen. Our fingers are never the only one on the trigger. And there are so many triggers, who knows who started what? The way through is communication. Even if nothing seems clear, talking to God, talking to others, even talking to yourself brings clarity and light to your path. It is in the act of putting fears, desires, and needs out in the world that we sort them out. And while answers may not be lying around on the ground for you to pick up and apply immediately, it is in sorting out what you now perceive to be real that you find the way to the next small step — or even the beginning of that step.

Life is not meant to be taken in giant steps. We forget that. And it is not meant to be lived in straight lines. We are not projects to be completed. We are souls here to learn. That is a key difference between the achieved life and the soulful life. And tell me, which has more meaning at the end of our lives, really? As I grow older (birthday approaching), I understand that the fact that I have few material achievements — house, car, furniture, tech toys — is totally immaterial to my growth and wisdom. In fact, if I had spent more time acquiring these things, God would have had more work to strip me of them so I could learn the lessons of their loss.

…I have come to accept the feeling of not knowing where I am going. And I have trained myself to love it. Because it is only when we are suspended in mid-air with no landing in sight, that we force our wings to unravel and alas begin our flight.

And as we fly, we still may not know where we are going to. But the miracle is in the unfolding of the wings. You may not know where you’re going, but you know that so long as you spread your wings, the winds will carry you…
C. JoyBell C. (from a Facebook update)

So what end is up? It is really hard to tell when you’re in the middle of transitioning to a new life. I’m certainly not sure of mine, although I think I might know. At least I know what lights me up — living with love as my center, which is expressed in writing this blog and coaching others to find their own love. That’s probably a good place to start while I’m figuring out where I’m headed.

That brings up a thorny point. There are situations we all encounter that cause us pain and don’t go away because we want them to. We simply have to learn to live with them, maybe forever. This causes a special type of pain and resistance. It is a challenge to the soul, especially for those who think determination and will can overcome anything. I have several friends who deal with chronic illness or pain, for example. No amount of wishing is going to whisk away the effects of those conditions. But my friends will tell you that as much as they don’t want to deal with these health issues, they understand that the issues have brought lessons… sometimes ones they never wanted to learn. Life brings us all to our knees, and we never know how that moment will come, or how it will end.

We rarely get a choice in how our life curriculum is delivered to us. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. If we knew ahead of time what would befall us, somebody would be writing up the Dummies guide to whatever it is and we’d all be in line at the bookstore. Or better yet, the Cliff’s Notes version. Lots of us just want the gist of what we’re supposed to do. Me, I’d be writing it all up as step-by-step procedures, since I was a technical writer for years. Oh, yeah, that’s what we’d have! Good thing I can’t do that, isn’t it?

But in not knowing the outcome, we change. In finding the path through the dark, we grow into the light. In rubbing up against another’s rough edges, we learn who we are. It is the process, not the achievements, not the accessories, that makes us our true selves. And if all you are is achievement and matching accessories, you may look chic, but you’ve strayed far from your soul.

For the path of heart-directed metamorphosis goes straight to your soul, to who you really are. It may not be who you think it is. For all our ability to analyze, to plan, to create, we are often shockingly unaware of who really underlies our lives. As your skin rubs off through crisis and pain, the real you starts to appear. It takes crisis and pain to remove another layer of the skin that hides you from the world. Or you can allow crisis and pain to grow another layer while you hide a little longer — it is your choice.

But in redefining your self, in metamorphosing into who you would become, joy comes forth and your wings sprout. You may not find better accessories for your soul, ever. Look at the colors, get lost in the pattern. Beauty abounds there. Love grows there. Life is really lived there. Spread those wings and fly.

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