Meditation 101.3 “release it”

In Sharon Salzberg’s guided meditation on breathing, she begins with “take several deep breaths and release it.” Now she is not one to confuse “them” and “it,” and yet it always strikes me that after one takes several deep breaths, the logical thing is to release “them.” But it’s “it.” So what is this “it” that we need to release?

What’s the one thing on this day that needs to be released? I don’t know whether to be relieved that I can release this thing today and let that other thing go tomorrow, or stressed that I need to figure out what the one thing is, and get it right. I mean, what if I’m releasing the thing that’s easiest to let go and hanging on to what would really set me free!?

Is it the mind, imprisoned by habit and indulgence? Is it fear? Hatred? Guilt? Regret? In another meditation that I shall return to, I’m sure, the instruction went something like this:

“Imagine a difficult time when you felt bad about yourself. How did your body feel? Now imagine that you are wrapping arms around that person who was you and surrounding her with compassion. What happens to the body, the memory, when you do this? Can you feel the change? Now imagine that same process with someone else, someone who is difficult or easy to dislike. Perhaps the person was unknown to you, and you noted them only because they were yelling or shaking their fist. Can you see that person as something more than the angry action of the moment? What happens to them when they are wrapped in loving arms? What happens to the anger then?”

I started this blog as a way to notice, to slow down and give time and attention to the things that I am accustomed to ignoring or giving just a nodding glance to before moving back to the obsessions of the moment–meeting external demands, granting what’s really least important the status of towering significance.

Tonight I was listening to the Christmas adagios CD, which always make me melancholy. They make me think of my mother, who loved beautiful music, and my son, who always comes to mind when I hear the angels sing. I went in search of him then, going back through the files in a folder marked “Casey’s writing,” seeking something I might have missed or forgotten. . . . The phone records for that day, the letters and journals I transcribed afterwards, incidents I’d written up so we wouldn’t forget. Two things caught my attention tonight. The first was an account of a really bad time, when it was so hard to wrap him in lovingkindness, and the second was a prayer he wrote when he was eighteen and working to change himself and turn his life around, a prayer about forgiveness and healing from “death on Earth.”

When you are the victim of verbal abuse you don’t always know it, and when you are the parent and the perpetrator is your child, you don’t imagine until it’s over and you look back, that those desperate nights when you hid in the darkness of your room in tears were not your fault after all. Not just your failure to protect or love enough or set the example so squarely before him that he’d have no need to turn away, seek comfort–or whatever it was–in drugs. It’s not till later that you come to understand that it wasn’t you he was trying to escape. He wasn’t cursing you, though his finger was jabbing at your face.

It’s hard to acknowledge that he wasn’t perfect, or that I wasn’t. But he would have hated a fake picture. He would have wanted honesty. So, here we are. The year is 2005. He’s 16. Two years later would come the prayer.


It seems to have started when Casey was sitting down in our good armchair at the computer eating ribs. I asked him to go into the kitchen to eat them. He didn’t. A few minutes later I walked by and saw that he had finished the ribs and his hands were greasy and had bits of charred meat on them. He rubbed them on the arms of the chair and refused to go wash his hands, saying they were clean.

This escalated into cussing and refusing to get up to wash. I asked his dad to come help me, since he was ignoring me. A lot of f-word and yelling, saying we were over-reacting. We were psycho for always taking away the video games as punishment.

He knocked over a large cup of water on the desk, which sent water everywhere, including under the protective glass. His dad pushed him and told him to go to his room. Casey slipped in the water and came up spewing more insults and cussing that if his dad thought Casey was “his bitch” he would take him on and kick his ass.

We cleaned up the water, which involved removing everything off the desk in order to lift the piece of glass and dry the water underneath it.

Casey came back and sat down at the TV to play a game. He didn’t talk much anymore. His brother took him to work at 4:00.

Two years later, Casey was well into recovery. It was a long, slow, terribly brave journey. Sometime–I’m not sure of the date–he began reading the Bible and certain mystics, really deep stuff, probably over his head, St. John of the Cross, Edith Stein. . . . But he knew what they were talking about, knew the “dark night of the soul,” and he was returning to the self he’d lost–to hatred, rage, despair, the self he’d used against us, just one desperate plea after another:

From Casey’s Journal, 2007:

I am Casey Lee Olmsted, an 18 year old male, and. . . I want to tell you that life in Christ, for me, is the only way to escape death on Earth. I would like to start out by explaining what it’s like to be Dead on earth. By death, I don’t mean it literally. I mean it by over-indulging in things of this world, for example Drugs, sex, sloth, and trying to avoid the Truth. . . .

Unfortunately, things don’t happen right when we want. So it’s easy to choose life at first, then drift into death when we don’t get immediate results. But by choosing delayed gratification, instead of ME NOW! ME! ME! ME! your wait will be well worth it. . . .

Keep a humble heart so you don’t have to be humbled. Proverbs 29:23. “Pride ends in humiliation while humility brings honor.” A lot of people have it backwards. Some think to admit your faults makes you weak. They couldn’t be more wrong! Admitting our faults brings us up! . . .

What if the Prodigal Son stayed proud? He would have nothing . You can see from this story, a son drifted away from his father and drifted into himself. What did that get him in the end? It got him a little instant gratification. That is an example of death on earth. Emptiness. How did he return to life? Humbling himself.

Forgiveness isn’t something to rely on so we will have a “clean slate.” It’s God’s gift to people so we can strive for perfection. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need forgiveness. We’re human, far from perfect! It’s okay to mess up, but it’s messed up to keep making the same mistakes. . . . Let’s move on, learn from our mistakes, do our best not to make them again.

May God be with us, in everything we do. May we accept his advice, grace, and prosperity, and share it with everyone, especially those in need. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


That’s my son, something of him at least. What a distance we went, from 16 to 18–and then to 20–but that’s another story. . . . I also found this picture, which was taken in 2008, when he was 19 and about to be a father. It’s of him holding his niece Omni, whom he adored. It was a mutual admiration, as you can see. We were at Fort Matanzas, the 350-year old outpost for St. Augustine, and he’d said, “Take a picture of me and Omni, over here.”

Casey with Omni at Ft. Matanzas

Casey with Omni at Ft. Matanzas


“Take several deep breaths and release it.” Every day, if need be.

Icycles

Here in Kentucky we don’t get a lot of snow these days, only ice. These icycles are melting from our (in need of repair) eaves.

Melty Icycles

Melty Icycles


Seeing them takes me back to my long-ago childhood in Ohio, where we broke off icycles and puffed on them, blowing out cold air like smoke. These were no puny afternoon stogies, but big around as legs and long as yesterday. Sometimes the stalactites reached the ground, forming pillars we could hide behind, turning us into colorful blurs against the siding of our house.

Ice in Kentucky is the fond act of a cosmic paintbrush, creating a patina of clear gray day against the trees, grass, and berries.
DSC_1834
Ice in Kentucky is crushingly beautiful.
Cedar tree in the back yard
And it’s danger, the weight of what can break us:

Ice flowers bursting on branches

Ice flowers bursting on branches


I took that one a few years ago, but it’s too terrible-beautiful not to include here.

I don’t recall ice like this in Ohio. Ice was serious in a different way than it is here, and we think of ice differently here–shutting down schools at the snap of a finger (or icycle). I used to be one of those northerners who looked at Kentuckians’ reaction to a little cold with a chuckle or a superior snort. But when you live in the hills, with windy, turny roads that see the sun only in patches, where school buses can go careening into a very steep-sided ditch, you get used to caution over very little.

In Ohio and Minnesota, it’s more snow than ice that defines a winter, though occasionally–not this year, and less and less often–we see something that reminds me of how wonderful snow can be, a winter wonderland that leaves you gasping (just a little)….

Like this, our backyard on a snowy day day, wondrous--brings out the kid in any old scrooge.

Like this, our backyard on a snowy day day, wondrous–brings out the kid in any old scrooge.

Ruminations on Self-Doubt

Who doesn’t have it now and then (or in some sad cases, perpetually)? And what makes it so oppressive? If you could turn it off with a switch, would you?

It would be nice to think that once you reach a certain point on your path that you no longer have to deal with the dern thing. Like once you get the job you’ve been training for or the skill level you’ve been busting your ass to achieve. The trouble is that once you clear that high bar, someone raises it. Maybe you do. And maybe it’s just the nature of the mind: to churn on about what is real, what is meant . . . the “yikes” question, Who am I? What’s my purpose? That probably why we seek complacency, laziness–it’s just easier to shut down. Whatever.

Writers know it. Virginia Woolf describes it in her great Room of One’s Own, when she says, “Think of Tennyson; think–but I need hardly multiply the instances of the undeniable, if very, unfortunate, fact that it is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him [or her]. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others” (56). Since she also devotes an entire chapter to Shakespeare’s sister, who died at the crossroads and is kin to other women known as “Anon,” we know also that there is plenty of wreckage of women. I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you too, can become great.” Well, I don’t know about great in the Great sense, but there’s a lot to be said about building a network of friends that believe in you and affirm your worth. And alongside that is this reality: you have to build coalition and community with people who either don’t recognize the Wonders of You or who don’t know how to show it, some so wounded and closed off themselves that it’s like bouncing off a sealed sphere.

University professors know it. When we collect our student evaluations and 98% of the comments are positive, those 2% nasty are what keep us up at night. I remember one particularly unhappy class of Intro to Literature–no matter how great the story, how beautiful the image, how profound the phrase, they chattered among themselves and started packing their backpacks ten minutes before “the bell.” I vowed I’d teach anything (give me the most tiresome ENG 300) than watch what I loved dragged through the dirt by these heathen. My mother, not a university professor but teaching for a few years in her twenties at a high school, wrote, “This morning, of a sudden, I just knew I didn’t want anymore of small high schools and sassy kids. Next time I teach I hope it’ll be at least be a junior college and MUSIC.” If I had been born then, I might have leaned over and said, “Mom, don’t expect them to love music the way you do.” But I don’t want to discredit students categorically because that would be a horrible thing to do to all those who love learning and appreciate their teachers. It’s just those harsh comments that are hard to take. It might be different if they weren’t anonymous–are they empowered by invisibility to “tell the truth,” or does the anonymity become a screen that they can hide behind, sword in hand? Passive aggressive–sucking up for the grade, then snarling on the evaluation. I guess the same thing happens when faculty do evaluations of administrators–all that anger surges out. As a dean friend of mind said with a laugh, “Oh, you learn all kinds of things you didn’t know about yourself!”

Anyway, students know it, parents know it, I suppose even politicians know it. Self-doubt is as human as hunger. While looking around for easy answers (laziness–but I did know the Woolf quote, as I’m reverent when it comes to Virginia), I found this little exercise by Mahatma Ghandi:

Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore that person to a control over his or her own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.

I’m not sure how effective that will be; if you can put yourself on a continuum with the “poorest and weakest person whom you have seen,” even for a few moments, the exercise will likely have you scolding yourself for your self-indulgence, spoiled self-centered, selfi-ness. But then you’ll probably go back to fretting, your mind scooting away from those uncomfortable for something more familiar.

Heroes know it. Martin Luther King, radiant light, also suffered from self-doubt, at least according to the Staff of the King Papers Project, who note that “Rather than exhibiting unwavering confidence in his power and wisdom, King was a leader full of self-doubts, keenly aware of his own limitations and human weaknesses.” Perhaps that’s the key or part of it–to be aware of one’s limitations and weaknesses, to struggle with doubt, but to refuse to be crippled by them–to hold in front of one some grand purpose that can silence those petty ego dramas.

The Dalai Lama says self-doubt is a form of laziness, muddling us in inaction. He also says–and it’s probably my favorite quotation–I usually find reason to say this in every class I teach–“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” A little self-forgiveness can go a long way to get us over self-doubt, don’t you think?

As Gloria Steinem, the great feminist leader said, “Measure yourself by the real, not the ideal.” which I revise to: “not the ideal or small-minded.”

Thanksgiving Tree

At first I thought of it as a kind of christmas tree, with ornaments on which we’d write down what we’re thankful for. However, I knew if I gave the assignment of drawing the tree to Latoya we’d have something better. First, she drew a November tree, strong and brown with the heartwood in plain sight. Then she and Omni began cutting out leaves for us to write on.

As people arrived, we pointed them to the “art room,” where they could choose a leaf shape and markers and design their own leaf. Since our group was mixed–very young, family, new friends, old friends–it proved to be a great ice-breaker, as people leaned in and watched each other, then ohhhh and ahhh, as they saw the leaves emerge. I think it was Latoya who saw that the leaf shapes also doubled as frog shapes, so we ended with some tree frogs as well.

Thanksgiving Tree

Thanksgiving Tree


This is a new activity, but every Thanksgiving we go around the table with whoever’s here and share what we’re thankful for. I volunteered to go first this time, and Ken said, “Don’t make everyone cry,” which made me laugh–I confess that I have a tendency to do that, ever since our Casey was killed four years ago. But this year it seemed–with Leah writing for the first time, and putting “mom” and “dad” on her leaf–that he was recognized in a new and better way, than my usual tears and quivering voice.

I am very thankful for this girl of his and Diana’s. For her pronunciations–“Can I play on your I-padge?” and thrill of learning to read, “Th” “e”–“The”–“mmm” “aaaa” “nnnn”–“man”–“iiiii” “ssss”–“is”–“ffff” “aaaaa” “ttttt”–“fat.” The other day she asked if she could have a piece of jerky from a bag that was sitting on the coffee table. I said sure and went back to reading. A moment or two I looked up to see her trying to open a tiny square packet. “Wait,” I said, “here’s where knowing how to read is so important. Come here.” She brought me the packet and I had her sound out (“read”) the words: DDD—-OOOO NNNNN—OOOO—TTTT EEEEE—AAAA—TTTT. “Do Not Eat,” she said. For the way she flops around in an arm chair, sitting comfortably on her neck while her legs wave around in the air. “How do you do that?” I ask her. “You could do it, too, Grandma, just try.” For her smile and the light she brings into the room.

It’s not corny to say “I’m thankful for family,” not at all, not when your words are surrounded by actions that show the thanking is not just another opportunity for consumption and waste. I’m sorry that so many people don’t have a family or that they’re estranged or the thanksgiving dinners are cause for more pain and disappointment. Another fight, another opportunity to take advantage. It’s also not corny to be grateful for what you have, or to realize that if you lost it, how lonely you would be, how bleak the world. Does that keep us acting as if what we’ve got is precious? Do we treat our closest friends and families as if they could break?

In the meditation course with Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein that I’m (slowly) working my way through, she says, “A teacher of mine once said, imagine that the breath at hand is your first breath, imagine that it is your last breath.” The point, I think, is to feel it in all its uniqueness and not to take it for granted. Since my mother-in-law is recovering from surgery and in the process has been struggling with respiratory distress, I know that she would have a different take on breathing, but would surely agree that when we are denied air, we would give anything to have just one more breath. At that moment, all ephemera will drop away and who we are as beings in the world–fluid, re-forming, contrary, sneaky, courageous, contradictory–will come to a single point, of rising, falling,and though I don’t really know what that feels like, I suspect that in the moment when there is no more, some sense of self and who we were and are will rush.

In that moment, we will want to feel gratitude–certainly not regret.