Keeping Our Spirits High

It can be really hard, as we go about our daily lives, to keep our spirits up.

And yet this is precisely the good medicine we need these days.

We need to keep our vibrations high.

Wisdom keepers from many traditions, from physicists to reiki masters, tell us that what we think of as “matter” is actually “energy.” The physical world, including our own body, is composed of countless particles in constant motion.

When we are healthy and well, our cells vibrate in harmony with the larger rhythms of our planet. When our spirits are high, we can tune into the “music of the spheres,” and experience the joy of the life unfolding ahead of us each day.

In our time, such harmonious vibrations are becoming a rarity.

Modern life is full of loud, discordant noise, from lawnmowers and chainsaws to the jangling noise of the day’s bad news, broadcast at us constantly over a thousand different channels.

Climate disruption, with its consequent ecosystem collapse and cascading extinctions, is the planetary version of a discordant vibration.

With so much negative noise, or bad vibrations, coming at us all the time, we are forced to tune out in order to remain functional. In order to go about our daily lives without being overwhelmed by fear and stress, we end up numb and lost, wandering in a nightmarish funhouse that is not fun at all.

The runaway negative biofeedback loops that our occurring in our time, on the personal, political and planetary levels, are at least in part the result of the “hive mind” that we humans have developed through our Internet technology.

We have always been connected in the dream world, through what Jung called the collective unconscious and others might call the Anima Mundi.

But our new networked waking mind gives us the potential for unprecedented impact on the planet—for good or for ill.

In the past decade or so, we have seen the negative results of our collective impact on the planet. With earphones in our ears, we have become the world’s most successful invasive species, but at a tremendous cost.

In our networked times, what we do as individuals is broadcast out to our larger communities. If we are stressed, fearful and depressed, that’s the signal we put out into the world, where it is amplified and multiplied. If we are able to keep our spirits high and maintain our sense of emotional and physical balance, the positive vibrations we send out help attune others as well.

Keeping our spirits high is not at all the same as putting on rose-colored glasses, or sticking our heads in the sand in denial.

It is about training ourselves to tune in to the steady pulse of the planet, which beats on calmly even now, despite all the stresses on systems and individuals.

How do we do this?

For me, it’s about appreciating silence, and the quiet sounds of nature: the drip of rain, the rush of a river over rocks; birdsong and the cricket chorus; the swish of the wind through the treetops.

It’s about rediscovering the pleasure of vibration moving through my body; making my own music with instruments or with my own voice.

It’s about seeking out others with whom to make joyful noise together—as Greta Thunberg has done in rallying people all over the planet to stand with her for the Earth.

I have also become much more conscious of what I send out into the world via my writing and teaching. In my new memoir workshop series, “The Alchemy of Purposeful Memoir,” each session starts by looking for positive in our life stories. When we look at less positive aspects of our lives, it’s with the explicit aim of transmuting these negative moments, through the alchemical power of writing.

Likewise, in my “Purposeful Memoir as a Path to a Thriving Future” workshop, which I’ll be presenting several venues in the coming year, including Bascom Lodge, Mt Greylock; the Bioneers Conference; and Findhorn, our aim is to look backward over our life stories in order to understand our present moment more fully, and to be able to envision the thriving future we all want to move into.

Here’s the thing. If we are all running around jangling with fear and shouting at each other about how the sky is falling…our negative vibrations will be amplified and their effects—on ourselves as individuals and on our political and planetary systems—will be compounded.

If, on the other hand, we are able to maintain a modicum of serenity, we can set the tone for others and draw them into harmony with our steady vibration.

There’s often talk in spiritual circles about “holding the light” as a way of invoking and maintaining the positive. I have come to realize that “maintaining a positive vibration” is at least as important.

Here’s a poem from Rumi that I often like to share in my workshops. He says it all.

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us, a passion, a longing, a pain.
Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated, and let your note be clear.
Don’t try to end it.
Be your note.
I’ll show you how it’s enough.

Go up on the roof at night in this city of the soul.

Let everyone climb on their roofs and sing their notes!

Sing loud!

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The Alchemy of Privilege

Nancy Slonim Aronie

Nancy Slonim Aronie

At the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers last night, Nancy Slonim Aronie, author of Writing from the Heart: Tapping into the Power of Your Inner Voice, declared that every powerful writer must be an alchemist: “every writer must turn shit into gold.”

She told the story of the life and death of her angry, terminally ill son, Dan, as an example of how the bad stuff that happens to you can be turned into gold—in her case, a documentary film about her son, whose death, she says, taught her so much about life.

Aronie said that the video editor working with her on the movie decided at one point to cut out a scene where Dan’s girlfriend struggles with his urine bag, which had gotten snagged on a bedpost.

“No!” she roared.  “Don’t cut out the urine bag!  Don’t try to protect us from the tough stuff!  Go ahead and make us uncomfortable!  That’s the stuff we most need to hear and learn from.”

She led a short writing exercise, in which she told the group to “start with your brain, drop into your heart, then your gut, and let it out onto the page.”  Writing from your brain alone, she said, will not get you into the zone of authentic, powerful expression that every writer seeks.

She gave us the starting prompt: “Dinner at our house was…” and told us to go back to our childhood dinner table.

When people stood up to read their pieces afterwards, I was astonished how most of them reported dinner tables that were frightening and painful.  One woman remembered how no one listened to her at the dinner table, leading to a lifetime of wondering whether she had anything valuable to say.  Another wrote about how she couldn’t wait for dinner to be over so she could get away from her threatening, angry father.

Nancy Aronie applauded them all, and kept insisting that powerful writing needs to write out of that “core wound.”

But what if you don’t have a core wound?

What if you grew up in a happy, peaceful household, with kind, productive, harmonious parents who did not wound you in any way?

Can your writing still be powerful?

In the memoir that I am working on, I recognize that I had an almost magically privileged childhood.  No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty damned good, and my good fortune continued well into my adulthood.  I sum it up in the memoir by describing the feeling I got in my twenties, when I was working as a journalist in Manhattan, of a “red carpet rolling out in front of me wherever I went.”

It didn’t last forever, of course, but it is that early experience of privilege that I am interrogating in my book, not just in my own personal experience, but also in our general culture as Americans in my lifespan of the past 50 years.

For all the bumps in the road we’ve had, we have still been extraordinarily privileged and comfortable as Americans, relative to so many of the other billions on the planet.  While we’ve been riding around in our air-conditioned Cadillacs, figuratively speaking at least, so many others have been living and dying precariously on the garbage heaps and slums, the brothels and the prisons of tough, violent cities.

As a scholar of comparative literature, I’ve made a career of studying texts by women from all over the world that tell stories of suffering and oppression in order shine a light in dark corners, raise awareness among the more privileged, and act as catalysts for political action and positive change.

In introducing these stories to generations of students, and editing the related anthologies that have made their way out into the world, I have felt myself to be working on the side of justice, doing my small part to help make things right.

Now, in my memoir, I want to shine the light in a different direction: back at myself, as someone who grew up in privilege yet did not become inured and deaf to the suffering cries of others.

I am certainly not alone. I believe that most people of privilege do have a social conscience; do care about how the other half live; and are willing to be part of a movement for positive change if they can see a clear, trustworthy channel through which to pour their energies.

The “shit” that I need to alchemize in my memoir is precisely the lovely bubble of privilege itself, which protected me–and others who grew up like me–from setting foot outside of our comfort zones.

We enjoyed ourselves poolside and planned our next vacation; got married and had children; bought houses and cars and ever-faster computers and gadgets; and had no clue at all how our lifestyles were contributing to the accelerating disaster of global heating and climate change.

In my case, the “shit” I need to write about is as squeaky clean and wide-eyed as my own innocence as a young woman seeing Third World poverty for the first time and having no clue, none at all, of the role of my country in creating and sustaining it.

That cluelessness seems to be the “core wound” that I have to interrogate in my memoir, recognizing how very comfortable it has been to be so protected, and yet how destructive it has been too, as generations of elite young people like me have been raised to take our place in established social frameworks without questioning the underpinnings of social and environmental injustice on which we stand.

It is not easy to call out your tribe, to criticize a way of life that has been so easy and sweet. I have only gratitude for the gentle, loving upbringing my parents gave me, and the support they provided that made it possible for me to step out into the world on a strong footing. I am not being glib when I say that everyone should be so lucky.

It’s the bigger picture that I am questioning: how all of us privileged Americans, without realizing it, have contributed to the twin crises of social inequality and environmental holocaust that we now must face today.

It’s not about casting blame; it’s about accepting responsibility and putting our shoulders to the wheel of the enormous task of making things right again on our planet.

That is the alchemy I seek as a writer in these dark transition times.

Pleasure plus meaning equals happiness: homage to my mom

Maria Sirois

Yesterday I went to a Berkshire Festival of Women Writers workshop facilitated by psychologist and inspirational speaker Maria Sirois.  The workshop was called “Happiness: Writing as a Path to Positive Transformation,” and since I am always looking for ways to link all those terms—happiness, writing, path, positive, transformation—I was eager to see how Maria would lay it out for us.

I was not disappointed.  She quickly got the group writing about happiness, and not surprisingly, when I started freewriting about joy, it wasn’t long before I began writing about my childhood summers spent at my family’s country house…long, endless, happy weeks where my brother and I seemed to be perfectly in synch with our mother’s rhythm, where life was peaceful, idyllic and beautiful…the epitome of joy.

Later, when we went around the room and everyone shared a short bit of their freewriting, I was struck by how many of the women present (we were all women that day) associated joy with childhood, and with nature.

Many people shared moments of joy connected with childhood memories of trees—climbing trees, wandering in the forest, listening to the wind in the trees.  Others had written about communion with animals, or remembered ecstatic time spent by the ocean in childhood.

A small corner of my mother's garden

What I remembered was watching my mother dig a rock garden out of the cow pasture in which she and my father had built their small country house when I was 5 years old.  Here are the two sentences I wrote during the workshop, and shared aloud:

“My mother would be quietly exultant as her shovel and trowel revealed new curves or deep, smooth walls of rock, and at the end of a hot morning’s work she would stand, sweaty and red-faced with a fine layer of black earth coating her bare shoulders, drinking iced tea out of a tall green glass and surveying her landscape with a squinted sculptor’s eye.  The work progressed slowly, since it was all done by hand, just one small, determined woman with a strong back and great patience, tracing out the rock with hand tools and as much love as if she were carving out the sweet, benevolent face and voluptuous body of the Earth Mother herself.”

***

Later in the workshop, Maria shared with us a memorable formula for happiness.

Happiness, she said, is the balance of pleasure and meaning.

If life is all pleasure, it can feel empty and meaningless.  If it’s all meaning, then you’re working too hard.

But if you can find the right balance of pleasure and meaning, you can hit that sweet spot of joy, in which you thrive and grow like a well-cultivated garden.

Maria suggested that there is something about creativity itself that brings us to this sweet spot.

My mother, spending her summers relaxing with her children and turning her surroundings into a beautiful landscape sculpture, was drinking from that creative well.

For me there are various creative taps I draw from: writing, teaching, creating programs like the Festival, bringing people together in harmonious, productive alliances.

Platter and dinner by my mom!

My brother recently observed that our mother has always been a wonderful model of someone who is completely focused, passionate about and committed to her art—whether that art is tonight’s dinner, or her magnificent pottery, or her lovingly tended garden.

Since earliest childhood, it has always been clear to me that she put every ounce of creativity she possessed into everything she did—not for external recognition or praise, but just because it was the right way—the most pleasurable way—to approach any task at hand.

Pleasure plus meaning equals happiness.

It strikes me that although my mom has had her share of ups and downs, hers has been by and large a very happy life.

No wonder when Maria asked me to write about joy, I went straight to my primary teacher: Sue Browdy, my mom.

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