A car driver shatters my enemy image

My husband and I are on our daily walk around the block. We do that twice a day, to connect, listen, and hold hands. It’s always the same circuit, more or less 1.5 miles long. It’s drizzling, so I’m extra worried and aware that cars might not be as attentive as I wish.

And heck, for sure: an SUV backs out of the driveway, straight into us. Being alert, we’re already on the lawn of the opposite house by the time it would have hit us.

I feel annoyed. Mainly scared, but it shows up as annoyance. As a committed commuter cyclist, I have had my fair share of almost being hit by cars who don’t look around enough. For the last three years, at least once a month, I have to jump the curb, swivel around, or do an emergency break to avoid being run over.

I confess, I have thoughts of breaking car windows to teach this damn driver a lesson.

Thank God I don’t.

Once the car is out on the street, the driver rolls down the window. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…” I see a fifty plus woman with tears in her eyes. “I’m really distracted, … my mom is dying … I’m off to say goodbye to her …”

She stops the car and sits there quietly, I assume to calm herself, before she drives off.

I feel shocked. And embarrassed. Never in the world would I have expected that.

My enemy image of car drivers shatters in a thousand pieces.

I remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice to always ask “Are you sure?”. He invites us to write this question down and put it somewhere where we will see it: a bathroom mirror, the fridge, our calendar. And live by it.

As I regret my quick jump to the conclusion that she was inconsiderate of my need for safety, I stutter “I am so sorry for you.”

She drives off. I ask my husband to confirm which house she came from, and I make a promise to myself to drop off a condolence note.

I go home and write the note.

And a sticky note “Are you sure?”.

It’s up on my bathroom mirror to remind me to not jump to conclusions about someone’s intentions and character.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.

This very moment is the perfect teacher

My ex-husband, Rob van Gils, passed away November 16, 2017. His cremation was Thursday November 23.

My visit to the Netherlands for his cremation service was much harder than I anticipated. Rob and I had succeeded in having –what our mediator described as– “the most peaceful, loving, and harmonious divorce.” We had also figured out how to have a caring friendship beyond divorce. While we had moved on, four of his best friends still harbored pain and anger about my decision to leave him nine years ago for my second husband.

The cremation service becomes not only a moment of intense grief and mourning over the loss of my first love, it becomes a startling confrontation with unresolved issues of loss and perceived betrayal in our former circle of friends.

One friend turns away as I approach him. Another can barely say ‘thank you’ when I share my condolences. A third lets me wait for two minutes, before he interrupts his conversation, then looks at me with a face that seems to convey his wish I had died instead of Rob, and says with emphasis, “You better leave. I don’t want you here.”

I leave the service quickly, too overwhelmed with confusion, pain and grief.

That night I read Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart”:

“Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors –people who have a certain hunger to know what is true– feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.

As enemy images of Rob’s friends race through my head, fretting how they should have behaved, how badly I am treated, how not deserving of their wrath I am, I notice I soften. I am open to using this experience as a wake-up call to lean into where I’m stuck. To let it all be, the pain and sorrow, the hatred and shame. I am willing to allow myself to be penetrated by my feelings –to be changed by them. Slowly I relax into my human condition, and experience the vulnerability of being alive.

That evening, I do not reach enlightenment. I do stop myself from becoming frozen in my judging of how life “should” be. Instead, I accept what is: the pain and the hurt triggered by people needing understanding and compassion.

I take another step on the path of the spiritual warrior, facing adversity with dignity and compassion.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.

Dying and having the rug pulled out

I wrote this blog four days before my beloved ex-husband Rob van Gils died, Thursday November 16, 2017. I’m writing this in his honor and as a reminder of the love we shared:

When I think of my ex-husband dying, I experience intense feelings of fear, grief, and terror. It’s like I’m drawn into a black hole in the vastness of space, a hole around my solar plexis, till I’m stretched out to nothingness and finally annihilated. When I sleep I have nightmares with invasions of Klingon-like monsters, Uruk-hais, and Sauron. And again, an overwhelming, devouring, completely black nothingness of darkness: a void without life and love.

I struggle to be mindful with my feelings. Mindfulness teachers tell me to accept and embrace them, to allow myself to be fully penetrated by them, and surrender into the tenderness of life. I fail in the practice. I struggle. I resist. I barely succeed to stay afloat in an ocean of grief, loss, and terror.

In my search for support, I talk and cry. I take a break from work and spend more time with myself, and I read. I reach for Pema Chödrön who talks about our suffering in “When Things Fall Apart”:

“When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell. In fact, that way of looking at things is what keeps us miserable. Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly. The very first noble truth of the Buddha points out that suffering is inevitable for human beings as long as we believe that things last – that they don’t disintegrate, that they can be counted on to satisfy our hunger for security. From this point of view, the only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep. Right now – in the very instant of groundlessness- is the seed of taking care of those who need our care and of discovering our goodness.”

I find something meaningful about letting be. To sit with the terror of losing my best friend, grieving an unhappy ending, overwhelmed by grief.

Am I able to see that this is what life is about? The joy of a sunrise, laughing out loud with my sister, feeling annoyed with a car cutting me off?

And losing my best friend.

I live in an ebb and flow of feelings, thoughts. Nothing to hold on to. Grief, terror, love. Letting it in and letting it out. Being with the groundlessness of our human existence.

How does this land for you? Let me know, I would love to hear from you.

Scratching, unwholesome seeds, and mindfulness

It is 5:00 am at the second day of our Mindfulness Retreat. I wake up in the dark with a terrible itch on my left foot. I guess that it is probably fire ant bites from walking in the woods. The itch is overwhelming, it drives me crazy. I start scratching as hard as I can, until I feel it starts to bleed. The itching just gets worse.

After 10 minutes, I finally pause my scratching and attempt to practice “accepting what is”. I breath in and breath out of the terrible itch, and try to have an openhearted curiosity about what it is like to have a big itch. I do my very best to accept the experience, rather than to change it.

I have to say, I am not completely up for the challenge. I fail several times at holding back my scratching. Half of my brain would like to apply a sander to get rid of the itch. The other half gradually surrenders and succeeds at breathing in and out of the big itch.

Eventually I fall back asleep.

The next morning I wake up with less itch and a little more understanding about what I believe Thich Nhat Hanh means by wholesome and unwholesome seeds in our consciousness.

“Whether we have happiness or not depends on the seeds in our consciousness. If our seeds of compassion, understanding, and love are strong, those qualities will be able to manifest in us. If the seeds of anger, hostility and sadness in us are strong, then we will experience much suffering.” Thich Nhat Hanh

At the surface it might seem that Thich Nhat Hanh is making a distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, an instruction to only water the ‘good’ seeds. A moral dichotomy.

After my itchy experience, I see this differently. He is instead simply inviting us to be present with whatever is: to make our choice based on our most mindful vision for ourselves and others. If I want to keep my foot happy, I better stop scratching, even if the scratching feels good in the moment.

By extension, I imagine that if I want more happiness, peace, and love in my life, I might do better if I water the seeds of happiness, peace, love, understanding, and compassion in myself. If I want more conflict, suffering, or stress I might focus on watering the seeds of anger, fear, deficit.

When we are in choice about which seeds we water, we can be in choice of how we experience our lives. This is a practice with no right or wrong, just trying, and failing. Then trying again. Failing. Sometimes doing things that are not so wholesome, but feel good in the moment. We try to be curious and we try again. We continue until we are practiced enough to transform unwholesome habits into more wholesome ones.

Which seeds do you nurture within yourself? Let me know, I would love to read from you.

How does your perspective influence your experience?

Barton Springs is my favorite spot ever since I arrived in Austin, April 2009. During summer, my husband and I go there on Saturday afternoons to connect with friends, juggle, swim, and take it easy. Others around us do acro-yoga, hula hoop, and play music.

The water is spring fed and constant 68 degrees all year, even when the Texas sun brings us temperatures of 100 F or more. The water feels cold, very cold. The only way I can get into the water, is by jumping or diving in. Walking down the steps feels like torture.

When I scheduled my Mikveh at the springs, I asked my Rabbi if I could jump in, instead of walking down the stairs. He had never had that question, and answered “Yes, I think so”. I felt relieved.

We gather on Friday evening September 8 for my Mikveh. The outside temperature is 85 F and the sun is setting. The Rabbi explains why we have gathered. I share why I chose my Jewish name Elisheva (in honor of the name Elizabet my beloved parents gave me), I say my prayer, and I head to the water.

Without thinking, I simply walk down the stairs into the water. It doesn’t feel cold at all. It feels comfortable, almost as if God is embracing me, as if I’m coming home to a very safe, loving place.

My surprise at being able to comfortably walk into the cold water makes me think of how my perspective influences my experience and changes the opportunities I see.

If we think we’re a loser, we’d probably feel sad, discouraged, or depressed. We don’t see many opportunities. “Why bother with the effort? We’ll lose anyway.” If we see ourselves as a unique person, worthy of love, we might feel creative, or secure, trusting that there is support when we need it. When we see ourselves through the eyes of our biggest critic, we might think we don’t do enough, we’re lacking, and we can’t rest. When we see ourselves from the perspective of our biggest fan, we might see how kind, caring, and giving we are. We might know that our lives are filled with connection, love, and opportunities. We see our innate goodness.

I believe we can choose which perspective we take. And with that, we can influence the opportunities we see.

How? Try this experiment:

  • Pull up a table you can easily walk around, empty it, and place something in the middle that represents you.
  • Walk to one side, and say out loud whose perspective you’re taking. Maybe it is your inner child, your future self, your biggest fan, or your loudest critic. Say how you see yourself from this perspective, and which opportunities you see for yourself.
  • Walk to the spot left of you, and take on another perspective. Again, share how you see yourself from that spot, and which opportunities seem available.
  • Do this six times in total, including both negative and positive perspectives, ending on something positive.
  • Now choose the perspective that resonates most strongly with you and experience what happens.

Which perspective do you take on yourself? Let me know, I would love to read from you.

Have your experience and enrich it

Ever traveled business class?

I hadn’t.

In all my travels to and from my family and friends in the Netherlands, I travel economy class. I certainly have looked with envy as I walked past the business class seats, seeing them transform into beds, with clean, cotton pillowcases and yummy comforters.

I have never wanted to spend the money. I have made do with squeezing into an economy seat that I can’t stretch out, expecting to be startled awake when my head slips, as I try to sleep upright in a less than ideal position.

This July, I again traveled to the Netherlands to see my family and friends. And lucky me, my friend used his air miles to buy me plane tickets. When he emailed me my ticket, he wrote that the ticket allows me to use the lounge in Amsterdam and Houston. I didn’t pay much attention to that clue until the evening before my departure.

That evening when I print the ticket, I notice I have a seat all the way in the front of the plane!… When I take a closer look at the seating map, I see… YES! row eight IS business class, and my seat is one of those amazing, reclining seats…

So here I am, a simple girl from the Netherlands, sitting like a queen in this luxurious and comfortable chair. I can’t stop smiling. I play with all the different buttons testing my seat positions: all the way down, all the way up, my legs up and my back down, back up and legs down, everything at 45 degrees! You might understand why, with my excitement, it takes me more than an hour to finally take a nap. Nope. Not a nap. Sleep, deep sleep for more than four hours!

In this glorious moment of having all my senses satisfied, I remember an exercise by Rick Hanson to help change my brain for the better.

It is the HEAL process:

  • Have the experience: bring awareness to your needs being met, that you have feelings you enjoy, that something positive is happening in your life
  • Enrich the experience by focusing on the freshness of the moment, engaging all your senses
  • Absorb the experience as if you’re basking in sunshine, extending the positive feelings with a few minutes
  • Link this positive experience to a negative one in the same realm, to transform the brain’s negativity bias – which Rick Hanson describes as “teflon for positive, velcro for negative”.

Doing this exercise I notice I’m transforming distracting thoughts of scarcity, that I don’t have enough, that I don’t have support to seeing that in this moment I have more than enough conditions to be happy and that I have all the support I want. A sheer delightful experience of abundance.

Which positive experience can you link to transform a negative one? Let me know, I would be delighted to read from you.

Holding unmet needs with compassion

Six wasps are actively building a nest for their queen mama above the door to my room.

And I know from last year that these nests can become big. Really big. Lots of wasps coming in and out, feeding their babies.

Even though I don’t experience them as aggressive toward me, I don’t want to take the risk that they fly in and out of my room, each time I open the door. With sadness in my heart, I decide to remove the nest, before I get too stressed about safety for my human visitors. Early in the morning, when I think the six wasps are still asleep, I throw enough water on them, that they finally fly away. I cut down their nest.

The next day, I see the same six wasps on the same spot, huddled close to each other. I’m pretty sure they’re deliberating to rebuild their nest. On the same spot.

And so they do.

With even more pain in my heart, I remove the second nest. Fortunately for all of us, they haven’t returned since.

Sometimes we are not creative enough to meet all needs in every instance. We’re stuck with a strategy of what Marshall Rosenberg calls “protective use of force”. We meet our needs, even though we see that our strategy doesn’t meet the needs of the other party. I met my need for safety, and didn’t meet the wasps’ needs for autonomy, respect, support.

When we’re stuck, the best thing we can do is hold the unmet needs with compassion. Just like we hold a baby crying for her mommy. Even if we can’t bring her mommy back to her, we can hold the baby and show compassion and understanding for how painful that is. We can convey a message that we care about her well-being, even if we don’t know what to do to relieve her suffering.

I didn’t know how to ask the wasps the build their nest a few feet away. So I used protective force (water not poison) to meet my need for safety, while holding their unmet needs with compassion.

When we’re you not creative enough to meet everyone’s needs? And how did you hold the unmet needs with compassion? Let me know. I’d love to read from you.

Walking mindfully, walking peacefully

Walking Mindfully, Walking Happily

It’s March 2017, SXSW week in Austin. A week bustling with thousands of participants trying to get to their coffee, their meetups, their conferences, screenings, and social gatherings in time.

It’s also the week of the premiere of “Walk With Me“, a documentary about monastic life in the mindful communities founded by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Seven monastics flew in from France and Deer Park, California to support the movie. In the middle of the chaos of the Austin Convention Center, they led an hour of mindful walking. An action to nurture a sense of peace, presence and love to the event.

I joined once. I was excited to walk with the monastics in a setting so different from our usual private Sunday Sangha.

When I returned a second time, it was because I was so moved by the first experience.

I feel so touched to see random people ask if they can join our walk. I see them invite friends to walk with them, happy to talk about what mindfulness means to them. I feel delighted to see dozens of new smiling faces carefully take a step, then another, focusing on their breath, feeling their feet touch the Earth. We walk as a river, balancing our individual footsteps with the pace of the community.

“Happiness is here and now

I have dropped my worries

Nowhere to go, nothing to do

No longer in a hurry.

 

Happiness is here and now

I have dropped my worries

Somewhere to go, something to do

But I don’t need to hurry.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh

I am moved by how inspiring we can be when we offer our suggestions with Santa Claus energy: “Hohoho, wouldn’t life be more wonderful if you joined me for mindful walking?”

​​If we share what is important to us with an openness to hear a ‘no, I believe we are more likely to get a ‘yes’. Without the force of demand energy, our childlike excitement to share what we imagine is helpful to others becomes contagious.

What can you offer with Santa Claus energy? Which gift can you contribute to the buffet of life-enriching choices?

Let me know. I’m curious to read your special offering.

An Ode to Vulnerability, Authenticity. And to My Husband

This is an ode to my husband. Or maybe better, an ode to our human capacity to balance authenticity and togetherness, our ability to differentiate.

“Differentiation involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. Individuality propels us to follow our own directives, to be on our own, to create a unique identity. Togetherness pushes us to follow the directives of others, to be part of the group. When these two life forces for individuality and togetherness are expressed in balanced, healthy ways, the result is a meaningful relationship that doesn’t deteriorate in emotional fusion. Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.” (David Schnarch, “Passionate Marriage“).

Every year during Jugglefest, my husband and I go to the Renegade Show. It’s a show where skilled, and not so skilled, jugglers test their newest acts. It doesn’t matter whether a performer succeeds in performing any specific trick, because the show is intended to be a platform to try out new material, to take risks, and to engage an audience for feedback.

It’s more of a “first experiment”, than a stream of polished, successful, less daring acts. As this year’s emcee, Mark Hayward, said: “Try to make your performance fit one of these three rules: short, awesome, or hilarious – or even better, try making more than one of these.”

I was inspired by what I saw as the risk my husband took. He took out Sandy, a spiritual being in the form of a Grey Wolf puppet, and interviewed him about how it was to be up on stage. Shaking all over, it took Sandy 30 seconds before he could say how nervous he was.

The performance brought tears to my eyes. I imagined the courage it took to share something so personal: expressing the need for belonging and acceptance of who we truly are. I imagined Sandy’s (and David’s) fear that sharing authentically their most vulnerable self, might risk being ridiculed, scorned, or dismissed. Especially in a public setting, in front of 200 strangers.

The “awwww” and applause they received, confirmed my husband’s delivery, and his connection to the audience. I read that the audience appreciated his willingness to take the risk and be authentic.

I received so much inspiration from seeing him balancing the two life forces of individuality and togetherness, that I am now committed to prepare my own act for next year’s Renegade show.

What are you willing to do to show up more authentically, at the risk of losing connection and acceptance? Let me know, I would love to read from you.

Dog bites, flowers, and impermanence

Do you remember when I wrote about being accidentally bitten by a dog?

The grandma sent me a basket of flowers, arranged like a dog with a bandaid, and a big smiley balloon.

I have kept that basket on my desk. As you can see, most flowers are brown and droopy (except for one, which  is hanging in there), and the balloon is deflated.

I find it a beautiful visualization of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on impermanence: No phenomenon is permanent, everything is constantly transitioning to the next manifestation. If the conditions of its existence are favorable, the phenomenon is here, if the conditions are unfavorable, the manifestation will disappear.

The flower transforms into compost. Compost turns into grass. Grass is eaten by insects and animals, who poop by the pecan tree. This autumn, I might be eating these flowers in the pecans I harvest, and the digested pecans might come out as words! Well, heck. Those words might show up in the newsletter I’ll be writing in November!

Impermanence also teaches me that death is a reminder to cherish life. Everything and everyone I love will eventually die, including me.

“We need to learn to appreciate the value of’ impermanence. If we are in good health and are aware of impermanence, we will take good care of ourselves. When we know that the person we love is impermanent, we will cherish our beloved all the more. Impermanence teaches us to respect and value every moment and all the precious things around us and inside of us. When we practice mindfulness of impermanence, we become fresher and more loving. (Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddhist Teachings, 1998)

I have a personal practice of reciting this Thich Nhat Hanh gatha (verse) every night:

“The Day has now ended, our lives are shorter.

Now we look carefully: what have we done?

Noble Sangha, with all our hearts, let us be diligent,

engaging with the practice.

Let us live deeply, aware of impermanence,

so that life does not drift away without meaning.”

This gatha inspires me with joy, gratitude and appreciation for everyone and everything I’ve been given.

When I find myself disconnected from someone, the insight of impermanence helps me realize that they might be taken from me in the blink of an eye. When I reflect on this, I find it easier to see that any struggle I am facing is smaller than our vast impermanence. And realizing this helps me to reconcile and reach out to reconnect.

What helps you to see the impermanent nature of yourself and those around you?

Looking at the wilting flowers and deflating balloon, I see the new seeds of life in it. And I feel happy, very happy.