Offering photoThis blog is a place to gather my stories, thoughts, photos, and lessons learned as I move  towards my wise old age.  I want to share years of psychotherapy, being a psychotherapist, meditating, teaching meditation, studying Buddhism, traveling, and all-around living. Unless otherwise noted, I took all the photos using my small point-and-shoot camera or my iPhone.

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Photo: an offering at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

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Can We Talk?

This is the guest column I wrote for Fresh Ideas in the Nevada Appeal (published on 5/31).  Hoping it will jump start my creative process!

My living room

“That’s it!” he said, “I’m not talking to you anymore; you’re not listening to me,” and he turned away.

“Humph,” I thought, “I’m a trained professional listener; what does he know?”  And I took myself to the shower to get away from him and cool down.

It worked.  After a few minutes, I was calmer, and could begin to actually think about the interaction, not just react.  And, I realized, it was true—I wasn’t listening to him.  Of course, he was not listening to me either, but I had to admit he called it first.  So, armed with this insight, and a willingness to put my own views aside for the moment, I went back and told him I was ready to listen.

I no longer remember the content of what we talked about, but memory of the process lingers.  We went from having what I call an A/B conversation:  “It’s A!”  “No, it’s B!”  “No, it’s A!”  (and on it goes) to a productive exchange where we both felt heard.

I often think about that incident because I see this kind of thing happening more and more in our public, political sphere.  I worry that we’re never going to be able to solve the problems that we face if we can’t talk to each other and find common ground. It can feel satisfying to feel that we are right and the other wrong, but ultimately the ground gets poisoned by our righteousness, and we drift further and further apart.

Years ago someone asked me if I want to be right or happy. Many of our arguments seem to be about being right, and they do not seem to bring happiness.  Recently there has been a lot written about people not being swayed by facts (even if the facts can be verified); facts need to be built over a scaffolding of emotion.  That emotion is not anger, but empathy.

Among the most fundamental needs of humans are safety and belonging. As mammals, humans need contact; we are social beings who rely on each other for support and to create meaning. If we don’t feel safe, we are constantly scanning for danger.  We tend to see those who are different as Other, and band together against them.  Then the shouting, and worse, begins.

I’d like to invite you to a different way of communication, one in which we care for each other and work to understand, rather than be right. I recently learned about a project called Living Room Conversations (LRC), where two people with opposite views of an issue each invites two other people to come together; then the six people have a conversation about the topic.

The folks at Living Room Conversations have developed a general format with ground rules that provides the safety required to have a meaningful conversation.  There are more than 50 topics on their list with suggested ways to explore the topic, or they will help you build your own.  The process only works if the people attending are genuinely interested in developing understanding and relationships with people who are different in their views and/or experiences.

Recently Terry McLaughlin wrote a column in the Union, a paper serving the area around Nevada City, CA, about her experience in an LRC:  “Could we share opposing outlooks without belittling each other? Could we hear uncomfortable truths and own the paradox they might create in our own worldview? Could we accept, as one of my friends said, that ‘none of us have horns coming out of our heads?’  I found that the answer to those questions, on a personal level, was yes, we can.”

If you are interested in participating in a Living Room Conversation, check out their website at LivingRoomConversations.org.  And/or email me at my website AMindfulBreath.com.  I am planning to organize some LRCs in mid-July or after.

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A Heart as Wide as the World

To have a heart as wide as the world—a phrase I first heard from meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg—is my aspiration.  In Buddhist psychology the heart is not separate from the mind, which is known as citta in Sanskrit.  This heart-mind of mine would be wise, compassionate, equanimous, grounded, joyful, receptive, active—you get the picture.

When I place my awareness (my mind) in the center of my heart with that loving intention, I can feel how connected I am, to myself and to the entire universe and all it contains.  Sometimes the image comes to me that my heart is bigger than my body and that I am held within it.

I have to be careful when I play with that energy, however.  Sometimes it can be overwhelming and I find myself with a familiar feeling of spacing out rather than connecting.  I’ve been given the nickname in the past of “Space Cadet,” which can be fun if it’s purposeful but not so much when I’m just drifting.  That’s when I need to get grounded, sometimes with the touch of a hand in yoga or a massage, a good long walk, or time spent with loving and wise friends.  Then I come back to earth to do the everyday work of living with an open heart.

In this last photo, I am grounding my little cut-out self on a rock which I found on retreat at Lake Tahoe soon after walking on sacred Mt. Kailash in Tibet.

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Refuge in Laos

The Coroner’s Lunch, first in Dr. Siri series

As part of preparing for my recent trip to Laos I read a series of mysteries that take place there in the mid-1970’s, just after the communist Pathet Lao came to power.  The main character is the delightful Dr. Siri who works and lives with an engaging ensemble of people.  Of course, each book has at least one murder, often several, and mostly pretty unpleasant (what murder wouldn’t be?).  But I wasn’t repulsed by the murders until a later book when Dr. Siri and his friends go their separate ways to solve the mystery, because I was so entranced by the relationships among the recurring characters. I realized then that their smart, humorous, loving, and respectful interactions provided a refuge from the murders that was lacking when they were separated. 

Spirit house at a bus rest stop in Laos

Another delightful aspect of the Dr. Siri books is the integration of the animist beliefs and practices of Laotians into the stories.  Dr. Siri himself is inhabited by a 1000 year old shaman, whom local people recognize when he is out in the field investigating a death.  As in Cambodia and Thailand, when buildings are put up a spirit house is placed on the property to provide a refuge for the spirits that have been displaced, thus avoiding the difficulties that can come if they have no where to go.

Made from metal from bombs

Laotians have had to deal with plenty of death with the bombings and land mines of the seventies which still litter large swaths of the countryside and are often detonated when stumbled upon.  But just as Cambodian youth are healing through the power of their art, as I wrote about in January, Laotians are transforming suffering by using the metal of the bombs to make spoons, elephants and peace doves.  By selling them, they gain some income and tourists are educated about this tragedy but can also contribute through their purchases.

A noodle restaurant is featured in the Dr. Siri books

My young great-niece recently asked me why I travel—is it for fun?  While that is an important part of it, for me these connections to people and their cultures is why I go.  Continuing to find ways to meet and relieve suffering, while finding refuge in the inspiring and beautiful efforts of people as they celebrate life and show up for each other, keeps me going.

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While in Laos, my friends and I spent the day at an elephant rescue camp.  These were elephants who had worked in logging camps, where they are routinely pushed to the point of exhaustion, unable to reproduce.  To replenish their herd, the loggers then capture wild elephants who are also endangered due to being hunted for their tusks and because of the loss of habitat.

These elephants would not be able to live in the wild after these years of servitude.  They are purchased from the loggers (for $50,000 each we were told) and they eat enormous quantities of food.  The fees tourists pay enable the camps to support these majestic beings.

An ethical camp like we visited has a veterinarian on staff who examines each elephant every day to be sure they are able to work.  They only work (carrying tourists like us) for half a day, then are taken to a forest where they have room to roam.  They are ridden bareback, rather than with the wooden platform called a howdah which injures their backs.

We were taught the commands the mahouts (handlers) use to guide the elephants, but not one of us was able to remember any except “how” (stop!).  Luckily, most of the time the mahout was with us except for the photo opportunity.  I was grateful for his supporting hands on my back as we trundled down a hill.  Rule number one in my Core Align exercise class where we are put into very unstable positions is “don’t fall off;” it applied here too!

At the end of our time with them we bought bananas to feed them which they clearly enjoyed.  We were all deeply moved by our time with them.  May they and all beings be safe and happy!

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Finding Refuge

Siem Reap, Cambodia, January 19. Tonight I watched a dozen talented artists paint, play music, dance, and do amazing circus routines as they told the story of their country’s descent into genocide and its ongoing recovery from those horrors. These young performers are the grandchildren of the Khmer Rouge and its victims, best known to Americans as the perpetrators of the killing fields. They come from difficult backgrounds and attend a performing arts school that gives them skills, but even more important, a way to work through their inevitable grief and anger, developing a bond with each other and a confidence in their own abilities that will serve them their entire lives.

  1. I arrived in Cambodia a week ago, as a tourist on the first leg of a month-long trip. I had been feeling both relieved and sad to be away from the US during such a transformative time, but also happy to re-visit this beautiful Southeast Asia country. It felt good to have a break from the intensity of the scene at home. Although wi-if is ubiquitous, it’s easy to avoid staying current with the news. Visiting the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, eating delicious Khmer curries and mango shakes, riding tuk-tuks through the countryside, getting a massage–I could feel I was taking refuge in an exotic country where I had no responsibilities and could just play.

But that fantasy bubble is easily burst if you are tuned into what is around you. Outside many of the temples are small orchestras of amputees who lost their limbs to the land mines dropped by the US during the Vietnam war and which still pose a danger. There’s a war museum where people are encouraged to hold weapons and feel what it’s like. People everywhere are well aware of the change in US leadership, and some initiate conversation about it, having questions and opinions. Some say that our president-elect is an angry man; some of them fear an outbreak of World War III. Others express confidence in Americans who have so many years of experience with democracy.

So where is there refuge, a place of peace and safety, when we cannot escape the consequences of past injustices nor the worries of a future to come? Taking refuge often means to go into a protected space, to turn our backs on the world. Although I can do that when on an occasional retreat, that’s not how I want to live in the world. For me refuge means stopping to breathe and listen to the beauty of the music, not turning away from the amputated limbs. It means attending a performance where pain is expressed and then transformed through art, connection and courage. There’s refuge in noticing people’s good hearts, exchanging everyday kindnesses. Refuge is created when we work together with open-heartedness for the benefit of all. Refuge is no longer a way to hide from the difficulties of the world but to join together in solidarity and love, through art, engagement and action.

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Beginning Again

Beginnings lead to endings and endings to beginnings.  Maybe that is part of the romance of  sunsets—not only are they beautiful, but they end the day and begin the night.

As a long-time meditator, I have trained in noticing the beginning and ending of a breath, again and again. One technique that helps sustain the attention is to closely observe the middle of the breath, and to the gap that is often there at each end of the in and out parts of each breath.

So now we have beginning-middle-end-gap-beginning-middle-end-gap, and with any luck, it starts up all over again!

Inevitably the mind wanders off to fantasy, memory, planning, and a myriad of other mental activities. This is a different kind of “middle,” the space between mindful awareness and being lost.

Recently my nephew and I got lost taking a walk in his neighborhood of curved, winding streets.  Absorbed in our conversation, it took awhile for us to notice, just like in meditation it may take awhile before we notice our attention has wandered.  What to do in that moment?

Living in a culture of constant assessment and criticism, it can be easy to get lost in questioning and doubt:  Why didn’t we bring a cell phone?  Why don’t you know your address?  Why didn’t we pay better attention? Why did I let my mind wander off the breath?

A better idea?  Celebrate the moment of awakening and begin again!  We’re lost; how will we find our way home?  What resources are available (a vague memory of the street name, yard workers and neighbors, the confidence that family will come looking if we’re gone too long)? And, oh, I lost the breath; how wonderful to notice.  I wonder, where is it now—beginning, middle, end?

And on it goes….

Photos:  Sunset over Gulf of Mexico at Redington Beach, Florida

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Recently I went on a walk with friends from our Buddhist study group. An artist in my book club had invited us to write a poem for our December meeting, which is the one where we don’t read a book. I awoke the morning after the walk already composing haiku. I checked, and, sure enough, the traditional format is 5-7-5 syllables. One thing I found interesting was that the first two lines came rather easily (with a little editing); the third line took its time presenting itself to me. It was fun to create in a new way!

Clouds pretending to be spaceships

Rocks sliced like a loaf of bread

Dharma buddies observing with delight

Hiking slowly with a geologist

We ply him with question after question

And Tom has answers—enlightening!


Buddhists hiking in the hills

Come across the corpse of a coyote

Death—entry into the mystery

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Relaxing Relentlessly

VPF Meditation signThere have been times in my life when I awoke feeling so overwhelmed I’d wish the world would stop for awhile so I could catch up.  It’s relentless, I would say, sighing.

That’s why I found it especially funny on my retreat earlier this month when our meditation teacher U Tejanaya asked us to relax while meditating, to not stop relaxing—in fact, to relax relentlessly.  What an oxymoron, I thought!  Yet he said it was one of the two most important things to do when meditating; the other was to remember that all that we observe is nature and impermanent.

U Tejanaya and translator Ma Thet

U Tejanaya and translator Ma Thet

His emphasis was on noticing what we are aware of without trying to change or fix anything.  Not much energy is required to do this (see if you are aware you are reading right now—did it take much energy?).  If we get tired while meditating, we are trying too hard.  Practicing this way—whenever we remember, noticing what we are aware of—leads naturally to a strengthening of awareness.  And not trying to change or fix what we observe can help us relax, and we tend to be calmer.

As our mind calms, and we notice equanimity, we can then also observe wisdom qualities such as interest, confidence, mindfulness, curiosity, acceptance, compassion, and so on.  These are helpful to note; reflecting on these benefits of practice can help us arouse the energy to continue our meditation practice.

Path to meditation hall

Path to meditation hall

Since the retreat, when I feel that familiar energy of the modern world rushing along relentlessly, I smile and shift that energy to relentless relaxation.  And then I can bring the attendant calm and wisdom to the situation at hand, perhaps acting more skillfully.

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Soft and Strong

Where are we going?

Where are we going?

This morning in yoga Amy asked some questions:  What do we need/want from the class?  What is our intention for the class?  Then she guided us to quiet our minds and use our breath to tune into our bodies and hearts.

My first thought was that I wanted some power poses.  Like many people, I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me by this week’s news, and I need some support.  Next came the words “soft” and “strong.”  I want to come from an open-hearted space without being a pushover.

Throughout the class Amy kept prompting us to return to our inner focus, checking in to see how our intention was manifesting in our bodies.  We practice in a physical therapy office, so a lot of attention is paid to correct alignment.  When we’re aligned correctly we don’t use extra energy to keep us in the pose.  We can feel both our strength and the softening that correct alignment allows.  Sometimes we want to look “good” in a pose, and push too much.  Feeling the tension this brings helps us to realize that we are pushing (or our teacher comes by and corrects us!), and we can soften and relax.  For someone like me who tends to “effort,” this has been very helpful in class and in life.  On the other hand, we can collapse or not fill our bodies with energy, which can leave us feeling weak or spaced out.

Amita is strong and joyful!

Amita is strong and joyful!

Tenderness and strength

Tenderness and strength

Similarly, when we have clarity of intention for meeting challenges in our lives, we can feel both our strength and softness, and we can adjust the balance of the two.  Strong emotion is appropriate in dangerous or stressful situations; it can provide energy when we feel overwhelmed.  But it is not always the best way to meet others, so knowing how to maintain the strength that comes with the emotion while balancing it with compassion, curiosity and creativity can help us navigate difficult terrain.

As we move into this new post-election territory, may we all find our direction, get support, and balance our open-heartedness with resolve and strength!

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Quiet Mind, Open Heart

Kathmandu Diwali guide for light to enter home

Kathmandu Diwali guide for light to enter home

As we approach this important election, like many people I find myself nervous and stressed.  Last week I enjoyed photos of the Hindu festival of lights, which I was fortunate to attend in India and Nepal.  In Nepal people make an offering on wet mud; it’s meant to be a guide to the light of nearby candles to enter from the dark on the mud path into their home.

Lighting candles and making offerings are beautiful symbolic gestures, but I wanted something more.  And then I remembered the talk Ram Dass (of Be Here Now fame) gave in Reno many years ago.

He began by listing all the terrible things that were happening in the world (you can fill in the blanks here).  People would say, See Ram Dass, everything’s getting worse!  He would reply that he really didn’t know, but perhaps they were right.  What to do? he wondered. And he answered that it seemed he should quiet his mind, open his heart, and do what he could to relieve suffering.

Hindu offering

Hindu offering

And then he listed many wonderful things; people would say that all is getting better, asking for his agreement.  Again, he didn’t really know.  But if they were correct, what would be his response?  To quiet his mind, open his heart, and do what he could to relieve suffering.

So that’s my plan, come what may.

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