The Zen Stick of Sourdough
Finding myself with some free time, I took my neighbor up on her offer to teach me to make sourdough bread. Karen watches as I follow her instructions to combine stoneground wheat flour, salt, sourdough starter, and water. I mix it together with my hands until it makes a moist ball of dough, put it in a greased bread pan, cover it tightly and let it sit for 12 hours. That’s it. The lesson took about 15 minutes. No yeast, no kneading, no additives, all the work is done by the natural process of fermentation.
To my surprise, the bread comes out perfectly when I bake it the next morning. Filled with flavor, both sweet and sour, with a dense yet smooth texture. My body responds to the first bite, slathered in natural Euro-style butter, as it registers
The alchemy of sourdough bread gives me joy. I value having a direct sensory experience of dry/wet/sticky as I combine the few, very basic ingredients with my hands, watching the dough rise as the hours of fermentation break down the cellulose structure and release nutrients into the dough, playing with the basic recipe by adding walnuts, raisins, honey, or rye flour, noticing the rich, comforting smell fill the house as it bakes and, of course, the pleasure of taste, texture, and smell as I chew it.
But there is an added pleasure bonus with this particular food: the full bodily satisfaction of actually digesting, assimilating, and being nourished by something I participated in creating. Being a part of the cycle of the wheat being planted, grown, and harvested so I may now grind the berries in a small mill to make flour for bread to share with family, friends, and neighbors
Like most of my friends, I had given up bread years ago, unable to digest commercially-made, yeasted bread. Naturally leavened bread, however, contains lactobacillus, which helps generate the intestinal flora essential for proper digestion and elimination and the fermentation neutralizes nearly all the phytic acid which interferes with mineral absorption.
I have always believed that whole food, made with awareness and love, becomes nourishment for the entire being, body-mind-spirit, but now there is a direct experience of it. It has felt like an “I’ve been lost, but now I am found" kinda thing, expanding my capacity to receive and giving me the strength to take in more nourishment, truth, and reality than I have before, which isn’t surprising considering the sacred nature and symbolism of bread.
A Secret Medicine
Rumi has begun speaking to me from time to time. I pick up The Essential Rumi that has accompanied me through numerous moves over the past 30 years and open it randomly. This was the most recent offering:
When water gets caught in habitual whirlpools,
dig a way out through the bottom
to the ocean. There is a secret medicine
given only to those who hurt so hard
they can’t hope.
The hopers would feel slighted if they knew.
That last line made me smile, having been a hoper for oh so long. The one before it brought a sigh of recognition. For the first time, I read the words and hear them spoken within my heart at the same time, so that I have a direct experience of the meaning the words were meant to convey. Words not as idea or concept, but as a direct knowing, spoken in just the way my innermost being can receive them.
This is what mystical experience is, I suppose, in its essence: a direct experience of life, of the divine, of the deep well of meaning at the root of it all.
And I knew that this experience itself was the secret medicine, given now that all hope was gone.
Giving Life to the Body
In our recent gathering of women, we talked about what it means to give both spirit and body what they need. As Rumi says, do not burden the spirit with what the body can easily carry. It is important that we pay attention to the needs of the body, for its own sake and because it is our vehicle for spiritual transformation. Energy gets stuck, weighed down, or numbed with all the sitting, worrying, consuming, and striving we do. When we clear the stagnation from the body - through breathwork, dance, shaking - we open the channels for the spirit to be more fully embodied. Breath, oxygen, and movement in the body give birth to more life! It can be subtle or dramatic, whatever is needed. I have had important experiences, dreams, and inspirations after using each of the following methods as I know many of you have as well. Try it out and be present for what is possible now.
Conversations with Women
“We are in the process of being created. We may not know exactly what is happening. But we feel the flow of life in us to be one with the universal life outside. The relation of my soul to this beautiful autumn morning, this vast radiance, is one of intimate kinship; and all this
Indian mystic & winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1913
Many of us feel alone in our efforts to create beauty, meaning, and joy in our lives. I know the pain of this longing for connection as I, too, have lived it.
And yet something new is possible when women come together to expand our capacity for listening and witnessing one another and life.
We find our conversations, woven from dreams and moments in daily life, elicit parts of ourselves not usually accessible to us on our own. Each of us is a thread that weaves through the conversation, creating the story that needs telling
What are you listening for?
Recently I was listening to Adyashanti, The End of Your World, and I heard this one line close to the beginning of the recording:
“Conflict keeps the egoic structure intact.”
I stopped the recording and let that sink in. I knew this one line was the reason for listening today. The daily political turmoil has been over the top for years and has me exhausted. And now conflicts from my own life arise quickly in my memory, and I knew: It is time to let go of all of this and listen to something else. As long as I cling to the surface appearance of what is being acted out on the global stage or to my personal anger and sorrow I am caught in it and distracted from what is real.
Of course, we need to both honor our body, feelings, and experiences and yet not get caught in believing this is all we are. At some point, we absolutely must let go of our habitual stories of how we have been wronged or how hopeless we are and listen deeply to what else is possible.
Listening in this way has a profound effect on how I go about my day, with a renewed sense of energy and hope. Rather than lamenting all that is distressing, my attention turns to the other reality that is unfolding.
Bring on the Real Women
I was on the stationary bike at the neighborhood club this morning, having to exercise inside due to the extreme heat. The TV monitors are directly in front of me: a report that Trump threatened Ecuador with trade sanctions if it introduced a UN breastfeeding resolution, video of immigrant children separated from their mothers, crying desperately or utterly withdrawn, Hoda and Kathie Lee drinking white wine at 10:00 am, laughing easily while talking recipes, and finally an endless infomercial for Crepe Erase, a skincare cream that promises “to smooth away the signs of aging.” In the latter, there is a group of color-coordinated women, hair
After watching for a few minutes, I realize my mind has been automatically following the storylines as presented, while everything in me as a woman, a mother, a human being, rebels. This is so weird, creepy, and downright sickening! None of this resembles news or entertainment but is a strange, surreal, hallucinogenic take on reality.
I move to a machine placed behind a column, blocking the view of the screens. I continue on the bike, aware of living both in the version of reality depicted on these screens and in another where there is still dignity in the human being.
I want to implore, beg, scream:
Show us the real women! The women who aren’t painted, intoxicated and sanitized to death. Bring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Joanna Macy, Winona LaDuke, Elizabeth Warren, and so many others into the discussion. Let their fierce wisdom nourish and strengthen us. I am longing to see these other women, the ones with fire in their eyes and a steely determination that says No, this will not stand! The simply powerful ones who at work and at home nourish life with the fierce love natural to women, the ones with grey, wildly frizzy hair, the ones on the front lines, at the border, in the courtrooms, at silent prayer. Women all, facing the suffering caused by rampant greed and needless cruelty.
May I, may you, may all of us find that wisdom within our own hearts, and begin to live it in whatever way we can.
The other day a young neighbor in our co-housing community came over and asked if I could watch her daughter for an hour while she went to the store. The little girl, not quite two years old, is just learning to express herself well enough to let her wishes/needs be known without screaming so I felt we could most likely get along just fine. She helped me water plants, had buttered toast on the patio, and then I put on some music. Paso de Lucia I think. She started to spin and I sat down, thinking it was time for me to rest. She looked at me, very directly, and in her commanding way said: Come. Dance.
This Hafiz poem came back to me and made me smile. What to do but join her in the dance?
The God Who Knows Only Four Words
Has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does
But the God who only knows four words
And keeps repeating them, saying:
“Come dance with Me.”
A Heart Split Open
Rumi says, I want a heart which is split, chamber by chamber, by the pain of separation from God, so that I might explain my longings and desires to it.
It is spring and we are staying in a hotel built in 1467 near the town square of a small village outside Zurich. My husband rose early to go teach at the clinic and I am left to sleep a bit longer. The church bells are ringing and the loud, resonant clanging is on the edge of my consciousness, signaling danger or a change of some kind. Bells are an integral part of life in many small villages around the world, a vital way to communicate.
At once I feel the longing to belong to a place that honors our basic human need to mark the passing of an hour or of a life, and to bring our attention back from mundane tasks to what is holy and sacred. Images of early mornings years ago at the Hotel Poem in the ancient part of Istanbul, hearing the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. Tenderness envelops me as my whole being listens to the muezzin of the past and the church bells of this moment. They are the same, simple yet profound reminders to come home to my heart.
This vision of something sacred that has been lost to me brings a disorienting sense of profound emptiness and the certainty: No where to go, nothing to do, no one to be.
The mind and ego rebel against nothingness. But a certain kind of heart, with grace, may know the pure joy of the freedom offered.
No Matter What
There is a pattern that continues to emerge in my sessions with women. We begin with the surface story of what is wrong in their lives and we inevitably approach what is below the surface: the unique ways we have each internalized a belief that as women we have little to no value. We work hard, pushing ourselves to gain approval in a culture that tells us we are never enough. When there is no outward reflection of the value of our being, we forget what it means to love and value ourselves. Signs of this? Not stopping to rest when tired, or eat nourishing foods when hungry, not allowing movement on a regular basis, feeling numb when someone expresses appreciation for you, believing you must be perfect/efficient/productive at all times. I encourage you to stop projecting this outward, telling yourself you would take better care of yourself, you would love yourself if only……
Instead slow down, check in with yourself and ask: What feels right to me? What do I need? What allows me to satisfy this need?
There is a wellspring of love within you, waiting for you to dip your toes in! Simply by honoring the knowing of these wondrous bodies and hearts of ours.
A Moment Out of Time
Just as pain and suffering can be great allies in our quest for wisdom, so, too can joy. Yes, we absolutely need to consciously get into relationship with and feel the depths of our suffering and continue to witness the suffering in the world. Yet as the Zen Buddhist monk and author, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) says, “Suffering is not enough. Life is both dreadful and wonderful…How can I smile when I am filled with so much sorrow? It is natural–you need to smile to your sorrow because you are more than your sorrow.”
We are all more than our sorrow, more than the history of trauma, loss, pain, or illness. To free ourselves and others from unnecessary suffering and to live fully, we need to connect with, experience, and live our joy. I am not talking about the surface level happiness or excitement we might be more familiar with, the “if they do this or if this happens…THEN I’ll be happy” kind, but rather the happiness that comes spontaneously from deep within, when we are at peace with what is here in the moment.
Can you remember a time you felt that? For me, it happens most often when alone in the natural world.
It is spring and where I live in California, the rains have finally arrived after many months of extreme drought. I walk out in a world changed by the simple fact of water. Energized by the change the rain brings, and the hope that Yes!, we may get through another cycle of seasons now there is life-giving moisture, I walk quickly at first. But something makes me pause and pay attention to the particulars: the newly vibrant green of the grass, the delicate pink plum blossoms, with bees hovering, even in the rain, and the deer resting under the oaks.
Sitting on the wet ground, my back against an oak, feeling the moisture through my jeans and the rain on my face. Breathing in the cool air, touching the damp earth, seeing the moss and lichen on the bark of the tree, I know I am here. Not just witnessing something outside myself, but here. Now. Participating fully. Taking a small bit of dirt in my fingers, I slowly feel its mixture of clay and graininess, smell its earthiness, and put it to my mouth, tasting and digesting this earth.
Unbidden, there is a moment out of time when the veil of separation between me and the world gets thin. I feel, I know, this body and this earth are one and the same. A smile on my face, even as tears mix with the rain drops. There is no separation and thus nothing to want or need. Freedom! Joy!
Mine is an odd consciousness, granted; a peculiar mix of shaman, mystic, outlier. So I get that eating dirt in the rain may not be your thing. Yet each of us needs to find ways to happiness and practice regularly.
As Thay says. “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. To understand someone, we have to be aware of the quality of the seeds in his consciousness. And we need to remember that his is not solely responsible for those seeds. His ancestors, parents, and society are co-responsible for the quality of the seeds in his consciousness. When we understand this, we are able to feel compassion for that person. With understanding and love, we will know how to water our own beautiful seeds and those of others, and we will recognize seeds of suffering and find ways to transform them.”
Denial ain’t a river in Egypt
In October of last year, as more and more allegations of sexual harassment were being revealed in the media, I was midway through training to be a crisis counselor for survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. A moment of synchronicity that called me to pay attention to the threads that might be weaving together the personal and collective awakening. Very late in the game on both fronts, I must say.
Unlike so many of my friends who could see the clearly systemic violence against women in our culture, I hadn’t digested this truth and made it my own.
Yet, after many months of reflection since the training, I am surprised to see the power of denial yet again in my own life. Denial: a psychological defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality.
Knowing that sexual assault and harassment are about domination and power, not sex, helps me understand why denial is so strong and effective. We hope not admitting it and not saying it out loud will protect us from the pain of knowing the truth as well as keep us safe from more abuse by those in authority. But, of course, that is wishful thinking. Denial actually enables those with power to continue to misuse it: Weinstein in Hollywood, Sandusky at Penn State, Larry Nassar with USA Gymnastics with 360 cases of sexual misconduct spanning 20 years, and Cardinal Bernard Law covering up decades of child sexual abuse, fled to the Vatican when discovered. Not only are abusers seldom held accountable, often they are protected and even rewarded.
Until now, I have been in denial of how widespread and varied these abuses are. I could sympathize deeply, nod my head in dismay or agreement when I read about an incident or listened to a friend describe abuse, but to keep the confrontation with my unconscious personal wounds at bay, I had to stay distanced and apart. Denial may have saved me from pain back then, but it also kept me from acknowledging the diminishing of the sacred feminine within my own psyche as well as in the collective consciousness.
I wonder if this may true for you? For oh too many of us? Each with our own story of some form of violence that has shut us off from allowing ourselves to know the truth. The truth of what has happened to us, to our loved ones, and to members of our community. To all of us.
We are a society in denial of our anger, rage, sorrow, and pain. And thus have become a society of violence, in denial of the extremes this violence has reached.
This is just as true for the racial discrimination that has legalized a new form of slavery by incarcerating millions of black men, the epidemic of gun violence killing our children in schools, and the myriad ways we are destroying the natural world, as it is for sexual violence.
Denial only seems to shield us, but the reality is that the body registers everything. We experience the violence and stress below the surface of conscious thought as anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia, or constant dissatisfaction. We eat, drink, and work too much. Or exercise, party, spend, and diet too much. All trying to keep the truth at bay.
As far as I can tell, it isn’t working. How could it? We cannot solve a problem within the same system as the problem. We are simply and sadly perpetuating more violence, now against ourselves, with this unconscious denial, avoidance, and excess.
No one is exempt or immune from the effects of this violence. Martin Luther King knew this when he wrote:
“As nations and as individuals we are interdependent. This is simply to say that all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
It is strengthening inwardly to know the truth of the matter. To look it full-on and not flinch.
And to know there is a path out of this suffering. Interdependence goes both ways, I tell myself. We are interconnected through the light in each of us as well as the darkness.
‘Tis a fearful thing
‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.”
― Yehuda HaLevi
The elements of awareness come together so randomly that they take on the feel of magic, of synchronicity so precise it is powerful enough to penetrate the mind-numbing predictability of an ordinary morning at the gym. Listening to the Fresh Air interview with Scott Frank, the creator of Netflix’s Godless, the recitation of the above poem transports me to a timeless place deep within my heart.
How is it that the wisdom of an 11th-century Jewish philosopher/poet born in Spain comes to me through the unique sensibilities of an American director enthralled by movie Westerns? I laugh at how beautifully life makes these connections, seemingly, at this moment, just for me, even as tears well up in my eyes with tenderness at how love can bring us to our knees.
Later that day as I listen to a woman’s story unfolding in a session, we are both struck by how life tricked her into love. She was young, it was a traditional culture and the marriage was arranged, loveless for her. She gave birth to and raised the children, working hard and fulfilling her duties in every way prescribed for her both at home and at work. When the children are grown, she goes on a retreat and has real, meaningful spiritual experiences. But she is told, “Not yet.” She returns to her husband, cares for him during a long and terminal illness. Now here she is, realizing she is finally “free” after decades of waiting….. but she cannot move on. Something in her is resisting, holding her back.
I ask her to entertain the suggestion that life has its own ways, its own wisdom. What might that be for her? Through this process of trusting that everything she needs to know is available at this moment, together we weave through the sensations, images, and memories the body and heart are revealing. Sensing, feeling, knowing now what is true.
“He always loved me, completely. He told me that loving me was all he needed, he didn’t need me to love him in return. I never understood how that could be possible.”
She experiences now how over the years, despite her profound resistance, she grew to deeply love this man she had been forced to marry. The fantasies of the mind left unfulfilled, yes, but a real love that transformed her without her even being aware of it was growing beneath the surface.
Now she can consciously grieve the loss of her beloved, knowing the true meaning of their marriage. How it was meant to shape her and prepare her to live her full humanity. For that is required of all of us, to know love and to know pain.
How we get there, if we get there,
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.”
Witness it, without flinching
The ancient wisdom of Oriental medicine tells us that the Metal phase corresponds with autumn, a time of harvest and decline. This is a time to reap the abundance of the fall harvest and the expansive, energetic work of the prior phases. Yet there is often a sense of melancholy at this time that may seem unrelated to anything happening in our outer lives. The shorter, darker days of autumn may touch a longing within us for something we cannot quite name, or remind us of a loss of connection to someone or something we valued very much.
Harvest and decline are not separate from each other, but rather equal parts of life’s wholeness. We cannot have a day without night, love without tears, a body without decline, or an in-breath without an out-breath. I was reminded of this as I joined in the joyful olive harvest on a farm near my home a few weeks ago.
As we were harvesting olives one young woman told me she felt deeply saddened by the recent death of a dear relative. “I can barely work with my own pain, how does one cope with the suffering of the people around us?”
Simply be with it, as much as you can. Witness it without flinching.
Nature does not see us as separate. We are not.
We are as woven into life as the deer, the whales, the clouds,
the rivers, the fires and the sky.
We are created from the atoms, molecules,
minerals and waters of this planet that have been here for billions of years.
We are not new, nor are we separate, superior or here to destroy life.
We are part of life, part of nature waking up to the nature of ourselves
and the privilege of these moments called ‘lives.’
As we fall from the false pedestal of bemused superiority,
we land in the embrace of a world calling to us to wake up
to the beauty of creation and our role to
cherish, restore, protect and love the miracle of life.
~ Clare Dubois
Living with the elements
This morning I awoke to find a young deer drinking from the cistern of water in the oaks behind our home. I sat with my cup of tea and let myself take in all the elements of the moment: dry, parched earth and grove of oak trees after a long, hot summer, the basic need all creatures have for life-giving water, and deep gratitude for the neighbor who thought to put out the cistern for her beloved bees housed in the oaks. Before this moment, I wouldn’t have thought of their need, assuming they would be self-sufficient. Now, suddenly and completely, I experienced our inter-relatedness.
My husband and I have recently moved into this home and inherited the responsibility for this place and its creatures. When we came to see the house last July, the first thing we noticed was a red tail hawk perched on the edge of the cistern drinking. The proximity of this wild, powerful bird gave us such a thrill of delight that we immediately knew we could be happy here. A felt sense of connection to the natural world seems so simple and yet is essential to our humanity. There is a richness that reveals itself only when we slow down and open to whatever connection the moment offers, not exerting our will or ideas in any way.
J. Krishnamurti wrote: It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree—not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself—and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed. This Matter of Culture
Now is the time
Now is the time to know
That all you do is sacred.
Now, why not consider
A lasting truce with yourself and God?
Now is the time to understand
That all your ideas of right and wrong
Were just a child’s training wheels
To be laid aside
When you finally live