Unrooted

If you are like me, you have spent most of your life seeking security and safety. I studied in school to get good grades, to gain recognition from my teachers and the security that I could go to college. I studied in college to ensure some learning so I could get a good job. I got a job to pay my bills so i could eat and sleep and have a level of recognition and success in order to get the next job that would bring a little more money…and so on. As i reflected on my path in life I realized that most everything I did was a means to the next thing – all of those achievements were meant to make me feel safe and secure, either emotionally or physically. A+B=C except that then I wanted D and so the journey continued and continued, Z wasn’t ever the real goal – because once I was in the habit of seeking and achieving I didn’t know where to stop.

And so here I am, having spent 36 years under the illusion that I was escaping the uncertainty of my childhood for a certainty of adulthood, but as the saying goes, an object in motion tends to stay in motion. I ended up with the good fortune of having an excellent career, working for two very successful companies only to find myself still looking for that sense of security, that validation that everything was going to be ok. By working long enough hours and hard enough i assumed my boss, my company, someone on the outside of me would make me feel safe and secure. Fear crept in, and even though I had a beautiful house, a healthy family and enough money to pay my bills and enjoy life, I felt unsafe. I was in fear. In fear of not getting recognition, of not doing a perfect enough job – I felt shackled and indebted to the company I worked for. I had created the illusion in my mind that my job was the only way for me to create a foundation, to be sure things would be ok – so I lived in fear. And then one day, I realized that it was me, I was the problem.

Only I could make myself feel safe. The critical realization was that the feeling will never be static, that to feel safe i had to accept feeling afraid, feeling groundless, that one is not the absence of the other. I teach it everyday, but I never fully realized it for myself.

The buddha taught that when we can understand that there is no final answer, no stopping place, no sense of certainty, that when we let go of our sparring emotions and accept the ambiguity and uncertainty of life, we have attained fearlessness. Letting things come and go just as they are – good or bad.

So, I have let go of the illusion that my corporate job brings me security and I have stepped into the groundlessness of beginning my own company, one day at a time. I have entitled myself to the idea that doing what I love with the intent to empower others I will be ok. I now get to spend 80% of my time using my strengths versus about 20%. And just maybe my leap will help others uncover their own source of happiness and freedom. If nothing else, I can look my son in the eye one day and encourage him to go for it, to follow his dreams and I can say I did it and the world didn’t end. I will take it one day at a time. After all, I can always get another job – but I may not have the courage to take the leap again…

What is your leap?

“The everyday practice is simply to develop a complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions, and to all people, experiencing everything totally without mental reservations and blockages, so that one never withdraws or centralizes into oneself.”
—DILGO KHYENTSE RINPOCHE (taken from an excerpt from Pema Chodron’s -The Places that Scare You)

Check me out – http://www.spark-shift.com

Moths to a flame

We are all like moths to a flame, looking for happiness. Tempted by the feeling of fleeting relief only to further embed our bad habits. My tongue is all too pleased with the sting of a hot, salty french fry, satisfying in a primal way. The trouble is the next bite isn’t as good as the last, but I believe in the promise of the possibility, so i burn my tongue and add to my girth with another. And on I go, chasing the familiar relief of the first bite that can’t be matched. Only to further embed the habit loop, the well worn path in the deep recess of my brain that tells me this is going to provide relief.

Less obvious are relationships. A relationship begins, the intensity of the courting, the lust, all the firsts, they enrapture us and we are in the pleasure vortex. The phone rings and our heart races, we can literally feel the adrenaline coursing through our veins. Researchers say that falling in love is akin to being addicted to a drug, in the way our brains respond. Dopamine is released and that state of pleasure feels endless. And this goes on, in some cases for as long as 2 years. That is the point at which scientists say we have psychologically adapted to that state of being. We are an adaptive species after all, and are hard wired for variety. The first kiss, the discovery of all we don’t know thrills and drives us, and when the passionate love transitions to compassionate love we mistake it for loss of connection. The spark is gone, we feel like the relationship is “work,” sex changes, is more predictable. Somewhere along the way we were told that true love is easy – or at least I was. The key here is to stick in, to create variety and surprise, in order to stimulate our brains and keep the relationship fresh. It would be impossible to maintain the state of being of the first six months of a relationship, we would never get anything done much less be able to raise families. After all, it will be the same adventure with the next person, it is biologically determined that the lust will wear down, if not off. So revel in each moment accepting that feelings ebb and flow – where there is compassionate love there is a future. You just have to work at it a bit more.

For most of us this state of being is relatively harmless as long as we catch ourselves. At least it is relative to drug addicts and alcoholics, however it still gets in the way of our general sense of happiness.

So what? Is life then hopeless and happiness not a realistic goal? I don’t think so, for me it has been about accepting what comes at me, knowing that the pain and suffering, the crappy tasting meal or the bad cup of coffee all allow for the next moment to be appreciated. Without contrast we cannot feel happy or content.

The key for me has been awareness, cultivated through meditation. Catching myself in the moment, of chasing the pleasure and recognizing its futility – fully being able to appreciate an extraordinary moment for what it is and letting things come and go.

The next time you have a bad meal or are bored with your partner, let it be the foundation of contrast in order to enjoy the next moment.

“When any situation is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution.”
~ Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, Standard Edition

CRAVE – Series 1 October 27th!

Join us and learn to uncover the habits that are getting in the way of the life you want. You will learn how and why we do the things we do, how are brains hold us back and how we can change them. You will learn simple techniques to cultivate greater self awareness and make the shifts in your life that will last.

October 27th
Subculture – 45 Bleeker Street
2pm – 5pm
Tickets below or at the door

http://sparkshift-efbevent.eventbrite.com

Fight club

Cancer, the one thing we all love to hate. The unifying enemy that brings us all together, despite our differences. It covets us and looks for any small microscopic opening to mutate, to turn good cells into bad and to grow and cultivate itself into a big hairy monster, it does not discriminate, we are equal opportunity carriers.

I have cancer on my mind, and not because I have it, but because I am surrounded by it. In this very moment I have three lovely thirty something friends who all joined the same club, a club they never expected to join, one they had spent their lives doing all the things that would ensure they never were accepted. Seemingly healthy, young vibrant women, one on each coast and one in the middle. No one had a family history of cancer. All just like you and me, spouses and mothers to young children, sisters, and someone’s best friend. Each one of them woke up one day, and were hazed, accepted into a fight club they didn’t rush, signed up for the heavyweight championship fight of their lives, only they were welter weights, and they want out.

That sneaky little hazing bitch. I sit here and I try to think of what I can say or do to help, how to encourage each of them, to strategize some way to counter attack, because there has to be a secret weapon, a way to sabotage and eradicate – fight yes fight, love harder love, chemo and radiation and raw food and cottage cheese, no meat, yes meat, flax seed, bone broth, just fish now and acupuncture and reiki, massage, gluten free, weed yes weed, ok cannibas oil now, prayer beads and mediation, chaplains and brain lesions, tumors and insomnia, nothing where something used to be, skin hanging onto bone for dear life, its beat and its back stronger than ever, smoking and fighting and winning and losing – its chemo’s fault, fuck the radiation it ruined everything – it all worked and none of it worked. Is it working…

We can’t let go of what we can’t accept. Acceptance doesn’t mean surrender- if you hold something tight it can hold you back tighter, stick to you like glue- so maybe in all of this letting go is the answer, accepting things as they are – not being the cause and not being the solution, but flowing in and out. Cancer is the ultimate loss of control and yet it fools you into thinking that if you hold tighter are more sure of the remedy, control more, it will be beat. Our nature is to control, to drive and navigate and we are fooled into thinking we know where life is taking us, where we will end up. After all we run marathons and take vitamins and eat vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, gluten free alcohol free, we do yoga and sleep 8 hours a night and love our families and yet yet, still wake up one day and the story has taken a turn.

So maybe this isn’t about cancer, but life. None of us are immune to anything, including cancer. It is about loving ourselves and each other the best we can, fighting and making up, finding a middle way, rolling in the grass with our kids and our partners – making fools of ourselves, losing and winning, getting promoted and fired, dancing and laughing, laying in bed moving or unmoving, and crying and taking deep breaths and living in the moment -accepting that we can only be right here right now, and not just saying it, but really, breathing just this breath, because you can’t breathe tomorrow’s breath.

To all of you who have cancer or know someone with cancer or have lost someone to cancer, you are doing all you can – just love and breathe and let go, it will all be ok even if its not.
with love.

Stay

Escape, it is what saved my life, whether through thoughts or actions. I grew up in a house where each moment was unpredictable, my father was an alcoholic, my mother a pill addict, and they were young. They did the best they could at the time, they were both broken. I am the oldest of three kids and took on the parental role early on. My father externalized his anger and moods, screaming, yelling, our house was like one giant land mine. Though it wasn’t giant, it was a tiny bungalow that we all packed ourselves into, my brother sister and I all sharing a room, there was no where to escape in the house. We typically found ourselves outside, wandering the prairie path, climbing trees that weren’t ours, playing at friends’ houses, anything to escape the terror that was our house. We also learned to escape emotionally. I developed a habit of walking outside and counting my steps, it took me out of the moment of pain and suffering, I never stayed with an emotion for more than a few minutes before I transported myself to another world. I would walk through the neighborhood and look into other people’s homes. I created a perfect reality for them, their warm cozy house, dinner in the oven, mom and dad helping the kids with their homework and the dog curled up on the rug in front of the fire. Laughing, smiling, a sense of lightness, ease and safety. I imagined what it would be like to be in their family, live in their house, sit and have dinner, be hugged and loved and tucked into bed feeling safe and secure, unafraid.

I started calling my father Jeff at the age of ten, unapologetically telling him he didn’t get to be called dad unless he behaved like a dad. And then I would cringe, close my eyes and wait for the explosion. He just walked away. I was scared to death, but wouldn’t let him see it. I often would gather my brother and sister and leave the house when arguments would start heating up – his thundering voice trailing after us to get back in the house. We found our peace and our quiet, outside of the home.

My tactics served me in that I survived, I didn’t give in to drugs or alcohol and I lived my life as if I was just like everyone else. Sports saved my life, I lost myself in basketball, volleyball and softball year round. I balanced school and sports with taking care of my brother and sister, leaving no room to feel any of the emotions that come with living in a house that if it could, would swallow you whole and spit you back out into pieces. And I kept a damn good secret, I thought that no one in my Pleasantville like town (other than our immediate neighbors who heard the screaming and saw the police cars) had any idea what our reality was.

The trouble is, while the escape and the emotional Berlin Wall served me well and sheltered me through adolescence, I don’t need it anymore, but it still pops up. I am in a healthy place in my life, years of therapy later, happily married with a lovely son, a great job, and I have excellent boundaries with those in my life that are destructive. It is a constant battle to stay, when something comes up, big or small, not to smooth over it or move on, but to stick in. Whether we are talking about a small disagreement with my wife or trying to get my mother into rehab, I am trying to stay in the sticky discomfort that is life. And trudge through, going around just gets me back where I started. And after all, my house is the home I dreamed of, where it is warm and cozy, where we laugh and smile and hug and are safe and happy.

Pema Chodron captures this beautifully:
““The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs. To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic…getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior.”

Excerpt From: Chödrön, Pema. “When Things Fall Apart.” Shambhala.

So that is what I am leaning into these day, staying with the shakiness, big and small and accepting life, love, feelings as they are, not as I want them to be.

What are you escaping from in your life? Is there a spot that you could stay, even just for a moment and open your heart – allow things to just be, as they are?

with love.

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October swim

It was the 3rd of October in 2004 and my girlfriend (now wife) and I had just moved to Long Beach California from Chicago. We were so excited that it was 70 degrees outside that we took the dogs and went to the beach and immediately ran into the water. It was glorious to be able to walk to the ocean and to swim in October. As we emerged from the water we saw that everyone on the beach was staring at us and pointing. We looked into the water to see if there was something we missed, a shark maybe? And then we noticed that they were all in long pants and wearing light coats – they thought we were insane. It was almost “winter” there and definitely too cold to go into the water.

Their conditioning for experiencing cold and for determining swimmable weather was different from ours, and yet we all firmly thought the other was “wrong”. I casually just said that it’s all relative, as I have so many times in my life. What I was realizing without realizing is that all of our habits are conditioned and relative only to what we know and experience.

The Psychiatrist Mark Epstein so brilliantly pointed this principle out in his book Without a Thinker;

“When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged it only produces a feeling of mild contentment. We are made so that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things. Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution”

The good news is that we can shift our constitution. There are a few ways to create a wider awareness without fully having to experience someone else’s pain or happiness. When we move our perspective outside of ourselves and imagine what it may be like to live someone else’s reality. We are all seeking happiness, contentment, pleasure and we get in our own way because we don’t expand our scope – we don’t realize that without contrast in perception or experience we become conditioned and thus don’t appreciate the relativity of our situation.

I grew up poor in a very wealthy suburb of Chicago, which had its pro’s and con’s. I was fortunate to go to one of the best public school systems in the area, but I was surrounded by people who lived very different lives than me. One of my best friends grew up very wealthy and during our senior year her family lost all their money, her parents divorced and she and her mom moved from their beautiful home to an apartment just a mile down the road from the condo complex my family lived in. She was miserable, her whole life had fallen apart. I remember feeling that it was harder for her to experience being a “have not” and the divorce of her parents than it was for me. My family was on food stamps, we received donated Christmas presents, picked up food from a pantry, it was the reality I knew – so while unpleasant I found contentment in it. For my friend the extreme of her reality shifting so severely was much more difficult. She grew up getting all she wanted and needed, Christmas Break skiing in Vail, car at 16, you name it. To go from that to not having money is a shock to the system. I found compassion in that and it helped me gain perspective on my situation and cultivate a tiny bit of gratitude.

Take a moment and think about what in your life is causing you pain or suffering, now shift your perspective, just slightly – think of someone somewhere that may be experiencing this is a more extreme way. Think of a time in your life when this situation was better, what was different. Now a time when it was worse. I am not suggesting that this will eliminate your pain, or frustration, or anger or whatever emotion/feeling that is associated, but it will shift your perspective. When we take the time to really dig in to our suffering we can see the relativity of it all – and maybe it subsides just a bit. This is the beauty of impermanence, thoughts, feelings and emotions alternate all the time, we just have to pay enough attention to when it happens to appreciate the nuances.

Two years later, still living in Long Beach, California we wouldn’t have dared swim in October – it was too damn cold!

with love.

Fetal Adult

disclaimer – this is my memory as I can best summons, a few words here and there may be off…

I am lying down in the fetal position, eyes closed but not asleep in the standard issue gown on the standard issue hospital bed surrounded by three roommates that weren’t there before I was wheeled into surgery. Suddenly a cold sweat breaks out all over my body, the kind of cold sweat that makes you feel simultaneously freezing cold and instantly sweating through your clothes, hot. “you don’t look good, are you ok?” asks my wife, Amanda. That’s all it took, I sit up and open my dry cracked mouth and instead of the usual heaving and loud vomiting, blood just pours and pour and pours out of my mouth, most of it landing in the hospital issued cardboard puke tray – it fills to the top and Amanda quickly grabs another. I barely heave again and blood flows into the second tray. “Hello, is there a nurse around? We need some help in here” yells my wife. I feel instantly relieved of the clammy cold feeling but am having that feeling that I am not quite of my body. The nurses come in and force me to swallow five gulps of water so icy cold I didn’t know it could be that cold without freezing. “five?!! “I barely manage to whisper. “yes, we need to be sure you stop any bleeding” – it felt like swallowing razor blades followed by cups of salt – “you must have had a small vein bleeding after the surgery while you were still out, your stomach knew to get rid of it.”

The pain of the raw gaping holes in the back of my throat was like nothing I had ever felt before, even compared to natural child birth. My tonsils had become the size of large figs, barely enough space for air to get through. I had been sick for nine months and my body was unable to fight the infections and inflammation – a tonsillectomy was the last resort. I was 35 years old and living in Amsterdam. The gaping holes in the back of my throat were the result. While laying in the hospital bed I scribbled a note to my wife, “can they please give me something for the pain?” When Amanda asked the nurse they told me all I could have was a paracetemol suppository (tylenol without codeine). While marijuana is legal in the Netherlands, they don’t actually believe in pain medication. As a result they don’t have a pill addiction problem. So I suffered. Had I been home in the US I would have been given morphine.

At 5:50pm I had gone 15 minutes without vomiting blood. “Ok, you go now” says the nurse in her broken english “we are close”. I was in an outpatient hospital that closed at 6:00pm, apparently regardless of whether you were vomiting blood or not. Amanda went down to the lobby with her Euro coin and brought back up a rented wheel chair – they managed to get me into the chair and my wife wheeled me down to the car. I don’t remember much of the next five days, other than delirious pain and hunger.

On day six I thought I would feel improvement, at least be able to eat something, it had been seven full days since I ate. The pain was excruciating as I laid on the yellow womb chair in front of the garden and listened to Amanda and my 2 year old son Henry laughing and playing.

Even a joyful life has pain and suffering – and I had dealt with more than my fair share of suffering. I grew up in a house of addicts, my father an alcoholic, my mother a pain pill popper. I sat there remembering the last time I felt so desperate, both physically and emotionally. I was 12 years old. After years of verbal abuse, explosive yelling matches, walking on egg shells afraid to laugh at the dinner table or be sent to our bedroom, two week long disappearing acts where we thought he was dead, we staged an intervention with my dad. My mom told him he was coming for marriage counseling, which he begrudgingly agreed to. It is just like it is on TV, the family and close friends all get together and learn about the disease of alcoholism. Each and every one of us old enough had to write a letter and read it. My brother was only 8 at the time, and my sister just 9. We write heart wrenching letters to my dad telling him how we love him and how “the disease” has hurt us, bringing up happy memories to remind him of how it used to be, in those brief moments of sobriety when things felt relatively better. Then, we slowly crack open the deepest most vulnerable parts of our little hearts to ask, please oh please will you get help and be my daddy again. When it was my brother and sister’s turn to talk all they could say between their sobbing was “i love you daddy, don’t be sick anymore”. Together, we all cried, for lost childhoods and painful marriages and hurt feelings and vacations where we had so much fun we laughed until we peed and then laughed some more. Then came the moment of truth. We all closed our eyes as my mom reads her letter, describing how they met and fell in love and the life they dreamed of having together. She talked about the yelling and abuse and the deep sorrow and their three beautiful children that they made together, and then she asked “Jeff, please from the bottom of my heart, for your sake and the sake of our family, get help so we can be a family again. If you get help we will be with you the whole way and waiting for you with open arms when you get home. There is a van outside waiting to take you to rehab, I love you. But, if you refuse, we will be gone, and you will lose us forever”. We all slowly open eyes to see what he will say. He closes his eyes, and starts to laugh, softly at first and than maniacally, his face turned so red I though he might burst, and then he suddenly stops and says “you thought this would work, you would ambush me with your sob stories and manipulate me? Fuck all of you, this is not my problem, this is your problem.” He then walked right out the door. I ended that day babysitting for our neighbors, which as an adult realize my mom should never have let me do. I was fine until I wasn’t. I put the kids to bed and called my friend, and told her about my day. She responded by telling me that I just told the story like it was out of a book, not like it had happened to me. We hung up and I suddenly had a raging headache, like no headache I had before. I was nauseas and seeing double and felt like I was dying. I can’t remember if I called my mom or not, but I do know I stayed, I stayed until 2am and they were supposed to come home at 11pm – it was before cellphones, so all i could do was lean my head against the cold window and cry myself to sleep, all the while wishing it would all go away.

This was only really the beginning of the suffering we would endure as a family. It was the catalyst for slow self destruction by most everyone. For another time.

As I listened to my son giggling, the memory washing over me, I sat in the fetal position, in our womb chair, and felt nothing and a smile came over my face. Maybe it was the combination of the memory, the extreme physical pain and the fasting that caused the moment, tears started running down my face and I realized that this was it, it doesn’t get any better than this, there isn’t anything else. We all experience pain and suffering and joy and happiness. We break and put things back together again. We take the whole apart and look at each piece but all that is there is a part of something bigger. Life is a series of events, minutes, days, weeks, breakfasts, diapers, friends, joyful surrender, working, mourning, parties, laughter, birth, bills, death, cleaning, stress, finances, broken bones and broken hearts. The searching for the next thing is over. This is what we have and the moments will change, the location will change, the people may even change, and i am the same, i am always there and i am nothing and everything and the rest will not go away, it will just shift and change. I took a deep breathe, it was over.

Acceptance asks only that we embrace life as it is, not life as we want it to be.

“this is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.”

~Rumi

with love.

No fault

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

– Rumi

When I live in the moment with this in mind life is simple – not easy but simple.

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