A Winter Solstice Candle

Fifth Night   Tonight is the eve of the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Since ancient times, this has been a season of both foreboding and expectancy, as one cycle ends and another begins. Our early ancestors watched the sun sink lower in the sky each day and feared it would disappear completely and leave them in darkness. They practiced sacred rituals—including bonfires and candles—intended to call forth the sun’s return.

Deep within me is a place that fears the light will not return. Especially here in the Pacific Northwest’s chill and gloom, where even a glimpse of the sun is a rare and cherished gift. On these cold, short winter days, focusing on the grief of loss and regret comes so much easier than noticing the joy of abundance.

If only a robin would sing outside my window.

If only my daughter still needed me.

If only my body looked and worked like it did when I was twenty.

If only my beloved cat, Mocha, had lived one more year.

If only I’d spoken to my mother before she died alone in a locked ward a thousand miles away.

And so I light a candle.

Beeswax candle I light a candle to illuminate those dark, lonely, scary places within and without that I fear will swallow me into an underworld of perpetual shadow. I light a candle to honor all those who fear they’ve lost their way, to help us find our way home—together. To remind us that our true nature is the eternal light of awareness that connects us all.

I light a candle on this fifth night of Hanukkah, much as my great-grandfather Moses Bachelis would have done in nineteenth-century Kavshovita, Russia. And I affirm, as Rabbi Ted Falcon suggests: “I light this candle for the healing energies flowing now through every cell and every level of my being. I welcome this healing energy, and I bring the light of healing to any distress I find.” The focus phrase I carry with me for the fifth day of Hanukkah is: “I am healing.”

And it is good.

Got Joy?

This time of year I often find myself slipping into the winter doldrums, the blahs, the blues. Living in the Pacific Northwest doesn’t help. Cold, dark, damp days drag on endlessly, and it’s only mid-January. How will I survive until spring, which doesn’t begin around here until July? I have one of those artificial sunlight lamps, but the battery died. I just want to eat carbs and hibernate.

What better time, then, to sign up for an online course called Awakening Joy, which starts on February 4, 2013. (www.awakeningjoy.info/index.html) Though at this point, I’d settle for simply Curbing Misery.

My wise friend Karen sent me an e-mail about the course: “The material is stimulating and life changing and you will be astounded at the changes that can occur when you focus on igniting the joy that is within. In these challenging days it can be hard to access that inner light, but with these tools I can assure you your journey will be much easier…and more joyful.”

These days it’s hard enough accessing the outer light, let alone the inner one. Yeah, sure, I’ll give this a try. I’ve done my research. I’ve learned a thing or two about happiness and joy. The Buddhists tell us that joy is already inside of us, an innate capacity. Over time is gets covered over with habitual ways of thinking and feeling, but we can uncover it. Our suffering or happiness depends more on how we relate to outer circumstances of our lives than on the circumstances themselves. Happiness is a choice, and we can make it a habit.Joyful Sadhu from Short Cut to Nirvana film

Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield writes in The Wise Heart that joy is an expression of the liberated and awakened heart, of one who lives in the present moment. He tells about a TV reporter who asked the Dalai Lama to talk about the happiest moment in his life. After considering for a moment, the Dalai Lama smiled and replied, “I think now.” Author Margaret Bonnano puts it another way: “It is only possible to live happily ever after on a day-to-day basis.”

In his book Awakening Joy, James Baraz describes joy as a feeling of well-being. I like this view, because it seems realistic, down to earth. I used to think of the word joy as a Goody-Two-shoes Pollyanna skipping down the sidewalk tossing flowers and humming a snappy tune. Ick. But well-being? Oh, I can definitely relate to that.

Baraz, the creator of the Awakening Joy course and a Buddhist meditation teacher, further writes that joy can look very different among people: for some it actually can be a “bubbly enthusiasm,” while for others it can be a “quiet sense of contentment.”  Each one of us has our own unique way of experiencing and expressing joy based on our individual temperament. “Your happiness may not look like someone else’s,” he says, “but you can find the expression that is uniquely yours.”

There is, however, a danger of getting too carried away with “trying” to be happy, where one focuses solely on him- or herself. Researchers have found that happiness tends to find people who are focused on others. They say helping or giving are proven sources of happiness. Albert Schweitzer described this when he said, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

One of the most powerful forms of Buddhist practice is the way of the bodhisattva. Bodhisattva is a Sanskrit word for a being who is dedicated to awakening and to acting for the benefit of all living beings. Kornfield writes that “the fulfillment of our happiness comes only from serving the welfare of others as well as ourselves. Our highest happiness is connected with the well-being of others.”

S Times_death_joy

Bodhisattvas appear in many different forms: a social worker, a nurse, a caring grandmother, a toll taker on New York’s Triborough Bridge. Or it might just be the person using the locker next to yours at the YMCA. I know it’s possible, because I’m pretty sure that the gray-haired, seventy-something lap swimmer I’ve been chatting with pleasantly over the last three years is one.

Ruth, a soft-spoken, reserved grandmother, has revealed bits of her life only after my gentle prodding as we chat in the locker room. Her eyes fill with tears when she tells me that her husband—the love of her life—died several years ago, and she lost her sister to cancer last fall. One of her children, a special-needs adult, still lives at home and requires full-time care. When she’s not tending to her daughter or working out at the Y, Ruth volunteers at the senior center and helps out at an elementary school.

“You are such a giving person,” I said to her one morning as I toweled off my hair. “I think it’s so great that you do all this volunteering.”

With a sparkle in her gray eyes, she replied, “Ah, but I do it for selfish reasons. You see, I get so much more back than I give.”

As I pondered what she’d said, she added as she zipped up her winter jacket and headed for the exit, “I’ve come to learn that one of the best ways to find happiness is to serve others.”

I think she’s on to something.

Lessons of Imperfection

I’ve been thinking lately about the wisdom of imperfection. My writer friend Nicola Murray graciously shared a wonderful story about the lessons to be gained from imperfection:

In The Unknown Craftsman by Soetsu Yanagi, there is an essay about the tradition of making Japanese tea bowls with deliberate imperfections because it teaches us that we have things to learn. There is a beautiful description of the author visiting a wood-turning studio in Korea, where he noticed big hunks of very wet pine wood sitting around on the floor. He was thinking how those would not get used for turning because, of course, anything made with them would crack as it dried. One of the wood turners came into the studio, grabbed a hunk of the green wood and made a beautiful bowl out of it, misting the entire room with the aroma of the wet, resinous pine as he did so. The author admired the finished product but asked the artisan why he bothered when he knew the bowl would crack, to which the wood-turner replied, “Then I fix the crack.” Later, the author saw the bowl with the crack fixed and said it was even more beautiful than the original product, making him aware that there was much to be gained from imperfection.

It’s said that weavers of Persian rugs sometimes add in small and deliberate imperfections to reflect a belief that only God can attain perfection. The imperfections make each Persian rug special—each is precisely imprecise and has a story of its own, ready to be told.

Perhaps one of the lessons to be gained from imperfection is that we are all precisely imprecise and have a story of our own, just waiting to be told. Through my own experience with studying and writing different forms of memoir, I have come to know this firsthand. As I allow myself to open to those most tender and wounded parts of myself and share the stories and wisdom that emerges, those parts begin to heal and transform. When we share our stories in this openhearted way, something else beautiful and mysterious happens: we touch others in a way that can support them in their own process of opening to their own wisdom and healing.

Wisdom resonates with wisdom. It’s like when you add a log to a fire that is already burning, the new log automatically catches fire as well. It can’t do otherwise.

I hold this in mind when I sit down and face a blank page, often filled with self-doubt and uncertainty. I wonder, How can a story about a painful breakup, my father’s untimely death, or my history with anxiety and panic hold any value or wisdom for anyone, including me? And then someone who has read one of my stories tells me how it’s inspired her and helped her not feel so alone. Or I open an e-mail to learn that a story has been accepted for publication. Or has won an award.

It’s possible to make beautiful art that has meaning and value from something that could be viewed as meaningless, worthless, and flawed. Like a bowl turned from green wood. A carpet woven with a dropped stitch. Or a story written by a perfectly imperfect person.

The Woman I Always Wanted to Be—And It’s Not Charlize Theron

“This is a process, not a product,” the affable sixty-something speaker tells his rapt audience. “Progress, not perfection, is my mantra.”

Sounds like a twelve-step-program meeting, but Dave (not his real name) is actually addressing a bunch of us at a Fat Losers meeting (not its real name). Today’s topic is setting realistic weight-loss goals.

Yeah, I’m down with that. Slow and steady wins the race. A pound or two a week—at that rate, I should be at my goal weight by 2020, but, hey, it’s progress, right?

Perfection is overrated, I tell myself. I look around at all the other Fat Losers in the room and note the variety of body shapes and varying levels of fitness. We’re now writing down our goals for the summer. Mine is about eating healthier, increasing my exercise. Stuff to make me feel better.

And I am already feeling better about myself. I’m taking control, letting go of unrealistic expectations and cultural stereotypes of female perfection. I’m energized, encouraged, hopeful . . .

Then I notice the oversized poster on the wall to my right. A Scandinavian Amazon with a bleached-teeth smile gazes smugly down at me. She is tall, thin, blond, and young. Four out of four things that I am not. Three of four things most of my friends are not. Her name is Angela, and in large capital letters she proclaims: “NOW I’M THE PERSON I ALWAYS WANTED TO BE.”

Whaaa?

Let’s back up a minute here. Dave’s just been telling us to forget about product and perfection, but Angela here has a different story. If I stick with Fat Losers and do what they tell me, I can shed not only my old weight but my old self as well! I can become a whole new person! Maybe they’ll let me be Charlize Theron. My husband would like that.

Twenty minutes later I’m contemplating me in Charlize Theron’s body as I leave the Fat Losers meeting and head to the Pretty and Chunky (not its real name) swimsuit store nearby. I didn’t plan it this way, it just worked out that I would be trying on swimsuits right after standing on a scale and seeing the results of a week’s worth of stress-related bingeing on cheese, chocolate, and pasta. I’ve been dreading this day for months, but my old suit has been repaired and stretched out so many times it’s threatening to disintegrate the next time I in step into the pool.

I discover I’ve had to go up a size in swimsuits.

“This brand runs small,” the petite salesgirl says apologetically. What would she know about plus sizes? My neighbor’s Border collie weighs more than her.

No three-way mirrors in the dressing rooms, which is probably a good idea in a store called Pretty and Chunky. I’m craning my neck, trying to see my backside. Just as well I can’t see the whole thing full on. I wish I could hire someone to try on swimsuits for me. Maybe Charlize Theron. My husband would like that.

I think of Angela, lucky girl, who’s become the person she always wanted to be. I’d settle for just having the ass I used to have.

I decide to buy the smaller suit. I know I’ll be able to fit into it soon enough. After all, it’s about progress, not perfection.

Dave told me so.

Welcome to the Imperfect Buddhist

“I’m practically perfect from head to toe,
If I had a fault it would never dare to show,
I’m so practically perfect in every way.” —Mary Poppins

“If I were a saint—which maybe I want to be, maybe I don’t—I would be like Augustine. He knew there was good in him, and he knew there was some not so good. And he wasn’t gonna give up his earthly pleasures before he was good and ready. Make me good, God, but not yet.” —Nurse Jackie

“Each of us is just this paradoxical mixture of confusion and wisdom; of the ability to be very cruel and the ability to be very kind. We are just such a mixture of things.” —Pema Chödrön

What do Mary Poppins, a drug-addicted TV nurse, and an American Buddhist nun have in common?

You might say, “Absolutely nothing,” but I see a deep interconnection. These three divergent quotes each reflect a piece of a timeless, immutable truth: that to be human is to be imperfect. As Ernest Kurtz writes in The Spirituality of Imperfection: Humans  embody a paradox, for we are “less than the gods, more than the beasts, yet somehow also both.”

In other words, we’re just like the Taoist yin/yang symbol, the circle enclosing black and white. We contain both shadow and light, which combine to make the whole. We might consider that we will never eternally “get it together, get it right.” That to aspire to be “perfect” and cut away all that we deem as “bad” is to deny our very nature. By doing so we can spend a lifetime pushing the wrong rock up the wrong hill; a self-improvement Sisyphus fighting an uphill battle that we can never win.

I know this is true, because I’ve been pushing that rock for decades, and boy, are my arms tired. And I’m finally figuring out that I’ve been using a flawed strategy guaranteed to perpetuate my pain.

I’ve been trying to be perfect—with mixed results. So as of today, June 7—which also happens to be my birthday—I’m done with it. And I’ve created a new name to mark this major transition. I’m calling it my rebirth-day!

In “The Imperfect Buddhist,” I invite you to join me in exploring what it means to fully embrace our human being-ness. With all its contradictions and messiness and paradoxes and loose ends and cellulite and flabby arms. Don’t expect that we’ll actually end up at a specific destination, because on this trip, the journey IS the goal!

I believe there isn’t anything in our experience that can’t help us awaken to our true nature—our basic goodness—which is really what I’m talking about here. So “The Imperfect Buddhist” will draw upon a wide variety of sources in this exploration. Much of my understanding of who we are and what our place is in this world is informed by Buddhist teachings and practices. But I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist. Just as I wouldn’t call myself a Sufi, or a Hindu, or a Jew, or a Christian—although these wisdom traditions and many others have provided invaluable guidance and inspiration along the way. As have poetry and literature and music and movies and twelve-step programs and circles of people just like you and me simply trying to figure it all out one more time.

I confess that I do have one goal in creating “The Imperfect Buddhist.” It’s embodied in my personal mission statement: “My mission is to write and speak with wisdom, heart, and humor to inspire, encourage, and uplift.”

So grab a snack and fasten your seat belt: It’s gonna be a bumpy—and fun—ride!