a taste of happiness

Boragó is a restaurant in Santiago, Chile inspired by the region’s indigenous hunter-gatherers, whose chef is famous for integrating endemic plants of the diverse country into their ever-changing menu. The ingredients are carefully curated from far and wide – coastlines, mountain tops, and orchards – which are crafted into inimitable dishes such as duck aged in beeswax or “cheese” made from vegetables inoculated with mold spores. The restaurant’s own website unassumingly states, “one day we can cut a wild fruit that grows three weeks a year at 3,500 meters and the next, unique mushrooms from a forest.” Although I consider myself a foodie, the idea of taking such painstaking measures in the name of gastronomy seems superfluous, if not ludicrous. And yet, the creation of a once-in-a-lifetime meal for a relatively small population of diners to devour in a few short hours or even minutes is nothing less than artistic, notwithstanding the significant cost. After all, isn’t that the quintessential exemplification of our humanness? Even as we continue to evolve and enjoy the luxuries of our species’ innovations, there is still a sacredness in the animalistic desire to shed blood, sweat, and tears for that fleeting moment of sensorial pleasure. Dare I even call that the recipe for true happiness? 

Recently, I was listening to podcast produced by The Atlantic entitled How to Build a Happy Life, and the host posed a question: when is the last time you remember being really happy? I was surprised by my own dis-ease, both literal and emotional, when I attempted to answer genuinely. Shouldn’t it be automatic? Can’t we all recollect at least one blissful, connected experience from recent memory? I sense that I am not alone in grasping for an honest response – one that is not just about a superficial indulgence, but rather genuine contentment. Maybe the better inquiry is: when was the emotion of happiness cleverly disguised by the more dominant flavor of struggle, garnished with a sprig of suffering? There is so much to be disheartened and downright angry about in this world. Whether we feel loss or disconnection in the wake of the pandemic, sadness of watching a war unfold on another continent, or simply the daily struggle of life’s circumstances, we are reminded at both the macro and the micro level just how transitory and difficult it is to experience authentic happiness.

But what is this notion of happiness, really? Often we delude ourselves into thinking we will realize it upon the achievement of certain socially-defined measures of success: a professional title, the balance in a bank account, an image of the perfect relationship…yet we still feel empty and even depleted upon attaining those accomplishments, particularly in the realization that they do not empower us to control life’s harshest conditions. The Atlantic’s podcast fittingly reinforced my food metaphor in its explanation of happiness as a compilation of three key macronutrients: enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. Paradoxically, these experiences frequently manifest through our most painful moments. Despite the cognitive dissonance that arises in this confession, after much deliberation, I recalled that the last time I remember feeling really happy was the evening following the service in celebration of my mother’s sacred life; I was snowed-in, dancing and singing karaoke with my family and two of my dearest friends. I will never forget my aunt and uncle donning sunglasses, passionately belting out Prince’s Purple Rain. Mom’s crossing to The Other Side, as I choose to interpret death, was and continues to be the most tragic event of my life and one that I have not yet fully integrated. Nevertheless, that night I felt blissfully at home (which I believe she orchestrated magnificently). While I cannot compare foraging for rare ingredients in search of gastronomic accolades to the loss of the most significant person in my life, that experience does allow me to relate on some level to Boragó’s suffering in the name of something extraordinary. Undoubtably, the act of overcoming challenges, whether self-imposed or not, generates a feeling of great satisfaction, if not an even greater sense of priorities and purpose. 

Could it be that that the quest for happiness inherently requires that we traverse the mucky terrain of discomfort for that scarce fruit or fungi? Is everything that we expend so much energy bypassing, denying, and resisting the secret ingredient of life’s most fulfilling entree – the sustenance for our souls? I once heard it explained that every decision we make, whether conscious or subconscious, is driven by a motivation to feel a certain way: namely, happy. Ironically, in the process of seeking happiness, we expend so much effort avoiding feeling bad that all we do is numb ourselves to feeling altogether, which is the ultimate state of separation and isolation. American novelist David Foster Wallace famously delivered a speech entitled “This is Water” to Kenyon College graduates in 2005, and the most impactful of his quotes for me was the following: “How [will you] keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone – day in and day out?” Prior to hearing that message, I was weary of the notion of opening my heart, dare I risk the intensity of emotion that might swallow me whole. And when I did take a small bite of happiness, my guilt stepped in to remind me of my reservation for grief, party of one. How can my despair coexist with my joy as I walk down the street on a beautiful day, loving every plant, animal, and stranger that passes by? And then it dawned on me that without the challenge, life is flavorless. Just like health is not the absence of disease, joy is not the absence of pain; that is actually the true definition of death. In order to taste happiness, we must incorporate one essential ingredient – the collective struggle.

Mom – I know you hated mushrooms, but I’ll take one more order for the table. 

Window Pains

Throughout the last week, I watched the progress on my neighbor’s new window installation from my subterranean storage space-turned home office, which has a conveniently inconspicuous view up into my townhouse community’s shared courtyard. Not only was the process a loud one, but it was surprisingly involved: from sawing out the original windows and sealing the open spaces with plastic, to the meticulous measurement and placement of each customized, double-paned Ferrari of home finishings. And I only saw the outside activity. Suddenly, I felt an urgency to install these high-impact windows of my own. How could I be so exposed – a first-time homeowner living alone in a hurricane hub just blocks from the open ocean? In conversation with that same neighbor just a few days later, I was struck by the subtle irony of it all: the protection we feel by reinforcing the very outlet that is meant to connect us to the outside world is curious indeed.

While I am not diminishing the practical utility of storm-resistant windows in South Florida, I am nonetheless compelled to follow this allegorical train of thought. Without researching their architectural evolution, it doesn’t take a genius to intuit that our homes have windows because fundamentally, we are animals that desire to co-exist with nature. Or more essentially, we’ve figured out that our basic chemistry depends on a minimum daily exposure to vitamin D, and frankly, seeing outdoors just makes us happier. Yet in the course of our own species’ technological and social progression, we logically became more capable and comfortable creating spaces protected from harsh elements, predators, and pests (unless of course you live in the tropics, and personal experience tells me that cockroaches and carpenter ants are still remarkably adept at finding their way inside!). By design, windows connect us to the wild, external environment that we appreciate even more from the security of our controlled backdrops; however, they also serve as a barrier or a type of armor that defend us from the uncomfortable conditions of the outside world. 

Returning to that reflexive moment when I compared my neighbor’s chance of survival in a category 5 hurricane versus my own, it inspired me to consider that maybe our homes are just an extension of our egos. Isn’t part of the human experience to traverse through life in these bodies on an arduous quest to control our inner state, only to realize that is the actual source of all our suffering? We do this by some combination of guarding ourselves from perceived threats beyond the scope of our relatively small personal domains, and actively trying to change everyone and everything else to meet our personal standards of existence. We shield ourselves in a proverbial home and how often do we—do I—really let anyone inside the walls? Our eyes and ears serve as our sensorial windows, yet our default is one of triple-paned resistance to filter out the noise and the unbridled chaos that is our world. While I have not yet installed any elaborate hurricane-proof windows, part of me wonders if all this glass armor is really serving to protect me. As I’ve learned through the most difficult of recent personal circumstances, when the storm comes, it comes with a vengeance. No amount of superficial protection will allow me to escape the inherent and inexorable challenges of being human. While I am enjoying the process of creating a new home that is my sanctuary and brings me a sense of peace, I am keenly aware that I must not believe any false pretenses that I am truly safe. 

In writing this, I recalled a short story by Robert Fisher that I read years ago entitled The Knight In Rusty Armor. The protagonist is a noble gentleman who dedicates his life to helping others and performing good deeds. The knight is also famous for his shining armor, which he loves so much that he never takes it off, even while sleeping. His astute wife is tired of never really “seeing” her husband, so she gives him an ultimatum: either he removes the armor or she leaves with their child. The knight tries to remove the metal suit in order to save his family and much to his dismay, he cannot. The story that ensues is the tale of the knight’s “Path of Truth”, reminding him that his real purpose is to shed the armor. After braving harrowing challenges in three different castles, he stumbles upon a boulder with a powerful inscription: “Though this universe I own, I possess not a thing, for I cannot know the unknown if to the known I cling.” The story concludes with the message that, because the knight had been able to release everything that he thought he knew and to trust the unknown, it set him free. Ultimately, he is able to completely shed his physical and emotional armor. 

It seems like we are all walking around with an invisible wall (or triple-paned windows – real and figurative) to defend ourselves from vulnerability, particularly in the aftermath of a global health crisis that rocked our very foundation of safety and trust in our neighbors. But I’d also assert that there is a slight opening in everyone, a crack in the window to our homes, that we are all secretly yearning to be permeated by friends and strangers alike. And on the other side of the coin, like the knight, we must also forge our own paths to truth, which entails a shedding of the armor we’ve donned over a lifetime of wounds. Personally, my aspiration is that someday I will move beyond the intellectual awareness to the real experience of knowing that there is actually no distinction between the outside and in. It is one fluid space wherein I own no land, no walls, and no windows, but rather I am the guest. Storms will continue to tear down the house, but with a solid foundation, I will rebuild stronger than ever…if only I could eliminate those darn ants. 

To the Moon and Back

To my wise, beautiful, soulful mother – never could I have imagined, much less accepted, that I would be writing this letter to you. As I sit here on the eve of a new year watching snow fall abundantly outside, I feel like I am dreaming; that I will wake up and call or text you like I did every day for as long as I can remember. Certainly, we would have commiserated together over the Colorado cold, but we also would have appreciated the majestic, winter wonderland that undeniably reminds us we are home here this time of year. Even when I lived halfway across the globe, you were always there for me on the other side of the line or just a flight away. You were my source of strength, confidence, and inspiration. You were my everything.

Unfortunately, I am not dreaming, and that requires accepting a new reality wherein your familiar form is gone. That also means that my definition of “everything” must evolve beyond form. No longer can I hold your hand, hear your sweet voice, or feel your butterfly kisses on my cheek. I’ve done so much work over the last few years to understand the impermanence of life – to comprehend that it is part of the deal we make with Source to experience what it is to feel fully. The duality of our existence is both the lock and the key. We do not get to love without hurt, laugh without tears, or live without loss. Still, I cannot entirely embrace this perceived tradeoff.

Not coincidentally, a book came into my life last year that transformed me to the core and naturally, I shared it with you. Immediately I knew that Conversations with God was and would continue to be my Bible. In the book God states that “All human actions are motivated at their deepest level by two emotions: fear or love. In truth there are only two emotions–only two words in the language of the soul…Fear wraps our bodies in clothing, love allows us to stand naked. Fear clings to and clutches all that we have, love gives all that we have away. Fear holds close, love holds dear. Fear grasps, love lets go.” Mom, you were my example of living from a place of love, always. You showed me what it means to step into authenticity, to dare to make the choices that honor your heart’s desire and to speak your truth with the trust that love prevails. You exemplified love as a willingness to let go – and now my true test begins.

Before you transitioned, or perhaps I should say returned to your original home, I felt an urgency for a confirmation of our sign, or how exactly I could expect you to communicate with me in this new reality. I asked you to tell me that fateful October day in the doctor’s office and I asked you once again on Christmas morning, just hours before you passed. I never heard a clear answer, and I trust that was intentional. On one level, you never gave up the fight for your sacred human experience. I am certain of that because you continued to make plans, and to dream of swinging your leg over your motorcycle, riding off into the sunset with your love. And true to form, you also gave my father clear specifications to trade in the tennis bracelet he gave you over twenty years ago for a more modern version – just one day before you departed this material world. Mommy, I am in awe of you.

I also know that you did not reveal our sign because not only would it ruin the surprise, but because choosing just one would be too limiting. Although I rarely admit it, you know how much I love surprises. And in your subtle and eternally astute way, you are reminding me to stay awake. As much as I want this all to be a dream, you are showing me that I have been living so much of my life asleep – afraid to let down my guard and be amazed; fearful to feel what it is to live in my nakedness, my essence, and my truth. I have been so attached to the signs of affirmation that I have not paid attention to those that are right there inside of me, yearning to be heard. You are teaching me, even in your physical absence, to trust. I must trust myself first and foremost, but I must also trust that you, as a force of the Universe, will always be by my side illuminating the path, reminding me that we are forever connected. Signs and wonder will abound.

One of the authors we shared, Marianne Williamson, wrote: “To trust in the force that moves the Universe is faith. Faith isn’t blind, it’s visionary. Faith is believing that the Universe is on our side, and that the Universe knows what it’s doing. Faith is a psychological awareness of an unfolding force for good, constantly at work in all dimensions. Our attempts to direct this force only interferes with it. Our willingness to relax into it allows it to work on our behalf. Without faith, we’re frantically trying to control what it is not in our business to control, and fix what it is not in our power to fix. What we’re trying to control is much better off without us, and what we’re trying to fix can’t be fixed by us anyway. Without faith, we’re wasting time.”

I cannot control the circumstances outside of myself. I cannot control the dreadful disease that took you from us far too soon. But I can commit to trusting in a force far greater than I could ever begin to know on this plane. I can also commit to opening my heart and feeling your energy move through and around me whereby no sign is off limits. You had a plan to spend Christmas with your family this year, which is exactly what you did. Now I must have faith in the grander plan: that all is exactly as it should be. Although I want to fight it, I know it’s futile and once again, duality presides. As our friend Rumi reminds us: “This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor…Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

Mom, one of the many legacies of your life is serving as my guide from beyond, and your light will shine through me for eternity. I love you to the moon and back – and I will meet you there when it’s time.

“May you never become lost in the bland absences.

May the day never burden.

May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your new day with dreams, possibilities, and promises.

May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.

May you go into the night blessed, sheltered, and protected.

May your soul calm, console, and renew you.”

~Anam Cara

unconditional

In his forward to the book Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality by Jesuit priest and spiritual leader Anthony de Mello, the editor shares a story about an eagle’s egg that was (mis)placed in a nest of barnyard hens by an unassuming man. The baby eaglet hatched and grew up with a brood of chicks; as a result, he thought he was one of them his entire life. He clucked, pried insects from the earth and thrashed his wings, only flying a few feet in the air. After many years passed, the old eagle happened to see a bird soaring high in the sky above him. When he asked his fellow chicken who it was, he learned that it was an eagle, “king of the birds.” The chicken declared matter-of-factly, “he belongs in the sky while we belong to the earth.” This simple yet profound tale illustrates the omnipresent power of a conditioned mindset – an acceptance of reality as we are told to believe it, rather than one in which we challenge normative ideology and choose instead to not only question our own mental models, but more importantly recognize our unbounded potential and the innate freedom we have as the creators of our experience. 

Naturally, the conditioning in our formative years establishes a distinct framework through which we view the world. We are raised with a strong predisposition to adopt a mindset from our parents or caretakers, which is heavily influenced by their own rearing. Whether consciously or not, our thoughts, attitudes and actions for the rest of our lives are governed by those markers of reality, as if we are wearing goggles that filter out anything that does not fit our programmed standards. In our humanness, we perpetuate the adaptive conventions that seem to keep us safe within our social and cultural environments, and the cycle continues. We write manuals for our family, friends, partners, and even the stranger driving the car in the next lane as if somebody granted us with the perfect, most “objective” judgement of what should be. We believe that if life looks a certain way, meets our stipulations, then we will be okay. Not only does this lead to conflict among the almost 8 billion humans walking around wearing their own unique pair of goggles, but it predominantly generates resistance, disappointment, anger or some other negative emotion. Ironically, those conditioned views can be so rigid that they keep us trapped in a cell of our own making; we are the jailed and the jailer. If only we were more aware that we ourselves hold the key to our liberation. 

This inquiry continues to confront me through my own life circumstances: whether it be a yearning to fill a void by uncovering my life’s purpose, the desperation I feel that I can’t cure the ruthless disease that is attacking my beloved mother, or the mourning of a relationship that “failed” to endure as I imaged forever after. I am constantly reminded that I have conditioned my happiness on the satisfaction of particular qualifications of my own measure. As easy as it can be to fall prey to the identification with my own drama through the ego lens that is “me”, a glimmer of peace surfaces when I manage to step into the consciousness that is “I” the observer. As de Mello describes in his above-referenced book, “suffering exists in “me”…but the “I” is never threatened.” He goes on to say: “We never feel grief when we lose something that we have allowed to be free, that we have never attempted to possess. Grief is a sign that I made my happiness depend on this thing or person, at least to some extent.”

The author acknowledges that this may sound inhuman, and indeed it does. For all intents and purposes, the idea of accepting illness, injustice, heartbreak, and everything in between feels wrong. But maybe that wrongness is just another emotion on the spectrum of our own making. Although I want to believe that we come from a source of absolute love, I also have to consider the possibility that we produced all the conditions and our associated clinging or resistance so that we may evolve through the experience of life in its rich, full entirety. Even when I cannot understand why I would create a reality in which I or anyone I love faces adversity, I strive to compassionately accept and embrace my human condition: one that is all-encompassing. By nature of living on this relative plane, I have no choice but to receive its full spectrum. On my better days, I relax the reigns and trust that everything is exactly as it’s supposed to be. This doesn’t mean that reality is any different, I am just judging it a little less. In actuality, life rarely conforms to our preconceived expectations, especially when confronted with the difficult and downright tragic parts, yet the grace is found in unconditionally loving ourselves and each other through the process. Only then can our souls soar freely above it all, just like the eagle.

my un-doing

Set an intention but release expectations.

Accept that she will give you what you need, not necessarily what you want. 

This is just some of the sage advice I heard from experienced friends and strangers alike before my recent embarkation on the plant medicine path. More specifically, “she” refers to the sacred ayahuasca, a South American psychoactive brew used predominantly as ceremonial spiritual medicine among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. The word ayahuasca is based in the Quechua language and translates to “vine of the soul” or “vine of the spirits.” Last week, I apprehensively joined the ranks of those daring individuals, heeding the seductive allure of the “Mother,” as she is lovingly called for her feminine energy, in order to explore the depth and range of my psyche.

Someone once said to me that plant medicine finds you, and there is no question in my mind about the validity of that statement. If you had told me even a year ago that I would willingly subject myself to such an inscrutable and potentially distressing experience, I would have laughed smugly with an exaggerated eye roll to boot. For those who are not versed in the common side effects of drinking ayahuasca, some of the most infamous include nausea, vomiting, paranoia, and/or feeling trapped inside one’s own body. Vile taste and discomfort aside, plant medicine as a healthcare modality has existed for thousands of years. Ayahuasca in particular targets the emotional, energetic, and spiritual roots of dis-ease by opening channels of communication to subconscious inner landscapes. Early this year, I felt her subtle call. I yearned to not only challenge my limited perception of the world, but also to dissect my various personas in a quest to understand their nature and service to my present and future self. Once I committed to the excursion, I conducted extensive research on the important considerations of set and setting. I ultimately decided upon an intimate retreat center in Costa Rica, including four ceremonies of the indigenous Peruvian Shipibo healer tradition. * While I spent months considering my intentions for those ceremonies, I would be insincere if I said that I didn’t commence the journey with some expectations as well. Secretly, I hoped for fireworks: a peek at the mystical, a clue about my purpose, a felt sense of unicity, transcendence of time and space…the wish list goes on.

In actuality, I encountered no such obvious beauty or profound ascendance; instead, my sensations ranged from mundane to conspicuously unpleasant to a torturous emotional prison from which, for a brief time, I was unsure I would ever escape. More than once, I questioned my sanity in having chosen to voluntarily put myself through such anguish. True to form, my analytical mind wanted to make logical sense of it all. Surely there must have been a lesson, followed by a sliver of enlightenment? To add physical insult to emotional injury, Mother Ayahuasca reinforced her intent for me loud and clear by literally forcing me to remain in the depths of my miserable solitude. I tried to get up and leave the ceremony space multiple times, but I continuously collapsed to the floor, bound by my uncooperative body long after all my peers had left and retreated to their rooms for the night. Throughout the remaining days in Costa Rica and upon returning home, I contemplated what it all meant. I reacted to my challenge in interpreting a clear message and the lack of a discernible call to action by minimizing the value of drinking the ayahuasca and focusing instead on the beautiful new friendships I forged on the retreat. Not coincidentally, two days after arriving back in Miami while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, I was struck by a conversation with public speaker and author Charles Eisenstein. His words resonated in my brain as if he was speaking directly to me: “You don’t necessarily have to understand what the purpose was for the purpose to have had its effect. And sometimes trying too hard to understand what it was, is an escape from fully receiving the experience.” 

Perhaps, then, my call to action is one of inaction: to allow what has been quietly activated to express itself according to the Universal design. There is nothing to analyze and nothing to do. Intellectually, despite the anticlimax, I know that change is surreptitiously happening in dimensions beyond the perceptible time and space—a notion that is beautifully portrayed in book three of Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch. God depicts a rock as a microcosm of just such an experience; while a rock appears solid and complete, even in the fraction of the moment that we hold it in our awareness, there is incredible movement and speed of the particles that are invisible to the eye. To us, the rock is not becoming a rock, it is just a rock here and now. This message continues later in the book as God says, “That’s the greatest truth. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one you have to “be” except exactly who you are right now. The truth is that there is no journey. You are right now what you are attempting to be. You are right now where you are attempting to go. It is the master who knows this, and thus ends the struggle.” Consistent with the perfect, cyclical nature of all things, the plant medicine journey led me right back home to myself—no doing, just being

*Soltara Healing Center

un-settled

“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” ~Nelson Mandela

How many of us can relate to the subtle, nagging fear that this quote invokes? And if it doesn’t produce any fear, I would wager that at minimum, it inspires some honest introspection. The idea of settling, which in this context essentially means not pursuing our purpose on this plane, is simultaneously disturbing and overwhelming. The first word that comes to mind for me is resignation, or the notion of accepting people or circumstances in my life less ideal than what I truly desire. Yet answering the question of what it is that I really want and assessing the effort involved in journeying that path is no easy undertaking. I believe that for most, it requires an awareness and complete responsibility for the decisions that are creating one’s current circumstances, as well as a compassionate self-forgiveness, humility and the resolve to make an entirely different decision regardless of the physical and emotional cost. 

In contrast, another connotation of settling is one of calming, grounding and/or maturation. The prophetic poet Rumi beautifully wrote, “let the waters settle and you will see the moon and the stars mirrored in your own being.” In other words, it is only in the stillness that we can truly connect with our existence, and thus our true purpose. As someone who has suffered intermittently throughout her life with anxiety, the prospect of a settled soul is both inspirational and aspirational for me. After years of what has felt like constant upheaval in my life – spanning from moving and adapting to multiple countries, to marriage, to divorce, to job loss, to family and friends experiencing disease and untimely death – the prospect of internal peace seems like a dream. By no means do I consider myself exceptional; as humans we are all living our own stories comprised of magic, tragedy and everything in between. Arguably, it follows that the most important journey any of us can undertake throughout it all is one of returning home to our center – the infinite source of calm and stability that will always be our loving support and compass as long as we remember our power within.   

I wonder then, when it comes to living a purposeful life, what lies between the stifled passion that Mandela describes and the peaceful knowing that Rumi portrays? As I contemplate this question in the context of my own experiences, I observe someone who has been attempting to resist the former, while constantly seeking the latter. I’ve deliberately avoided a life of resignation even when the ensuing decisions tested my resolve, which run the gamut from imploding my marriage to endeavoring to preserve my fertility…and that is just in my personal life. In the professional domain, I yearn for new challenges as I instinctively know that I am capable of giving more and in turn, growing more. Nevertheless, the temptation to remain where I am in order to avoid navigating the turbulence of the unknown is a powerful one. In a recent conversation with a friend, I was anguishing about my professional crossroads and seeking confirmation of choosing the “right” career path. A preoccupation about making the wrong choice filled me with doubt; specifically, I worried that changing jobs would distract or even prevent me from finding and fulfilling my true purpose. My friend listened intently and then wisely reminded me that although the path will never be a straight line, it will be the right one because it is the one I am choosing right now. There are infinite possible avenues and stops along the way, but regardless of the direction, we need to pay the toll: passing through the unsettling zone of discomfort in order to transform and ultimately to realize our greatest potential. 

As my friend’s words and encouragement marinate, I also look to nature’s intelligence for reassurance. I consider the element of water a particularly wise one, modeling freedom is in its fluidity. Water innately moves into new, open spaces; it mirrors the environment’s choppiness through the storms, and when the chaos subsides, it returns to a state of stillness, reflecting the surrounding beauty with utmost clarity. Looking back at my initial question, maybe there is not a contradiction or even a duality in these two concepts of settling. In fact, they are exquisitely complimentary. I assert that the opposite of settling as Mandela referenced is truly living. This means pushing the boundaries of what is comfortable and conditioned, asking the difficult questions and then embracing the apprehension that comes with traversing unfamiliar terrain. Instead of passively allowing the status quo to remain as such, we must exercise our agency in this wild, scary, beautiful chaos that is the human condition. I interpret the settling that Rumi observed in the water, then, as a quelling of the anxiety required to make space for the lucidity and courage to truly see and chase our dreams. When I ask myself what I want to see mirrored in my own being when the waters are still, it is undoubtedly someone who seeks passion and purpose despite the discomfort, settling down only long enough hear the voice within guiding me from the calm to weather the next storm. 

ex-files

Lately I have been keenly aware of the collective experience of relationships, ranging from the desire for the perfect, easy or “right” relationships to the inherent obstacles that arise from seeking those ideals. My personal encounters, those of my closest friends and family, as well as the books, films, and podcasts I am consuming consistently portray this fundamental, often dominating theme for our species. I suppose it is natural that I notice what I am attuned to—and it is hard to escape the topic of relationships when they are as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. After all, we live on a relative plane in which our identities are shaped by who we are in relation to our external world, wherein interactions with other people figure quite centrally. In simple terms, I AM relative to what I AM NOT. 

It is no wonder, then, that we tend to make dramatic declarations about the other actors playing in the theater of our lives through our language and actions, not the least of which is via the labels we assign to them. I am particularly fascinated by the term “ex” and the stigma that is commonly attached to it: ex-boyfriend, ex-husband, ex-friend, etc. When I look up the word in the dictionary, it literally means “is without or excluding,” suggesting that I am in absence of a relationship that was once present. More often than not, the social implication of that expression is one of finality, loss and/or brokenness. Even the intonation of “ex” has a harsh vibration to it. For me, it evokes other words with similar undertones like expelled, excommunicated, and excluded.

True to form and certainly not coincidentally, the Universe reflected outwardly what I am contemplating inwardly through a recent encounter with my own ex. Despite having spent significant time processing and integrating the unravelling of that relationship, I momentarily felt like the ghost of exes past came back to haunt me. I recoiled—not so much at the memory of what he did, but at the reminder of who I was with and to him. Having quickly recovered and checked my ego at the door, as I write this, I have a deep sense of peace as I acknowledge the beauty in that interaction. I witnessed my own response and subsequently chose to release the familiar and even habitual feeling of regret it invoked when I thought about that period of my life. Instead, I embrace its role in constructing who I am today. The book Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch powerfully describes the purpose of relationship as a decision about “what part of yourself you’d like to see show up, not what part of another you can capture and hold.” Reading this line revealed to me that throughout the last couple of years, I have held myself hostage to the notion that I was supposed to preserve that relationship. Another “ex” meant failure and loss, but now I see that I didn’t lose anything. Conversely, I gained a greater understanding of my identity, including an awareness of how and when I think, feel and act from a place of love versus a place of fear.  

On my most emotionally mature days, I view relationships as the stage upon which my life unfolds. Objectively, they are the primary domain for my growth and evolution to the extent that I can bear witness to them instead of remaining stuck in my character’s drama. Furthermore, I am learning that I cannot conflate longevity in relationships with success. The present and past is a matter of semantics – time is just another construct through which we relate to our experiences. Although I had to process through an extended period of emotional turmoil when this man became an ex, I see clearly now that a relationship that has changed form is not broken, nor is it final. It is part of the infinite play in which my soul has a starring role. Relationships are the creative force that breathe life into this mortal domain. My heart is happy as I recognize that all of my exes were of my own construction—my ex-pression—in service of revealing and exonerating my spirit. And I dare say, that is ex-traordinary. 

lightning strikes

Amidst the initial lockdown of the pandemic last spring, I spent many evenings perched on my balcony admiring a typical South Florida lightning storm, waiting intently to take the perfect, National Geographic-worthy photo. As soon as I heard a rumble of thunder or detected a flashing light outside my window, I hastily grabbed my phone and told myself I would just give it a few minutes, denying that I had any real vested interest in the outcome. Before long, an hour or two had passed and I had taken upwards of one hundred, mostly unremarkable photos. I even joked with a friend that it was the one instance I recalled exercising any patience in my life. There was something so serene about the scene that it forced me to be truly present in the moment. Tranquility aside, my post-photo shoot evaluation invariably forced me to reckon with the fact that this was a self-imposed game of perfection. I had indeed aspired to capture something extraordinary and when I didn’t score the prize, I was undeniably disappointed. 

Upon reflection, this dynamic is an apt metaphor for my present life. As the pandemic fatigue intensifies and the days start to blur together like a recurrent dream, I feel like I am waiting to seize a flash of lightning. In scientific terms, lightning helps the ground and the atmosphere exchange and balance positive and negative energy. In a similar fashion, I am seeking an energetic discharge from this period of stagnation as I begin to grow restless in anticipation of some dramatic climax. I am waiting for someone or something to propel me out of my monotony and direct me on a new path. One of my friends described it perfectly: lately life is like the instructions on the shampoo bottle, “wash, rinse, and repeat.” I acknowledge my privilege in that I am not preoccupied by health and survival concerns, and I also know that I am not alone in my feelings. While my routine can even feel comforting at times, there is a deep inner yearning for a blaze of inspiration and purpose to shake me out of my stupor.  

On one hand, I honor the individual path that is finding one’s purpose. For a lucky few, clarity comes at a young age. Yet for most of us, it’s a lifelong journey. In all of my rushing to accomplish my definition of success over the last few decades, I can at least acknowledge intellectually that faster is not necessarily better or more fulfilling. There is a beauty in slowing down to savor the moment –like waiting for the flawless shot. I am learning to allow the manifestation of my dreams to synchronize with the right time and place. Conversely, I also realize that I cannot sit and wait for my purpose or life calling to fall out of the sky and knock me upside the head. Eventually, I have to take action, even at the risk of lost time and energy. I was recently reminded of this lesson as I spoke with a friend whom I admire for his passion and seemingly unbridled pursuit of professional gratification. He reinforced that the process entails following different avenues of curiosity without attaching to any one destination. There are no dead ends, only the revelation of new pathways to the extent that we dare to walk a little deeper into the dark forest of the unknown. 

With that perspective in mind, when I recall my quest for the perfect photo, I would be remiss not to recognize the highlight of the season. I was spending the weekend with a friend a few hours from home and our plans to go out for dinner were by all intents and purposes “ruined” by a massive thunderstorm. We resigned ourselves to stay indoors and order takeout when suddenly, after the heavy rain passed, my friend spotted a rainbow out the back window of the house. It was just before dusk and the sky had a muted glow. When we walked out back, our excitement stirred at the sight of a double full rainbow. Immediately, we forgot about our foiled evening plans and simply marveled at the unexpected beauty overhead. I raised my phone to take a picture and, in that moment, lightning struck. If it were not for the “live” photo effect on my phone, I would not believe that it was real. I shrieked with excitement as I captured the most extraordinary bolt of light piercing through the colorful arc.*

As usual, nature leaves clues of a multifaceted explanation for life’s mysteries. Discovering our respective purpose is a journey that indeed involves action. We cannot expect a momentous shift to come from loitering without any effort, or even shooting aimlessly in the dark. Part of that effort does require venturing into the quietude and trusting the inner flame of desire. But it also demands that we go exploring outside; that we get curious, iterate, and be willing to start over without attachment to a particular outcome. Meanwhile, defining or uncovering purpose is so much more enjoyable when we allow ourselves the grace and space for its unfolding; once the right amount of atmospheric pressure builds and we are ready to receive it as a gift, not a prize to be won. Just like my perfect summer photo, my calling will likely materialize when I stop expecting it and enjoy the view today. The divine intelligence of the Universe is unlimited and deserving of reverence – so for now, I choose to appreciate the calm while it lasts until the storm moves in and graces me with its energetic force of awakening.

*Photo posted under “eye candy”

unmasking the love

Throughout my adolescence, I collected masks that covered an entire wall of my bedroom. I do not recall exactly what incited my attraction at the time—perhaps it was their mystique. I just remember the feeling of delight when I occasionally discovered one of those unique ornaments hanging alluringly on the wall of a nondescript store. Today, my visceral response to the mere mention of the word “mask” is one of suffocation in the context of our present-day intimacy with face coverings. The ubiquitous conversation, or debate rather, around the topic of masks in our contemporary dialogue not only jogged the memory of my juvenile fascination, but also drew my attention to their wide-ranging significance.

The origin and function of masks is wildly diverse: they have been associated with everything from warfare to disease prevention to ceremony. One of their most symbolic historical applications in my opinion, was to allow one to become anonymous – with the freedom to be and do as desired. The Venetian masks in particular were frequently worn to allow the rich to mingle with the poor or a bored housewife to enjoy a fling with a mysterious lover. While this may seem like an unusual custom, I would contend that it is not so different from our contemporary realities. Today, we are no stranger to masks; not just because they have been accepted as one of the principal remedies to curb the rampant spread of a virus, but because the majority of us spend our days donning masks of a figurative nature. 

Every day when we prepare to confront the world, not only do we choose our clothing as an expression of how we want society to perceive us, but we also select our emotional and characteristic masks of sorts. Typically, this choice is more subconscious than it is conscious; we are conditioned to define our ego identities based upon familial and cultural norms and expectations. Once we are old enough to speak, we begin to gradually abandon our inherent essence in order to feel a sense of belonging. So often that sensation is artificial, however, because the person who strives to belong on the outside rarely belongs to himself. This has never felt truer for me than it has over the last ten months. Now that I am spending 90% of my life at home with only my neck and head visible to others, I neglect an impressive closet full of clothes and consistently wear a rotation of the same five pairs of sweatpants. The lack of a physical barrier between home and work has also emphasized the drastic difference between how I show up in a professional setting versus a personal one. In a mere click from one video call to the next, I can instantly transform my identity. Although I know this is normal adaptive human behavior, this year’s massive life upheaval has given me an opportunity to observe how much of the person that I present to the world is theater. Author Sue Monk Kidd describes this phenomenon beautifully in her book, When the Heart Waits. She writes, “Throughout our lives we create patterns of living that obscure [our] identity. We heap on the darkness, constructing a variety of false selves. We become adept at playing games, wearing masks as if life were a masquerade party. This can go on for a long while. But eventually the music of the True Self seeks us out.”

I wonder, then, how do I begin the journey back home, to belonging to my true Self with a capital “S”? Sue Monk Kidd says “that’s the sacred intent of life—to move us continuously toward…recovering all that is lost and orphaned within us and restoring the divine image imprinted on our soul.” I certainly know when I am on the opposite path; I assume my mask of perfectionism and lead with my professional accomplishments, or even more superficially, my fashion-forward accessories (the same collection that rarely sees the light of day anymore). Yet that fleeting hit of dopamine I feel when I am recognized or sense acceptance as a result of these material effects quickly fades once I am alone with my thoughts. Intellectually, I know that belonging to myself is fundamentally believing in my own worthiness in the absence of everything that is outside of me. It is the stripping away of layers upon layers of masks that I have accumulated since before I ever hung that first one on my bedroom wall as a kid. The illusion is that those metaphorical masks offer protection from the inherent dangers of engaging with society, which assumes that not only are we separate from everyone and everything else, but that we must reinforce that separateness with additional armor.

I believe the quest, should we choose to embark upon it, is to move beyond the subtle awareness of the existence of a true Self and into the wisdom that derives from regularly exposing her to the world. Thereby we must recognize that instead of defending our personal value through separation, we are actually a reflection of everyone and everything in unity with our surroundings. This requires engaging intimately with that colleague and even the stranger on the street with compassion and empathy, remembering that his challenges and insecurities are just like our own. It also calls for our own forgiveness for everything that we think we are not, for we are already whole. I am not neglecting life’s human challenges, which include real dangers, fears and suffering (and yes, sometimes even a need to wear physical masks). Instead, I am proposing that we integrate those experiences as we embrace the mystery of the unknown future and release the fear of judgement along the way. We must trust the beautiful dance between our embodied and our spiritual selves where ultimately, we lean on love, not masks, to protect us. 

mother’s nature

To say that 2020 has been complicated is the understatement of the year. It seems like every day I hear someone say, “I cannot wait for this year to end,” as if the clock will strike midnight on December 31st and suddenly life will return to some sense of normalcy or at minimum, it will markedly improve. Without a doubt, I have encountered my share of challenges this year. Yet if I am honest, 2019 didn’t win any awards either. In fact, the overall quality of my life throughout the last nine months has actually upgraded in terms of flexibility and space to recognize my authentic priorities. This year has also emphasized various lessons for me, not the least of which is to respect the laws of time and nature. 

Last weekend was (literally) a perfect storm of events that reinforced this perspective. As a rare November hurricane named Eta advanced towards South Florida and I watched the news showing at least 10 different spaghetti models for its potential path, I was mildly aggravated as its wet and windy effects coincided with a visit from my mom. Noting the irony of the name, I caught myself wishing I could have the ETA (or Estimated Time of Arrival) and exact location of the storm’s impact. Paradox aside, I know that having certainty of the storm’s path would not actually have given me control over the outcome, but my ego likes to pretend otherwise. I was lamenting the unfortunate weather for my mom’s short stay and how it would disturb our plans and her travel home, until I realized the aptness of the metaphor. Attempting to resist or negotiate with nature is undeniably futile.

As the wind and the rain intensified outside, it set the stage for the extraordinary gift of presence with my mother as she recounted experiences from her life as a young adult into the present day. I lay curled up on the couch listening intently as she spoke and it brought into stark focus what I admire most about her: like nature, she lives in integrity with her essence. She generally does not allow the “should’s”—the usual suspects behind my own anxious thoughts—to infect her vocabulary or her power of decision, especially in her relationships. She is like a kite that flies according to the wind of her soul. Yet remarkably, she is the also the one holding the other end of the string, grounded at her core with the spirit of a child at play. As she related her stories, it was evident that at times her string was shorter and more restricted; however, she ultimately heeded her intuition when it was time to release the slack that she required to survive and thrive.

In speaking about relationships in particular, like a flash of lightning, I was struck by a meaningful realization. To grieve the possibility of what could be or could have been is to neglect the gift of the present. Although I have not personally been among those counting the minutes until 2021, I have spent more than enough time mourning past circumstances that I have no power to change (just like the weather). My revelation in speaking to my mother is that those seemingly innocuous could’s andshould’s are draining me of my joy today. I have been attached to a past condition and projecting it onto my future as if I might somehow preserve it forever. Perhaps I am no different from the masses – wishing that I could either revert back or fast forward to a “better” time and space. The reality is that our forever afters are not a single, fixed destination. They are fluid like the wind. Some days are calm and light, and others are aggressive and strong enough to destroy entire cities. Nature does not try to maintain itself in one form or another – it just is. So why should we be any different?

Ultimately, I have nothing but gratitude for the profound lessons that this year has offered. Notably, nature’s essence is ephemeral (global pandemic included) and it ebbs and flows in cycles. Nothing is ever static. No two clouds or snowflakes are alike for a reason, just as no two days, weeks or years are ever the same – thankfully. Every challenging circumstance and relationship shape our eternal regeneration, just like a forest fire cultivates new growth. We are all just a combination of nature’s elements with the additional power of consciousness to observe and decide to continue forward or change the track we are traversing. To truly harness that power is to transcend the attachment to the past or future that never was; instead, it is a recognition and respect for our lack of control in the first place. I tip my proverbial hat to the divine forces that gently help me forge the path, and very often re-direct it when I am clinging adamantly to a particular narrative of what “should” be. To quote an unknown author’s poignant suggestion, “let go of the illusion that it could have been any different.”