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I Didn’t Expect To Cry Today September 11, 2012

Filed under: Inspiration,mental health,News,Spirituality — Holly Meyers @ 8:40 pm
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I figured, “Eleven years…I probably won’t cry this time around.”

But here I am, an hour away from teaching a noon corporate class, weeping as if it were 2003.  Wait – weeping as if it were 2003?  But 9/11 happened in 2001.

*  *  *

I am not going to recount every moment of my 9/11 morning.  To summarize – it hit hard.  I did cry.  A lot.  Here in DC, we were in utter chaos.  For me, fear was not a great factor.  I would say I was too shocked to feel much at all.  And my worry for others was through the roof.

Especially for Michael.

Michael Rodriquez was special to me.  He was a New York musician, gifted in the folkloric music of Cuba and the sacred music of Santeria.  When he visited DC, my life would fire up with an energy beyond my own.  After 9/11, he started calling me every afternoon.  He felt sick, he needed to drink more wine, he was paranoid, he was afraid to seek help.  Michael had worked at one of the Wall Street banks; and on that horrible day, instead of running away from Ground Zero, he stood paralyzed, watching people jump to their deaths from the Towers.

On October 1st, 2001, his mother called to say that he was dead.  After a trip to the hospital for a myriad of ailments, Michael had died from heart failure while sleeping.  He was 23 years old.

When I got off the phone, I howled with pain.  When I called my gal friends to tell them what happened, I screamed my tears.  Yes, indeed – I cried.  And then I stopped.

At the viewing that day, I was perfectly composed.  I drove from DC to NY; I showed up for everyone else; I recommended breathing techniques, meditations and Bach Flower Remedies.  I ritualized Michael’s death, gracefully honoring him with chants and prayers.

And then I shut my feelings off.

*  *  *

Today I know this as “spiritual bypass.”  Meaning, instead of healthily processing the loss, I skipped forward to a seemingly spiritual solution.

Over the next seven months after 9/11, 2001:

  • another musician friend would die in a freak accident, days before Christmas;
  • the woman who trained me to take over her job at Discovery en Español would commit suicide in March;
  • my father would encounter his 1st major illness, also in March;
  • and on April 13th, 2002, my mother would die.

And each time, I cried at first, turned the situation into a big “spiritual” ceremony – and then turned off my emotions.

I was well-practiced at this habit!  About a decade (or so) before, in Spring of 1990, I’d hit a very serious physical, emotional and spiritual bottom.  At that time, I was drinking morning, noon and night.  Simply – the conditions and challenges of my life had led me to that pattern.  I should have died.  I wanted to die.  I tried to die.  But I did not die.

In a frustrated fit of resignation (NOT surrender, folks – sheer resignation), I decided that if I had to stick around on this earth, I needed to feel better.  So I would control my drinking.  And my emotions.  And my spirituality.

Over the next 12 years, I: drank less; ate a fairly natural/clean diet; practiced yoga; saw a therapist; tried pretty a variety of spiritual or religious ways of life; associated with people who seemed to feel and act how I wanted to feel and act.  I also: moved around the country, from DC to New Orleans to Austin to Florida to DC to Arizona to DC; moved from group house to apartment to group house to apartment in each city; changed jobs numerous times; broke hearts; got my heart broken; almost go my jaw broken; and so on.

You get the picture.

I remained lost – these efforts were desperate and immature, and my insides were not changing.  By September of 2001, life had become more and more about me being in control.  I had taken the reigns.  Spirituality became me “praying for” (aka demanding) what I wanted.  Difficult or uncomfortable feelings were stuffed.  Although I was not drinking morning, noon and night as in the years before 1990, I was increasingly turning to alcohol and emotional shut-down during tough times.

After 9/11 and Michael’s death, I did not drink.  After Heather’s pre-Christmas death, I did not drink.  Yet.  After New Year’s Eve, I started buying beer to drink at home.  When Barbara killed herself, I had some wine.  When my father became ill, I bought two bottles of wine to share with my sister and polished off most of it.  But when my mom died in April 2002, I did not drink.

My mom died of alcoholism.

Over that summer, I drank very infrequently.  On 9/11, 2002, I planned to go to a sports bar to watch the Yankees game and memorial ceremony.  I would just have dinner.  I would not drink.  I felt it would be dishonorable, given the occasion.  Watching the broadcast, I became emotional.

I ordered a beer and stopped crying.

The next day, I felt remorse – my truest intention was to stay sober.  And at that point, my body was sending me signals that alcohol had taken its toll in those previous years – even when I drank one beer, my pancreas screamed in pain.  I yearned to stop completely, but I could not.  Worst of all, I wanted to change my life.  I wanted to be honorable.  I wanted to be responsible.  I wanted to be stable.  Yet I kept falling into the same unhealthy physical, emotional and spiritual patterns.

*  *  *

On October 22nd, 2002, I had what I hope was my last drink.  I finally surrendered.  I accepted help, and with that help, I have stayed sober nearly 10 years.  With that change came the resolution to not drown or stuff or avoid emotions.

So on 9/11, 2003 – my 1st sober anniversary of the event – I cried.  And cried.  And cried.

I did not drink away the pain.  I did not stuff the feelings.  I began learning how to grieve healthily.  And I started to process that season of losses – from 9/11 and Michael, to my friends’ and mom’s deaths – with the honor and emotion they deserved.  With the humanness and acceptance that I deserved.

*  *  *

Today – 9/11, 2012 – I am weeping as if it were 2003.  I will allow the grief to surface, and soften, and surface, and soften.  I will pray, meditate, practice.  I will honor this process healthily.

And I will not drink.

I dedicate my day, my practice and my heart to the memory of Michael Rodriguez.  If I could have a fraction of the fire, passion, “joie de vivre” and outright silliness that Michael had in his life – and brought to mine – I would be a lucky gal.  I love you, Michael.

In addition, I dedicate my day, practice and heart to all of the loves and losses of my life.  After all –

What is life,
What is love,
What is loss?
One and the same.
Onward.

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

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The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days! December 8, 2011

“Whoever is happy will make others happy too.  He who has courage and faith will never perish in misery.”  – Anne Frank

My whole body is vibrating.

Just now, I lit my 100th stick of “Happy Heart” incense and repeated the words I’ve said each morning since August 28th – “My intention today is to grow toward joy.”  Today the intention felt larger, more expansive than a practiced Sankalpa or resolution.  Today, that statement felt like a responsibility.
Instead of re-hashing my entire journey from August forward, I invite you to check out my “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” and other blogs I wrote along the way.  It’s been quite a trip, and at times a stumble.  Over time, The Project became more than a simple morning ritual.  It motivated more effort than I’ve ever made in my decades of spiritual practice.

I don’t do any of this for myself.  By “any of this” I mean the 100-day rituals, the blogging, the yoga, the recovery work, the healing practices.  Well, OK, yes.  First I do it for myself – so I can transform, strengthen.  But only so I can share experiences with, pass-on resources to, show up for and be of service to others.

*  *  *

“It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness.  For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit.”  – Anonymous

Resentment is ongoing anger or bitterness due to insult or injury.  The etymological root of the word simplifies the meaning even more: a repeated feeling.  Any feeling.  So a resentment could be full of anger or fear, pride or longing.  The fact is, if we are re-feeling something related to a past experience, clearly, we are unable to live in the present.  Our past pains or even successes haunt us.  We are shut off.

I consider myself a happy person.  Someone who leans toward the light.  Generally, I am able to accept life’s ups and downs while maintaining a hopeful and positive attitude.

This summer, after a mugging in June I had a series of PTSD responses that magnified negative stories, limited beliefs and destructive patterns cultivated from what seemed like a lifetime of unresolved trauma.  I was harboring major resentments – against past aggressors, against myself, against the world.  By August, I’d become hopeless.  It was a dark, dark time.

*  *  *

“It is through practicing and living through a series of agreeable and disagreeable situations that we attain full awakening.”  – Suzuki Roshi, author and Zen Master

Over the past 100 days, one of my foundational beliefs was constantly validated: Moving toward joy does not mean escaping pain, avoiding discomfort nor skirting around darkness.  It means greeting that pain, discomfort and darkness with an informed reality instead of habitual despair.  It means digging deep to reach that informed reality, to trudge toward the answers, to sit in the messiness, to look straight at the fears and patterns.  It means surrendering to help and change instead of resigning to the same old despair, depression and rage.

In life there is ease, there is tranquility and there is light…and at times, there is not.  In that very acceptance, I can cultivate happiness.  I can experience joy.  And with strong, committed and consistent effort, the habitual despair can be completely undone.

As Roshi says, it takes “practicing” and “living.”

Burning a stick of incense each morning was a tiny and symbolic gesture.  Although the repeated intention that accompanied that act truly set the wheel in motion, reinforcing a Sankalpa involves much more than words.

Over the past 100 days, there were layers and layers of practices and life.  There was the changing of seasons; there was an Ayurvedic diet for Pitta Pacification; there were increased actions in my recovery program and the huge exhale when reaching nine years clean and sober; there was daily 5:30am Sadhana of prayer, Pranayama and meditation; there were willing visits to medical professionals who specialize in PTSD and related conditions; there was the swallowing of unusual vitamins and supplements; there were specific songs that I listened to and sang until sobbing from liberation; there was soulful abandon during concerts by spiritual songwriters and chanters; there were awkward moments with trusted friends, reunions with old pals and exciting connections with new soul mates; there was immersion in the Occupy movement’s writings and videos in order to challenge my own fears of conflict and solidly reinforce my purpose of peace; there were the Jewish High Holy Days, with their sorrow, atonement, forgiveness and love; there were transformational workshops, retreats and classes with Seane Corn, Max Strom, Amy Barnes, Corrine Champigny and many others; there was the glowing Hindu holiday of Diwali, with its stories of the triumph of light over darkness.

What a trip.  And it was 100% worth it.  Because now, not only have I ceased fighting everything and everyone, I have also come to profoundly accept, appreciate and stop apologizing for my humanness.

“May we live like the lotus, at home in the muddy water.”  – Rachel Meyer, yoga teacher

*  *  *

“May all the sky be pervaded by great bliss.

“If suffering, I bear the suffering of all beings.

“May the ocean of samsara’s suffering dry up.”

My soundtrack for this 100th moment is the traditional Buddhist Offering Chant, quoted above, and sung tenderly by Lama Gyurme in the video below.  As I write, the Happy Heart sends its wafts of rose, rosewood, geranium, cubeb, oakmoss, lavender and patchouli smoke throughout my space.

To me – no matter how much I live and practice through all conditions – it would seem miraculous to reach a bliss like Nirvana or Samadhi or Enlightenment, where I would completely transcend my own suffering, cease carrying and contributing to the suffering of all, and ultimately, experience the end of Samsara – the earthly cycle of birth, decay, death.

What I can grasp, however, is Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s simple take on attaining a “higher” state: “Enlightenment is a very grand word for fundamental happiness.  Your life becomes a path of awakening or a path of becoming enlightened.”

*  *  *

“What is important is not to have a goal but to see if our daily existence has a meaning in itself.”  – J. Krishnamurti, philosopher and author

Note that my daily statement was, “My intention today is to grow toward joy,”  not, “I want to be happy forever.”  The Project reinforced that life is truly One Day At A Time.  Gradual.  Forgiving and honest.  If today I don’t feel joy, I can try again tomorrow.

There is no goal, only intention, reinforced frequently, through a process of openness, willingness, action and growth.

*  *  *

“The spiritual life is not a theory.  We have to live it.”  – Anonymous

Simply said.  The Happy Heart Project does not end here, at the 100-day mark.

Great gratitude to the numerous teachers who appeared along the way, in so many shapes and forms.  Yoga students, yoga teachers, friends, family, strangers, co-workers, ankle-biters, outright attackers.  Road trips, songs, trees, Asana, injuries, deities.

All mirrors, all messengers.

*  *  *

May all beings find the courage and faith to grow through misery and toward joy.  Thank you for sharing the journey.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

*  *  *

*  *  *

THE HAPPY HEART PROJECT.  Under the new moon of Sunday, August 28, 2011 I launched “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” – an effort to document my daily journey away from an annoyingly encroaching emotional darkness and toward the hopeful light of happiness.  For 100 days from 8/28 through 12/5, I woke up, burned a stick of Happy Heart incense and set an intention to grow toward joy.  Nearly each day I posted a “Happy Heart Project” status (and sometimes an accompanying song for that day’s mood) on Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, then saw what happened during the day.  Even though the 100 DAYS are over, it’s not too late to choose one simple heartfelt ritual for your morning, intend to practice it daily, “Like” Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, and let us know how you’re doing from time to time!

 

My Mother is My Guru November 2, 2011

Mom’s been on my mind a lot lately.

And y’know, it makes sense.  I’ve been singing a lot (my mother taught me to sing).  It’s Autumn (October 2nd would have been her 81st birthday).  Thanksgiving is approaching (my family celebrated our last holiday season with Mom 10 years ago).  And I recently celebrated my 9th year clean and sober (my mom died as a result of long-term alcoholism).

I miss her.  I miss her right now.

Nearly a decade after her death, she still taps me on the shoulder at times.  She taps me when I’m playing percussion with bands, chanting devotional prayers at Kirtans, singing Gospel standards at open mics and lighting the Chanukah candles.  She taps me when my yoga instructor asks me to think of my most important life teacher.  She tapped me this morning while I was meditating.  She taps me when I’m pruning plants or arranging flowers.  She taps me when I’m decorating my home.  She taps me when I’m cooking a soup.

There are times when I reach out to tap her, too.  To hear her opinion.  To ask for her embrace.  To thank her for my life.  To apologize for any harm I did to her.  To grieve the pain of her life.  To send her the love she deserves.

I didn’t always love my mom the way I came to love her later in my life…later in her life…and then after she died.

*  *  *

I’m about to tell you some very personal and difficult stories.  Some are smiling and shiny; some are gritty and rough.  All are bittersweet.  I’ve selected these stories because they specifically prove that, indeed, my mother is the greatest Guru ever.  For me.

When I was young I hated my mother for being an alcoholic.  As an adult, I would learn more about the disease of alcoholism and honor the tragedy of her life.  But while growing up, I simply resented how drunk she got.   I was constantly afraid that my friends and the community would see her drunk; and because they frequently saw her, I was frequently embarrassed.  One time I spilled out the drink that she intended to take in the car on our way to Shabbat services – and she slapped me.  It was a gin martini.  To this day, I cannot stomach the smell of gin.

There were times when she came through as a great mother.  She was a hard worker, had full-time jobs, and did not drink during the day.  She truly wanted to show up, and when she could, she did.   But what I understand now is that her efforts to parent were overshadowed by the neglect.  In the end, alcohol always won her attention and became her priority.  Spill it out, and you became a threat.  So I learned to keep a distance.

*  *  *

During my college years, I grew to appreciate my mother.  My attitude shifted after I took my family to see a friend’s concert.  The next day at lunch, my friend said, “It was great to meet your mom.  For the longest time, I thought she’d died before we met.  You always talked about your dad – you never mentioned your mom.”  Whoa.  I had no idea I’d erased her so completely.  And then my friend said, “Y’know, you get a lot from her.”  I was so pissed off!  I argued, “No way, I have nothing in common with her!”  So he stated the obvious, judging by what I had told him in the rare instances of speaking about my mom, and his impression the night before.  She grew up singing; music is her passion; she gravitates toward soul music; she loves talking with other musicians; and, she was so comfortable backstage – it was the most natural place she could be.

That day, I surrendered my resentment and admitted that my mother had been an ally and soul-mate all along.  Clearly, I got a lot from her!  The passion for music, for soulful cultures, for gardening, for cooking, for interior design, for spirituality.  My mother taught me to sing, primarily through chanting the Sh’ma, a Jewish prayer, in harmony.

My mother did so much to inspire and encourage creativity.  Every morning, she’d have her coffee and cigarette while listening to WMAL-AM, when it was a jazz station.  Over breakfast I was exposed to the music that my mom had sung in talent shows and concerts – great vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and more.  Although a blue eyed farm girl from the capitol of country music, my mom gravitated toward jazz and gospel.  In fact, I have her 1948 song book of Negro Spirituals.  This immersion in soulful music influenced me to write my own songs and perform them at my parents’ frequent parties.  Mom enrolled me in voice lessons.  On beach trips, she’d blast the radio and we’d all sing along.  She invited my high school New Wave band to hold a house concert.  When I was a little older, my drummer boyfriend invited me to tour California with his band – Dad said a firm “no” but Mom fought for me.  (I went to Cali.)  And so on.

At the same time, many opportunities were missed.  For example, there was a lot of self-taught musicianship and talent that was never deepened with consistent instruction or plans for ongoing development.  I do regret this and often feel that music education might have been my best choice for college.  Looking back, I don’t blame my mom for any of this, because I am certain she would have guided me in that direction if she could have.  I blame the disease of alcoholism.

*  *  *

As my mom became progressively ill, my love for her grew immensely.  Alcoholism and related troubles continued to take its toll in more serious ways.  In her 60s, Mom had cancer three times.  On the outside, she remained the strong-willed woman who could get through anything.  She continued planting gardens, harvesting herbs, cooking from scratch, building an art studio in her bedroom, doing crafts, listening to music, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin.

But there were points where I witnessed her heartbreaking vulnerability.  With each cancer, my mother never completely healed – more and more complications arose.  She became scared.  I once heard her crying in bed the night before one of her many surgeries.  When she was diagnosed with emphysema, she quit smoking and remarked with self-disgust, “I could have done that a long time ago.”  She would willingly try my yoga and diet suggestions, but was so sick that she’d end up feeling worse.  Toward the end, I remember laying next to her tired body on yet another day that she woke up with a “bug” that left her vomiting and weakened.  I will never forget the terror in her eyes when I urged her to go to the hospital.  Perhaps she knew she was dying and wanted to stay at home as long as possible.

That was Thanksgiving, 10 years ago.  I think the family dinner included Mom, Dad, two of my sisters, three of their kids and me.  That night, in my mom’s art studio, I drew an abstract of the scene.  My mother and father were angels at the heads of the table – Mom’s garden spade and a green vine enveloped us on one side; Dad’s cigar and its smoke on the other.  To me, both the vine and the smoke represented protection.  I sensed it was Mom’s last Thanksgiving.  I was right.

*  *  *

After my mom died, I developed a deep, knowing compassion for her.  Interestingly enough, I got sober six months after her death.  I’d started drinking at age 11, to calm the childhood chaos and hush the deep resentments.  Twenty five years later, as I came to understand the cunning, baffling and powerful disease that nearly killed me, I also came to understand the disease that succeeded in killing my mom.  Listening to other recovering alcoholics’ speak, I heard my mom’s story.  I saw how the disease had destroyed her life and consequently affected mine.  And I loved her even more.

My greatest awakening about my mom’s life came about four years ago.  By complete surprise, I found out that she had a child before meeting my father.  Stories said that she’d been hanging out with musicians in her native Nashville, might have been drinking, might have been raped…and ended up pregnant.  Her parents sent her away, to a “home for women” in DC.  The home arranged the birth and subsequent adoption.  They say that Mom was so angry, she never forgave her parents.  And so I found yet another thing that my mother and I had in common – we both drank to kill life’s pain and drown our resentments.

The biggest difference is: I got lucky and got sober; she did not.  I take that very, very seriously.

*  *  *

So yes, my mother is my Guru.  Throughout all the phases of my relationship with her – dead and alive – she has been my most influential teacher.  She teaches me with the light, and she teaches me from the darkness.  She teaches me through what she did, and what she would/could/did not do.  Her influence drives my passions and my purpose.

I love everything about her.  The singing lessons, the slaps, the strong will, the vulnerability.  She is the ultimate model of the perfectly imperfect human that I strive to be.

It’s taken me a day to write this.  I started when I finished meditating this morning.  I stopped and started and stopped and started again.  I cried my heart out.  There’s so much more than what you’ve read above, so many more experiences and stories, so much more grief and love.

*  *  *

Back in 2009, I went on tour with a folk-pop band and I took along a photo of my mom.  I’ve heard that the picture was taken in DC, at the women’s home, some time after she had the baby. She is beautiful and glamorous; she is too thin and her eyes look cold; she stands tall and her hands fumble with each other self-consciously. So I wanted to take this version of her on this exciting musical journey. Every night before I went to sleep, I lit a candle and thanked my mom.  I now play percussion and sing sacred chants in an all-female Kirtan group.  I’ve noticed that Kirtan leaders and spiritual teachers typically create an altar with a picture of their Guru.  Coming full circle, I can think of no one more perfect to place on my altar than the woman who sang Hebrew prayers with me, every night at bedtime.

Good night, Mom.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.