Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sweet Surrender

Faith consists in believing
when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.

Sweet Surrender © 2010 by Melissa Johnson.

My friend Jimmy got into a bidding war on eBay for the purchase of a human soul.  He didn't go there looking for a soul, but he was charmed by the illusion of buying one when he found it was for sale. “Well, I thought it might be nice to have an extra one in my pocket just in case…” he joked when I teased him about his near purchase.  Ultimately, he missed the cut-off time for entering his final bid and the random soul was sold to the highest bidder for $50.

And to think … the Devil went down to Georgia looking for a soul to steal.  Now you can buy one on eBay from the comfort of your living room--and relatively cheap!  The world is flat, indeed.

All joking aside, Jimmy’s eBay auction really got me thinking: What is the value of a human life and the soul that dwells within?

I contemplated the extraordinary capacity of survivors to rebound from tragedy and loss—like those who lived to tell of the atrocities of Hitler’s Germany; children rescued from brothels after being sold into slavery by their families; ordinary people beating the odds of cancer or other life-threatening illnesses; rising from the ashes of violent crimes, disfiguring accidents or financial disaster—and I wondered, what allows these people to surrender with grace to their crushing circumstances?

Sure there are stories of human survival aided not so much by a spiritual belief system but by a strong will to live, rising up from somewhere deep within their DNA—fight or flight. But more often than not, the common thread running through these stories of survival can be traced to a fundamental faith in something far greater than the individual even when the events of their lives made no sense; even when it seemed that they had been forgotten.

When things run amuck in our lives,
without a spiritual root,
what do we hold on to?
What do we surrender to?
How do we hope for something better?
Where do we put our faith?

Consider these equally tragic examples with very different outcomes.

Rwanda in the 90s was a dark place. Tensions ran high as the two main political groups—the Tutsis and the Hutus—were pitted against each other in much the same way that Hitler seized political control of Germany, turning Nazis against Jews. As it was in the 90s, if you had the great misfortune of being born into a family of Tutsis, regardless of your independent beliefs, you were a target for political genocide.

Imaculee Illibigiza was one of the few Tutsi women who survived. On the run, she was taken in by a Hutu minister and hidden from her would-be killers, while her parents and brothers were slaughtered along with a million others.

Her refuge was a tiny bathroom measuring 3 x 4 feet, hidden behind an armoire in the minister’s bedroom; she shared this space with six other women for more than 90 days as they waited and prayed for their rescue. They couldn’t speak out loud or make any noise for fear of being heard. They were instructed to flush the toilet only when someone was using the adjoining bathroom. Believing that the minister was hiding the enemy, Hutu soldiers repeatedly raided his home in search of more Tutsis to kill. Yet they never found the tiny bathroom concealing these women.

While in hiding, Imaculee prayed and meditated for hours each day. In her state of exhaustion and hunger, she saw a vision of herself working for the U.N.; she believed it was a vision from God. And she knew that she would have to learn to speak English so that she could communicate with the other U.N. workers. Trusting her vision in spite of the circumstances surrounding her, she convinced the Hutu minister to bring her a French-English dictionary and some other English-language books. French was her second language; but there, in that tiny bathroom, while hiding from vicious killers, she taught herself to read and speak English without ever saying a word out loud and with no guarantee that she would even make it out alive.

In her memoir, Left to Tell, Imaculee recounts her long and painful ordeal. What strikes me most about her story was her path of sweet surrender. She didn’t panic or freak out. She accepted the circumstances of that tiny little bathroom as being temporary, while never losing faith in God and what she knew to be true despite outward appearances. She believed with all of her heart that there had to be a reason for her survival--why she was the one left to tell this horrific story--and she was right.

Not long after her release from the refugee camps where she stayed after her confinement in the minister’s bathroom, she was offered work with the U.N., helping to rebuild Rwanda and using her English-language skills in the process. And while grieving the loss of her family, she met the man who later became her husband and loved her through her pain.

But what makes one person surrender to life
and another surrender to death?

In September of 2008, in the throes of financial disaster, Kirk Stephensen, a 47 year-old husband and father of one, and the chief operating officer of a private equity house, stepped onto the tracks at a rail station west of London. He was struck by a train and killed instantly. His death was ruled suicide.

Later that same year, in New York City, just two days before Christmas, Frenchman Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet slashed both of his wrists—found dead at his desk next to a bottle of pills—after losing $1.4 billion of his own money (and money belonging to his family and clients) that he had invested with Bernie Madoff, making him one of the biggest losers in Madoff’s fraud. Having tried unsuccessfully to recover the money, his brother described him as “totally ruined.”

Then at the beginning of 2009, German billionaire Adolf Merckle threw himself in front of a moving train, taking his own life and leaving behind his wife and four children. His spirit broken by helplessness and fears of financial loss and devastation, Merckle’s suicide is yet another casualty of our global economic crisis.

As I watched these events unfold in the news, I felt sick. What is wrong with a society that supports a mindset where an individual’s worth is measured by their bank balance rather than their acts of kindness, or the kind of parent, friend, spouse, lover, boss, or brother they are?  Where financial loss leaves people not just devoid of cash, but bankrupt of all faith in the ability to recover and create something better for their lives?

In his compelling book, Creating a World that Works for All, Sharif Abdullah suggests spiritual starvation as the root issue. He writes:
“Lest you believe that spiritual starvation is the by-product of race and poverty, let me present a nightmare about the children of affluence. From 1992 to 1994, I was on the core faculty of the Oregon Governor’s School for Citizen Leadership (OGS)...The students were predominately white and middle-class.
"One of the exercises we would conduct with them was 'Stand Up If . . .' On a purely voluntary basis, participants were asked to stand up if certain statements were true of them. Among the items was 'Stand up if you have either attempted or seriously contemplated suicide.'
"Consistently, 60 percent of the students would stand up. They wanted to kill themselves. Why would these mostly middle-class kids attempt or consider suicide? As children of material affluence, they are told they have everything this society can provide. But they are still hungry. So they incorrectly surmise that something must be terribly wrong with them. Or they choose to leave a society that seems to have nothing else to offer... They want connection and instead get materiality. They want meaning and instead get a life devoid of cultural and spiritual richness, a life ripped free of context—historical, social, spiritual, communal… America’s middle-class children face spiritual starvation on a mass scale.”
It's not just our children who are starving.

So maybe we're not ready to sell our souls on eBay or throw ourselves in front of a fast moving train, but at some point in our lives—probably more than once—we will face some form of hardship and intense life challenge. And while I am not suggesting a course of pounding people over the head with our religion, I do believe there is a quiet, gentle way of influencing others by looking first within and shoring-up our own faith.  After all, believing in a higher power and actually surrendering to it are entirely different things.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Opportunities surround us everyday to practice faith and surrender in our lives, especially with the small stuff, which prepares us for the greater challenges.  And perhaps in so doing, we will send a calming, healing energy into the world, like ripples in a pond.

Here are some ideas to start:

1. When faced with a challenge, set-back or great difficulty, STOP SPINNING. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself of at least one time in your life where you have overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle or survived a tragedy. Consider the source of your strength and how you made it through your ordeal. Follow that thought with a memory of a good time that came later. Look for the lesson.  Remember, you are strong; you've already worked through many challenges in your life. In every instance you have a choice in how you react to the problem.

2. Stay calm when possible and ground yourself. Seek sound, practical advice before making any hasty decisions. Get clear about what you need to do; stay alert and aware of all that is happening around you. Remember that love engages; fear reacts.

3. Connect with the comforting rhythm of a routine; yes, even in the midst of difficulty. Think about Imaculee in that tiny little bathroom with 6 other Tutsi women for more than 90 days. Even though she was hiding for her life, she still devoted herself to prayer, meditation and studying her French-English translations rather than surrendering to the fearful mind. Especially in difficult times, routine can bring peace and help us feel as if we have some command of our life. Eat nutritious meals whenever possible, take care of your hair and skin, exercise, sleep, pray, meditate, read books that inspire, and believe in good times to come.

4. Meditate on the image of a lion; contemplate his strength as you connect with your own spiritual strength—life-giving and eternal—radiating out from your heart like the energy of the sun itself.

5.  Be gentle with yourself.  As the saying goes, Everything will be okay in the end.  If it's not okay, it's not the end. (Unknown)

And as you move through the world, be ever mindful of the true value of Life and the precious liquid of your soul:  PRICELESS. . .

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Alchemy of Love

All changes, even the most longed for,
have their melancholy;
for what we leave behind is part of ourselves;
we must die to one life before we can enter into another.
~Anatole France

Awakening to the Dream. © 2009 by Melissa Johnson.

Consider a snake molting her skin. She’s already produced new skin; it’s under the old stuff, but she’s got to get rid of it before she can get on with the business of being a snake in new skin. Still, the old stuff is holding her back from slithering around in all her snake glory. So she finds a rock or other hard surface and beats her head against it until she can break the skin, tearing it just enough to get some rollback action going; then she rubs and rubs and rubs against that rock until the old skin completely peels off, turning inside out.  In this she finds her freedom.

Transformation is serious business. When things aren’t working for us or we’ve outgrown our skin—when we hear the mysterious call to step into the unknown—we’re challenged to trade all that we are for what we might become. Yet in our restricted state, sometimes we can’t get the depth and breadth of vision to see where we're going.  With little more than faith in the process of Life, we’re urged to surrender even as we stand burning in the fire of change.  And that can be painful, like beating your head against a rock.

Change is the law of life.
And those who look only to the past or the present
are certain to miss the future.
~John F. Kennedy

It has been said that the vast majority of what we are is impossible to see or touch, and that our willingness to transform—to move beyond our FORM into something greater—is the key to having a quality life. There’s no question that we’ll experience change, for it is the only part of life that's certain. But whether we relax into our change and use our energy to help shape the outcome of our path, or fight it every step of the way, well, therein lies the choice. 

Perhaps that's why they say:
Struggle is sometimes necessary but always optional.

As for the snake, she simply does what’s in her nature to do; she follows the call of her Creator—from somewhere deep within her DNA—and sheds that skin, moving through change without resistance. Can you imagine a snake refusing to molt?  “No, I don’t want to shed my skin. I don’t care if it’s dry and cracked and restricting my movement. I don’t care if it chokes the life out of me. You can’t make me shed!”  Absurd?  You bet.

Yet as humans, many of us resist every step of the way. We become so attached to our bodies, possessions and ideas about the way things should be—so connected to our wounds, our anger, our fear—that we cling to what we know instead of shedding our metaphorical skin.  And in so doing, we deprive ourselves and the world of all that we could become.

Nelson Mandela came to a similar conclusion. During his 27 years in prison—locked up for his activism against the unjust laws of apartheid—he had a lot of time to contemplate his life and the many battles he fought to secure basic human rights for his people.  He read the biographies of those he admired, the people who had done the most for humanity, and he discovered that their success came down to a basic mindset—how a person handles hardship and disaster.  Does it transform or destroy?
Mandela said that his jailers had taken the best years of his life; that he didn’t get to see his children grow up. They had abused him mentally and physically, and they destroyed his marriage. But despite this, Mandela would not let himself live in anger, because he would not let them take his mind and heart… Mandela insists that if you want to achieve your goals in life, you cannot afford to engage in anger and you cannot waste your life fighting with the enemy. You rather want to create the conditions in which you can move everybody toward your goals. Mandela did this in 1995 when he gave his support to the predominately white Rugby team—a potent symbol of the former apartheid regime—engineering a massive shift in white public opinion.  [Nelson Mandela, A Life in Photographs, text by John D. Battersby.]
Like Mandela, I find that the greatest change agents are alchemists of love.  It doesn’t take an extraordinary person to do this; it only takes an ordinary person committed to positive change, doing unique and  extraordinary things in the face of adversity.

Ultimately, I believe that our ability to transmute the poisons of our negative emotions and life experiences into higher states of awareness is the process through which we reach wholeness; this is our path to freedom.  Remember the Law of Energy—it can neither be created nor destroyed, it simply changes form.  What kind of alchemist are you?   

As you move through intense periods of growth and change, ask yourself:

1.  What are the lessons and gifts of my challenge?

2.  Am I fighting myself and others? How can I relax my resistance to this process?

3.  What is my best path forward?  How can I maintain inner peace through this transition?

4.  Am I operating from love or fear?  Consider:

Where love creates, fear destroys.

Where love empowers, fear oppresses.

Where love expands, fear restricts.

Where love inspires, fear coerces.

Where love sees opportunity, fear sees loss and entitlement.

Where love seeks to understand, fear demands to be understood.

Where love says "How may I serve?"
Fear says, "What have you done for me lately?"

Whatever the changes, connect with the quiet wisdom of your heart; for there in the stillness is the way.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sweet Love, Say...

Any human life situation is like
the momentary position of a kaleidoscope;
and the group of souls within that situation
are like the bits of brightly colored glass
which form an interesting pattern of relationship.
Then the kaleidoscope is shaken . . .
and with this flick of the wrist
there comes into being a new design,
a new combination of elements.
And so on, again and again,
time after time, always different . . .
always it is significant, and always
there is a dynamic and purposeful intention.
~Gina Cerminara, PhD
Many Lives, Many Loves

Naked. © 2007 by Melissa Johnson.
I’ve always been a lover. My first encounter came early. I was four years old and attending the Happy Hours Day Care Center when I met little Jimmy Patterson, a brown-eyed, brown-haired fellow with the biggest, sweetest smile and a knack for stealing kisses on the playground—often in exchange for use of his tricycle at recess.

I remember everything about that day, from the little blue dress I wore with matching lace socks and white sandals, to the excitement I felt as I let him kiss me on the playground. And later, when my tricycle sped out of control down the asphalt driveway and I landed in a heap of skinned knees, bloody toes and torn petticoats, he was there holding my hand as our teacher wiped away the blood and tears.

The next day, he placed four pastel-colored chocolates in my locker with a note that said, “I love you.” And though he didn’t sign his name to the gift, I knew it was from him. I was so excited! I went home that night and announced to my parents that I would one day marry Jimmy Patterson.

Then I met Christian, this cute little rug-rat who lived next door. We spent every free minute together—hanging from trees, riding our bikes and generally running round the neighborhood as a curious pair.

That fall, as a contestant in the Little Miss Pageant, I was interviewed by a local television station and when asked if there was anyone back home I wanted to say hello to, I raised my hand in a flirty wave and cooed, “Hi Christian . . . I love you!” I wanted the whole world to know.

By the time I reached the second grade, Christian was but a fading memory as Andy became my present. There was something about that boy—he made me weak in the knees—the way he smiled at me; the way he beat up Charlie Preston for writing on my light blue jacket with a black magic marker; the way he stood close to me in the lunch line and sometimes played with my hair from his desk behind me. He was my greatest champion, my best friend and my first real proposal of love.

Imagine my delight and surprise when Andy placed a lovely diamond ring on my finger at lunch one day—a ring that he had taken from the kitchen counter while his mother washed the breakfast dishes—and asked me to be his girlfriend. No one was more surprised than my mother, especially when I showed her the ring that night at dinner—secured to my finger with masking tape. And you can be sure that no one has ever experienced such heartbreak—oh the agony!—as what I endured when forced to give back the ring. 

Though it’s been more than 30 years since my first brush with romantic love, I’ve never forgotten that easy feeling. And while I didn’t actually marry any of my young suitors, with nostalgia I’ve carried their simple childhood love with me through life.

Love should be that easy, I’ve mused over the years frustrated with what more often seemed complicated than simple and easy.  Isn't it?  Yet how can it be easy, when Life demands so much more of us?

You’ve got to have something to eat
and a little love in your life
before you can hold still
for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave.
~Billie Holliday

Sure, we start out young and innocent enough, with our hearts and eyes wide open. Some of us have wonderful childhoods filled with loving memories. Others begin life with incredible challenges—violence, betrayal, abuse—that would harden the hearts of the greatest lovers among us. But no matter where we start, or the obstacles we face, we share at least one common denominator with the rest of humanity: We are at all times in relationship with everyone and everything around us.

Let’s face it, relationships are an integral part of our human experience, and I’m not just talking about the romantic kind. As we move through life, we engage in relationship at every turn: Lovers, friends, families, co-workers, our pets, nature—the world at large—all take part in this dynamic exchange. And so our challenge becomes one of moving through unique, yet similar, journeys of self-discovery and human understanding. In time, we learn that our relationships won’t save us from ourselves. Like babies, we must learn to self-soothe, making our own happiness rather than seeking it solely through our connections with others.

In this we’re presented with amazing opportunities to develop and nurture our most important relationship—the one we have with our Self. Sometimes we get it. Other times, the only thing we get is in our own way.

Consider this mind-body curiosity:
Our relationships exist primarily in our heads!
Sure, there are moments of physical connection
that we share with others,
but our perceptions, thoughts and feelings
about our experiences
take place on the inside.

Just so, love fuels our persistence.  And if we are brave—opening our hearts to the lessons behind our struggles—we learn some things. We learn that when we ignore our truth, we suffer. When we’re out of balance, we suffer. When we chase and grasp and cling so tightly, we suffer. When carelessly we give ourselves away, we suffer. When our thoughts control us like an angry master, we suffer. When we view life as a burden—playing the victim by giving away our choice—we suffer. When we resist the purpose and timing of our lives, or fight the changes that want to take us to the next level of ourselves, we suffer.

Then with our experience comes wisdom—and with wisdom, great responsibility. Eventually we get tired of the drama. We wake up. We understand that while our hearts may have broken, we’re not. We start making better choices—loving ourselves more; taking responsibility for our “stuff”—as we begin to see how often we have perpetuated our own misfortune by ignoring this simple truth:

What we do, how and with whom we do it,
will bring a definite energy and quality to our
experience, for better or for worse;
which begs the question—
are we living from love or fear?

When it comes to love, there’s always a risk—that we’ll get hurt, that we’ll be rejected, that our best friend or family member will disappoint us, that our beloved will leave us behind. But the only way that we'll ever fully open our hearts to the beauty of Life is by loving. It’s the energy that made us and, I believe, the only thing of value that we have to give.

This is the law of love.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Waiting. . .

Heroes take journeys,
confront dragons,
and discover the treasure of their true selves.
~Carol Lynn Pearson

Dragons of Destiny © 2009 by Melissa Johnson.

Several years ago, at the Art of Music Gallery in Vegas, I saw a charcoal sketch created by rocker Grace Slick. It depicted a nude woman from behind, crouched low with her head sort of tucked to one side in a position befitting the artwork’s simple title, “Waiting.” I stood before it mesmerized.

How often had I felt at the mercy of something outside of myself, waiting ... for the next great idea … waiting for the right relationship to arrive … waiting to connect with my true life purpose … waiting for my big financial break … waiting for this person or that organization to recognize my value and worth … waiting for the day when all the pieces of my life would come together in a cohesive, meaningful way that would finally move me from the waiting list to actually living the life that I had been waiting for.

We’ve all done it to greater or lesser degrees. The offices of psychotherapists are filled with people who can’t quit doing it—this inclination to look to the future and dwell on the past. It’s maddening, and quite possibly our greatest obstacle to finding true happiness and peace of mind. And while counting down the hours, days, weeks and months are human illusions of a quantifiable future, in the final analysis we must ask ourselves: What are we waiting for?

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery;
No one but you can free your mind.
~Bob Marley

Maybe we enjoy a delicious meal with friends or family and, while eating, we’re already talking about what we’re going to eat at our next meal. Or, while gathered with family for Christmas, our discussion turns to how we’ll celebrate the holiday next year—a whole year away. Maybe we’re on a date with someone and we’re wondering about the future of the relationship—where will it go? Or we’re on a fabulous vacation but unable to relax, consumed with a general uneasiness and guilted by all we’ve left behind. Maybe we’ve taken a step in the direction of our dreams, yet the joy of positive action is overshadowed by a million little details that we’ve yet to address or our fear of failure. Why can’t we just enjoy the delicious chocolate mousse with raspberry drizzle?

I’ve asked myself a thousand times, how can we be expected to stay grounded in our experience moment by moment when filled with dreams and desires that require some measure of forward thought, planning, vision, movement, and, yes, waiting, to make them real? Anyone who has pursued higher education, started a business, built a house, had a baby, or lived their dreams with any success will tell you that it doesn’t just happen by waking up in the morning and wishing it so. It takes action, commitment and patience, while the crop ripens or the idea matures.

Consider this: The Hopi Indians view the world as either being manifest now, in the present moment, or in the process of manifesting from the unseen world of Spirit. Their word for this is “tunatyava,” meaning comes true being hoped for. The word contains no verb tenses to indicate past, present or future—everything simply is, although at different stages of being. What is thought or felt in the heart is silently communicated to the Spirit world from which everything manifests. It’s all one continuous cycle of creation. We could learn a few things from the Hopis.

The masterpiece doesn’t create itself;
it must be guided by the artist’s hand.

Perhaps the key lies not in eliminating our forward thought and past reflection all together, but in learning how to constructively work with our thoughts, for we are not our minds--they are great servants when we direct their course but terrible masters when they get on top of us.

Remember, if we spend our time in an anxious state—stuck in the past or obsessing about the future, doing battle with the dragons of worry, guilt, doubt and fear—we may not be free to enjoy the very special and lovely things about this moment. For the only creative moment we ever really have is right now.

Ask yourself:

1.  How do I spend my meantime? Do I fill the time battling dragons or do I focus with faith on the gifts of my time lapse? (Remember, it takes just as much energy to worry or feel guilty as it does to do something constructive, yet each action produces very different results.)

2.  What can I do today to honor forward movement while staying present in my current experience?

3.  Is there a person or group who can benefit now from the gifts and talents I bring to the world, instead of waiting for some future moment to be all that I am?

4.  What can I do to refocus on the present when I find myself doing battle with the dragons of my mind?

5.  What will be the masterpiece of my life?

By Melissa Johnson