breathe in, breathe out

 

Today is this rare occasion when I find myself home alone. It’s a scorcher of a day! Still, I decide to sit outside, a stack of books next to me on the table, phone put away, a glass of iced coffee. I pick up the first book, Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh. I haven’t read this in a while and given how I’ve been feeling lately, I need the reminder. First chapter … Breathe! You Are Alive and within the first few pages the reminder for Conscious Breathing.

Breathe In, Breathe Out, Breathe In, Breathe Out, Breathe In, Breathe Out!

“Recognize your in-breath as an in-breath and your out-breath as an out-breath. This technique can help you keep your mind on your breath. As you practice, your breath will become peaceful and gentle, and your mind and body will also become peaceful and gentle. This is not a difficult exercise. In just a few minutes you can realize the fruit of meditation.” ~ Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hahn

I begin to practice and soon I become very still. My senses open up to the world around me. I can hear the light breeze, the leaves flattering and a myriad birds chatting away. A motorcycle revving up far away, the sound of a passing car, the indistinct voices of people next door. The sound of my breath and the dog panting next to me. I offer her some water.

There are bees humming, ants hurrying along, a hummingbird visits the salvia.

I feel the heat on my skin, and I become aware of my ever present thoughts, crashing through my mind, violating every speed limit known to man. I become aware of the constant busyness in my mind and my body.

Do I ever stop thinking about what I need to do next? I wonder. It seems there’s an ongoing to-do list clicking away, at all times. My mind is jumping from one thing to the next and its speed is affecting my breathing. My body following suit is in constant motion, up and down, up and down, always something demanding my attention, always something to do.

Breathe In, Breathe Out!

How did it come to this? Have I always been this way?  Have I been conditioned, was I born this way, or both?

There’s sadness bubbling up. I stay with it and watch it turn into happiness. I am alive! This day is brimming with life. Everything is breathing with me. I sit, watching everything coming and going, breathing in, breathing out.

Eventually, it gets too hot and I need to get up, drink some water. I decide to write about this moment, mostly for me, because I want to remember. Why is it so easy to forget that what I need the most is time to myself? I need this time when all I do is breathe in, breathe out and watch the world breathe with me.

Today is a good day. I sat with myself and got quiet. Eventually, the house will fill up again, life happens every moment and I hope I can take this feeling with me into tomorrow.

As Thay writes, “Just breathing and smiling can make us very happy, because when we breathe consciously we recover ourselves completely and encounter life in the present moment.”

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fluent

FLUENT

I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.

~ John O’Donohue from Conamara Blues

That’s my life right there, in seventeen glorious words, strung together the John O’Donohue way.

The image of the river, flowing, contained by its banks that may or may not hold, carrying on, receiving, reflecting, flooding and even drying up at times, being an integral part of an ever changing landscape, isn’t that right there how we live our lives?

When it comes to it, this lifetime has been flowing from one surprise to the next with barely enough time to catch my breath in between.

Today is a special day, a milestone anniversary kind of day. I find myself looking back and reflecting on how I arrived to this very moment.

I don’t remember every single detail and happening. Memories are playful things. Some are stubborn and refuse to give up the space they occupy. Others are gliding through and occasionally stop by to say hello. And, there are memories that, like chameleons, adjust and evolve as time passes. They show me that how I view a past event really depends on who I am in this moment and how far I’ve come in my personal evolution. What looked real and even painful thirty years ago is softened by life experience and an altered point of view thirty years later.

Today’s anniversary is a solid life event, the kind that changes one’s trajectory yet, for as solid as this event is, there’s nothing predictable about the way it has unfolded.  It’s no wonder that when I came across John O’Donohue’s poem, it took my breath away.

What’s next, I wonder. What kind of surprise awaits around the bend?

I’m curious, what feelings and thoughts does this poem invoke for you?

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waiting to be inspired

It’s been four years, ten months, and six days since my last entry. I could ask, ‘Where did time go?” but there’s no need to. I know exactly where time went and what happened and I deeply feel the effects of the events that transpired during this time.

There were profound losses; first my father, mother and twin sister, then my mentor and, most recently, my childhood friend.

There were milestones; the girls leaving for college and Neal deciding when to retire. I found myself unable to do anything other than chop wood, carry water … good old Van the man has nothing on me. I suspended my coaching practice and got a part-time job. I needed a break. Badly.

The girls have officially entered their senior year in college and they are pretty much in control of their lives. Neal is two years away from retirement and I catch myself thinking and dreaming about all sorts of things.

I’m reflecting on the ways these last five years have altered me. There are days when I’m not sure of who I am.  Often, I have this certainty that I’m on my way to becoming the person I couldn’t even dream of being  ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Some of you can resonate with this, I’m sure.

Once again, I’m faced with a whole range of possibilities that can only be available to me at this stage of my life. The choices I’m about to entertain would never have appeared while wearing my “old pair of shoes” or the various hats I’ve been donning these past thirty years.

My role and priorities have changed. I’m not focused on adjusting to a new country and culture or to my role as wife and mother. I’m not in corporate anymore nor am I the fledgling entrepreneur trying to figure out how to succeed in an ever changing business landscape.

People have come and gone from my life. Each of them left a mark. I see me more clearly these days. The dark, the light and in between, my illusions, my doubts, the stories I’ve been part of. I miss writing. I miss doing the things I loved before the marathon of goodbyes began. I know I can’t go back in time but I can do what I can, where I stand today.

So, here we are, four years, ten months, and six days later, I’m sitting down to write again. Where am I going with this? I’m not sure but I don’t need to know today.

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life lessons from muir woods

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In July, our girls were off to Europe for two weeks to visit their best friends so, Neal and I, decided to visit California. It’s been a long time dream to visit San Fransisco and Muir Woods. After three days in San Fransisco, we headed out to Muir Woods and Napa Valley.

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I knew Muir Woods was going to be a magical and sacred place to be in. What I didn’t expect was the deep silence and stillness that descended upon us as we entered the forest. I don’t think I can find the words to communicate what it feels like to walk among 1000 year old trees that can be as tall as 350ft. Humbled doesn’t begin to describe it.

As we began our hike, we stumbled upon a small group of people listening to a park ranger explaining about the redwoods. We stopped to listen and that’s when I learned about the life secrets that have allowed redwoods to live up to 2000 years.

  • A large redwood tree needs 500 gallons of water each day. Sounds like a lot? Well, it is and the trees get their water from the rain and fog which is prevalent in the area.
  • The root system of the redwood tree is surprisingly shallow – no deeper than 6-12 feet – but the major roots can typically spread 50 to 80 feet. One of the ways the trees are able to remain upright is by growing close together with other redwood trees and interlocking root systems.
  • Their bark which can be 6-12 inches thick contains tannin which provides protection against fire, insects, fungus, and diseases. There is no insect that can kill a redwood.
  • One of the keys to the survival of the redwood is its regenerative abilities. When a redwood is damaged or injured, it develops a lumpy outgrowth at its base. Saplings may sprout from these burls.
  • Fallen redwood logs serve as nurseries for the growth of new trees.
  • Most of the height of a redwood tree is gained during the first 100 years. The mature redwoods tend to lose their lower limbs. This creates a canopy which is characteristic of the redwood forest. These canopies provide support for a variety of creatures and prevent loss of moisture.

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The more I listened the more I could see timeless messages for well being and growth emerging. It appears that what works for redwoods can definitely work for us.

  • Finding the environment that supports us and thriving in it – Every gardener knows that certain plants thrive in certain conditions. We too need to find the environment that supports our growth and development. Feeling stunted and held back? Let’s take a look around. Is our environment supporting what we’re trying to do and who we’re trying to be?
  • Developing a strong community we can lean on – We’re not meant to be alone and do it all by ourselves. Finding our tribe and learning to give and receive makes us stronger and resilient.
  • Giving back – As a member of a strong community we need to do our part. What are our special gifts? What makes us valuable members of a community? Sharing our strengths and wisdom, becoming a mentor, and seeking opportunities to help and give back; that’s what it’s all about.
  • Hydrating – Health and well being are priorities. A strong body will allow us to do what we want. Drink lots of water throughout the day and eat healthy, nutritional food.
  • Standing Tall – To maintain our perspective we need to stand tall and look at a situation from above. We can’t let challenges and daily irritations bring us down. Stand tall at the center of your life and take the view in. How does your world look from above?
  • Protecting ourselves; developing “thick skin” – Our heart may be in the right place but this will not always protect us. Do not fall victim to your sensitivities. Develop strong boundaries and keep saboteurs away. Being kind, generous, and open doesn’t mean that all is welcome through the doors. Use discrimination. Choose wisely.
  • Regenerating often – Things will not always work out the way they were intended. Stuff happens. We may feel weakened, hurt, demotivated. Let’s give ourselves the chance to regenerate often. Let’s use our resources, inner and outer, to heal and strengthen.

Now . . . Tell us! What rings true to you? Which one of the life secrets of the redwoods are you ready to adopt? What are your thoughts on the subject?

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morning meditations

Early morning and I heard rain was coming. The peonies are in full bloom and already weighed down. They’re going to get damaged by the rain so I’d better cut some and bring them in the house. Off I go, clippers in hands when I see a ladybug sitting on one of the young, unopened peony blooms.

Change of plans. Running to get camera. What a treat!

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I begin to notice the magical activity taking place in the garden early in the morning. The bees are working hard already. Nepeta and the roses seem to be their destination of choice.

 

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The Tradescantia is sparkling.

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The evening primrose shines among the blue Nepeta and the pink peonies and roses.

 

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It all started with the idea of bringing some blooms in the house. It’s now evolving into a walking meditation; a gift and a reminder to tune in and pay close attention. That’s how beauty reveals itself to us.

And, yes, I do bring some peonies in. I arrange them in a vase and make myself a cup of tea. I sit on the porch to enjoy . . . while I still can.

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on driftwood and other finds

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It’s been raining today on the island. I went for my morning walk a little later than usual. The girls had asked us to wake them up so they could go for a run while Neal and I took our walk. Not the best idea, in retrospect. I found myself getting pulled into a long conversation about the day. As expected, the girls are less than excited about the prospect of a rainy day.

I find myself going down a familiar path; trying to make them happy and help them discover the gift of a rainy day; not the easiest task with two sixteen year olds.

I feel my mood changing and I stop on my tracks. It doesn’t have to be this way today. The girls are old enough to be alone and find their way through this morning. This is their big chance to practice that independence they’ve been talking about lately.

Today, I’m making a different choice and decide to go my way.

When I’m on this island, every moment is a precious moment. I put my raincoat on and head for the beach. Not many people here today. The water is rough and soon my shoes and pants are wet. Fine by me. One less thing to worry about. Off with the shoes. I usually walk barefoot anyway.

Yota

I spot a large piece of driftwood taken by the waves from the shore. Of all the finds on a beach, I think I like driftwood the best. As I watch the waves pushing it here and there, I’m reminded of Tolkien’s words . . . “Not all who wander are lost.” This piece of driftwood seems to be left at the whim of the sea and waves yet, one day. it will find its corner of beach to rest, transformed, smooth, whitewashed, and light. People will walk by and look at it with wonder. “How beautiful,” they’ll say. “Look at the intricacies of its bark, it feels so smooth!”

Having being battered by the sea, the piece of driftwood will finally claim its place on a stretch of sand and bear witness to those who come by.

This beach will never look the way it looks today. The transformative power of water and shifting sand won’t allow it. Each moment is unique. That’s its nature.

My footprints are erased as soon as I make them. Each step a new step. I’m walking on the edge, where the waves meet the sand. As the landscape changes, I’m given the choice to walk on higher ground and avoid getting wet. As in life, I can decide when to engage with what comes my way. Sometimes, I don’t have a choice but more often than not, I do. Sometimes, it’s OK to avoid getting wet, if you can.

The rain becomes stronger and I pull my hood over my head. It falls low on my face and I can’t see ahead as well. I focus on what’s right in front of me. One step at a time, waves in and out, rocks and sand, seaweed and a few broken shells. Rocks of all sizes everywhere. I lift my head to look ahead. It all looks so different than yesterday morning; clad in grey mist and falling rain.

On my way back, I take a few moments to sit on a large piece of driftwood and just be. A young couple comes by. They stop to take some pictures and soon they’re on their way. I dry my feet as best I can, shake the sand of my wet shoes and head for the bakery. Time for a hot cup of coffee and a chocolate croissant. I may go visit the library. It looks really inviting today and I love the sign by the entrance.

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a time for me

Waking up on the first morning of our vacation, I was greeted by the view of the sunrise over the harbor. Mary Oliver’s words came to mind:

“Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning and
spread it over the fields . . .Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.”

I sat for meditation as the sun traveled up the horizon, its warmth increasing, coming through the open window. After meditation, Neal and I head to the bakery; a ritual we repeat every time we visit. We wake up early, go to the Old Post Office Bagel Shop, grab a cup of coffee and head to the beach for a long walk.


There are very few people on the beach this early in the morning. Some faces are familiar – having crossed paths with them before – most are friendly; we smile and wish each other a good morning as we walk by. Older people appear to be more inclined to making eye contact and smiling. Sometimes, we cross paths with someone who’s lost in thought, lips tight, looking away, removed. We all bring our stories with us.

Today, we meet a young man from Chicago. His dog decides to adopt us and walks with us, so he too joins us for a while.  He shares that he visits every summer with his family. His wife’s mother has been coming here since 1948.

I wonder how the island looked back in 1948. Change happens slowly here. There is a warm familiarity to this place; it reminds me of a lovingly used old chair; the most comfortable and welcoming one in a home. You can count on it receiving you in a warm, uncomplicated manner, time and again. Every time you sit on it, it feels just right. That’s how I feel when I’m here; like I’ve never left. Over the years and through many life changes, I’ve learned to treasure this feeling.

 

 

Maybe that’s why I come back. There are no expectations or pressure for me to be anything other than who I choose to be in the moment.

There’s no history and no emotional barb wires here. There’s the watery expanse, sunrise and sunset, friendly strangers on the beach, the hours succeeding one another, leisurely. I can be as quiet as I please and observe my mental patterns.

Gone are the days of jam packing my vacation with things to do and places to visit. These days, I’m content watching the world go by, preferably as I listen to the waves and feel the warm sun on my skin.

My sixteen year old daughter will have none of that. She thinks I’m quiet and boring. How can I possibly avoid making plans and wish to enjoy time alone? Why on earth do I wake up at the crack of dawn to go to the beach and why, oh why, don’t I want to be there when the crowds descend? I have tried to answer her questions but I think it’s wiser to stop trying. She’ll have to find her own answers when she’s ready.

These days, it’s quiet time alone I crave the most. As I walk along this quiet stretch of beach, it’s my own inner voice that takes front seat. I want to hear what this woman has to say to me. There isn’t much time for her usually.

My attention is constantly drawn outside of myself. For now, I’m grateful for being a stranger among strangers. No one expects anything from me. I choose to believe that, the smiles my fellow travelers and I exchange this morning, are smiles of recognition and welcoming. We share the same secret.

“Isn’t this divine? Just us and the sea doing her thing. Enjoy!”

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the way through

It was the summer of 1991 and I had just obtained my teaching certification. The previous years had been quite busy and stressful; going to school, working two part-time jobs and going to Greece to be with my mother who underwent bypass operation.

There wasn’t much downtime and, by that summer, I was burnt out.

Neal and I were were actively involved with a retreat center in upstate New York. We decided to celebrate my transition by spending the summer there; volunteering as we had done many times before. Our goal was to unplug, focus on our spiritual practice and gain a new perspective on life.

It was a bustling summer. There were thousands of people coming through and my job was to welcome people and help them navigate the center and its workings.

During one of the weekend meditation retreats, I was one of the people responsible for facilitating the flow in and out of the meditation hall. There were more than two thousand people in the center that weekend and, by Sunday afternoon, I was feeling tired and overwhelmed.

The wooden doors to the meditation hall were big and heavy and I was standing outside making sure people were entering quietly and at regular intervals. Our meditation teacher and head monk would come join the meditation sessions once everyone was settled.

All was quiet. Suddenly, a group of people appeared out of nowhere, lining up to enter the hall, when our teacher arrived. I stood by the doors, ready to open them so people could enter. I don’t remember the exact details, but there were people surrounding me and I was trying to create space for the teacher to enter.

Somehow, I positioned myself with my back supporting the heavy doors and trying to push them open. It wasn’t easy and I almost lost my balance. That’s when my meditation teacher reached out, took the door by the handle and opened it for me; effortlessly! Then, she looked me in the eyes and said . . .”You don’t have to make it so difficult for yourself!”

Suddenly just as all these people had appeared, they went through the doors and into the hall and I was left alone and quiet in the foyer to contemplate what had just happened.

Did I really make things more difficult than they had to be? How often was I doing that? What were some of the situations when I made things more difficult for myself? Did I really tend to get in my own way? How? What did it all mean?

The answers came loud and clear. Yes, for the natural tendency of making things a lot more difficult than they had to be. Yes, to complicating things for myself and, a resounding yes, for often getting in my own way.

As I stood there, in the silence of that hall, a myriad feelings washed over me. There was the overwhelm and exhaustion of the last six years. There was the fear and anxiety about my mother’s health and an uncertain future. The sadness and guilt that stemmed from the life decisions and changes I had initiated. And then, constant self-doubt and an overarching sense of responsibility, fighting me from the inside out.

Finally, there was peace and calm and a deep sense of sinking into silence.

“You don’t have to make it so difficult for yourself!” Stop pushing the heavy doors of life with your back and gain some leverage. Step behind them and take hold of the handle. It’s easier this way. Be gentle with yourself. Ask for help.

Deep breath! Yes, I can do this. I can be kind to myself. I can stand behind the heavy doors and stop trying to push them open. The hard way isn’t always the best way.

I’d like to tell you that this experience transformed me overnight. It didn’t. But it gave me a good head start. Recognizing and accepting a situation are the first steps to transformation. After that, it’s all about practice.

I’m still practicing. I’ve given up thinking that I should get it all perfectly figured out. Some life lessons take a lifetime to learn and that’s all right; as long as I’m learning and practicing, that is!

These days, I can catch myself in the act and step backwards. Am I always successful? No, but I’ve made great progress and I know myself. I can bring me back.

Sometimes, the best way of going through the doors isn’t the hard way. Or, at the very best . . . not the only way!


All images and content Copyright ©2012 Yota Schneider | the art of pausing

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same lesson . . . time and again

About twelve years ago, when I was trying to decide which direction to steer Open for Success towards, the message that kept coming to me was . . . “Keep it simple!”

Over the years and through many trials, when I’d find myself plagued with doubt, I would remember and set myself straight. When in doubt, keep it simple!

About two weeks ago, I facilitated a retreat for nine women at my home. It was lovely and profound for all of us. As I was preparing for the retreat, I decided to create small card bookmarks with words and phrases printed on them. The retreat participants picked randomly and used the messages they received for contemplation. It was great! Everyone seemed to receive the perfect message.

At the end of the day and as I was cleaning up, I noticed there were two bookmarks left on a table. Since I hadn’t picked a message for me, I took them and placed them on my altar in the kitchen.

They were . . . “Keep it simple!” and “There are no wrong turns!” I took a deep breath as I was confronted with the synchronicity and the realization that even though I facilitated the retreat, I was a participant too and there was a lesson for me to contemplate.

“There are no wrong turns” is my husband’s favorite catch phrase. He reminds me of this often. As I have already confessed, I am the one who works really hard to have things be just so whereas he tends to be more casual and light footed. I love that about him! It’s a gift and I’m happy he’s willing to share it with me.

I remember, when we first met, twenty eight years ago, he wanted to show me around  and we would take long rides and try to discover special places we could share. Invariably, we would get lost and I’d start to worry and he’d say . . . “Don’t worry love, there are no wrong turns.” It always felt right when he said it to me and it still does.

I’ve been sensing a shift this last year in my work and in my life. At times things move fast and other times I feel as if I’m walking through molasses. It’s been confusing and often frustrating. When I get overwhelmed, I tend to push myself harder and make things worse for myself.

What I can do instead is . . . “keep it simple” because “there are no wrong turns!” It’s counter intuitive, isn’t it? Most of us push harder when we should relax into a situation.

Well, I now have my marching orders . . . again! One day at a time, one step at a time, stay present, open up to your experience, keep it simple and stop worrying. There are no wrong turns!

All images and content Copyright ©2012 Yota Schneider | the art of pausing

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at home again

When I was sixteen I was given my first camera. It was a 35 mm Nikon FG. I still have it. I remember when I first held it in my hands – filled with anticipation and excitement. I lived in Greece back then.

A good friend of mine was a professional and passionate photographer. He took me under his wing, taught me how to use my camera and helped me develop a different kind of vision.

I remember a lazy Sunday afternoon. We went downtown Athens, cameras on hand. We walked around and got lost in side streets and neighborhoods I hadn’t known existed. I began to look around me with a different eye and pay close attention to the light, texture, color and character of a scene.

What used to go unnoticed before or taken for granted, came into focus. As I lingered, through the lens, I noticed nuances and details I had never noticed before. Nothing could be taken for granted. Each moment that I captured on film, would never be repeated, in the same exact way. There was magic everywhere.

The man selling ice cream off a truck in the corner, the old lady outside her run-down, pre-war house, wearing a floral, blue house dress and a yellow kerchief, trying to talk her black cat off the tall, stone wall, the green wooden shutters spray painted with graffiti, people standing, waiting for the bus, talking, walking . . . these people that I’d never meet again at that same spot, on that time of day . . . all was captured and preserved . . . I can still see them without looking at the photos.

Was that the day I began to understand how paying close attention reveals a vastly different world to us? Maybe!

One thing I know for sure . . . there is magic and beauty everywhere, even in the most mundane and worn out. Paying close attention and noticing what goes on in a single moment, makes life richer and a whole lot more interesting.

This year, on my birthday, my family gave me a brand new Nikon as a present. They had noticed me going around with my iPod Touch taking pictures of all kinds of things and sharing them with glee. I have long been the official photographer of our family, but this time they sensed that I was starting to engage with it in a more personal way.

As I stood there, holding my new camera in disbelief, ready to admonish everyone for buying me such an extravagant gift, my daughter put her hand on my arm and said . . .”Mom, your pictures deserve a better camera than your iPod. It’s time! Have fun with it!” Did I cry? You bet!!

You see, my daughter, instinctively, knew something I never shared with anyone. When I left Greece, my sense of connection with a physical place was altered. For as much as I love it in the US and as beautiful as I find this country, it’s not the same as the place I was born in and the place I developed my vision and my senses in. Or, maybe, I didn’t allow myself to develop this deep connection because I didn’t want to betray my birth place. Who knows?

A couple of years ago, we vacationed on an island and I got into the habit of taking long walks on the beach, very early in the morning. It was then that I felt the shift. I found myself connecting deeply to this place and something in me stirred. I was home again. That’s when I started looking through the lens again with the vision and excitement of that sixteen year old in midtown Athens.

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be seen. Like Mary Oliver reminds us in Wild Geese . . .

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

All images and content Copyright ©2012 Yota Schneider | the art of pausing

 

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