Lessons from Laryngitis

Sometimes silence is all that we can offer and is exactly what is needed.

A recent bout of laryngitis became my teacher when a nasty cold landed in my throat, holding my voice captive. For several days, only squeaky, crackling utterances or raspy, strained whispers emerged from my mouth. It was not a bit sexy. When with others, I had to choose whether to use my frail voice or rest it and be silent.

Paying attention to my imposed silence, I realized that there is quite a lot of babble that comes out of my mouth daily.  Yes, sadly it’s true. By “babble,” I’m referring to unnecessary words that don’t enhance the situation—things that can be left unsaid. I don’t always need to contribute something to the conversation, even though I am a bubbly extrovert. It was a humbling experience in self-awareness. It’s so easy to add to the noise of this world.

An ancient saying out of the mystical tradition of Islam, known as Sufism, is wonderfully instructive, regardless of our health:

Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates:
Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?”

When my voice box was ailing there were only a handful of times that it was truly necessary to speak. One was the day that my dear friend’s mother was dying. Becky’s mother had been in ICU for 10 days with pneumonia. When I got her text that the situation was grim and death was imminent, I knew I needed to talk with my friend, if I was able.

 Please let me be a conduit of solace, encouragement, and love, I silently prayed. With a deep breath, I called Becky’s cell phone and greeted her with gentle words that were somehow audible. But mostly I listened.

Real listening is immersed in silence and is a precious form of presence. Quiet tears flowed down my face. Before saying good-bye, I wanted to offer a prayer aloud over the phone, as that’s what we do for each other when one of us is facing a crisis. It was a mini-miracle that she was able to hear my prayer for her sweet mama and the family.

I’ve since recovered, and the only thing Becky remembers about our call was my presence, not my ailing, squeaky voice. “Were you really sick?” she asked. Amazing grace!

Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Can you imagine our world if we paused and allowed our words to pass through those three gates? What false, needless, and unkind words would remain unspoken?

Ahhhhhh, sweet, precious silence often serves others in ways that words cannot.

Calm in the Chaos

Water rained through the ceiling, causing a small lake on the kitchen floor.

The guest room toilet broke.

My car battery died.

A key workshop leader canceled due to illness.

Yikes!!! Chaos!!! All within 24 hours, JUST as I prepared to welcome, host, and lead 27 women for a spiritual renewal weekend in Cape May, New Jersey. The weekend theme was timely: “Balance for the Autumn Equinox Through Mind, Body, and Spirit.” Balance needed, please!

The most important thing about being a leader of people, families, and organizations, I’ve learned, is being inwardly prepared. If you can stay calm, you can respond thoughtfully rather than react erratically. Calm and chaos are both contagious. I wanted calm. Read on to discover tools for you to remain calm and balanced in the face of stress.

Back to the turmoil that threatened to overwhelm me.

Breathing in, I said these words: Beneath the chaos, there is a calm, loving center. Breathing out, I repeated them…again, again, again.

Gradually, I relaxed. It was going to be okay.

Going into the weekend, I had felt off my game. My foot was still painful from a nasty sprain a few weeks earlier, and I was wearing a clunky walking boot that slowed me down, especially as I navigated the many stairs. Let’s add that to the above list of stressors. With all there was to do, it was excruciating to move so slowly.

The forced slowness turned into a blessing, however. Needing to pace myself and take breaks, I spent more time in quiet meditation and prayer than is typical. I sought to tap into the loving, calm core that exists within me, and indeed, exists in each of us. I wrote these words in my journal: Beneath the chaos, there is a calm, loving center.

When the barrage of tiny disasters occurred, I felt bombarded. But at the same time, I remained calm and centered, and I sensed a loving presence sustaining me. It was quite remarkable! I was smiling and joyful too!

Every day, the chaos of unexpected events threatens to overwhelm us. It doesn’t need to win. We have choices.

Science reveals a practice that can bring us calm in the storm: the relaxation response. In his now-famous studies at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson demonstrated that you can reduce stress throughout your body by breathing slowly and repeating a word, phrase, or prayer that gives you a sense of comfort. His landmark findings have been expanded and incorporated into medicine, business, psychotherapy, and thankfully, every day living. Practiced over time, this simple practice can produce healing of mind, body, and spirit. Check out Dr. Benson’s findings in his classic book, The Relaxation Response, or his more recent one, Relaxation Revolution, or do a five-minute exercise https://www.mass.gov/video/relaxation-response-dr-herbert-benson-teaches-you-the-basics

Through breathing slowly and centering on a key phrase, I was able to stay in the present moment, think clearly, and calmly navigate each challenge. A talented, compassionate leader replaced our ill colleague. Gerry, the handyman, swiftly repaired the plumbing. Jerry, the auto mechanic, replaced my car battery within the hour. The retreat went beautifully; women were renewed and uplifted. All was well!

Filled with gratitude, I wonder why I don’t use these tools all the time! Note to self.

When you struggle with unfortunate events overwhelming you, try some simple but powerful steps:

  1. Breathe slowly.
  2. Choose a word or phrase that is of comfort to you (Peace, Calm, God, om, All is well, etc.).
  3. Repeat it again and again.

And remember: Beneath the chaos, there is a calm, loving center.

 

 

If Your Body Could Talk

Message from my feet: “Please stay with us in the present moment!”

If your body could talk, what would it say to you today?

My feet are likely on a rant, but I prefer to think of it as more of a firm, loving wake up call.

     Girl, you walk too fast—slow down!

      We need you to pay attention instead of thinking about all of your ideas!

      We’ve been rolled and twisted a lot in our 58 years —be more careful!

      Please put us in shoes that support us – good, solid shoes because we aren’t as young and strong as we used to be!

      And please, please, please don’t put us in flimsy flip-flops anymore!

 My feet are healing from yet another fall that I took several days ago. Our family rented a lake house for the weekend to attend a big Clemson football game. It was a crisp morning and normally my freshest time, BUT while walking and appreciating the beautiful view, my flip-flop caught on a loose, broken patio stone. Down I went, rolling the right ankle and overextending the left foot. Ugh!!! Both feet began to swell instantly (they do operate in the present moment!) and I hobbled painfully back into the house. I prayed that none of the many tiny bones in my feet were broken.

Our feet are remarkable creations. Did you know that each foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments? We should be thanking them every day for holding us upright!

Fortunately, x-rays and an MRI revealed that the bones and ligaments were intact, just badly sprained and swollen. I am now sporting a sturdy walking boot to support my left foot that took that the brunt of the fall. My feet are grateful to be tended to.

Our wounds offer us wisdom IF we choose to listen. As a Conscious Aging facilitator, you’d think that I’d pay better attention to my body’s aging, but I want to wish away the aging process as much as anyone else. And flip-flops are so fun and easy; they come in soooooo many styles!

But the flip side (haha!), flip-flops are a dangerous, poor choice of footwear. I know, such a bummer! According to the National Consumer Product Commission, there were over 27,000 flip-flop related emergency room visits in 2016. Their lack of support and protection can lead to injuries from falls, make the feet more prone to infection, and cause knee and hip problems, especially as we grow older. They literally cause us to flop! Maybe it’s time to thank our flip-flops for their service and slip into something better and fun.

Our bodies are valuable partners that house us while we are here on earth, but all too often we ignore their needs.

So I ask you again, what message does your body have for you today? Is there a body part that seems to be suffering from an ache or pain? Ask what it is trying to tell you. Try to listen by jotting down thoughts that come.

And please, think twice before putting on those flip-flops.

 

Falling Into Courage

I’ve had clumsy falls in my life, but this one was a doozy…and it would prove to be transformational.

It took a moment to gauge the results of my nosedive off of my too-high heels. I was lying facedown on the outside stairs of my apartment building, looking like I was kissing the concrete. Various parts of my body were crying out in pain—my ribs, my right arm, both knees, and my chin. An alarming puddle of blood was seeping onto the gray concrete beneath my face.

Get up! I told myself. C’mon girl, you’ve got to be at school in a few minutes!

Slowly, I stood up. My new lawyer-like outfit was no longer pristine. The navy suit was decent, but red droplets dotted my ivory blouse. A large tear ripped through my nylon stockings. My black too high-heeled pumps were scuffed.

Only moments earlier, I had been coaxing myself to stay calm while I was dressing for the event that I had dreaded for days, weeks, and months: my moot court argument. I almost avoided enrolling in law school due to fear of this rite of passage for first-year law students. Moot court is a mock appellate court case in which law students are paired up into teams and given an imaginary client. A key part of the assignment is oral argument —a persuasive oral presentation of one’s argument followed by intensive questioning by a panel of pretend judges. Moot court is the Socratic method on steroids, and I feared that I would be rendered speechless, stupid, and embarrassed.

With a hand cupped under my chin, I went back to my apartment. Blood droplets escaped through my fingers onto the carpet. I made a beeline for the bathroom, grabbed a handful of toilet paper and placed the wad over my chin, avoiding a look in the mirror so that I could stay focused.

Adrenaline was flowing. In the aftermath of the fall, I realized that my focus had shifted from fear to determination. You can do this. You’ve put too much into this. Your partner is counting on you.

Upon arriving at school, my partner greeted me with a look of horror. “What happened to you?”

I lifted my toilet paper bandage to reveal my gash. He was aghast. “I can see your bone! You’re going to need stitches. Let’s get you to the hospital!”

“No,” I replied firmly. “We are going to do this argument. I’ll go to the hospital afterward.”

Almost miraculously, my partner had medical supplies in his truck and a first aid background. He masterfully butterflied the wound shut with a special bandage, and then affixed a larger bandage that covered my chin from side to side.

Looking like the walking wounded, I faced the panel of judges with surprising focus, calm, and confidence that had emerged through the ordeal. Then I was off to the hospital for numerous stitches.

Sometimes it takes falling down on your face to discover inner resources you didn’t know you had. My moot court argument was an unusual, profound form of education. The judges were likely more impressed by my resilience and tenacity than my legal argument. Finding the courage to rise up after falling down was a key transformational moment, one that I would draw upon throughout my life when facing adversity.

If you look back over your life you, too, can discover key moments in which you learned that you had an inner strength that propelled you forward.

 

 

 

 

 

A Precious Broken Heart, a Timer, and Joy

“A broken heart is precious indeed…The best thing is to set aside a certain period each day to pray with a broken heart and then to spend the rest of the day in joy.”

-Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

How can a broken heart be a precious thing? A broken heart seems like a disaster to be avoided. Many of us go to great lengths to avoid heartbreak. Yet it is an inevitable part of living and loving. To think that we can find joy while experiencing a broken heart is hard to wrap our heads around. But it is hopeful and merits consideration.

I have recently found myself in meaningful conversations with numerous people who are experiencing heartbreak due to the death of loved ones or the death of relationships, jobs, institutions, and ways of life. It makes my heart hurt, too. Life is filled with endings; death comes in all shapes and sizes. Grief and pain can often take us by surprise. But so can joy.

As a culture, we don’t deal well with emotional pain and brokenness. When we experience heartbreak of any kind, we often try to push the pain down below the surface in an effort to resist, ignore, and/or numb over it. Oh, there are so many ways that we try to ignore the pain- let us count the ways! In doing so, the pain can creep into all the nooks and crannies of life, weighing us down, creating anxiety, stress, and unease. Emotional pain impacts our minds, bodies, and spirits.

Rabbi Nachman suggests another approach. A few days ago I shared the quote above with a dear friend as we spoke about grief, and she told me a story. When her son first went to preschool, he would cling to her, crying unrelentingly, unwilling to be separated from his mother. (Perhaps that is one of our earliest heartbreaks- being separated from our mothers). Once the teacher was able to peel him off his mother’s leg, she led him over to a quiet corner of the classroom with a timer. She told him he could cry until the timer went off, but then he must join the rest of the class. That approach helped him navigate his separation and entry into the class. What a wise teacher!

Spiritual teachers tell us that a broken heart can help us to grow. We can become awakened, and it can help us blossom into the people we were meant to be. It is possible, but it doesn’t always happen. Perhaps that is why we are advised to pray with our broken hearts. When we ask a loving presence larger than our small self to come into our lives with goodness and healing, transformation occurs. Given time, attention, and grace, we can discover that Love is at work accompanying, guiding, and healing us in surprising ways. By honoring our broken heart as a treasured guest, we create the space and opportunity for joy. (For more about the profound nature of joy, see my previous blog of December).

Blessings and love to everyone who is experiencing a broken heart. We have all been there and we will be there again. May you know the precious nature of this time.

Honor the pain in your tender heart. Lean into the joy. Remember that you are loved.

With a hug,

M

OTHER INSPIRATIONS

From Elizabeth Lesser, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us to Grow:

“A broken heart is not the same as sadness. Sadness occurs when the heart is stone cold and lifeless. On the contrary, there is an unbelievable amount of vitality in a broken heart.”

“How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be.”

“The experience of change and transformation is never complete. Something bigger and brighter always calls to shine through us. We are continually challenged to change and grow, to break down and break through.”

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.

What a time they have, these two

housed as they are in the same body.

-Mary Oliver, Devotions

“I further encourage you not to be concerned about your form or style of prayer. Seek only honesty and truth, come to your best sense of desire, and just be there as you are, with God as God may be…If there is any ‘right’ way of praying, it is that most simple and yet elusive one: to simply be yourself…just be real.”

-Gerald May, The Awakened Heart

“Prayer connects heart, mind, and body to a generous Spirit that stands ready to move through any available opening, bestowing whatever goodness may be possible in any given situation.”

-Robert Corin Morris, Wrestling with Grace

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Joy to the World

It’s that time of year when the word “JOY” appears everywhere: in songs, on signs and greeting cards, and in glittering holiday decorations. We all need a little joy!

I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the concept of joy. With violence near and far, natural disasters of all kinds, a vicious political climate, and distress surrounding us, it seems natural to wonder about the joy. How can we have lasting joy amidst suffering, sadness, and turmoil?

As perhaps an answer to a prayer, I stumbled across a book that has been a tremendous gift: The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. Written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, two spiritual leaders whom I greatly admire, they share insight from their long lives and faith traditions. These men have experienced heartbreaking adversity, hardship, and suffering, yet they are two of the most joyful people on the face of the planet. They met for five days to share their wisdom, stories, and humor, and to answer the important life question: How do we find joy in the middle of life’s inevitable sorrows and suffering?

Their insights, captured by writer Douglas Abrams, reveal how to transform joy from a fleeting feeling into a lasting way of being. Don’t we all long for this? Joy is rooted in our spiritual DNA. We cannot let the cynicism pervading our culture engulf us.

Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama shed new light on joy and how it is different from happiness. Joy is much larger and deeper than happiness. Happiness is usually dependent upon external events, while joy reflects an inner quality—a shining contentment or a spiritual radiance born from a sense of deep well-being. You can be joyful while being unhappy. In fact, sometimes we need sorrow or sadness to find joy (see the Pixar movie, Inside Out!).

These two great wisdom figures identify and explain certain obstacles to joy. Ironically, these obstacles often provide the opportunity for growth, beauty, and joy in life:

  • Fear, stress, and anxiety
  • Frustration and anger
  • Sadness and grief
  • Despair
  • Loneliness
  • Envy
  • Suffering and adversity
  • Illness and fear of death

Now for the positive qualities that form the pillars of joy:

  • Perspective (there are many different angles)
  • Humility
  • Humor
  • Acceptance
  • Forgiveness
  • Gratitude
  • Compassion
  • Generosity

It is encouraging to note that these positive qualities can be cultivated and deepened throughout the course of our lives, leading to greater joy. The authors conclude with the insight: “Ultimately, joy is not something to learn, it is something to live. And our greatest joy is lived in deep, loving, and generous relationships with others.”

Given the authors’ ability to share the stories from their lives, inform us of the science of joy, and offer joy practices that we can use in our daily lives, it is a perfect resource to explore with others, especially in small groups or classes. I am grateful to have been immersed in this book while I help write curriculum for upcoming programs at Well for the Journey. It nourishes my spirit to read, reread, highlight, make notes in the margin, reflect, and learn how each of us can live more joyful lives. Meaningful change begins within each of us. Then, by the grace of God, it ripples out.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to live a more meaningful, joyful life. Purchase the print copy so you can access and revisit it easily (and underline and scribble in margins). Below are some favorite quotes from the book for those who are intrigued.

Although this is a joyous season, it is also a tender, sad time, especially for those missing loved ones or suffering in others ways. May the joy that is within you shine like a candle and light your darkness.

Love and blessings,

Mabeth

Dedicated to my mother, Dede Wilson, who passed away on this day four years ago. Her spirit and life revealed how to live with joy, even in the face of life’s hardships.

QUOTES FROM THE BOOK OF JOY

“Joy is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.”

“Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet, as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartache without being broken.”

“The ultimate source of happiness is within us. Not money, not status. Some of my friends are billionaires, but they are very unhappy people. Power and money fail to bring inner peace. Outward attainment will not bring real inner joyfulness. We must look inside.

“Sadly, most of the things that undermine our joy and happiness we create ourselves. Often it comes from the negative tendencies of the mind, emotional reactivity, or from our inability to appreciate and utilize the resources that come from within us…We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives, and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people.”

“The question is not: How do we escape it? The question is: How can we use this as something positive?”

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past.“

“If you want a happy life and fewer problems, you have to develop a serious concern for the well-being of others…The more time you spend thinking about yourself, the more suffering you will experience. The incredible thing is that when we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced. This is the true secret to happiness. So this is a very practical thing. In fact, it is commonsense.”

“Our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others.”

“Grateful people are joyful people. A grateful world is a happy world.”

 

 

Reclaiming Areas of Peace

To read or listen to the news is to be drawn into a battle. The challenge is how to live and love in such a polarized, emotional time.

How can we honor the perspectives of others, no matter how much we may disagree? How can we stand up for what we believe is right, while not dehumanizing, belittling, or shaming others? How can we maintain relationships in middle of forces that want to pull us apart?

I profoundly believe that it begins inside each of us. Peace originates from within. We need to find ways to tap into the deepest part of ourselves – that Source of peace and love (the God-part) – that exists within each of us, and then share it with others.

Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who lived and died in the horror of the Holocaust wrote:

“Ultimately we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. The more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”

While working in the hellish Westerbork transit camp, Etty’s spiritual awakening transformed herself and others. She was able, remarkably, to look at the pain and suffering around her, the injustice and horror, and also delight in the goodness of life. Wow.

So, how can we reclaim areas of peace, grow more and more peace, and reflect it outward towards others?

After many years of working in the spiritual wellness arena, here are some suggestions that I offer humbly:

  • Choose to respond not to react. Learning ways to pause and reflect and get in touch with the Divine within can help you to respond thoughtfully and more peacefully. For me, a short centering time in the morning (even five minutes), can make all the difference in how I live my day. Even taking a few deep breaths when faced with a stressful situation can help to diffuse a stressful situation. (See mindfulness below).
  • Turn off the constant news cycle. The media seduces us into believing that we need to know everything, in real time as it unfolds. Thanks to smart phones, social media, and the nonstop twenty-four hour news cycle, our culture is addicted to news. Checking in once or twice a day is enough.
  • Try to know yourself. Become more aware of what makes you tick and what patterns of behavior and preconceived notions create blind spots that prevent you from truly seeing or hearing others.
  • Try to know “the other.” Be curious rather than judgmental. Try to have conversations that go below the surface of opinion and rhetoric. Listen with the desire to understand, rather than to respond. Remember that the other person is often doing the best that he/she can.
  • Mindfulness. Mindfulness is both a practice and a way to approach daily life. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the field, defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” A friend recently shared her simple definition: “paying kind attention.” Mindfulness becomes a way of life that keeps you in the present moment so that you don’t become overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s happening around you.
  • Compassion. Last, but not least, compassion can transform our world. Be kind to others. Be kind to yourself. Remember that everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about (Shout out to my niece, Meg).

We have to change ourselves first before we can change the world. Let’s reclaim areas of peace and help them grow, bit by bit. Small things ripple out. We can each play our small but significant part.

Love,

Mabeth

Note: Etty died in Auschwitz.

Sources:

Etty Hillesum. An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork. New York: Holt, 1996.Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go There You Are. New York: Hyperion, 1994.