Friday, February 8, 2019

Claiming Joy: Five (Fairly Simple) Ways to Cultivate Joy in Troubled Times

(previously published in, January, 2019)

     We could all use a little more joy these days, which doesn’t mean ignoring the suffering around us. We need joy because it transmutes suffering, if only for a moment. Part of the difficulty in claiming joy might be wrapped up in truly understanding what joy really is. For it isn’t the same thing as happiness. Even thinking about these two words, takes us to different places inside. Happiness may bring up a memory of laughter, a fun experience, or a deeply satisfying period in life where, for the most part, we were truly happy.  But what is joy? 

     As a psychotherapist and yoga teacher, I have the privilege of observing what can happen when someone works through a personal block and discovers the ability to experience relationships at a whole new level. I often feel like saying in those moments, “Feel that? That’s you accessing your personal joy.” For Joy can never be measured by how many people follow us, or acknowledge us, or claim us as friend, family, or lover.  Joy is far more intimate than that, and stems from the connection that happens when we experience someone or something as exquisitely important, and beautiful beyond measure. Joy is activated when our spirit delights in response to another’s spirit; whether found in nature or humanity, in the form of a stranger or our nearest and dearest friend. 

     Joy is my daughter gathering milkweed pods at age six, and squealing with delight as she blew the tufts of downy-white seeds onto the wind, sending “wishes” in behalf of her classmates, up to the angels. Joy is my friend Kimberly waking at 4:00 am to make maple scones for her community bakery; scones she won’t eat, but that give her pleasure because “I get to feed someone”.  Joy is sharing who we most deeply are, and discovering in the process what it’s like to find ourselves and lose ourselves all in an instant. Perhaps more than any other emotion, even grief, joy binds us to each other.

     I often hear the negative thoughts and reactions that come from living in such trauma-filled times as we are in now. These difficult feelings are important to navigate, because they teach us how to be with ourselves in response to upheaval. They teach us where our own story of trauma and heartache meets the heartache we read about almost daily.  But how do we keep from despair? How do we keep our light strong in the darkness, and continue to move forward on our own healing path?  

     Since joy is about connection, it offers a way for the law of attraction (ie: like attracts like) to do its best work. Joy happens when our inner flame grows a bit bigger because we are meeting and experiencing a like-flame that mirrors it, whether in the form of a person or a captivating scene from nature. Joy offers a return to the places within us that are free of fear…and we could all use a bit more of that.

     Here are five simple ways to cultivate joy, and none require too much time or forethought. In fact, some of the purest experiences of joy happen spontaneously, in moments when we least expect it.  These are just a few tips to widen the doorway, so that joy can be ushered in:

1)   Schedule a Self-Date. We all know that putting away our devices is important, but what we do instead is becoming less clear. Making a date to be with ourselves, device-free, can be uncomfortable at first, until it is utterly necessary. Start with a quiet read, a walk, a bath, a new recipe to explore, or just sitting and breathing, looking out the window at the world. Joy begins when we can connect more deeply with the only constant in life, ourselves.
2)   Notice the Mirrors. They are the people who really seeus. Notice them and try to see them back. They often cross our path in unexpected forms, like: the check-out counter cashier; the student teacher at a child’s school; or an acquaintance we’ve never taken the time to know but who is always really glad to see us. These mirrors are the small reminders of who we are to the world.
3)   Get Creative. Creativity is unequivocally good for us.  Making space for it, even 10 minutes, helps awaken our spirit by taking us out of our heads and into the present moment.  All that is required is a willingness to show up (and perhaps a paper and pencil).
4)   Find the Wild places. They are everywhere, even in the cities. All we have to do is pay attention. We can notice what draws us in; what we stop to look at for longer than an instant. Is it the small clutch of berries layered with the first glaze of winter ice, or the flock of pigeons marching like frantic soldiers across the city pavement? We can let the experience of that little piece of nature usher in the wild part of us that recognizes it as uniquely beautiful. That’s joy.
5)   Be of Service. With service, we humble ourselves to focus only on giving. And humility is a pure pathway to joy. We need only think of the people we know who are truly selfless. Joy emanates from these folks like sunlight on water. Being of service to our friends and family, strangers in need, or a charity organization, keeps us connected to something larger than ourselves, introduces hope, and allows us to feel like we are making a difference. Because indeed we are.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Kundalini Yoga and Quantum Physics

(previously published in the Asana International Yoga Journal, December, 2018)

“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” -Carl Sagan
Kundalini Yoga and Quantum Physics

     My Friday morning Kundalini Yoga class, the one I’ve been teaching for years, just came to the end of its recent session. The pause in rhythm has me thinking about this practice, its fundamental nature, and what it does for people. What other yogic science combines rapid breath with rapid movement? And in what other yoga practice do we find ourselves maintaining the most challenging, and often absurd, physical postures while breathing rapidly, or chanting, or both? If someone completely unfamiliar with the practice were to walk into a random class mid-stream, they would likely stand speechless for a second, wearing a look of confusion as unspoken thoughts scream the question: “Now why would anyone want to do that!?” 

     Everyone in the yoga tribe would say the answer is simple: because it works. While most of earth’s humans would acknowledge that yoga has benefits, there is an ever-growing planetary tribe that has come to depend on the practice for stress relief, strength, flexibility, and… sanity. If life were like a river, as the mystics often say, then yoga is the flotation device that allows us to flow with the current a bit more calmly. 

     What then do we say about kundalini yoga? Perhaps we say that it is a bit like passing over a stretch of rapids, the kind that make you feel really good when you’ve gotten through. After a series of active postures, that final pause for stillness can feel like a momentary landing in some tranquil, sun-bedazzled pool. 

     Kundalini Yoga is designed to turn things up. Conceptualized as fire, the practice stimulates the life force energy located within every human body, allowing it to rise in frequency, providing more attunement and resolve as we embrace the challenges of life. The term “raising kundalini” describes the process of igniting the inner fire and purity of energy, not unlike the fundamental laws of nature explained in quantum physics. 

     We float in a universe made up of waves and particles, according to quantum physics. These particles and waves move through a universe that is ever-expanding in a pulsating rhythm likened to breath. Matthew Fox, the great radical catholic priest, philosopher, and social activist, said that “we too, are both waves and particles- not just individuals but also the expression of the Cosmic Christ (or Buddha Nature) in all things.” 

     The atomic body also contains photons of light. When the particle containing these photons increases in temperature, it emits more energy. Planck's Law explains that not only do they increase in energy but overall, a larger proportion of the energy tends towards the violet end of the spectrum. Now, to the modern physicist, the “violet end of the spectrum” means an entirely different thing than it does to the modern yogi. When we think violet, we think chakra, and we think auric field. Still, the parallel is remarkable. Would it not stand to reason that when we practice a yoga that combines “breath of fire” with the rapid movements of temperature-raising postures, we’re not only increasing our energy force, but also aligning ourselves more fully with the violet light of high chakra consciousness- cultivating the divine within?

     Yoga tribe members know the descent into self that occurs at that nascent point during a mighty flow class or after a series of intense kundalini poses. It may come in during that 8th downward dog or seated cross-legged, pausing to integrate after holding bow pose with breath of fire. Whatever the path to arrival, we discover what it’s like to find ourselves and lose ourselves all in an instant. Our auric fields pulsate at a higher frequency, and those who can view colors often report seeing a rose-violet light. The river never stops running, and the universe will always take its next breath. If we are part of the dance of life, why not experience that arrival, that alivedness- why not experience what it’s like to be that small particle, hitchhiking on the wave of the Divine?

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Dancing with Fear/ Courting Bravery

(previously published in Psych Central, October, 12, 2018)

     As a counselor, I’ve spent a lot of time discussing fear; helping clients accept it, “dance with it”, and come to a place of non-resistance. On countless occasions, I’ve witnessed the miracles that happen when any of us lays down the sword we’ve wielded against our fear. A vault of internal reserves opens when we no longer feel a need to overcome it. Instead, as Rumi states, we learn how to treat the fear that waits at the door as our guest.  

     What I’ve been thinking about lately, though, is the relationship we have with our courage. Courage has come to mean a great many things that do not necessarily line-up with everyday life for most people. For example, someone can be considered very brave when they decide to train for an iron man, or launch a polar expedition, or sail around the world, or back-pack alone through South America.  In short, bravery often means making some very BIG things happen in life. Things most of us would never even consider doing, let alone have the time or resource to complete.  What then, does that say about the everyday variety of bravery?  Do we have to be stellarto be brave? Do we have to undertake something awesome and epic in order to have courage?  Or can we claim bravery as something much more personal, something that for us, may be no less awesome, epic or stellar, however ‘commonplace’ it might appear to the world.

     For example, a massive amount of courage is required for someone with social phobia to join a sorority, or someone with PTSD and a history of family neglect to enter an intimate relationship.  Someone whos been raising children and out of the workforce for years must be incredibly brave when they have to return to work and keep step with their colleagues. The bravery list goes on and on. Just fill in the blank of whatever internal or circumstantial obstacle may exist and instantly the commonplace is elevated to a status that is grand, ambitious, brave as an Everest expedition.

     Everyday bravery gets overlooked for many reasons. Perhaps there’s just too much to do in a day to really think about what is being accomplished in the realm of courage. Perhaps it’s easier to focus on the captivating happenings of social media, youtube, or a Hollywood movie.  Or perhaps it’s just too uncomfortable to think of oneself as brave. Like an oversized shirt that really should belong to someone else; bravery doesn’t always align with our self-concept. Especially when we stop to consider, as we do, the vulnerable spaces we each possess.  Spaces that can feel so dominant, courage becomes like a five-year-old trying to play in the NBA.  After all, vulnerability and fear are the all-star players who have been in the game a lot longer.  Bravery hardly stands a chance, but this doesn’t mean it’s not there. And it doesn’t mean it can’t make a basket if given half a chance.

     It’s astounding to think of the gains we might receive should we fully own our courage. How much confidence, determination and wherewithal we could bring to our endeavors if we recognize that we are indeed, brave beyond measure.  However commonplace the form, however great the vulnerability, courage is what keeps us committed to the process, whether it’s parenthood or running a corporation, launching a creative idea or going out on a first date.  Courage is there all the while, like that feisty 5-year-old on the basketball court, racing like hell to get those two points.  Making a basket is its ultimate goal. And when you stop to think about it, courage is the only one who can.

Monday, November 12, 2018

A Letter to to My Younger Self on the Subject of Parenthood

What I would say to my younger self:
Currently, my daughter is managing her school and sport schedule, taking driver’s ed, and signing up for counselor-in-training sessions at her favorite summer camp.  Fifteen and fabulous…where has all the time gone? Ten years of single parenthood can feel like thirty, or it can feel like an instant. Like when she trounces out the door to high school, and I see a flash of that round-faced toddler, petulant blue eyes looking up at me and baby-fine hair lying rumpled round her head like the halo of a very turbulent angel. Her favorite toddler phrase: “No! I do it!”, often followed by a high-pitched scream if she didn’t get her way. They say that what you see in your toddler is what you will see in your teenager, but I disagree.  She’s got more patience than I do half the time now, often reminding me to consider the perspective of others’ in making decisions.  

Our children never cease being our teachers, and my daughter at 17 is still mine…but there are days when I’d give my last dollar to be alone again with that turbulent angel she was at age 2, struggling to pay the bills, wiping up piles of milk and cereal off the floor, watching her fall asleep in a pull-out bed beside me in our small studio apartment.  The challenges are not what I remember now, in fact, the challenges only made our closeness stronger. Remember to cherish it; that’s what I would remind my younger self.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Garden Girls

Garden Girls
Amy C

It’s Saturday in mid-October and the wind outside is reminding us that very soon, snow is coming. We just bought our cross-country ski equipment at the annual ski swap, raked up the recent drop of the leaves, and unhinged the planters to store in our garden shed alongside pots, tarps, shovels, rakes and wheelbarrow. I circle in and out of the house, setting another load of laundry, taking out recycling, stacking the empty egg cartons to return to the farm so we can bring home more. Passing through the living room, I make small talk with my daughter as she lays sprawled on the floor- offering a gentle reminder to take a break from her papers, and go outside.  She squirms and mumbles, moves the papers around, and after a while sings softly to herself, easing the burden of labor. These are familiar sights; the squirming and mumbling amid piles of paper.  High school isn’t what it was when I was a kid. The hours a modern teen can spend at homework (all requiring a stationary position) are astounding to me. And worrisome. 

As I head back outside to ready the leaves for removal, I’m aware that tending the garden gets more satisfying every year. Plucking out leaves, cutting back the irises, removing dead branches, planting bulbs; all in anticipation of snow.  The beds remind me of children at nursery school preparing to nap. They require whatever comfort I can offer to allow for sound sleep. I stop to think if there’s anything else they need, and smile at how silly and yet important it all is. To watch the plants grow, to tend and nurture the environment around them, to ready the ground for winter and clear it all again, come spring. 

When I’ve done what I can and realize the homework girl is probably where I left her, I head back in to inquire: “Can you please rake the leaf piles onto a tarp?” Assuming this will be met with resistance, I’m surprised as she shrugs her shoulders, says nothing and begins to stand up. We’re having lots of talks lately on the need for taking breaks, so a directed plan supports the process. 

How simple parenting would be if it were like the garden, which asks nothing but to be what it is, requires nothing but occasional tending. In return, it offers the fruit of its slow labor. Those tender buds who release each spring from their hard stalks, unfurling their colors through another season.  

During my writing break, I watch my daughter try to haul an enormous tarp cross the backyard. It’s filled with leaves representing the last of summer’s bounty. She’s bundled and adorable, looking down at the ground, undoubtedly singing.  I think of the challenges we’re now in, in this mother/daughter journey. They seem so different from the challenges of early years, yet somehow the same.  Her strong will and endeavor, meeting my attempts to support and instruct. How very alike we are, and how very different.  

“Are you coming out?”, she now asks, as her high hair-bun and red nose peek round the door frame. The pile of leaves, too big for her to haul by herself, are there waiting, a mountain of brown against a back-drop of grey and barren trees.  

“Yup,” I reply, looking up from my screen and smiling. “We can move it together.” 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Full Moon Circle

The Full Moon Circle
There once were four women, all mothers, who lived high atop a canyon ridge in the Santa Monica mountain range.  They lived there a long time before they ever met each other, since each had their lives and their children’s lives to manage and none of them had husbands to help. Their quiet little town had walking trails and horse paddocks and the women had come to love it. Although they lived far above the ocean, they could sometimes smell the salt when they road their cars down the deeply-chiseled drive of Topanga Canyon Boulevard.   

The women lived well enough in this canyon surrounded by chapparrel, sage-brush, and California oaks. They could walk along the creek where the children would try and catch lizards. At night, they could lay in bed after the children fell asleep and listen to the call of the coyote as it drifted over the mountain. But as much as they loved the canyon and their children, the women were often lonely. They needed something other than motherhood and their many daily tasks to fulfill them.  

Then one day after school, two of the mothers realized their children were in the same class, and got to talking with each other as they made their way up the hill to the parking lot. They learned that neither of them had husbands, and often felt overwhelmed by all they had to manage on their own. They warmed to each other instantly, as if they shared something very important. They both knew what it was like to struggle to make ends meet and to feel the children’s happiness rested solely on their shoulders.  One of the women, who was very creative, shared that she sometimes felt anxious in the afternoons, when her son would come home and the hours before nightfall stretched long before them.  She didn’t always know how to entertain him; how to keep him inspired and hopeful, when she herself felt listless and empty.   The other mother, who was very outgoing, said, “We should meet up together!”, and after thinking a moment longer, “We should gather at a time when things feel promising, like when the moon is full!” 

And so, it was, that these two mothers, with their sons, would meet together each month at the full moon. They’d each bring food and wine, since children love food and mothers love wine.  Sometimes they would hike up the red rocks of the canyon and watch as the moon rose, casting its opalescent light on the chapparrel, oak trees and valley below.  Sometimes they would gather at each other’s houses, which worked out nicely since one had a fire place and the other a dog.  They’d play games and listen to music.  They’d laugh and tell stories as the children romped outside in the moonlight.  They’d feel hopeful and connected, and better yet, inspired, since they would always talk about their creative dreams.

After a bit of time had passed, the two women realized their circle was not complete. They needed more mothers and children to fill-out the round, to share the goodness of what they had made.  They felt they had discovered a great treasure. Honoring the moon and each other every month enhanced their respective worlds immensely. They believed it helped the children too, by giving them something sacred, rhythmic. By showing them that nature has cycles beyond the seasons. Best of all, the children got to see their mothers as vibrant, creative and joyful people when in the company of like-minded women.

The two moongals set out to find their sisters, which wasn’t hard, of course. The outgoing one met hers in a hair salon, where she learned that this new mother had just moved to the canyon with her daughter and didn’t know very many people. The creative one met hers through the art community, where she learned this new mother lived with her teenage children and worked as a commercial artist. By the next full moon there were two more women and several children.  For their ceremony, the group decided to collect milkweed pods and climb to the top of the red rocks.  The younger children giggled and twirled round when the mothers told them they could make as many wishes as they wanted, but for each wish they must toss the downy seed-tufts on the canyon wind.  After all the wishes were spent, they lingered, watching the white pod-feathers drift down the ruddy wall of rock as the moon looked down in her silent splendor.

The four women never thought the moon circle might end, all those years they gathered and laughed and feasted.  But after a long while, it did.  One mother moved away, then another.  A third got married and the fourth had a baby.  Life took them away from each other through geography and circumstance, but they never forgot what they created. Whenever a far-away sister would visit, no matter how much time had gone by, the women would circle again. They’d sit together and talk about their lives, their now-grown children, their persistent dreams.  Sometimes the coyote song would float through the window as the great, silvery moon cast its light on the canyon walls, waiting to see who might come out to play.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Rose and Thorn

by Amy Carpenter

“like a steady ship doth strongly part
the raging waters and keeps her course aright;
ne aught for tempest doth from it depart,
ne aught for fairer weather’s false delight”


Each evening over dinner, our family asks each other the above question, usually prefaced with the habitual, “So…?”, as in, “So…rose and thorn?”.  A query into the day’s adventure, it’s meant to elicit clarification. What was the brightest moment, and what most challenging?  We inherited the tradition from old friends and have since shared it with our family at large, having many lengthy discussions over the years of what it means to each individual (young and old) to speak of the roses and thorns of life.

It is an equally appropo question to apply to the subject of love, which will be much talked-about in the month ahead.  While endless well-intended dollars are spent on the hallmarks of Valentine’s Day- cards, chocolate, jewelry and dinners out- very few moments will be spent celebrating the thorny business of human relationship. And yet, it is the thorny business that defines and shapes us much more than roses and chocolate and sweet poetic phrases delivered on a 4 X 6 piece of store-bought parchment.  Why then, do we not celebrate these more shadowy sides of love? 

We know, those of us lucky enough to have fallen flat on our faces at least once in our romantic history, that the deepest parts of ourselves – and not always the pretty parts- are displayed naked on the surgical table of intimacy.  One could argue that the most challenging act in relationship is not that of witnessing our partner’s flaws, but in having our own mirrored so openly, with no room for escape.  But when the thorn is removed and the pathway of the heart laid open…well, there is a rose of the sweetest variety. Often we feel most deeply loved right in the middle of that tangled-up, bloody mass of thorns and skin. Whether our partners, our children, our siblings or friends, the roses of relationship sustain us, but it is the thorns that hone us, and cause old married couples to declare that only after years and years of both, do they define themselves as truly “married”.  Of course, marriage or no, that is the stuff of intimacy; year upon year of roses intermingled with some very important thorns.

So then, why not celebrate it all in the month ahead? To claim the successful navigation through troubled waters as equal in value to the calm, languid hours afloat on balmy seas. After all, we are called to experience both if we are human and in love. 

Claiming Joy: Five (Fairly Simple) Ways to Cultivate Joy in Troubled Times

(previously published in, January, 2019)      We could all use a little more joy these days, which doesn’t mean ignoring the su...