By Sandra Ladley
This post relates to an upcoming event, click here to learn more.
As the New Year approaches, we think of making changes in our lives. Is there something you do that harms you, others, or the planet you wish you could change? Do you feel hopeless or helpless about it? Join me on January 10th, 2024, from 6 -7 MT for Reimagining Resolutions: Embracing Change for the New Year, where we’ll dive into this topic of change-making together.
As I write this, we’re midway through the holiday season. The holidays, initially holy days, can bring enrichment, love, and a grounding in rituals. They can also bring frenzy, disappointments, loneliness, and regression into bad habits. I tend to have a bipolar experience during this time as I swing and sway between moods and foods. As the season unfolds, I crave the peace, quiet, and retreat that winter in the north can offer. I also imagine myself ahead into January, when I’ll have a chance to get back to a sense of balance and the renewal of healthy habits. Around New Year's, there’s a familiar and often irritating buzz around resolutions. I know I’ll roll my eyes and sigh at yet another “New Year, New You” headline, as we all know that resolutions don’t seem to work. Yet, simultaneously, I am haunted by the fact that I want to make changes in my life and hope that this old dog CAN learn new tricks.
Research shows that there is a “fresh start effect” when we approach an important milestone like a New Year that we can leverage to make lasting changes in areas where we may feel stuck or have given up on ourselves. For example, of the people I know, one feels helpless to stop smoking, another wishes they could control their rageful outbursts, and another one hides out in a bubble of avoidance. For me, the issue is overeating, and all that comes with being overweight. I’ve lost 50 pounds at least four times over my life, and yet the weight and the behaviors come back. Being heavy has limited my life choices, and, in addition, I hold at least another 50 pounds of shame and other emotions to match my pounds overweight. It’s not for lack of knowledge - I stay current with research, behavioral strategies, and medical developments like Ozempic. Wouldn’t it be something if I and others could make lasting changes in these perpetually painful areas of our lives? With so much global suffering and rapid change upon us, I see many of us clutching even harder to these familiar habits. It can feel like the world is spinning around us while we’re trapped on an island of stuckness. I keep the following quote from Pema Chodron tacked to my refrigerator. “May you be open and receptive to dynamic, fluid, and impermanent energy of life.” How can we tap into the changing nature of reality as a positive force for personal change?
Making an Aspiration/Resolution: A Clear Intention and Vow that Embraces the Journey
Making a Resolution means having an aspiration and commitment to shifting or changing a pattern. It can be helpful to think of it as a vow, a kind of going ‘on the record’ with ourselves, others, and reality. Like with other vows, it doesn’t mean you won’t have ups and downs - or successes and failures - but that you have a long-range commitment. Research shows that the likelihood of keeping to our aspiration/resolution increases when it is something that we can feel how we want to change and that we practice visualizing and embodying that change. The word resolution is also used in photography; a picture has good resolution when it becomes focused and clear. Taking the time to clarify and state our intention, even making a ritual of this, while also being inclusive of the foibles of the journey, is a great way to start.
Finding and Discerning Safety: Bringing Attention to the Wisdom of our Bodies
Karen Roeper, a mentor of mine and founder of the Essential Motion embodied awareness training, recently stated that most unhealthy tendencies are developed as coping mechanisms when we don’t feel safe. Strangely, my mind popped open; it was like I was hearing this for the first time. These coping mechanisms are often trauma responses that were passed on to us through our ancestral families and our culture. I am finding that bringing attention and discernment to what feels safe and unsafe in the present moment is very helpful when it comes to noticing my desire to overeat. What happens to you when you don’t feel safe? What are your tendencies? Is a lack of safety happening now, or is it an old message being triggered? What does safety feel like? How do you find it?
Our world is heartbreakingly unsafe now for so many people. Becoming attuned to when, how, and where we find safe refuge seems increasingly important.
Continually Learning and Making a Fresh Start
The foundation of the Karuna Training contemplative education program is mindfulness/awareness meditation practice. For millennia, people across cultures and continents have sat down on the earth to settle and discover what’s happening in their bodies, hearts, and minds in the present. An ongoing meditation practice can give us strength and courage as we become familiar with our mind’s habits and learn that these habits can be disrupted. In meditation, we open to the vast reality we belong to that is greater than how we think about ourselves.
As a meditator, I appreciate the emphasis on you can always make a fresh start. We have continual opportunities to learn and start over regardless of where we are. What we perceive as a movement forward has as much information for us as our failures and falling back. We see this continually in nature as things twist and bend in growth, die back, and seeds start to germinate.
Dr. Kelly McGonigal at Stanford and others have made strides in understanding the neuroscience of willpower. Dr. McGonigal has sometimes referred to willpower as won’t power. Usually, when we make a change, there is a honeymoon phase fueled by some willful self-control. The honeymoon is typically followed by a plummet, then lapses, self-critique, and losing sight of the goal. This is why resolutions don’t work; I have experienced this firsthand many times. Research shows that we are more likely to succeed if we align with feeling what we want - visualizing and embodying it in increments instead of aligning with the grit of our will. Grinning and bearing it won’t work over the long run.
Make Small Steps
Research also shows that making small changes and not making a big deal of them increases success. Linking these changes to already established healthy routines also helps. The more we can keep these small changes under our “I should” voice surveillance, the better. Like many of us, I often feel burdened that “I should” get my several thousand steps in a day. If I start to sneak in micromovements like stretching in bed or moving around while waiting for the water to boil for tea, my natural appetite and pleasure in movement awakens, and the steps start adding up.
Share the Care in Community
In Karuna; we foster a community where people can speak candidly about their struggles and extend natural warmth to each other. Right now, there are many around the world suffering just as you are. Recovery and other groups have shown that belonging and caring in communities is a secret sauce for changing our lives.
Why bother with all this? Who cares if we change? As times get more challenging, I aspire to be, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, a person on the boat who can support stability and sanity in stormy seas. I want to be able to show up not only for myself but for others and our world.
This is a significant and complex topic, and I’ve highlighted just a few themes here as a conversation starter. What have I left off this list? Join me for a shared exploration of change-making on Wednesday, January 10th, from 6 – 7 pm MT.
I wish you a good holiday season and positive transformations in 2024.
By Sandra Ladley
This article is related to an event. Click here to learn more.
“The sky is falling; the sky is falling” cried the anxious chick Henny Penny in the old European folktale known as Chicken Little in the United States. Alarmed, Henny Penny begins a quest to alert the king. Along the way, they share their journey and learn lessons from companion animals. In the end, Henny Penny finds out that it was (just) an acorn that bopped them on the head. The moral of the story is to have courage and keep your wits about you even when it seems like the sky is falling.
We are bombarded daily by more than acorns signaling climate change and its effects. Eco-anxiety is palpable and shared – we worry about past, present, and future harms and fear environmental catastrophes and doom. We get so anxious that we don’t want to look anymore, as satirically portrayed in the 2021 film Don’t Look Up. Waking up to the news is frightening. In just this past summer of suffering, we in the US have experienced so much: the fires in Canada and Maui, the thick smoke in New York, the rain and floods back east, and the empty apocalyptic streets of Phoenix at 120 degrees.
Are you still reading? How can we keep looking up? What can we do? How to cope? How to help?
This complex and painful matter cuts close for all of us.
A colleague recently said she learned years ago that anxiety is her friend. Wow! Anxiety has a bad reputation, especially for those of us who grew up in environments that felt unsafe. To cope with our anxieties many of us developed behaviors such as hypervigilance, ruminating, obsessive compulsions, numbing, and addictions. Anxiety as an emotion is experienced as a somatic dis-ease for which you must take action. Rooted in survival, it starts as a warning in your brain that causes your sympathetic nervous system to create bodily tension. Then, we’re flooded by thoughts, and often, as the adage says, and without dissing Henny Penny, we run around in a panic like a chicken with our head cut off.
How do you experience anxiety? How can we make friends with anxiety and use it to our benefit?
The warnings and sensations of anxiety can be a friend to us if we respond to them with attunement. Some of us use anxiety as a source of drive, as it can help us focus and get things done. For example, I have developed procrastination habits with deadlines where I rely on my body getting into an anxious state as fuel for bursts of creativity.
We can also start to recognize when our habits that stem from anxiety are not always a friend to us. For example, when we feel that dis-ease, how quickly do we want to do anything to make that feeling go away --- have a drink, smoke, food, or turn to social media or streaming?
In Karuna Training, we train to become familiar with the full range of our emotions, including anxiety, through meditation and embodiment practices that increase our attunement to them. As we open our hearts, we cultivate compassion toward ourselves and others.
With eco-anxiety, we are now in a global pandemic of anxiety. It seems to be the defining characteristic of our times, affecting not just some but everyone - including people who may appear less anxious or less aware. It is especially hard for those experiencing climate change firsthand, those with the most to lose, and our young people.
A 2021 international study of 10,000 youth aged 16-25 showed that 59% were very or extremely worried about climate change. More than 45% said that their feelings about climate change affect their daily lives and functioning. The study showed that our youth experience high anxiety around their governments’ inadequate responses to the climate crisis.
We suffer from eco-anxiety and try to discharge it in often harmful ways, whether conscious or not. We feel hopeless and lose connection to meaning in our lives. We go into paralysis and numbing. We get easily triggered based on our values and politics and go on the attack with our perceived enemies, forgetting the common ground we share. We go into denialism and ignore the truth. We doom scroll and become nihilistic. We feel powerless and hope that religion, science, or technology will save us.
How do you tend to discharge your eco-anxiety negatively?
Last year the International Panel on Climate Change issued a “final” warning that we must act on climate change while there is still time. Changes that could have been made decades ago have still not been made. Changes ARE happening but are not being made fast enough by enough of us at work and at home.
To make more change quickly, we need to reduce the harmful tendencies of our eco-anxiety and tap into it as a force for responsibility and action. Here are some commonly cited steps that we can take to help cope, and to contribute to change:
1) Ground yourself in the present through embodiment and connection with nature.
2) Acknowledge and be curious about your feelings. Get and offer support for doing so.
3) Limit your news intake and recognize when you are doom scrolling. Take media breaks.
4) Join a group, community, or circle working on climate change. A 2022 study of United States university students showed a positive correlation between collective action and a reduction of the adverse symptoms of eco-anxiety.
5) Use your voice! Know your government representatives; write and call them.
6) Find out what you can do personally to have less of an adverse climate impact. Take small steps, which increases the likelihood of sticking with them.
7) Recognize your strengths and vulnerabilities, and what you can contribute. Try not to compare yourself to others.
8) Cultivate what is described in the Serenity Prayer: the ability to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
9) Call on the wisdom of those you see as ancestors - who demonstrated courage when faced with adversity.
10) Resource yourself in the best ways you know how.
What have I left off this list? What can you do to care for yourself, others, and our planet as we face this crisis?
I hope you’ll join me online for a shared exploration of this urgent topic on Saturday, September 23rd at 10 AM MT.
By Sandra Ladley
This article is related to an event. Click here to learn more.
"Maybe we can have it all - but not all at once." – Judy Blume
What if we viewed aging as an art? Joni Mitchell at 79 tweeted this past week that old age is great, with three exclamation points! In a recent documentary, 85-year-old Judy Blume said that you can have it all - but not all at once. What parts of THE ALL can we have in later life?
Recently I turned 67. It feels personally risky for me to come out with that because of the projections and assumptions we hold in our culture. I should hide my age. How will you see me now? How do you feel about aging and old people?
Karuna Training attracts people in different life phases to our programs – from people in their 20s to people in their 80s - from Gen Z to Millennials, to Gen X, to Boomers, and the Silent Generation. It is powerful to witness the exchange of cross-generational experience and wisdom in a peer learning setting, which seems rare. I see all of us wanting to learn how to live with dignity, resilience, and strength as we mature.
In our society, we tend to see our elders as having less value and to negatively focus on age despite our ‘seniors’ being active contributors. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that by the year 2026 3 out of 10 workers will be between the ages of 65 and 74 and 1 in 10 will be age 75 or older. Beyond paid work, elders provide many hours of service to their families and communities, and I see this very much in my peer group. Recent statistics show that 24% of grandparents provide 12-25 hours of care for their grandchildren weekly and 22% provide more than 25 hours of weekly care. Additionally, elders contribute many service hours to their communities, churches, and interest groups. How are elders you know contributing to society?
Our society is also fixated on the negative aspects of aging. Of course, there are the losses, vulnerabilities, and fears that we all face and cope with as we age but a predominately negative view not only excludes the fruits and wisdom of elderhood as a life phase but also isolates, weakens, and disempowers us as an elder class. It has not always been this way. In many cultures, elders have been held with high regard and care over time. Wrinkles were not a liability but an asset. And, speaking of wrinkles, I’ve noticed a recent trend in the beauty industry such that product labeling is changing from anti-aging to pro-aging. Has aging also become a ground for polarization? Are you pro or anti-aging?
The art of aging must include not only working with changes in our bodies, hearts, and minds but also the negativity and disempowerment that our society currently holds toward us. I am grateful to those who have worked and continue to work hard to recognize elders as a protected class. I am inspired to help reclaim our importance for society.
To help plan for my later years I’ve recently used lifespan calculators to estimate how long I might live. These calculators use questions on health, lifestyle, and circumstances to deliver percentages on how long you might live to different ages - which could be longer than you think. More people are living to 100 and medical advances are increasing the likelihood of living to 120. It’s not crazy to plan for 30 years after 65. Yet, at the same time, climate change and current world events are posing serious risks to all of our lives. Regardless, old age is potentially a big space of time - a large canvas to work with - if we want to approach our elder years artfully.
THE ART OF AGING - THEMES
In preparation for this article, I scanned what’s out there and discussed the art of aging with others. Some collective guidance has emerged and I have highlighted a few themes below. This is not a comprehensive list but a teaser to engage you. And, it is not just for seniors – we’re all aging!
See Aging as a Series of Surprises or Events: My friend Amani Loutfy holds grief retreats and is actively grieving her beloved mother Dorothy Clardy Loutfy. Amani recently posted this quote from her mom: “Aging isn’t a gentle slope; it happens in phases, events. I didn’t understand this when I was younger.” We tend to imagine aging as a gradual deterioration but it frequently presents as surprises and often shocks, without warning. Elders will say “I didn’t know it was going to be this way, nobody told me” and “I could walk and thought I would always be able to and now I can’t.” Be forewarned that there may be no warning. Things happen and we need to adjust. How have you worked with shocks in your life previously? What can you tap into that you already know about your own resilience? On the other hand, much of what we imagine as the gentle slope of deterioration can be actively mitigated with good self-care.
Practice Mindful Habits as Self-Care in Action: Speaking of self-care, it is never too late. I have tended to take a reckless and neglectful attitude toward my physical well-being and am now increasingly aware that this will not serve me well over time. I notice that I need to be more mindful of how I move and what I eat and drink. In the same way that we attend to the deferred maintenance of our homes like, for example, a roof overdue for repair that leaked terribly in this past season’s rains, we can attend to the deferred maintenance of ourselves. Research shows that we CAN teach old dogs new tricks. We can retrain and develop positive habits where we had negative ones.
Use Invisibility as a Superpower: As elders, we experience increasing invisibility -- not being seen as attractive, not being seen at all, not being asked for our input, and being dismissed. This is hard. And, if people DO see us, then they may see us as disabled of body or mind. I encourage you to notice when you feel not seen, and when you’re dismissed. Be empowered in experimenting with looking into what’s going on and calling it out in a non-aggressive way. Also, alternatively, and perhaps devilishly, see when you can accomplish things wearing the cloak of invisibility that might have been hard for you to do otherwise.
Act your Age in All its Glory: How often have you said to yourself “I shouldn’t do that - I’m too old”? How is the inner voice of ‘act your age’ limiting you? Where did that voice come from? Have you limited yourself to peer age group situations? Do you have friends older and younger than you? I have been inspired and delighted so many times by the playfulness and freedom that elders afford. Act your age! Let yourself go!
Activate Compassion through Grief and Regret: As we age, we encounter losses, disappointments, and regrets. Our loved ones are gone or going, we feel let down, and we are haunted by mistakes and choices we’ve made that we wish we hadn’t. Life review is happening whether we’re conscious of it or not. If we allow ourselves to open our hearts to these things, and not avoid them, then they can be a doorway to opening to compassion for ourselves and others. This is where we work in Karuna, which is a training in compassion-based skills. We celebrate the transformative capacity of our limitless hearts. What pain or regret is stuck or frozen in your heart?
Fall in Love with the World Daily: it’s never too late to fall in love with the world on a daily basis. Our sex and intimate lives morph over time but it is continually possible to swoon with delight at birdsong, flowers opening, music, art, wind, water, good food, beauty, life’s comedy, and the delights of the world around us. Joy and laughter are just around the corner. What brings you joy?
Find Strength Through Belonging: Who knew that asking for help would be such a big deal? Our society emphasizes the independence of the individual at the expense of being held in communities. How strange that we are ashamed of asking for and needing help. Right now, many people have hearts aching with loneliness and desperation. They feel helpless, and they blame themselves. Suicide rates are rising rapidly, especially for elders. And, so many of us can’t find support in our families. We live far apart, or if we are close in distance we may feel far apart or have rifts based on family history, politics, or religion that make it hard to be together. Help! The fabric of our lives is coming apart!
There are good ways to find community, to find friends, and to be there for each other. It can be through shared interests, spirituality, recovery, activism, volunteering, or things like games, gardening, walking, or sports. Give yourself a nudge to get out there a little and make connections. Ask someone to be an ally for you in doing this. There are also ways to listen, forgive, heal, and move forward with our families, to both move beyond and be inclusive of our differences with those we love. Finding belonging is key to the art of aging.
Stay Curious – Communicate Across Generations: How many times has an elder told me they stopped listening to music after a certain year and that they don’t like Hip-Hop? How many times has a younger person told me that they dislike old fogey music and please don’t make them listen to a Broadway show? We can be so far apart in our tastes and so siloed in our generational groups. This is exacerbated through social media and the algorithms that narrow our world through where we browse, and our ‘likes.’ Several people I spoke to for this article shared the delight of their discoveries from listening to and learning from people older and younger than them and expressed a longing for more. Staying curious and interested beyond our initial reactions and generational silos is pivotal to keeping our minds flexible, and adapting to change.
Make Friends with the Present Moment: As we age our cognition changes. We do things like making lists, setting reminders, and putting things in the same place to help us remember and stay on top of things. We engage in activities like playing games, reading fiction, and writing to exercise our minds. Research shows that over our lives we spend around 40% of our time worrying. As we age, our worries can both increase and decrease based on our cognition, emotions, and life situation. Regardless, finding ways to make friends with the present moment and worrying less can be very helpful. Meditation, which is the cornerstone of Karuna Training, is a time-tested method that can help us see when we are present and when we are not. It strengthens our capacity for present attention and sharpens our awareness of the changing nature of our minds, and of reality.
Make Friends with Death: The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron entitled her most recent book How We Live is How We Die. Death is real and is happening all around us. The more we can attune to the reality of death, and how we relate to change, the better prepared we will be for our own death. And, making practical preparations like having your house in order, a will, a medical directive, and funeral arrangements can give you peace of mind and make it easier on those taking care of you, and after you. You can make your last acts artful too.
What do you think contributes to the art of aging? What have I left off this list?
There is a lot to talk about on this topic and this is just a start. I hope you’ll join me on Saturday, July 15th, from 10 -11 AM Mountain Time for a Karuna Live! shared group exploration.
Till then, sincerely,
By Sandra Ladley
This article is related to an event. Click here to learn more.
“What is the true habitat of the human? Adventurous play. A human denied this habitat of adventure and surprise and play is denied the opportunity to become truly human.”
- Brian Swimme, The Universe is a Green Dragon
A common invitation that kids extend to adults is “Let’s play! Or “Will you play with me?” As grown-ups, we tend to be reticent - we’re so tired and weighed down by the burdens of our days. We hesitate to follow the impulses of the moment wherever they may lead. We’d rather just get back to work, back to scrolling, back to the game, back to our drink, and back to arguing with our partner. Maybe we feel embarrassed to be silly or foolish now that we’re adults.
What happened to us?
Can you recall a time when it felt freeing to follow whatever - when you could create a whole world from what was around you, and have fun? A time when you could spin tales into imaginary realms and sing and dance and run around to your heart’s content, laughing all the way?
Play is generally defined as something we do that brings us joy, without a necessary result. In today’s world where we measure everything for high efficiency, play can feel like a waste of our precious time. Why bother with something unproductive? These days it seems we never get enough rest and we can’t catch up, or catch a break. We wake up afraid to look at the news to find out what’s happened next … war, pandemic, climate change, systemic injustice, the economy ….Who has time or interest in play? If we’re not doing something to survive or be a help then wouldn’t we rather just hang our heads and cry? Play is way down on the priority list.
We know that play is crucial for a child’s healthy development but did you know that play is also important for us as adults? Play can bring joy to our lives, relieve stress, stimulate creative thinking, support our lifelong learning, and connect us to others and the world around us. Play helps us have insights, accomplish more, and enjoy our accomplishments. Science has shown that we need to play to keep our brains flexible, ward off depression, sustain optimism, and sharpen our social-emotional skills. Making time to be in, as Brian Swimme would say, our natural habitat of adventurous play, a habitat where we discover and are surprised, helps us reclaim our humanness.
Research shows that how we enter into what is referred to as a “play state” is very personal, and can change over time. For example, I tend to dislike games of all kinds - word, board, and card games. I tend to get anxious in a competitive environment so games are not a preferred play state for me. My aversion could have something to do with the fact that my mother was very focused on the card game Bridge. She competed in Bridge tournaments, became a Life Master, and taught Bridge classes. While I ended up being averse to games and Bridge, my sister has become a bit of a card shark herself. We both like numbers and strategy, such as are used in games and Bridge, and likely inherited that trait, but have found different play states based on our personal experience. Recently the Wordle phenom has helped me to relax with game-playing a wee bit and I now enjoy being in a Wordle group. Research shows that we can change what stimulates a play state for us over time.
In contrast, a kind of play I enjoy is making tasty meals out of leftovers. I find the challenge of creating something delicious out of whatever is available to be thrilling. But, again, it’s not for everyone. My dear friend throws out all her leftovers. She is uncomfortable even having them in her refrigerator.
A wide variety of activities can engage us in a play state, and it’s very personal.
How did you play when you were young? How do you play now?
Dr. Stuart Brown, the Director of the National Institute for Play, has gathered information from thousands of interviews to identify eight “Play Personalities” that reflect the many different ways we engage in play. Dr. Brown has categorized the play personalities as follows:
1) The Collector – joy in gathering collections
2) The Competitor – joy in playing the game/winning
3) The Creator/Artist – joy in making things
4) The Director – joy in planning and making things happen
5) The Explorer - joy in discovery,
6) The Joker – joy in humor and silliness
7) The Kinesthete - joy in movement
8) The Storyteller – joy in imagination
Where do you find joy when taking a break from everyday responsibilities?
What are your most and least favorite types of play?
What do you think your play personality is?
How does it help you?
What play would you like to try out or do more of?
Throughout the pandemic, I found myself doing collages for the first time in many years. I delighted in working with materials I found on the street or in my recycling, not using any “art supplies” per se. I joined an online group called ArtPlay facilitated by my friend Odessa Spore where we would check in, meditate, have an open space for play, and then we would share at the end - if we wanted to. Sometimes I did collages, other times I worked on singing, other times I worked on writing, and other times I danced around. In a sense, we shared a zoom open studio space. Being part of the ArtPlay group greatly helped my mental health during the pandemic. I recommend joining such a group, or perhaps you have a group of friends who would like to set aside time to play together regularly – a grown-up version of what we did when we were young. Like with going to the gym or anything else we want to do but resist, it can be hard to get going on your own with playing and it helps to have buddies to support you.
In Karuna Training, we recognize different learning styles and include an open space for play as part of our retreat programs. We find this helps people to integrate their experiences. It is interesting to watch people’s inclinations – playing together or alone, or going out into nature. Some are very active, others less so. People write, move, sing, draw, paint, construct things, walk about, and take photographs. Some of us can get quite silly. It’s fun! Sometimes people want to collaborate, and sometimes they want to share - or show and tell. The play periods bring a kind of oxygen that aerates the emotional intensity that can arise in group retreats.
In the Karuna Live! Zoom open session on Saturday, April 15th from 10 - 11 AM MT we’ll have a chance to explore this topic of play together, assess our proclivities, and reflect on how we might want to bring play into our lives going forward. I hope you’ll join me.
Spring is here! Time to take a break! Fresh start! Let’s play!
by Sandra Ladley
This article is related to an event, click here to learn more.
Many of us in the U.S. first encountered Valentine’s Day by exchanging valentines in elementary school. Our parents and teachers would purchase boxes of small cartoon-themed valentines and our teachers would set aside time for us to create and deliver them. I remember my fourth-grade teacher making a construction paper mailbox for us to drop them in. She then ‘delivered’ the valentines around the classroom. So, there we were at a young age considering love in our lives.
Who would we send valentines to?
Did we have friends or crushes?
Would we sign our names to the valentine, or leave a question mark as a secret admirer?
Who would send us a valentine?
Did we have friends?
Was anyone interested in us?
Or, did we think the whole thing was ridiculous and we’d rather be running around outside, or reading?
These early Valentine’s Day rituals could be playful and fun - or awful and lonely - a horrible popularity contest. How were you first imprinted by Valentines?
What is very much a U.S. commercial holiday has its history in Saint Valentine, a complicated figure from early Christianity. What’s come to us in the name of Saint Valentine are tales of advocacy for love. He may have died around February 14th 270 AD. However, some scholars think he may have died at another time and his commemoration was moved to February to coincide with the feasts and fertility rituals of the early spring pagan celebration Lupercalia. It makes sense that a proclamation and celebration of love would happen in February as it’s the time of year in the Northern hemisphere when we’re still huddled under the covers, waiting with anticipation for the bursting out into the frolic of spring. As the lyrics from the Cole Porter song say “birds do it, bees do it … let’s do it, let’s fall in love!”
Our Varied Love Lives
Our culture is dominated by the message that love is ... love, marriage, and the baby carriage. However, in actuality, we find love in a variety of ways, and it changes over time. Some of us find love in partnership(s), romance, and sexuality. Some of us find it in family and domesticity. Some of us find it in close friendships. Some of us find it in community and service. Some of us find it in the arts and creative expression. Some of us find it in devotion and spirituality. Some of us find it in the natural world. Where do you find love? What have I left off this list?
We find love in varied ways because of the conscious and unconscious choices we’ve made based on our passions, circumstances, patterns, and sense of safety. We learn to speak different dialects of love languages and try to learn them from each other, which can be very trying. We win and lose love battles and lick our wounds in heartbreak. We sing along to love songs, longing to swoon again.
No matter how we find love and whether we feel like a success or failure in the love department we all experience the DRIVE TO CONNECT throughout our lives. This desire for loving connection is deep in our human experience, and we recognize it when we feel it. How would you describe it? How does a loving connection feel in your mind, heart, and body?
We also know the experience of longing for love, longing for connection, and how we experience this varies too. It could be named, for example, a dis-ease within ourselves, loneliness, neediness, anxiety, depression, numbness, craving, loss, sadness, grief, and isolation.
How would you describe your experience of longing for love?
What does it feel like? What do you tend to do when it comes up?
Do you wish it could be different?
What would you like to change?
Do you feel stuck? Where are you holding back?
How can you move on?
Relationships Make for a Happy Life
It has been shown that loving connections are essential to our well-being, regardless of our temperament and age. The New York Times recently published a series on happiness. The first article in the series cited the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the biggest multigenerational in-depth study of human happiness in the world. This study has shown that strong relationships make for a happy life.
Karuna Training is Relationship Training
In Karuna, we work on strengthening our relationships: our relationship with ourselves, our relationship with others, and our relationship as part of a community.
Strengthening our loving relationship with ourselves
In Karuna, we start on the meditation cushion, sitting down to notice the rise and fall of the stories we tell ourselves and hear the voices we have going in our heads. For example, when it comes to love, things like ‘I’m unlovable, there’s something wrong with me, I’m unworthy, I’m stuck, I’m condemned.’ We quickly recognize these voices of self-criticism that Tara Brach calls the toxic gas we’re all breathing. We become familiar with the stories we replay over and over and our fantasies, perhaps developing a sense of humor – ‘Oh that again.’ We settle down, relax, and begin to practice Maitri, making friends with ourselves just as we are, and open to our vulnerable hearts.
In Karuna, we also look at how we care for ourselves, the healthy - and not-so-healthy – habits and rituals of our everyday lives. How we practice self-care and extend loving kindness to ourselves is a good foundation for our love lives, always a work in progress.
Strengthening our loving relationship with others
In Karuna, we tap into the fact that we are continually sensing and feeling others as a source of human strength. We train in the practice of compassionate exchange, a form of extending natural warmth and deep listening. We open to another person as they share and practice listening without judgment and without giving advice or fixing, which helps them to find their own way. We so rarely hold space for each other in this manner and it can be incredibly healing.
We also do the traditional deep Buddhist compassion practice of Tonglen, the practice of actively connecting with the pain we feel in ourselves, in others, and in the world. We train in reversing our usual tendency to push away the pain, bring it closer, and extend the ease and loving kindness that arises in our hearts, a form of natural ventilation.
Strengthening our loving relationship with a community
We’re living such isolated lives during this time. We feel lucky when we can make meaningful connections online and in person. When we meet in person it’s often behind masks with social distancing and without handshakes and hugs. How will we adapt and find our relationship with a community over the long run? In Karuna, we gather in an open circle in deepening week retreats and online. We practice speaking the truth of our experience, and witness and hold each other without crosstalk. This sacred circle practice is time-tested and transformative for our relationship life.
Despite these fraught times I continually see people falling in love with the world in big and small ways. I see people opening their hearts and experimenting with where they find love and intimacy. In the Karuna Live on Saturday, February 18th we’ll have a chance to look at how we manifest our love lives, how we feel about it, and how we might like to change. It’s never too late. Spring is in the air.
From the heart,
By Sandra Ladley
The light is changing, the temperatures are cooling, and the leaves are crisping. Autumn is approaching in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s a late September day today, and I’m preparing to make applesauce from nearby apple trees. What riches do we have that we can put up like fruit in glistening glass jars? What will help us prepare and make it through the winter?
Sorry to remind you, but dark times do come, and we can think we’re the only person feeling so awful. ‘Autumn anxiety’ is an established seasonal syndrome that can manifest as trepidation at the start of the work and school year, worry that we won’t accomplish enough, and fear of entering a cold winter with dark moods. We can feel we’re to blame somehow, get depressed or frozen in numbness or other moods, and forget the resources we have. We can feel lost and bereft.
In Karuna Training, we actively work with tapping into and supporting the riches we tend to forget we have, especially when we’re in pain.
Here I’ll highlight a few of these riches based on my personal experience. We’ll have a chance to explore this together at the Karuna Live! on Saturday, October 15th, from 10-11 AM Mountain Time. I hope you’ll join me.
Outer Riches (Physical, Environmental)
We can start with attunement to and appreciation of the seasons, not resisting them, as a ground for this exploration. Simply put, sowing seeds in the spring, getting out and active in summer, celebrating and harvesting in fall, and retreating and deepening in winter. Separating ourselves from these earthly rhythms and getting caught in our screens and machines as if these rhythms didn't exist can make us sick. Noticing these cycles and getting outside into nature and away from our laptop or couch is good medicine, regardless of the time of year.
I told my good friend and travel-mate Carl I was writing this article and asked him what he stores up to help himself through dark times. He immediately responded that he and I don’t look at the photographs of our travels enough and that looking back at these good memories helps him in dark times. Similarly, Melissa Moore and I recently facilitated a Karuna Training class Coming of Age: Rituals of Life Review. We took the time to go through the phases of our lives weekly and looked at photos, journals, and keepsakes from each phase. We shared our reflections in class and found this helped each of us to have a more honest and appreciative perspective on our lives. So, another resource is spending time with the things that remind us of our inspirations, companionship, and learning.
The riches we have also include our self-care rituals and routines. What things help you come into your body-mind in the present and cheer you up? For example, you might … take a walk, dance around, exercise, tend the garden, walk the dog, pet the cat, cook something, listen to music, sing, draw, journal, take a bath, take a shower, take a nap, meditate, pause, breathe … Scheduling time for these things into our daily calendar, just like we do for our work and household commitments, can keep us from slipping into personal darkness.
Inner Riches (Emotional)
In Karuna Training, we strengthen our resilience by tapping the wellspring of openness and compassion that is our birthright as human beings. Love comes first for all of us. This is easy to forget as we now navigate the toxic muck of hatred everywhere. How can we find the courage and an open heart and mind?
Finding safe spaces to listen, feel, and share is essential for riding the waves of our emotions, whether talking with a trusted friend or family member or sharing in a beloved community. Becoming familiar with our danger zones and recognizing the signs when we need to ask for and get help from friends and professionals goes along with this.
In Karuna, we turn to the contemplative tradition’s deeply rooted and time-tested mindfulness and compassion-based practices. Mindfulness and awareness meditation affords us the space to settle down, experience the changing weather of our emotions, and notice the stories we tell ourselves. Meditation opens a window to the space of mind beyond the mind and our limitless hearts. Compassion-based practices like Tonglen, where we exchange ourselves for others, can help us recognize that others feel just as we do and that we can extend kindness and warmth.
Awakening our inner activism and offering service through volunteering can bring us lonely. We can work together toward shared goals. It feels good to orient toward making a difference, no matter how slow or incremental progress may be. There are many opportunities to make calls, write postcards, walk our neighborhoods, and call our congresspeople about the issues that mean something to us. Activism can also be daunting and overwhelming. Self-care and balance are essential here to keep us from getting disheartened or bitter.
Spiritual Riches (Mind and Spirit)
Many people use slogans and affirmations from trusted traditions and sources to work through difficult emotions and circumstances. I turn to the Mahayana Lojong slogans of Atisha from the 11th century again and again. Pema Chodron and many other Buddhist teachers have taught on these over time, and they remain relevant, at least to me. Here are a few of the 59 slogans that I contemplate and take to heart regularly: Be grateful to everyone, When the world is filled with evil, transform all circumstances into the path of bodhi (awakening), Change your attitude but remain natural, Train without bias in all areas, and Don’t expect applause. I remember my mother working with slogans and bible verses to recover from alcoholism. She imparted these to me when I was a teen, and though I resisted at the time, as a teenager does, some have stayed with me. Are there slogans or affirmations that help you through difficult times?
Speaking of Change your attitude but remain natural, in Karuna, which is rooted in the Vajrayana tradition, we work with changing the hateful attitude we tend to have toward those areas of ourselves that we wish we could hide, change or remove. If only we didn’t tend to get too angry, passionate, ignorant, jealous, or envious, then life would be just fine, right?
In Karuna, we see emotions as energy patterns and a source of richness. We train in attuning to the wisdom of the energy of our emotions and the possibilities they hold for learning and healing. For example, the source of our anger is often clear mirror-like seeing, but then we take a rigid stance of I’m right, get impatient, and inflict our anger on others. After that, there is maybe some relief but also remorse and regret. Each of the emotions can be seen in this way. Once we start to see and work with energy patterns, insights come to us. We find more malleability in our behaviors and create less harm for ourselves and others. Every difficult circumstance holds possibilities for reflection and transmutation.
There are many riches we tend to forget, and these are just a few. I hope you’ll come to the Karuna Live! Session on October 15th, where we’ll have time to compare notes, harvest, and experientially store our riches like good cinnamon-scented applesauce through the winter.