Getting Out of Your Head: Mindfulness is a Misnomer

Getting Out of Your Head: Mindfulness is a Misnomer

Picture: Eartha Kitt modelling bodyfulness

Sati is the ancient Indian word that was translated as “mindfulness” during the Victorian era — the era that took complex Buddhist concepts and gave us riveting translations like “suffering,” “aggregates,” and “sympathetic joy.” Ugh!

Sati is at the center of the training we undertake to alleviate stress and cultivate well–being. But we put the word “mind” right up front giving the impresssion that all we need to do is focus on our thoughts and presto… joy!

In some ways, yes, mindfulness is a great translation for (part of) sati. It speaks to the attentional capacity we need to develop — especially because most of us are complete and utter scatterbrains, our thoughts and emotions constantly yank us around.  But, in fact, despite all the focus on neuroscience, it’s not only about our brains.

Sati is about training and increasing our capacity to be with our present moment experiences in a more easeful, non-reactive way. The body is the perfect place for that training. While the mind can (and does) pull us into the past or future, the body is only ever in the present moment. That’s why the breath and body are used as primary objects of meditation in so many traditions.

One connotation of sati is memory. Not in the sense of recalling information or having a memory of the past but of that act remembering. You know the feeling during meditation when your mind has been wandering and you come back into your body, your breath, the present moment? You’ve remembered “Oh, yeah, duh, I was meditating. That’s what I was doing.” That very precise moment of awareness is sati.  We are remembering to be fully in this moment. We feel our breath, our body, our existence.

Interestingly, to dismember means to pull the body apart piece by piece… Maybe we are re–membering. We are getting out of our heads, coming to our senses, cultivating an embodied awareness… putting our bodies back together breath by breath. 

Here’s how embodied awareness [translated here as mindfulness *sigh*] is described in the classical teachings :

There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening.  And what is that one thing? It is mindfulness centered on the body.
(Anguttara Nikaya I, 21 )
If the body is not cultivated, the mind cannot be cultivated. If the body is cultivated then the mind can be cultivated. (Majjhima Nikaya 36)

It wasn’t until I started doing yoga in my early twenties that I began to (re)connect to my body (I, like many of us, lost this connection in adolescence).  I learned where I carry stress and tension in my body and where I could find and cultivate ease.  I began to understand that contraction and tension in the mind has an effect on our bodies, and also that our bodies effect our minds. BUT we can’t think our way to relaxation. We need to retrain our awareness to uncover and encourage ease and pleasure in the body.

For a few years now, my main meditation practice has been lying down. I don’t usually fall asleep when I meditate, so this is a good practice for me (although the Dalai Lama said sleep is the best meditation, so, there’s that). I encourage you to find an easy and easeful way to connect to your body in your practice, to practice re–membering, to practice bodyfulness.

Space IS Structure

Space IS Structure

Image by Satsuki Shibuya



Before I left for vacation, my friend, Colin (an excellent coach for those who are looking), was coaching me as I was lamenting my inability to create more structure for writing & creativity . He was guiding me in an inquiry process and the statement “the space IS the structure” came out of my mouth. I realized, once again *sigh*, how I crowd all the space in my life and how, get this, even my meditation practice becomes a way to fill the space.These days, it feels so difficult to make space.  Anyone else feel like this?

But the ridiculous part coming from me — all my programs use the phrase make space: make space for transformation, make space for inspiration, make space for change… make space for all of you. Duh.

Of course, it’s not my or your fault (hardly anything is — because modernity). So much of our world now is specifically designed to take space. Our gadgets as a whole, yes. But also the embedded processes of technology… the scrolling function of social media (someone designed that precisely so that you would not have to bother with the extra micro-moment it takes to click “next”), the autoplay function on streaming video that doesn’t allow any break between episodes (advice: turn that shit off!), the ubiquitous red–colored notifications on apps which immediately draw your attention when it might wander or wonder (red is also the sign for danger for a reason), all the content, content, content, content.

But also, the general trend of our society towards time scarcity and the state of constantly being over scheduled. It’s even affecting children.

Personally, I have also been overwhelmed with life circumstances, so I could maybe give myself a break, right? But that would mean making space in my heart for something different than the self–flagellating voice of comparison &  criticism. I look at all the people producing weekly newsletters and writing books and I beat myself up for feeling depleted and uninspired.

After my intuitive declaration about space & structure, I learned of the Japanese word ma, which is often translated as “gap”, “space”, “pause” or “the space between two structural parts”

This is the Kanji character below. It graphically combines “door” and “sun”  and symbolizes light entering through space (originally it was “moon” — which is a whole other post about patriarchy and masculine symbols replacing feminine ones) .

[Ma] is best described as a consciousness of place, not in the sense of an enclosed three-dimensional entity, but rather the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form deriving from an intensification of vision. Ma is not something that is created by compositional elements; it takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these elements. Therefore, ma can be defined as experiential place understood with emphasis on interval. (Thank you Wikipedia!)

Here’s more:

Space is substance. Cézanne painted and modelled space. Giacometti sculpted by “taking the fat off space”. Mallarmé conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lay in pauses… Isaac Stern described music as “that little bit between each note – silences which give the form.” —The Art of Looking Sideways, by Alan Fletcher

I realize now that I was trying to stoke the fire of creativity without giving enough air to the flames. Anyone who has tried to build a fire knows that it needs three things: heat, fuel, and oxygen. I barely had the heat (inspiration) and the fuel (energy) let alone the oxygen (space). When I did carve out some time, I used up the little oxygen there was almost immediately — I could get no farther than writing a few sentences before losing the light. My imagination could not experience the consciousness of place, the interval necessary for creation.

Sometimes I notice something similar in my meditation practice itself.  Life gets busy and I only make time for the minimum, usually a 15 or 20 minute sit in the morning. My mind, racing with that momentum, has no space for the  silences which give the form

If space is the breath of art, maybe breath is the art of space.

I CAN choose differently, plan more carefully, open up space in my daily schedule (by fiercely protecting it from filling up!). Doing so allows me to dedicate more time to my practice, rather than cramming it into the crack in my morning. When I let go of the rushing, sit for 45 or even 75(!!) minutes, and maybe even create spaciousness before and after the meditation it’s like a waterway that has been replenished and undammed. Things are able to flow.

So, I am (re)committing to making space in my calendar for writing, for longer practice periods, as well as for ma or what I’m calling free(dom) time (scheduled time for no–thing). To do this I must (re)connect to my sense of inner no–ing and not revert to crowding the door and blocking the moonlight.

AND I am going to NOT beat myself up when the space inevitable fills up again and I have to start over (just like with my mind in meditation).

Tell me, how will you make more space?

“No” is a complete sentence. On Inner No–ing.

“No” is a complete sentence. On Inner No–ing.

Forgotten toddler tantrums aside, I’ve never been good at saying “no.” People pleasing, compulsive compassion, wonder womaning, parker–posey–party girling, and exaggerated empathy have long led to cycles of overdrive followed by burnout.
These imbalanced ways of reacting to the world are definitely learned behavior. Growing up, I got plenty of messages about being a caretaker and putting others first while alsobeing successful and sexy — Enjoli (look it up millenials). But I am a grown–ass woman now and am learning to say “no.”

Say “yes” to Inner No–ing. “No” is a compete sentence.*

But why is it so hard to say it? And mean it?

For me, there are a few things operating (they feed into and on each other):

  1. the need to please: This one is my kryptonite. I have a voracious need for approval. It’s wound up closely with no. 2  but is more outwardly focused — the actions I take more than the messages I receive/interpret. In the past, the need to please had me accepting almost every invitation that I received. The need to belong is wired into us for survival — we needed the pack to avoid harm. But maybe it’s been taken it a little too far — we will not be eaten by wild animals if we do

    Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson

    n’t go to someone’s birthday gathering.

  2. fear of rejection: It’s embarrassing how much positive feedback buoys me and how much criticism cuts. I’m not the only one. I have a friend who remembers nothing of the multiple good reviews written about her artistic project from 20+ years ago, but she can quote entire sentences from the one bad review (from a shitty publication).  Also: someone not liking me ≠ being eaten by wild animals.
  3. FOMO, aka greed: Fear of missing out is really an acronym for craving. And craving is really our not–so-smart strategy for dealing with the impermanence/unreliability of life. If I distract myself with all the things to do, the things to visit, the things to read/watch/eat/consume, maybe that will keep suffering at bay (um, nope).  A smarter strategy is as Suzuki Roshi describes accepting that [things] go away. Maybe I don’t need that extra cookie/glass of wine/pair of sneakers/episode of Transparent to be happy.
  4. the pull of culture and my own conditioning: The Buddhist path (or any spiritual practice) can be thought of as “going against the stream.” That’s how the Buddha described it 2,600 years ago; and there was no social media. Well, now it’s like going against the tsunami. It’s hard not to be pulled by the messages of our time, especially when they’re disguised as positive habits (I’ve written before about the pathology of productivity).


Of course I say “yes” to many — things I love, things I feel called to do. The challenge is knowing how much is enough — I can’t agree to every invitation and I can’t fight every injustice. For balance, there are four areas where I am focusing and practicing my no’s (and they are also messily interrelated).

  1. no to obligations
  2. no to (the need for) confirmations
  3. no to distractions
  4. no to compulsions


All of these require me to cultivate awareness and presence, which require me to slow down, which require me to create space and time for meditation or other contemplative practices.

“No” requires pausing. Pausing is a radical “no.”

As a radical young adult, I explored transgressive spaces and acts and was exposed to boundary pushing in every domain. I remember wondering at 19 or 20 what (if anything) will seem truly radical once all the boundaries have been challenged in work and art and sex and life?

Today, the most radical act I can imagine for myself is to pause. No consuming. No constructing. “Yes” to curiosity. “Yes” to connection.
Just being.
Followed by a long nap.

Confession: I am not good at this. Some days I am really bad at this. Do as I say, not as I do.

But there’s this: I keep recommitting to my inner no–ing. Just like in my meditation practice — coming back to the breath, to the felt sense of my being — I reconnect to the possibility of spaciousness and wonder and joy and right now. I say “yes” to this moment…

Pause. Be. Take a nap.


*Thanks to my friend Maria Arias for teaching me the phrase “Inner No–ing”

P.S. if you like this post, you’ll love these:

Pause: The Pathology of Productivity vs. The Power of Presence

Sick in the Head: Slow the F Down and Listen to Your Heart

Oh Despair. Some Sun Has Got To Rise.

Oh Despair. Some Sun Has Got To Rise.

It’s been a long while since I’ve written. What a summer.

I felt the call to pen something with each devastating moment — Orlando, Istanbul, Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Baghdad, Nice, Syria, Dallas, Ethiopia, our ongoing climate crises, wildfires, floods, not to mention the racism and patriarchy at the center of the circus that is the U.S. presidential election. The magnitude of each was amplified by the video footage of the event itself as well as the emotional responses of the survivors (and the tone–deaf review by the media).

After the shooting in Orlando, I struggled with how to respond on social media (a problematically passive “response” but as Darryl Pinckney has said: “There is no more denying or forgetting. Social media have removed filters that used to protect white America from what it didn’t want to see”). As a straight person, I did not want to take up a lot of space but I also wanted to communicate solidarity and help disseminate important and powerful statements and perspectives that some in my circle might not otherwise see. Talking to a queer white woman friend during the following week, we expressed our aspiration to show up for issues that were not only “our own” (and therefore may not feel as deeply) as well as those that rarely get mainstream attention.

But the stream of information made me feel insignificant and impotent. The reports hit me. Hard.

 I can choose the inclination of my mind. I can choose to think my own thoughts. //

It’s easier to like and share an article than write one. It felt like a daunting responsibility to offer some perspective, to muster some wise words about events so huge and heartbreaking… who am I to have any answers? With each new event/news–cycle I felt both responsible to act/write and at a loss for words. I felt despair —a loss of faith in possibilities for change.

The strange truth is things are not worse today (than let’s say 5, 10 or even 100 years ago) for black people, the LGBTQ community, women, Africa, the concept of democracy… (the earth herself is another story). There’s actually less violence, crime, war, exploitation; some even say we may be living in the most peaceful period in the history of our species.

The sun still sets and rises. It’s just that today we have non-stop coverage and social media feeds and analysis and inflammatory trolls. I am reminded of a Krishnamurti quote:

“You think you are thinking your thoughts. You are not. You are thinking the culture’s thoughts.”

Despair can be an appropriate response to horror. It is understandable to doubt the wisdom of hope when confronted with unbridled greed, hatred and ignorance. But our meditation practice teaches us the difference between an appropriate response and a habitual reaction.

I’ve written before that creative and reactive are the same word, the C just moves… That C is curiosity. A true response is momentary (and, of course, we can have multiple moments or waves of feeling and emotion). Reactivity is perpetuated by a thinking mind that is locked into one concept or perception — closed off to the changing moments of lived experience. No longer curious.

I don’t need to push despair away but I do need to take responsibility not to get stuck in its loop (which probably entails taking breaks from the news).

If I stay mired in despair, in a loss of hope, I’m not responding to life any longer. I’m wallowing. And I’m wallowing not in my thoughts, but the culture’s thoughts — can I see that? That my attention has been hijacked.

The Buddha said whatever we frequently think and ponder upon will become the inclination of our minds. The news (and my social media feed) can incline my mind to only thinking about disaster, violence, fear, celebrity absurdity, and election nonsense. What I notice is that the inclination of my mind affects my feelings, emotions, moods, conversations, decisions, actions… my life.

In fact, life changes with each moment. Images of murder and devastation are followed by feeling a gentle breeze from the window pass over the tops of my legs. Worries about a loved one accompanied by the sound of a bee buzzing caught between the screen and the window.

I can choose the inclination of my mind. I can choose to think my own thoughts.

The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs put it well in this song.

Oh despair, you’ve always been there
You’ve always been there
You’ve always been there
You’re there through my wasted years
Through all my lonely fears,
no tears
Run through my fingers, tears
They’re stinging my eyes, no tears
If it’s all in my head there’s nothing to fear
Nothing to fear inside
Through the darkness and the light
Some sun has got to rise
My sun is your sun…
Your sun is our sun
Some sun has got to rise

So, until we really screw things up, some sun has got to rise.

Weirdos. Will. Slay.

Weirdos. Will. Slay.

I’ve written here before about feeling like I don’t belong to any one group or identity. Actually, I am most comfortable in hyper–multicultural spaces — places where mixed–race couples and gender–illusionists abound. Luckily, those are the worlds through which I mostly move (shout out to Central Brooklyn).

But I havWeirdos. Will. Slay. Because not fitting in to any one community is a super power. But only if you choose to fit into yourself first. // www.sebeneselassie.comen’t always felt comfortable in my surroundings or in my own skin. Most of my life, I felt like a complete and utter mess: speaking wrong, dressing wrong, listening to the wrong music… I was like this little girl here trying to hula hoop, but ALL the time, with no hula hoop, and less fashion sense.

In high school, I spent days memorizing a Monty Python sketch and considered performing it for a talent show (only grace saved me). I also did palm reading in the school atrium. And listened to a lot of Depeche Mode (was I the only black person at the Merriweather Post Pavilion 1988 concert?). I was a HUGE weirdo, and it’s a miracle I had any friends.

But how could I not have been a weirdo? No one explained American culture to us when we got here and my mom was too busy trying to keep us clothed and fed while my dad engaged in politics back home. So we hadWeirdos. Will. Slay. Because not fitting in to any one community is a super power. But only if you choose to fit into yourself first. // duck for Thanksgiving (my mom’s reply to our pleas for a turkey: “A bird is a bird”). And we wore these getups one Halloween. What are we? No, please tell me, I have no idea… Halloween still scares me.

You don’t have to be an immigrant to tap in to this feeling of being a mess and a weirdo (though it really, really helps). Queer people feel it. Super nerdy girls feel it. Anyone who has zero f*cks to give about fashion trends feels it… But here’s the thing, the multicultural messes will soon be the multicultural masses. Yes, just in sheer numbers, but not only.

Weirdos. Will. Slay. Because not fitting in to any one community is a super power. But only if you choose to fit into yourself first.
Those of us who have spent a childhood and a lifetime having to navigate different communities, groups, identities, languages, cultures, customs, norms and assumptions — we weirdos, we are very adept and dexterous and resilient as f*ck. We understand and connect with all sorts of people.

True liberation doesn’t come from changing everything around you to feel comfortable and pleasant and familiar. Good luck with that. Freedom comes from being at ease with whatever and whoever is in front of you.

And that starts with cultivating ease with how you are, right now. If I can’t be with one breath, how can I be with my beautiful, messy life. If I can be with my own complexities and imperfections, I can be with the contradictions and challenges of this mixed–race, mixed–culture world. And I always fit in to nature…

Feel like you don’t fit in? Good, you’re right where you need to be.


P.S. If you enjoy these missives, please share them.

Know Yourself. Love Yourself. Check Yourself.

Know Yourself. Love Yourself. Check Yourself.

[Photo: Pearl Eileen Primus (b. 1919) was a dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist.]

In my last newsletter, I shared the Zen axiom that this path (to liberation) requires us “to study the self.” I first heard that teaching in my early twenties. And because, like most of you, I went to school for the first coupla decades of life, I took it to mean study–study.

The way we are taught to “know” things in this society is largely through an intellectual, rational, scientific, material understanding. We start young and spend most of our time being conditioned in this way. Even though education theory has come to include the idea of multiple intelligences, as a culture, we still tend to think of intelligence and knowing as linguistic/mathematical/scientific abilities.

And that’s exactly how I approached the study of self and my self–development in general — I read. A LOT. I was knowing through my head. I’ve written here before about other kinds of knowing; knowing that is embodied, connected, present. But it took 20–something–me another decade and a cancer diagnosis to begin undoing all that education and (re)learn other ways of knowing.

I read and thought and listened to a lot about meditation before I actually started to practice. And while practicing, I mostly thought about my experience before I learned how to be with my experience. I had to attune to the body – a different way of knowing. And it is the balance of different ways of knowing (a full study of the self) that leads to true freedom. I’ve learned to know myself in my head, heart & belly

In the model of human personality called The Enneagram, there are 3 Centers of Intelligence: head (mental), heart (emotional), & belly (physical). I’m a heart type: I connect first emotionally, with all the happiness and hardships that can bring. But, because our whole culture skews to the head – mental knowing – I mostly float up to the intellectual. Generally, each of us gravitates to one area more than the others and, again, in contemporary life, we are encouraged/demanded to be in our heads (and rewarded for it). To undo this, first we must know our habits and then learn to balance the 3 centers.

Of course, there are many other aspects to our self–development, but I’ve found that even a basic understanding of our tendencies in relation to the 3 centers is helpful. Are you a head type — do you think through things intellectually first? Or maybe you’re a body type — you primarily feel things through your body? What ever type you might be, can you learn to balance all your ways of knowing?

One simple outline I’ve been using lately:

  • Know Yourself (belly) — Connect to your body by first feeling into your belly with any centering or meditation practices you use. What is present for you in this moment? What sensations or feelings are arising? Where do you feel them? What words or images come to you?
  • Love Yourself (heart) — Sense into your chest area. Can you make space for whatever is arising? Can you open to any sensations, feelings, thoughts, emotions, images, memories with a sense of welcoming? Can you offer kindness and compassion to whatever is arising?
  • Check Yourself (head) — Take a few deep breaths. What is your sense of what has arisen for you? What would you like to cultivate and what would you like to release? Can you integrate what is beneficial for you? Can you let go of what is not beneficial for you?

In what ways do you know?

Until next time, be well my friends.

With love (’cause I’m a heart type),

p.s. Check out my new course starting in June, in Brooklyn(!).  Over 6–weeks, we will be exploring these 3 ways of knowing in an intimate group setting. make space!

Open to Mystery

Open to Mystery

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” ~ Albert Einstein


The hype around meditation and mindfulness in the past few years has been bananas. It seems like a new article, book, celebrity–endorsement comes out weekly. Fueling a lot of this are the scientific justifications — studies that prove that meditation positively effects physical, mental, and emotional well–being. It does. And if this encourages people to practice, that’s great. I use my uber–basic understanding of neuroscience to highlight for students some of the benefits of meditation.

But not all of the benefits of contemplative practice are measurable. Or maybe even conceivable.

My wise friend Greg says there are really only two things: concepts & mystery. Take a guess with which one most of us are more comfortable?

And it’s not that concepts are bad and mystery is good. Or that mystery is hocus pocus and concepts are verified. It’s not a spiritual or scientific contest. We need concepts (language, metaphors, ideas) to make our way through life. Mystery is a fact; we don’t know most things let alone everything.

There are concepts. There is mystery. Both.

But concepts rule contemporary life and can imprison us in a need for certainty and control. That’s what our culture emphasizes and rewards. That is our collective conditioning (indigenous wisdom never lost the connection to mystery). The above Einstein quote in full: The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. [One] to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead.

We witness that deadness in our culture. The dismissal of mystery, the dismissal of wonder and awe. The distrust of not knowing.  Einstein also said this: The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

We must remember the forgotten gift.  We need a reclamation of mystery, of what’s been lost or rejected, of what threatens. The deadness actually comes from fear, from our incapacity to stay curious about what scares us, makes us uncomfortable, challenges us. Meditation practice can help us remember the intuitive mind.

And if we need science to make us feel more comfortable with the process, maybe the “science” behind meditation should include physics.

Last month was the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. His work was revolutionary and it brings us face to face with mystery. It’s been 100 years since he told us that space and time, distances and duration are relative — dependent on different observers and locations in the universe. And we still can’t fully get it. He said time is a persistent illusion and also knew that all matter is mostly space… Wait, huh?

We don’t need to understand the math or concepts behind it because even if we did it’s so hard to internalize these truths. It’s almost impossible, we can’t internalize it. We have this perceptual illusion that we are solid, that matter is solid, NOT mostly space. We have this perceptual illusion that time is moving forward… past, present, future – NOT that it’s relative from one person, place or thing to another. Time is an illusion. Matter is mostly space.

Scientists tell us that roughly 95% of the universe is made up of the mysterious forces of dark energy and dark matter. The rest — everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter — adds up to less than 5% of the universe. 95% of the cosmos is mystery. String Theory hypohthesizes that there are probably 10–11 dimensions. What does that mean?

Mystery by its very nature is puzzling. It asks us to give up our usual ways of understanding. It asks us to give up control (like we ever had a choice). It insists that we allow for paradoxes. It exists outside language. It presents us with uncertainty and unreliability. It reveals impermanence.

Not things we like very much. So we try and push away not knowing with facts and statistics. We try and hold on to certainty (of happiness, of pleasure, of safety, of solidity, of continuity).  We grasp and cling — which of course creates suffering…

Our longing for safety and for what’s comfortable is very deep; it’s hard wired into us. To let go of the usual discursive focus and simply listen, that’s not easy. But our practice is all about that, isn’t it? We can be open and curious about emotions, thoughts, sensations that are moving through us. We cultivate a trust with whatever is arising. Not pin down, not know, not fix. To just be with what’s happening. 

Can we open to mystery?

P.S. This post is based on a talk I gave with my teacher Thanissara at Spirit Rock Meditation Center this Thanksgiving. Give a listen here.

P.P.S. I will be going on another long retreat so you will be hearing from me again in March. Happy New Year! May peace & joy prevail on our tiny blue sphere and throughout the vast and mysterious universes.

Sick in the Head: Slow the F Down & Listen to Your Heart

Sick in the Head: Slow the F Down & Listen to Your Heart

Late last fall, after my third cold in less than two months, I went to see my integrative doctor. I had been ridiculously busy all September and October working long hours and with the rare day off. I said something about catching whatever bugs had popped up that everyone else seemed to be getting. She laughed and said, “Sebene, it’s not like the cold & flu arrive on a plane from somewhere else. There are as many microbes now as any other time of the year.

Duh, of course… Wait, then why do we all get sick in the fall and winter? According to her, “because we have lost harmony with the rhythms of nature.”

Think about it. Summer, with its long days and high vibrancy, is when nature is most active but when most of us get our lengthiest restorative time. Starting around the Fall Equinox, just as we speed up in our post–Labor Day madness, all the plants and animals around us begin storing and slowing down in preparation for a needed dormancy. Even if we don’t have kids (but especially if we do), the back–to–school rush is the engine revving in preparation for months of total over–activity. This culminates in an insanely frantic pace around the Winter Solstice when all of nature is either asleep or dead while our crazy species rushes around in the end–of–fiscal year, sugar–fat–alcohol–induced madness otherwise known as the “holiday season.”
Deadly heart attacks most commonly occur on December 25th. Second most common day, December 26th. Third, January 1st.
Many of us (especially in NYC) wear our busyness as a badge of honor while technology allows (forces?) us to work from anywhere. We fill up every moment of our time often without asking ourselves if all this activity is meaningful. Even “downtime” is spent scrolling through texts and images adding endless links and associations to our flooded synapses. It’s totally cuckoo.  What are we thinking? And what will make us finally slow down? For most of us, only illness. Starting with me.

As many of you know, I have had cancer twice. Sadly, the mofo is back.

I hesitated sharing this news so publicly but part of my evolution with illness over the years has been to challenge the culture of fear, discomfort and shame around it. And maybe this is an opportunity to remind all of us (especially moi) that we are Sick in the Head and need to Slow the F Down & Listen to Our Hearts.

Of course I have had many powerful emotions and thoughts while grappling with this news. Shock, fear, despair, disbelief, grief… and a roaring “F@*k Cancer!” and “What the F@*k?!” and “F@*k, F@*k, F@*k!!”

But what has gripped me most is the inquiry, “What is important to me?” In the weeks since my latest diagnosis, I have been exploring my deepest longing, what Suzuki Roshi called the heart’s most inmost request. What is mine?

That is not an easy question to answer because the noise in my mind (voices of family, culture, society, media, doctors, well–meaning advice–giving friends) is very loud. And bossy. And that noise insists on incessant activity — mental, emotional, physical — to never fall apart (exhausting and pretty useless), to plan for unknowns (mostly useless), to try and control the mostly mysterious process of life & death (always useless).

Hard to listen deeply with all that racket.

Of course, there are decisions to be made and actions to be taken whether we are facing a serious illness or not. What is draining and unnecessary is the constant activity and the superfluous thought (and worry). Yes, mindfulness is useful here. I’ve written before about the power of presence. But beyond breath meditation there’s also a need to reckon with reality.

Yup, I’m talking about death.

Buddhists talk about three messengers: illness, old age, and death. Some of us are blessed with good health for a long time (mazel tov), some of us will not make it to old age, but all of us will die.

Yet, everything in our culture avoids or outright denies this reality and holds up the impossible ideal of eternal youth (and limitless success/accumulation). Not that we need to be morbid. Self care is mature and wise. But how much can we diet, dye, cross–fit, pump, plump, inject, extract, and spurn anything that reminds us of this inevitability?

Something that has helped me is the five daily recollections recommended by the Buddha.

1. I am of the nature to grow old. I have not gone beyond aging.

2. I am of the nature to be ill. I have not gone beyond illness.

3. I am of the nature to die. I have not gone beyond death.

4. All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will change and vanish.

5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related to my actions, supported by my actions. Whatever actions I do, whether good or evil, of that I shall be the heir.

These reminders are simple statements of fact and within our culture of denial they form a Radical Manifesto of Reality. Join the cause. Join me. Don’t wait for illness. Or death…

These days I am taking things way the F slow. I am dropping things (see side bar). Scheduling less frequently. Trying not to fill up free time & space with agitated activity. I am staring out the window. Reading actual books (without checking my gadget every 5 minutes)! Lingering on a park bench. Noticing the rhythms of nature in the city. Listening…

What do you long for? What is your heart’s inmost request?

Next month we will explore deep listening. Until then: Slow Down. Listen.


Waking Up Wisely: Positive Critical Thinking

Waking Up Wisely: Positive Critical Thinking

I call myself an Integral Coach® because that’s what I am but also because I don’t want to use the “L” word (no, not that one, I’d happily call myself a “Lesbian” but I’m not, so I can’t).

It’s that other word… I’m embarrassed to call myself a “Life” Coach. Yeah, I said it.

There are amazing life coaches out there doing deep and transformative work with their clients (and there is so much jibber jabber fluffy fluff). I can mostly ignore the fluff but what I find more challenging is what I’ll call “positive thinking coaching” — the secular–prosperity–gospel, solipsistic, self-help coaching that tells people (mostly women) that they can change their lives through positively attracting and manifesting.

Look, I’m way woo-woo, am pretty sure magic is real, and I am all for positive thinking. My main man, the Buddha, was maybe the original positive thinker. He said whatever we think about becomes the inclination of mind. That’s straight–up manifesting–101.

But I’m also into critical thinking. And systems thinking. And, by my humble estimation, the systems stink. When looking at what helps someone grow in their capacity for wisdom, compassion, and joy, I take into account their personal reality and also their social, cultural, and political realities. And I wish more coaches (and meditation teachers) would too. [Big shout out to a few Buddhist initiatives that are doing this work: Buddhists for Racial Justice, White Awake, ]

Contemplatives can get uncomfortable with talk of systems and oppression. Aren’t we supposed to be looking inwards? Yes. And, often what’s inside is a projection of what’s out there. The personal is political.

This newsletter is called wise awake (btw, that’s aspirational, not declarative) because I believe waking up is our best hope as a species. But what we’re waking up to is not always pretty; we are not waking up only to rainbows and ponies (though also rainbows and ponies). To get ourselves out of this mess, we are going to have to think personally and collectively and think positively and critically. How about Positive Critical Thinking?

For me, positive critical thinking involves deep personal work — change does start from within. It also includes acknowledging and dismantling what I’m calling systems: the oppressive forces that get embedded in our language, thoughts, views/opinions, behaviors, culture, laws, institutions…  I believe these forces are outward and systemic expressions of what us Buddhisty types recognize as greed, hatred, and delusion. And they get internalized — mostly unconsciously.

This is not about pointing fingers at other people. Of course, systems are acted out through people, but no one is exempt from them. AND we need to do the work to see them clearly, understand their effects on us, and undo their harm.

Open your eyes. And your heart. And get ready for some discomfort. It might come from looking within and seeing all the ways you’ve internalized these systems and turned them against yourself. It might come from looking outside and seeing the ways you’ve projected these systems onto others. And then, of course, there’s simply opening to the pain and suffering all around us.

Not all of us are called to actively change these systems (though we can actively support those who do). But all of us are called to the work of undoing their effects within our own minds and hearts. Critically. Positively.

All of Me: An Integrated Belonging

All of Me: An Integrated Belonging

Often, I feel like I don’t belong.

Too blackish for the white folks. Not black enough for the black folks. Too political for my party friends. Not radical enough for my activist friends. Too hetero to call myself queer. Too queer to care about most hetero–nonsense. Too woo woo for the skeptics. Not spiritual enough for the renunciates. Too Americanized to get my roots. Too immigrant to get American idioms. Too feminist for heels. Too femme not to do my brows. Too intellectual for the intuitives. Not sufficiently–read for the academy. I have too much money. Not enough.

I am a 44 year old black woman who says dude. A lot.

I move through many communities and circles, even on my morning commute. I leave the apartment I share with my Danish–Italian husband in (gentrifying) Crown Heights where a local community center posts the number of days since the last shooting and where Haitians, Hasids and hipsters wait side–by–side on the subway platform. I arrive to work in NoMad (seriously) — what used to be the wholesale area full of immigrant sellers calling out to passerbys is now yet another tech alley teaming with (very) young professionals downing bulletproof coffees and recoiling from eye contact.

I code–switch and shape–shift to adapt to my external environment and access my many selves. When I was younger, this was an exercise in confusion and shame, otherwise known as constriction. I thought it necessary to hide or warp aspects of myself that I sensed were unwanted recalling the “you sound white” comments from my childhood or the many times I’ve been called nigger throughout my life.

I revealed only what I thought would gain me acceptance. Alternately, I dismissed or judged people and places that challenged my interests and views. These constrictions closed off the possibility to belong to others or they to me (the heart is either open or closed, we don’t get to choose its direction of traffic).

Anyone who doesn’t fit into or identify with dominant culture (more and more that’s most of us) will need to negotiate their belonging. But for those of us who continually transit through such disparate terrains, the translation is constant. My multitiudes only truly come together under ceratin conditions with people who can get my references to Fanon, Foucault, and The Pharcyde, Baldwin, Ball Culture, and Buddhadharma.

Luckily I live in the multicultural bubble called Brooklyn surrounded by a diverse community of friends, many of whom also traverse multiple boundaries within their own being. But even more luckily, my spiritual practice has allowed me to understand the inherent interconnection of all (even within little fragmented me).

On a psychological level it means embracing all these parts in an integrated belonging that honors each momentary context but aspires to a way of being that is open, relaxed, fluid, and authentic. I don’t need to make someone else wrong to be me. And I can be righteous and loving at the same time. This integration did not happen by merely thinking about it. It developed through many years of practice and many hours on the cushion knowing, allowing, and releasing all the ways in which I was rejecting what felt hurt, abandoned, judged, or just plain wrong. Contradictions need not be constrictions. I allowed myself to first belong to me.

On a cosmic level it means knowing this so-called reality is not the whole story. All these identities and ideologies are just teeny–tiny moments in an endless song that’s every song. That everything belongs to something that is no–thing. That consciousness is more than what my little brain can know (and next month I’ll explore Consciousness First: Reactive to Creative).

Joy Harjo says this in her poem “A Map to the Next World”

Remember the hole of shame marking the act of abandoning our tribal grounds.We were never perfect.

Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.

We might make them again, she said.

Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.

You must make your own map.


Make your map.

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