The ironic juxtapositions at this time of year:
My 9-year old god-daughter Emma and her mother Cherry and I schedule our annual trek to see a local production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; minutes later I buy the tickets online for my 9-year old god-son Elijah and I to see The Christmas Revels. Fifteen minutes later I’m standing at my desk in a bit of shock, looking over the written bids to re-plumb my entire house from what I thought was just an innocuous leaky kitchen faucet. Ten minutes after that, a dear friend calls to cancel our lunch on Saturday because she’s just been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and has to go in for more tests before they start six months of chemo. !!!!!
I’m struck numb, taking in Stephanie’s news, how her life has changed in an instant. In one inexplicable, why?-you-are-so-young-and-so-good! instant. Then recognizing, again, how often it all happens at once, the dear and the dreaded, boom-boom-boom.
In this season of deepening winter darkness and uncertain times all around, in this season of anticipated delights of homecomings and hospitality, intermingled for many with poignant heartache over losses through deaths or distancing or never were’s, I’m reflecting on the importance of taking stock. How we need to re-group and re-prioritize so very often in our lives. How we need to take in new information, let go of old expectations, re-claim what’s really important, re-discover a felt sense of the rock-bottom values we choose to live by in the best of times — and in the worst of times.
Our minds and hearts benefit greatly from this process of re-view-ing, whether at the end of the day, at the end of a year, or approaching the end of a life. Even our brains function better once we’ve integrated life events into our ongoing narrative of our selves rather than denying or minimizing them.
This Solstice season, the archetypal turning from the darkness toward the light, and gathering with loved ones near and far to en-courage ourselves to have faith in the turning, is an excellent time to reflect on the gifts and losses of our lives. May these reflections and resources be useful in your own process of taking stock, sorting out and summing up.
THE SEASON OF TAKING STOCK
I’ve seen performances of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as many times as Emma is years old. Its perennial message of redemption through clear seeing and re-awakened compassion speaks deeply to me still.
Ebenezer Scrooge once knew the warmth of love and bonding; he also suffered the pain of rejection and loss. He turned away from what was once his vision of happiness and focused on “success” in material terms, losing sight of the cost in well-being to himself or anyone around him. His heart hardened; he grew miserly and pinched; he refused all overtures that reminded him of our deep human need for connection and compassion. His life grew dark; none of the kindness nor none of the suffering around him penetrated his bitter “Bah! Humbug!”
It’s no accident that Scrooge’s dramatic journey of life re-view and death pre-view took place between 10pm and midnight on Christmas Eve. A time when his Christian world would anticipate, in the words of the carol O Holy Night: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
Scrooge had to crack his heart open again to the yearning for closeness and kindness to others he had once lived in and cherished. He had to confront the bitterness and misery of his current penurious existence, compressed and hardened like a lump of coal. He had to face head-on the horrors of his own death, inevitably alone and scorned, or the tragic death of the innocent and lovable Tiny Tim, unless—-
By the light of his own clear seeing and by the re-kindling of his own dormant compassion (A Christmas Carol has quite a Buddhist flavor to it!) could Scrooge not only desperately want to live again, he became adamant and euphoric about giving again. Scrooge’s outpouring of generosity was his way of feeling again his soul’s true worth and celebrating the true worth of all the good souls around him.
It’s also no accident that Scrooge was guided (dragged through?) his archetypal taking stock by Three Wise Guides – the spirits of Christmases Past, Present and Future, supported by the mortal souls – his employee Bob Cratchit and his nephew Fred – who never entirely lost faith in his innate goodness, buried and cemented over though it was.
We don’t usually lose our way all by ourselves. There are disappointments and betrayals that wound and de-rail us. We don’t usually find our way back home all by ourselves either. There are innumerable invisible kindnesses and the wisdom of others that guide us through any darkness to the light again.
The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s belligerent confusion and ultimate re-awakening affirms the importance – and sometimes the intensity – our own taking stock, reflecting on what’s of most value in this world, re-discovering our true refuges and our truest resources, re-claiming our innate goodness, recognizing and celebrating the goodness in others.
May the Exercises to Practice Taking Stock below, while not as extreme as Scrooge’s accelerated learning curve, be as rewarding and transformative to you at this time of year, at any time of year.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
When we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heart-breaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.
– Sogyal Rinpoche
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The person that loses their conscience has nothing left worth keeping.
– Izaak Walton
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The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law, to the strength of the spirit.
– Mohandis K. Gandhi
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Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of worth.
– Albert Einstein
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People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed. Never throw out anyone.
– Audrey Hepburn
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Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of being.
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When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
– Mary Oliver
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[one of my favorite carols from childhood, first published in 1863, during the American Civil War:]
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet the words repeat,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
I thought how as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had roll’d along th’ unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bow’d my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, not doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
‘Til ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
* * * * *
I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.
– Charles Dickens
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
Christmas Day is an anniversary for me of “waking up” to the gift of being alive, as profound for me as Scrooge’s waking up was for him.
A few years ago, I was driving home after dark on Christmas evening, the freeway already wet and slick from the pelting rain. Suddenly my left front tire caught the edge of the highway off the fast lane, causing my car to skid completely onto the shoulder at 60 miles per hour. As I tried to brake, the car skidded back in the other direction across four lanes of thick freeway traffic onto the opposite shoulder. I managed to bring the car to a stop in the mud.
I remembered seeing cars hurtling all around me as my car had skidded through them. It was all over in less than 15 seconds. Nothing had happened! Nothing at all. No one was hit; no one was hurt; nothing. The next instant I realized in every cell of my being– my god! I’m alive! I’m ALIVE!
For weeks and months afterwards, no matter what I was doing, no matter what I was coping with, I had an acute, vivid, visceral awareness that I was alive at all to cope with it. Nothing was more important than the sheer bottom-line knowing – I was Alive.
I’m Alive remains the bottom-line grounding of my taking stock. Whatever is going on, aliveness is going on underneath it. Tapping into the miracle of being alive, the mystery and the grace of it, fuels everything that comes after – gratitude, generosity, wisdom, compassion – everything.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Before you know what kindness really is
You must lose things,
Feel the future dissolve in a moment
Like salt in a weakened broth.
What you hold in your hand,
What you counted and carefully saved,
All this must go so you know
How desolate the landscape can be
Between the regions of kindness.
– Naomi Shahib Nye
Take a moment to reflect on the kindnesses others have offered to you, especially in moments when you were acting a little “Scrooge-y” and people had to persist a bit in their faith in your goodness and their offering. Let yourself take in the kindness now if you didn’t then; let it nourish your spirit (and re-wire your brain). Remembering kindness offered, and recollecting kindness we have offered to others in their “Bah! Humbug!” moments, creates a reassurance, a sense of refuge and acceptance that makes it more do-ble to take stock, to genuinely explore and reflect our life choices without flinching or condemning.
1. Wonder and Awe
“Two things fill the heart with renewed and increasing awe and reverence the more often the more steadily they are meditated on: the starry heavens above and the immortal soul within.”
– Immanual Kant
No matter what we bump up against as we begin to take stock, no matter how we sum up our success or failures, our accomplishments or disappointments, the fact that we set out to do this kind of reflecting, reclaiming, redeeming, at all is awe-some.
The practice of wonder and awe – stopping in our tracks for a moment of “Wow!” – creates in us a profound sense of the miraculous, what Scrooge cracked his heart open to as he realized he was still alive and still capable of love.
Wonder and awe are the natural responses anytime we see the miraculousness embedded in a common every day experience. Try the example below for yourself, or simply notice any moment of “wow!” in your days that becomes a moment of light in any moment of darkness.
When you’re in a room full of other people, take a moment to notice your own breathing, quietly in and out. That’s miraculous enough. Then slowly begin to notice the breathing of other people in the room, even synchronizing your breathing with theirs for a moment or two; sharing that moment of life force sustaining you all together is miraculous enough. Then allow your self to realize that themolecules of air entering and leaving your body are the same molecules of air also entering and leaving their bodies. [Caution: if you really experience this, it can feel quite intimate!] That’s miraculous enough. Then allow yourself to become aware of the life energy that creates molecules, air, breathing, living, in six billion people and infinite other life forms. The aliveness underneath it all, completely unnoticed, taken for granted. What cause for rejoicing! No matter what.
3. ABCDE’s of Taking Stock with discernment, not judgment
I came up with ABCDE after my first meditation retreat because I had to. All well and good to enter into a state of relaxed mindfulness – to be present, aware of moment to moment experience, aware of being aware – when I was sitting quietly on a meditation cushion with 50 other people all sitting quietly on their meditation cushions. Not so easy to maintain that calm awareness when I was in the push and shove of the “real” world again.
A. Awareness-ing: acknowledging something has happened.
B. Bowing: whatever it is, it’s part of a learning opportunity to wake up and grow up, accepting, even honoring that. “May I meet this moment fully; may I meet it as a friend.” – Sylvia Boorstein
C. COAL: Dan Siegel came up with this acronym after his first meditation retreat and it fits my model well: Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance, Love. When we take stock, we do so with discernment (D below) but with acceptance and love rather than judgment.
D. Discerning: what are the lessons here? (see Exercise #4 below). Is there something to learn as well as something to accept with Love?
E. Empathizing: We evoke whatever self-empathy, or self-compassion is necessary to help us hold, embrace, and integrate the lessons we can learn, remembering our innate aliveness and goodness underneath whatever we have become curious and discerning about.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet (including yourself!) is fighting a hard battle.”
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“May all beings heal and awaken to the love and awareness that holds and honors the fullness of being.”
– Tara Brach
4. When there’s a loss, don’t lose the lesson
I finally had to admit to myself, after numerous reflections on the state of my state, that virtually every single major transformation in my life had been catalyzed by suffering and loss. Every single one.
Even if it’s years later after the fact, learning the lesson redeems the loss and suffering, as Scrooge redeemed his callous turning away from the good to focus on greed by “waking up” to his true worth as a loving, caring, generous human being. We pray we learn the lessons in time, while we have a chance to make amends, before life throws us a catastrophic loss to get our attention as the Wise Guides did with Scrooge.
Take a moment to reflect upon a moment of “waking up” in your own life, when you saw clearly some growth/change was needed. Was there a moment of suffering or loss that catalyzed the shift needed to bring things “around right”? Can you take in the good that, even if something glitchy, stupid, messy, dreadful just happened, you became aware, integrous, brave, and made choices wise enough to skillfully redeem what ever mistake was made, whatever damage was done. Sometimes learning later is the best we can do and, if it’s done with understanding, compassion, forgiveness, it’s enough.
5. Taking in the good
Sometimes taking in the good can be as difficult as facing the “bad” in the first place.
My colleague Rick Hanson uses a brilliant metaphor for one of the challenges we face in taking stock in a fair and balanced way. Bottom line, to survive, our brains are evolutionarily hard-wired to act like “Velcro for the negative; Teflon for the positive.” (Our hominid ancestors that were hyper-vigilant and poised to flee danger tended to survive; our ancestors who were too relaxed and mellow were at more risk for being eaten.)
Nonetheless, it is essential to our well-being and en-courage-ment, no matter the stresses and strains of our current circumstances, when fear or despair can threaten to obscure the light, to be able to nourish and sustain our selves by taking in the light of our own goodness and the goodness of our own miraculous lives. It might be what my client Sue tells me she is flooded with every time her newborn’s eyes lock onto hers. It might be a moment when my friend Natalie loses all track of time as she paints another watercolor, creativity itself flowing through her. It might be like another client Dan’s finding himself moved to tears by a song a man in his men’s group wrote.
Rick and his colleague Richard Mendius offer practical tools for Taking in the Good on their Wise Brain website: paying attention to the good things, choosing to feel pleasure and be happy rather than feeling ascetic or guilty, opening up emotional and sensate pathways to experiencing events, savoring and relishing, registering the good deeply in emotional memory. Here’s the link to access those tools and skills directly for yourself.
5. Counting and Sharing Blessings
“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” – Nelson Henderson
Scrooge became positively giddy about giving after he “woke up” and rejoiced in being alive, being able to give again. Generosity was his way to redeem his miserliness of so many years.
We all have our ways of being generous when our hearts are full and open.
My grandmother lost her sight to glaucoma when I was two years old. That loss opened doors of connection between us in different ways. We became a team, me washing the dishes and she drying. Me curled up in her lap learning to read the Braille with my eyes that she was reading with her hands.
My own vision was severely compromised by near-sightedness and astigmatism for most of my life until corrected by lasik eye surgery six years ago. If I didn’t have my glasses on, I couldn’t see well enough to find them, kind of thing.
All these experiences made me sensitive to sight and loss of sight. So when it comes time to make charitable contributions at the end of the year, one of the most meaningful to me is the Sight Program of the SEVA foundation. Doctors perform thousands of operations to remove cataracts and restore of sight among the elderly in remote regions of underdeveloped countries , and train local doctors to do so also.
I save my receipts from dining out during the year, total them up and then donate a matching amount to SEVA in December. Not only is this a relatively painless way to give generously to others according to my values. Each time I eat out throughout the year, I feel the upwelling of love for my grandmother and honoring the sweet times we spent together in my growing up.
Take a moment to identify the “good” you might like to honor in a practice of generosity, even in the worst of times as well as the best of times.
BOOKS AND WEBSITES
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. [many editions of this classic are available at your local bookstore or library. Well worth a re-read.] Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, a time of extreme social distress and unrest in an England rife with Want and Ignorance. The small book was an instant success and is widely credited with reviving the social and charitable sentiments of Christmas throughout Europe.
It’s a Wonderful Life, a classic life-review film starring Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a good man who’s spent a lifetime giving up on his dreams in order to keep life in his small town humming. When a guardian angel named Clarence finds a despondent George poised to jump off a bridge, he shows George what life would have been like had he never been born. Made in 1946 as the U.S. was coping with the aftermath of World War II, it’s a heart-opening reminder that we can never fully know how our good intentions ripple out and touch others; well worth an annual viewing.
I’ve recommended this website before (February 2008 e-newsletter: Brain Research Illuminates Conscious Compassionate Connection). It’s a wealth of archived resources: monthly wise brain bulletins on news and tools for happiness, love and wisdom; talks on Train Your Brain, over 100 scientific papers, all downloadable and free. (Generosity is a hallmark of these two good human beings.)
I’ve also recommended my friend Bonnie Jonsson’s Year to Live groups before, (May 2008 e-newsletter: Equanimity: the Invisible Fulcrum of Conscious, Compassionate Connection) as a powerful way to take stock of what’s most important, most true in our lives. Based on Stephen Levine’s book A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were Your Last.