Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Spiritual Practice of Pleasure

Cherish life's simple pleasures.

That's the sign that hangs on a wall in my home as a daily reminder to live in the moment.

One of my students gave it to me as a gift before departing for summer break. She told me that out of all the life lessons she learned during the year with me as her teacher, enjoying life and appreciating the small things resonated with her the most.

I often look at the word "pleasures" and make a game out of it. I try to find as many words as I can within it. Some of the words I've found include:  pleases, ease, sure, leap, sleeps, slurp, reaps, and so on. It's a silly little game but I enjoy playing it.

Cherishing life's simple pleasures is a spiritual practice. Simple pleasures point us toward the sacred presence in the world. They teach us about the lineaments of a whole and meaningful existence.  When we act from the center of our being, when we become aware of the ultimate value of existence, when we connect with our authentic, deeper selves, we begin to take pleasure in every moment that is given to us.

I have a friend who is a self-described orthodox hedonist. He believes the aim of spirituality is pleasure. And so, he lives his life discovering the beauty in each moment. There is nothing that doesn't fascinate him in some way. He lives in the here and now. To him, the little things are the big things.

What simple pleasures in life do you cherish?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Body Beatitudes

Ever stop to think how amazing our bodies are?

Deepak Chopra points out that "skin replaces itself once a month, the stomach lining every five days, the liver every six weeks, and the skeleton every three months."

The body is constantly renewing itself.

Photo Courtesy Google Images
It sheds the old to make way for the new.

Struggling with a negative body image does not allow us to give our bodies the gratitude it deserves.

Polluting it with unhealthy substances over time breaks down the body's performance.

Neglecting its needs is self-abuse, not self-love.

Let us reject the negative images of the body and bless it, for as we bless our bodies, they will bless us in return.

Let us honor our bodies for the temples that they are.

In the words of poetess Robin Morgan:

Blessed be my brain
     that I may conceive of my own power.
Blessed be my breast
     that I may give sustenance to those I love.
Blessed be my womb
     that I may bend so as not to break.
Blessed be my feet
     that I may walk in the path of my highest will.

How do you honor and bless your body? Your comments are always welcome.

(Excerpt from "The Network of the Imaginary Mother" from Upstairs in the Garden:  Poems Selected and New, 1968-88 by Robin Morgan).

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Art of Teen Whispering

As I ran errands this morning, Back-To-School supplies and displays greeted me as I entered the store. School will start in about two weeks, and that means my private tutoring schedule will begin to pick up. My next two weeks will include some adjustments to my schedule, more research, and developing methods to reach students on more than just an academic level. My goal is to reach the whole student.

To many, tutoring is nothing more than supplemental help to improve skills.  

No, no, no, no, NO. 

When parents ask me to tutor their children, I explain to them that tutoring involves more than academic instruction; it involves activities to shake them up and turn them inside-out before academic instruction can begin. Teenagers, in particular, are in a challenging position. Teenage years are awkward. They are no longer innocent babes, but they have not fully matured into adulthood, which is why I call them Tweenagers because they are caught in-between the two states. They have so many questions that need answering, their hormones are raging, they are beginning to discover themselves and their bodies, they don't know who or what to believe, and they are bombarded with much more pressure today than teenagers 20, 30, or 40 years ago. They often feel misunderstood in their quest for individuality. I like to describe them as live wires that need grounding.

Here are some of my tutoring techniques to help ground these wild currents of energy:

First, I require students to keep a personal journal. I explain the benefits of journaling. I give them journaling exercises for the week, which I review in detail and comment upon. In my comments, I ask questions in return for them to answer. I encourage them. I offer my insights. I don't judge. This helps me to see inside from a safe distance. This allows them to write freely and boldly. I assure them that what they write is strictly confidential; the only time I would have to share information is if the student intends to do harm, either to the self or to someone else. I offer many observation exercises to open the students' minds. Students continue journaling throughout our sessions. Journaling can be handwritten in a notebook, or done in a word-processing program and emailed to me. In addition to personal journals, I require students to keep reading journals for any literature they are studying. 

Second, I introduce students to meditation techniques. I explain the importance of centering oneself before tackling large tasks. I also explain the benefits of meditation. I use guided meditation in the beginning until students feel comfortable. From there, we meditate together. Students journal about these experiences for later discussion.

Third, I make students move physically. I check with parents about the health of their child. In most cases, students are involved in many sports, and I check with their coaches about their particular conditioning programs. I use my personal training experience in conjunction. Instead of writing an essay or working on argumentation techniques for a session, I make students run/walk or commit to some kind of physical activity. When I started an outdoor club at a previous school, I took students hiking, camping, and canoeing as we studied the Romantics and Transcendentalist writers. 

Fourth, I introduce an I-Search project, instead of a Re-search project. A teen's favorite topic is none other than him- or herself, so I give guidelines to help discover who they are, what they believe, etc. This is done in a multi-genre format to allow for creativity throughout the project.  This is always a favorite. The multi-genre format teaches students to learn about and write in various genres to expand their writing skills. They can respond in poems, essays, letters, collages, bumper stickers, comic strips, etc.  I have a list of over 200 different genres from which they can choose to express themselves in their project. I tutored one student in particular who had suffered a major car accident that left her with seizures. Through her I-Search multi-genre project, she faced her fears, anger, and grief. She discovered news ways to cope and found herself healed on many levels after completing it. Her writing skills blossomed and so did her self-esteem. Today she is seizure free.

Fifth, I infuse reading comprehension, writing techniques, grammar skills, vocabulary development and all things language arts related in as many creative ways as possible. I haven't met a teenager yet who absolutely loves vocabulary development. When I want students to learn vocab words, I have them personify the words, as a living, breathing person, in such a way that the meaning of the word is evident without stating the obvious.  For example, let's use the word oblivious as the vocab word: "Oblivious walked into the classroom, tripping over backpacks, and knocking books off of desks with her bag, not realizing what she was doing. As she settled into her seat, she dumped all of the contents from her purse onto her desk, completely unaware that class had already started." Not only does this teach the meaning of the word, but it teaches the elements of characterization in a creative way, and it helps students to understand context clues.

Some students progress faster than others, but rushing a student through the learning process only serves to close him or her down. It requires trust-building and patience, especially with students who are unsure of themselves. Students want to feel good about who they are and what they are doing, especially during a time in their life that is often filled with angst and confusion.

Of course, these techniques are not a cure-all, but they are a start in helping young people discover their authentic selves.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Kids, A Cause, and Catfish

I like to reward myself.

No. Let me take that back.

I love to reward myself.

It's my way of patting myself on my back for accomplishing something.

Yesterday, I ran a 5K race along the beautiful Tennessee River in the Shoals area of Alabama to benefit St. Jude's Hospital for children. Well-over 200 people showed for the race, not counting those who came to support us on the sidelines.

When I run, I don't compete with others; I compete with myself. My goal was to knock off one to two minutes of my total run time. That may not seem like a lot, but when you are pounding the pavement on a hot, humid day, that's a very challenging goal. When I crossed the finish line, I found that I had knocked off two minutes and three seconds from the last 5K. Yes! Mission accomplished, and then some (hey, three seconds is a lot to a runner!). I also placed third in my age group (an added bonus!).

But it wasn't easy. To get me through, I thought about the kids in St. Jude's...and catfish.

So, today I rewarded myself with what I consider the best catfish in the South at Hagy's Catfish Hotel in Shiloh, Tennessee. Oh. My. God. Cat-fish-gasm.

If you are a catfish connoisseur like me, the fish must be crunchy on the outside and moist and flaky on the inside. It must be pond-raised and fresh, never frozen. And it's got to be accompanied by hushpuppies, what I call the french fries of the South. If you're not familiar with hushpuppies, they are deep-fried cornbread balls. Legend has it that hunters, fishermen, and cooks would fry this delectable cornmeal mixture and feed it to the dogs to "hush the puppies" during fish-fries. Legend also has it that Civil War soldiers used hushpuppies to quiet the barking of Confederate dogs.

But, I digress.

If given the choice of splurging on a rich, velvety, chocolate dessert or fresh catfish and savory hushpuppies, I'll take catfish hands down (or fins down!). Along with some homemade tartar sauce and sweet tea, thank you.

I ate it all!
Rewarding yourself for accomplishing a goal or a mini-goal deserves celebration. But rewards must be done correctly. That means they must have extrinsic and/or intrinsic value; that is, a reward can come from outer things (like catfish!), or the reward is in how our accomplishment (cutting two minutes and three seconds from my previous run time) makes us feel inwardly (victorious and proud).

While rewards that change our inner life are more important in the long run, outer rewards serve as important pats-on-the-back along the way. And it's important not to punish the slip-ups because they do happen on occasion.

Rewarding ourselves is about celebrating and loving the self. Rewards make us feel good about ourselves; they help build our self-esteem which gives us the courage and the motivation to keep moving forward. They are the fuel that keeps us going in the direction of our authentic self because they stimulate a positive cycle of change.

While fried catfish and hushpuppies aren't the healthiest reward, that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it from time to time.

How do you reward yourself for your accomplishments? What other tips or insight can you offer about rewards?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Increasing Your Energetic Wealth

Energy is like money.

Like money, energy can be squandered or invested.

When you have an abundance of energy, it's wise to invest it into things that will improve your life. Make your energy work for you, not against you. 

What does this mean?

It means doing those things that make you feel good about yourself. Things that you enjoy doing. Things that raise your spirits, feed your soul, and increase your vibration. Things that propel you to grow, to create, and to express your authentic self. 

But squandering your energy puts you at risk.

Energy that is not channeled constructively or positively leads to boredom, apathy, complacency, dependence, even bondage. You find yourself doing things that you don't like doing or don't want to be doing. You find yourself obligated to others rather than to yourself. Things begin piling up on you, adding stress, which then manifest physically in the form of various ailments or illnesses. You don't feel good about yourself or your place in life. Now you are left with no energy whatsoever; you've depleted yourself and your reserves. This is a major energy deficit.

What's the point of living?

But you can change this.

Investing energy into yourself, rather than squandering it aimlessly on things that no longer serve you (or have never served you), allows for a shift in vibration that moves you to start doing the things you enjoy. It begins by taking back your control and making choices that empower you. One small shift gets the ball rolling. 

Energy is designed to move, not stagnate. 

It is designed to flow freely, without blockage. 

Start small. Choose an area of your life or something about yourself that you'd like to improve. Ask yourself what kind of investment you are willing to make to improve that area of your life. Commit to it by signing a contract with yourself or by creating a vision board.  Remind yourself about your goal on a daily basis. Give it the energy it deserves to grow and manifest. Before you know it, a wealth of energy and assistance will make itself known to you in ways you've never imagined. Such is the Spirit of Attraction and Abundance.

You are worth the investment. 

How are you investing in yourself these days? Or, how will you? I invite you to share your energy investing techniques with us. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Embracing YOUR Choices

In his book, A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle says, "Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment."

In other words, what's happening to you in this exact moment is happening because it is happening. You've evolved to this exact point in time. This experience is a culmination of your thinking, of your feeling, and it is now manifesting before your very eyes.

So, how are you to approach such a moment?

Embrace it. 

Embrace it because this the experience you need to grow, to create, to express yourself fully, and to become whole.

How you approach this moment depends on only you. You have the power to make it work for you...or against you. It's your choice.  It's always been your choice.

Fighting the experience won't make it go away. Resistance is like a virus -- it comes back stronger than ever, until you inoculate it by embracing and facing the experience -- by opening up to it and asking it what it has to teach you so that you can start making new (and more informed) choices. 

A "new earth" starts with a "new mind."

What kind of world are you creating for yourself?  What kind of world would you like to create?

(If you haven't read Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth, click here for the full downloadable text).

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Teaching Outside The Box

I was always known as the English teacher who gave strange homework assignments. I would tell my students that there was a method to my madness, and that my job wasn't about telling them what to think; it was about getting them to think, especially for themselves.

As a teacher, I wanted to reach the whole student. Sure, I followed the principles of Bloom's Taxonomy when developing lesson plans, but I believe education is much more than remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information. It's about making connections to worlds other than one's own.  And by the end of the year, my students felt that they had learned much more about themselves and others because of my "crazy" assignments.

Oftentimes, I received phone calls and emails from parents, thanking me for such assignments because it allowed them to reconnect with their children and with themselves. Here's a list of some of those assignments.

Assignment 1: Learning gratitude. Imagine what your life would be like with no elbows.  Immobilize your arms in such a way that you cannot bend your elbows. Try to perform an activity like washing a plate, or changing your clothes. Journal about your experience. Thank your elbows and show them some love by rubbing some lotion on them as you give thanks (replace elbows with knees for another variation).

Assignment 2: Learning POV (point of view). Write a letter from the perspective of your hair. Think about what your hair goes through on a daily basis. What would it tell you in that letter? And what will you change as a result?

Assignment 3: Learning symbols. Anything can be our teacher when we contemplate it long enough. Sit under a tree, facing it preferably. Study it. Listen to it. Touch it. Ask what it can teach you. What could a tree represent or symbolize in life? Journal about your experience.

Assignment 4: Learning responsibility. Adopt a plant. Or plant a seed and watch it grow. Give it sun. Give it water. Play music for it. Notice the changes that occur over a few weeks.

Assignment 5: Learning appreciation. Gather all of your electronic gadgets and have a party for them. Give them a good dusting and cleaning. Check to see that the cords are in good shape. As part of the party fun, give out awards according to their "personality," like "Most Likely To Be Borrowed By My Brother When I'm Not Looking."

Assignment 6: Learning organization. Spend some time making your room a more soulful place. Make simple changes that are more reflective of your attachments, interests, and commitments. Books on the Chinese art of feng shui explain this system of gauging energy flow in an area and making changes using plants, mirrors, wind chimes, arrangement of furniture, a water feature, and other elements. Note how you feel after making these changes. How does your room feel to you?

Assignment 7: Learning comparisons/contrasts. Have you ever been in a place that you felt was "sick," ill, or negative? Describe its symptoms. How would you help it "heal?" Compare/contrast this kind of place to one that you felt was healthy? What did you notice?

Assignment 8: Learning connections. If you were a color, what color would you be, and why? Explain in one to two pages. How does this color represent you?

Assignment 9:  Learning characterization. Make a collage that captures your understanding of your family. Use images to capture each family member's personality. Explain why you chose those particular images.

Assignment 10: Learning teamwork. Plan a menu with your family and cook a meal together. Who will be the head chef? Who will be the sous chef (assistant)? Assign a role to each family member. Document this with photos and create a booklet that tells the story of the evening.

My goal was to design assignments that created meaning, assignments that took students beyond the four walls of a classroom. I wanted them to develop "heart knowledge" as well as "head knowledge."

I've always believed that learning should be a fun but challenging process. To students, these assignments took them out of their comfort zones, but they allowed students to open up to the world and to themselves, getting them out of their own little universe. These activities were about expanding their awareness.

Of course, these activities are not just for students. Anyone can work with them, especially if they want to get in touch with the depth of their souls and the breadth of their connections with others.

Give them a try, and see what you discover.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Fear's Worst Enemy

Yesterday I shared an experience that illustrated how fear can get the best of us (see "Things That Go Grunt In The Night"). While it turned out to be a funny (and wet!) situation, the fear seemed very real as my imagination ran wild.

Fear, or as my friend and Life Coach Kathy Hadley reminds people, is nothing more than False Evidence Appearing Real. And she's right. Fear is nothing more than an illusion.

And it can be one of the biggest challenges we experience.

How many times have you been afraid to try something new?  Or afraid to change something, even though your current methods weren't working?

If you are like most, when fear strikes, you may experience physical symptoms, such as rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, paralysis or immobilization, elevated blood pressure, increased perspiration, tense and energized muscles, hives or skin rashes, just to name a few. This stresses the body, so to combat it, the body releases stress hormones, like cortisol, into your bloodstream. If the body is stressed over a period of time, severe conditions may occur, if not treated.

So, why do we let it get the best of us?

Fear is often based in a lack of knowledge or understanding. Not knowing the outcome of a situation leaves us to our imaginations. When we don't know or understand something, we assume. Many times those assumptions trick us into thinking the worst. The survival part of us wants to know exactly what is going to happen; it wants guarantees and safety. This lack of knowledge fans the flames of our fears, and suddenly we have a fiery monster breathing in our direction.

But fear has an enemy. The kryptonite of knowledge.

Rather than react to your fear, you can take a proactive approach by arming yourself with knowledge. Just becoming informed about that which scares you can shift everything. The "unknown" now becomes the known.

True, some fears may be deeper rooted and much more complex than anticipated; these may take more time to address and may require the help of a life coach/professional.  But oftentimes, our fears will vanish simply by learning more about the things we are avoiding.

Knowledge is our ally against fear. The next time you find yourself feeling great resistance toward something, take a deep breath, get out the kryptonite and inform yourself, and then poof! That monster of fear dissipates into a puff of smoke, and you become your own superhero.

In what ways do you use your superpowers to conquer fear? Please share below.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Things That Go Grunt In The Night

Sometimes we let our fears get the best of us. Our imaginations get carried away, and we find ourselves blowing things out of proportion.

We had been slogging up a steep, winding trail in the Himalayas, en route to Mt. Everest.

Adjusting to high altitude took its toll on all of us. Headaches. Nausea. Hallucinations. I swear I saw a pink elephant laughing at me. At nearly 18,000 feet, where there's less oxygen, the mind begins to play tricks.

I popped another diamox (medication used to accelerate acclimatization to high altitude) to get me through.

We made camp, convened in the dining tent for a dinner of yak cheese, kala chia (black tea), pasta with veggies, and some kind of mystery meat. Lhakpa, our sherpa, told stories about the Yeti. He said he came face-to-face with one, and described it as a human ape about eight feet tall. Yeah sure. "The only yeti I've seen was the one in my mirror this morning," someone joked.

After dinner and storytelling, we each retired to our own tents to rest up for tomorrow's acclimatization hike. A sleet storm had moved in; I could hear it dancing off of my tent. I fell asleep to the sound, sleeping quite comfortably despite the bitter cold temperature.

And then the urge to pee awakened me.  Darn it. I drank too much tea at dinner.

I looked at my watch. 3:37 a.m.  Not now, I whined.

I really did not want to go out into the freezing air.

I fumbled around for my headlamp and Charmin and unzipped my tent to face the night.  The toilet tent that our sherpa's assistant pitched was two tenths of a mile outside of camp. I took a deep breath and made my way down the path, my body shivering, just to squat over a hole, and as I did, the cold air rushed to violate me in the process. Jesus! I miss the feel of porcelain!

Suddenly there came a grunt.

I stopped midstream.

Then another grunt. And another. What the hell?

My heartbeat quickened. Adrenaline raced through my veins. What should I do?

Images of Lhakpa's Yeti filled my mind.  I. Was. Scared.

The grunting moved closer. And closer.

I could hear it breathing just outside the privy. Holy crap!

Finally, I decided to make a run for it. I pulled up my pants, armed myself with my roll of Charmin, and bolted, only to run straight into the source of grunting. It knocked me flat on my butt.

When I came to, I saw it.

A yak.

Thank God! I sighed, as warmth trickled down my leg.

I didn't know whether to kiss that yak, or kick it, but I never felt so relieved (in more ways than one!).

Monday, July 22, 2013

English Class, Criticism, And Penises

It takes a lot to surprise a veteran teacher. But every once in awhile, a student does just that. And sometimes you have to illustrate the absurd with the absurd. A teacher has to plan her attack of criticism and correction very carefully.

I had been teaching Ayn Rand's novel Anthem about freeing oneself from the chains of society, discovering one's identity, and celebrating that individuality. As part of students' overall grade for the unit, I required them to keep a reading journal while following specific guidelines for their entries.

The day came for me to collect their journals. Students passed up their notebooks and I placed them on my work table next to my desk.  As we prepared to discuss the novel for its themes, one particular student rushed up to the front of the classroom with his notebook. He (let's call him J) slid it in-between the others, rather than on top, apologizing for not having it ready for collection. I paid no mind as I had to get the lesson started.

When I got home that evening, I sat in my favorite chair, a glass of wine in hand and a stack of journals in my lap, all waiting for my comments.

And then I came to J's journal.

There, on the front cover, were penises he had drawn all over it. Penises. Really? Not only did they grace the cover, but they were drawn throughout his entire reading journal.

At first I was surprised and disappointed. Never would I have expected this from J.

And then I found myself laughing so hard that I spilled red wine all over his words and art.  Oops. One of the hazards of grading papers at home.

So, I mused about how to handle this. I didn't want to react out of anger. I guess he had made some *personal discoveries* and wanted to share some of that passion.

I read through his journal, commenting on his thoughts that I found quite engaging, insightful, and eloquently stated, as penises in all shapes and sizes danced throughout the pages. This boy absolutely connected with the novel's message in ways that I had never seen students connect.  He had tied in other novels by Ayn Rand that I had mentioned in class but never assigned; he read them on his own at my suggestion. I was impressed with his intellect and initiative.

But that didn't excuse him from his display of phalluses all over his work. I knew I had to address this.

So, when I handed back everyone's journals near the end of class, J approached me, asking why he didn't get his.

"Well, J, that's something we need to discuss," I said. "Your unique display of artwork, while very realistic and lifelike...I've never seen so many different depictions of not appropriate in an English class," as I flipped through his journal in front of him. J stood there, mouth agape.

"Y-You...said...penis," he stuttered.

"Well, I do know what they are and what they are intended for, and so do you apparently, but they have no place in class, unless, of course, you are in health class. Maybe I'll show this to your health teacher," I continued, knowing that his health teacher, who was also his coach, would take severe action.

"No! Please don't, Ms. McD! He will kill me and make me run suicides in practice today! And then he'll suspend me for a few games!" J pleaded.

To drive the point home, I said, "You know, studies show that men who obsess over penises are really overcompensating for their own small equipment.  I'd be more careful if I were you."

J's eyes grew wide with concern. "Really?" he asked. "I guess I better stop! I don't want to send the wrong message to people. I'm sorry Ms. McDaniel. It'll never happen again! Thanks for enlightening me."

"I'm just looking out for you, J," I closed.

J extended his hand, and we shook on it.

Situation resolved. Dignity intact. Lesson learned. Even though I made up that study.

Criticizing and correcting behavior is something that comes with the territory of teaching adolescents. Kids will be kids, and they will test the boundaries.

But the lessons of criticism extend beyond the walls of a classroom. Anyone can be a critic, but to do it effectively takes skill. Effective criticism should be positively intended, specific, objective, and constructive, not destructive, with the goal of improving a situation. Here are some tips:

1.  Identify the behavior so you can develop your strategy around it.
2.  Be specific, not general in your criticism. Rather than say, "You're always late with your work," say, "You didn't turn in yesterday's work."
3.  Make sure the behavior that you are criticizing is changeable.  If not, you may have to get help from an outside source.
4.  Use "I" and "We" statements that are non-threatening. This shows that you want to work out the problem together.
5.  Don't belabor the point. Keep it short and to the point. Address it quickly.
6.  Don't set a tone of anger or sarcasm. This puts the other person on the defensive. Tempers will flare and make things counterproductive. Avoid personal attacks and blaming. Using insulting and hostile language will only inflame the situation.
7.  Use the "sandwich" approach. Say something affirming and redeeming before sharing your criticism, and then reaffirm your support and confidence in that person.

Effective criticism can change what people think and do when done with respect. The next time I collected reading journals, J came forward and personally handed his to me. "No penises, McD. I saw the light," he said, beaming a smile. "But I did draw these for you." With those words, he turned and bounced back to his seat.

When I glanced at his journal, I couldn't help but crack a smile.  Wine glasses.

Your comments are always welcome! What experiences can you share about handling criticism?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Dreams As Spiritual Messages

A friend of mine likes to share her nightly dreams with me in an effort to better understand her spiritual journey.

In last night's dream, she (I'll call her K) saw white crosses that transformed into beautiful white doves. In this transformation, she said she felt an immense and immediate release.

In the course of our discussion, I expressed to her that her dream was about moving beyond the confines of religion into the freedom of spirituality, to which K replied, "That's so strange! That's been on my mind."

Our nightly dreams are one way we receive spiritual messages.

Ever since I was a child, dreams have held special significance for me. At the time, I didn't understand why, but I inherently knew they were trying to tell me something, so I started keeping dream diaries where I detailed each dream, as well as my thoughts and feelings surrounding the images that made that made themselves known.

While many of my dreams proved prophetic, others spoke through the language of metaphor and symbol, and I learned to decipher their meanings for my life. Some I take as guidance, while others are warnings. Some offer me new knowledge and insights, while others present solutions to issues I may be facing. I look forward to learning from my dreams and I trust their messages.

For most ancient cultures, dreams and visions were often considered direct communication from the gods. People traveled far and wide to special temples for the privilege of consulting with a priest or oracle about their dreams. In the Bible, we see numerous references to dreams and visions (over 700 of them).

In the Old Testament, stories of Jacob and Joseph revolved around the messages of dreams. Jacob dreamed of a ladder connecting Earth and Heaven, with angels climbing and descending it. Joseph, after having been sold into slavery by his brothers, interpreted dreams for Pharaoh.

In the New Testament, Joseph is informed in a dream that Mary is pregnant with Jesus. He had another dream in which he received instruction to leave Egypt with Mary and Jesus to escape Herod's butcherous decree.

But dreams fell into disfavor with the Church when the mistranslation of ancient texts confused dreams with divination and the black arts (witchcraft).  And as cultures developed, significance in dreams waned, until it was revived by psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Dreamwork takes patience and discipline, but it doesn't require years of study, extreme fasting, or any kind of deprivation. Instead, it starts with intention.

Pay attention to patterns. Begin keeping a dream diary or journal. Any notebook will do. Keep it by your bedside. The moment you awake from a dream, record what you saw and felt. Keep track of certain symbols and objects that appear, and ask yourself what they represent to you. Some will lend themselves to obvious interpretation, while others may take some work. Notice patterns that begin to emerge. Make note of what is happening in your life at the time of your dreams. Make connections.

Pay attention to dreams that produce strong emotional feelings. Note the things that stand out the most in your dreams and your emotions surrounding those images or symbols. These will be key to figuring out the message. Emotions that we may repress during the day will shake loose in our dreams and can come across as very intense. Check these emotions against what is happening (or not happening) in your life.

Pay attention to dreams that "haunt" you during the day. This kind of dream nags at you until you examine it, or certain images from your dreams may randomly pop into your mind (without any prompting from you) throughout the day. This means it really wants your attention. It could be issuing you a warning or some other important knowledge that will not go ignored.

Pay attention to recurring dreams. This can mean two things. Sometimes dreams occur more than once to make sure we are getting the message. This can happen over a couple of nights, or you can dream the same dream (or a similar one) weeks apart. Examine what is happening in your life when these kinds of dreams occur. Sometimes recurring dreams occur because there is an unresolved issue in our lives. This may take some soul work on your part to resolve the issue. More often than not, once the issue is resolved, the recurring dreams stop.

(Photo Courtesy Google Images)
In K's case, her dream is one that is laden with transformation. She experienced bliss and a "strange but beautiful feeling," as she described it. After discussing it, she realizes it as a confirmation of the path she has chosen for herself, one that initially caused some reservations within her because of her traditional religious upbringing and the guilt associated with moving away from a path that was clearly not serving her spiritual advancement.  

Dreams are part of the universal human experience, yet they are uniquely tailored to each of us. They will reveal their messages when we open ourselves up to them and request their guidance. Understanding our dreams is like learning a new language with its own set of personal symbols, but as we become aware, they will guide us in our interpretations on the spiritual journey.

How have your nightly dreams helped you in your life?  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

To Hell And Back...For The Kids

I ran a 5K race this morning that handed me my own butt.

It was the inaugural trail run to benefit St. Jude's Hospital for children.

My dentist, Dr. Jimmy Gardiner, organized the race on his 600-acre farm nestled on Underwood Mountain.

Good Lord...I didn't know what I was in for.

When I signed up at his office after my check-up and cleaning, I figured it would be a nice change of scenery, since most of the 5K races that I've done involved pounding the pavement through various towns, past neighborhood homes and businesses.

Registration began at 5:30 a.m. (seriously?) for a 6:30 a.m. start time (most races start around 8 a.m.). Well, I couldn't find the registration tent anywhere. I had followed the directions to the farm, where I passed many campers and horses who were there for other scheduled festivities, until a woman drove up to me and told me to turn around and head back to the main road...registration would take place in front of the butcher shop. What?

But then again, I live in Alabama. Things are done differently here.

So, I headed back to the butcher shop where tables were being set up to receive people. I parked in the field, picked up my registration packet, and pinned my number onto my shirt. Number 13. That didn't go unnoticed by some, and they wished me luck as if I needed some kind of miracle. I had drunk a couple bottles of water earlier to hydrate, and my bladder was full. I looked around.

No bathrooms.

Uh oh. Now what? I noticed other people looking around, and saw some of the men heading toward trees, while some of the women stood with crossed legs and quizzical looks on their faces. The butcher shop wasn't open (too early), so I did what any self-respecting Southern woman would do in such a pressing situation -- I popped a squat between my car and the car parked next to me.

Of course, what showed up on someone's pick-up five minutes later? Figures.

The race would begin about 1/10th of a mile down the road in front of the neighbor's mailbox. Dr. Gardiner led us in prayer (a first at a race, but then again, this is Alabama), and off we went, following a man riding an ATV since no trail map was available. "If my plan works, there should be people pointing the way along the trail," Gardiner told us after prayer. But, hey, this was the first race he's ever organized. We couldn't help but laugh in support.

We passed by all the campers and their horses (second time for me), and they cheered us on as we snaked our way toward the barn and the dirt trail. The first mile was slightly downhill. No problem. The second mile, however, began to challenge my ankles with its ruts and gravel. My lungs felt the challenge as well, as I huffed and puffed; the humidity was higher than average and it hit me hard (so, that's why the early start time!). The group started to break up; some moved ahead, some dropped back. I found myself alone as I rounded a bend in the woods, the trail heading straight toward a creek.  I glanced around.

No bridge.

I hopped through the water like a gracefully-deficient antelope and found it refreshing on my hot feet. Onward I chugged, trying to catch my breath and find my pace, but the pockets of mud and the rocky grooves slowed me as my heart knocked at my ribs. What the hell did I get myself into?

And just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, the mountain appeared. The steep ascent awaited with its sneering smile. I staggered my way upward, stumbling over rocks, tripping over my own two feet, sweat stinging my eyes. But I knew I couldn't stop.

Finally, after putting myself through living hell, I reached the summit and spied the finish line. Those who finished ahead of me cheered me on with their applause. This gave me my last spurt of energy to cross the line. Halle-freaking-lujah!  After a brief cool-down, I joined the sidelines to help cheer the others on to the finish.

I run these races to support various causes. Though they challenge me on a physical level, I know it is worth it in the long run.  After I finished today's trail run, I thought, This has been one of the toughest races I've run in a very long time. 

And then I thought of the kids in St. Jude's Hospital, facing the challenge of cancer. Nothing I went through today compares to what they are going through. My heart broke open with compassion.  And if I can contribute in any way, I will, because these kids deserve healthy lives.

Would I put myself through this hell again to support them? You bet I would.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Sacred Texts and Divine Pregnancy

I was musing about the Annunciation in the Christian tradition, when the angel Gabriel announces to the young maiden Mary, "You, mortal person, have divinity within you."

Well, those weren't his exact words, but essentially that was his message. Mary became pregnant with divinity.

Pregnant with divinity.

I like that.

While most see the Annunciation as Mary being the chosen vessel for the immaculate conception of God's son Jesus, I want to take it a step further.

The tradition of miraculous conceptions of God, Sons of God, Messiahs, and Saviors is found in most, if not all, sacred literature, many of which pre-date Christianity's version.

Think about that.

What's also curious is that the mothers chosen as divine vessels are all virgins. One touched a flower and was miraculously impregnated with Zoroaster, the Persian Prophet. Another virgin was struck by a star while traveling and conceived Yu, the first Chinese monarch. Both Buddha and Krishna are reported as having been immaculately conceived. Of the ancient Mexicans, it is said that Suchiquecal conceived her son Quexalcote, the Mexican Savior, without any connection with a man. All of these maidens carried divinity.

What are these sacred texts telling us? Or, what are they not telling us?

All of these stories serve as metaphors to illustrate our own inherent divinity. We are human and we are divine (unfortunately, culture has progressed to a point where we see the human body as anything but divine; instead, it is a machine where the soul has been stripped of its essence in the name of ego). Throughout history, Avatars have come to remind us of our true nature and how to reclaim it; their message is to look inward, not outward.

We each carry the seed of divinity within us at all times. This is the kind of seed that can never be aborted. We are the receptacles of and for the sacred Authentic Self. The ultimate immaculate conception is the one that takes place within us, when we awaken to our divine nature, when we accept it, and when we give ourselves over to it. As we care for our spiritual side, we "mother" it with nurturing acts of love. We come into wholeness and fullness, giving birth to our Higher Self.

The term "born again" is misleading. More often than not, people hear that term and think of zealous religious fanatics. One must move beyond the religious connotation of the term. Being "born again" is more than getting down on our knees and accepting a savior into our hearts. It's seeing life from a new perspective, with a renewed mind, a mind that is aligned with purpose, passion, and the creative energy of love.

We are our own avatars. Avatars such as Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and so on, were enlightened beings sent to remind us of and to reveal us to our spiritual selves through renewed thinking, through the mind of God-Source. When they said to follow them, they weren't talking about physically following them around the countryside listening to their words of wisdom; they were talking about uniting and aligning with the God-Mind, about partaking of the same kind of consciousness they had, and by doing so, we would become co-creators with this same Mind. For more on this topic, read my post "Avatars and The Mind of God."

Almost every sacred text touts a story involving immaculate conception, ones that are surrounded by unusual circumstances and shrouded in mystery, none of which involve relations with man, only with Spirit in whatever form that Spirit took. Whatever the case, we can take these stories to mean that our partnership with Spirit is unique and one of a kind. As divine beings, we operate from a pure (virginal) state of Consciousness that allows us to create. We are just as responsible for our spiritual well-being as we are our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. As we approach life from a spiritual perspective, and as we devote ourselves to our particular spiritual practices, we realize (remember) these all-important truths.

What are your musings and thoughts? Please share.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Failure As A Spiritual Tool

When you see or hear the word "failure," what comes to mind?

If you are like most, you think of times when you have failed in life, and then you cringe. The idea of failure conjures all kinds of negative images and feelings.
That is a human reaction. The ego strikes again!

But failure from a spiritual perspective is not failure. 

It's a starting point.

Too many times, we allow our failures to define us. I can remember in my own life having the need to earn love and acceptance. If I didn't get high grades in school, I wasn't smart enough. If I didn't work long hours, I wasn't going to get that promotion. I was a slave to the ego and to a twisted worldview of success.  Within this worldview, my value as a person was extrinsic; I tied my self-worth to my achievements, and I feared failure. As a result, I operated under the false notion that success made me a good, valuable person, while failure made me a bad, unworthy one. I lived my life from the outside in, and I suffered.

But then I learned that I am not my outcomes.  I am more than any outcome.  Much, much more.

I took the advice of Uncle Socrates when he said,  "The unexamined life is not worth living." I started examining my life, and I challenged the premise of the world's view of success and failure.  In what way did failure make me a bad person? Why would success make me a good or better person? And what's the link between my ability to perform a specific task or to achieve a certain goal and my worth as a person? 


I realized the absurdity of such a premise. I had been engaging in self-sabotage! My value and worth as a person had absolutely nothing to do with my succeeding or failing at a particular task. I suddenly (and finally) felt free.  My worthiness is an intrinsic part of my existence. My value lies in the fact that I am a unique expression of the Divine; my value is not dependent on whether I succeed or fail at something.

Failure, according to a spiritual perspective, really doesn't exist. Neither does success. These do, however, exist in a very real way for those who choose to define themselves through their successes and failures, but where is the freedom in that?

When we approach failure spiritually, we see it as a launching pad into the Inner Self. We view and use it as a tool to re-examine who we are, what our core assumptions and beliefs are about ourselves and the world, and the strategies and tactics we employ based on those core beliefs.  And in so doing, we expand our awareness and perspective. We learn. We grow. We break through. The stuff of miracles. 

The examined life is worth living when we see it as a journey to the Authentic Self. Will there be setbacks? Of course. We will stumble. We will fall. We will get up, and we will carry on, knowing that we have a Higher Calling than what the world would have us answer.

As always, your comments are welcome. . .

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Holy Cow! A Lesson In Bovine Beauty

Study an animal long enough, and it may provide you insight to carry into your own experiences. We usually associate certain qualities with certain animals.  Dogs are loyal, and cats are curious.

I took a lesson from a herd of cows today.

Nothing seems to bother them.

They graze.

They laze.

They are sociable, staying in the same part of whatever field they are in.

They are a happy lot. They are content no matter where they are.

In India, the cow is a provider of milk. It is also equated to one's mother. Cows are sacred for many reasons in Hindu mythologies and tradition. Kamadhenu, for example, is a divine bovine-goddess described as the mother of all cows. She is the wish-fulfilling cow and is honored through the veneration of all cows in general throughout the observant Hindu population. Because they are sacred, it's not unusual to see them roaming the streets, completely unharmed.

When I was sojourning in Kathmandu, Nepal, on my way to the Himalayas, I remember watching a cow striding down the middle of a highway without a care in the world. Cars slowed down to move around her. People even threw vegetables toward her to honor her spirit. The experience touched me in a very deep place.

She was one happy cow.  It was as if she knew she had the endorsement of the entire universe behind her existence.

Looking at the cows in the field today reminded me of that experience in Nepal. I saw them not as walking hamburgers or receptacles of milk, but as symbols of the Earth; they give so much of themselves without expecting anything in return. . .such innocent creatures who are comfortable just being themselves.

That's something to be happy about.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Spiritual Approach To Weight Loss

When I was a personal trainer, I worked with many people who hoped to lose unwanted weight (or perceived excess weight). Women, in particular, struggled with their body perception. They constantly compared their bodies to others, and they could not understand why they weren't losing weight.

More often than not their reasons to lose weight had to do with vanity rather than health. They wanted the flat tummies they had pre-children. They didn't want their husbands straying from the marriage because they had gained weight. They were the ugly ducklings in high school who had an upcoming reunion and they wanted to exact their revenge. The list could go on and on.

I realized that these women were stuck in a negative body image cycle; there were deeper issues at play. They lacked a spiritual approach to fitness. As part of their physical routine, I'd give them a spiritual prescription to follow.

1. Change your perspective on weight gain or issues. We have been conditioned to believe that weight gain is a negative thing. We want to zap it as quickly as we can. Weight gain is nothing more than your body getting your attention. Are you leading a stressed lifestyle? What is your current relationship with food? Do you need to administer more self-love and less self-judgment? If you are looking at your current weight as something despicable or disgusting, the weight is not the issue. Instead, it is your reaction to the issue that is causing the weight gain. Weight gain usually means you are insulating yourself from something else. From what (or whom) are you protecting yourself? Use this as an opening into showing you what you may need on a deeper level. This calls for you to go inward to examine what changes need to be made on an emotional and spiritual level.

2. Keep a food diary. Tracking our food intake not only tracks what we eat and when we eat, but why we eat. It can also show why we are not eating. Note your emotions when you eat. It will show you what kind of relationship you have with food. Do you find yourself eating whenever you get off the phone with your mother? Or after you've had a fight with your spouse? Do you find yourself snacking because you are bored? Do you find yourself not eating because of stress from work or home? Take an honest look at your eating patterns and the emotions behind the eating. These are clues into the bigger issues in your life that need addressing.

3. Use positive affirmations. The best defense you have against failing is to create the right mental attitude. Every time you tell yourself you feel fat, you are reinforcing a negative image and the negative vibration associated with that image. Negative thinking can greatly affect the body's ability to metabolize food; it stresses the body by releasing "stress hormones" (cortisol) into your system, thus reducing your body's ability to perform effectively. If you have a negative attitude toward working out, you're actually causing more stress on your system.

Instead, move forward in your thinking through the use of positive "I AM" statements. These statements will shift your energy and move you toward feeling healthier, lighter, and freer. It's important to focus on what you want, not on what you don't want, so keep them in the present tense (example: "I am making healthy meal choices," rather that "I am not eating unhealthy food anymore"). "I AM" statements can be said aloud or written down, but they must be practiced every day to be effective. It takes between 21 - 30 days for new habits to develop.

As we use affirmations, the brain actually creates new neural pathways for these thoughts to travel to help you create a new you. Losing weight is not about running away from your weight; it's about loving your body and understanding its needs. You created it through your choices. Now it's a matter of reframing those choices in a more positive light. Weight loss is more than calories in, calories out.

4. Make your mirror your new best friend. Do you find yourself avoiding your image in the mirror? Or, when you do catch a glance of yourself, do you give yourself a critical look? If your best friend were walking down the street, would you ignore him or her? No, of course you wouldn't. You'd say hello and exchange pleasantries or make plans. Why ignore yourself? Your mirror is not the enemy. Make friends with it. Practice your affirmations in front of it, looking yourself in the eye. Get intimate with the person looking back at you. Notice all of your positive features. See that person as a beautiful creation, a one of a kind design, a once-in-a-lifetime being. Smile back at yourself and show yourself some love.

5. Use the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). EFT is an effective technique to release unconscious blocks, past emotions, or buried traumas. It involves tapping various points of your body and takes only a few minutes. More specifically, it is a form of psychological acupressure based on the same energy meridians used in traditional acupuncture, only without the use of needles, while voicing positive affirmations to remove any emotional blocks. You can read more about it on Kathy Hadley's page, which includes a tutorial video, or you can visit the EFT page for more extensive information. This technique will help you to release any resistance you have toward reaching your goal.  See video below to help you better understand.

6.  Love and accept yourself unconditionally. Believing that life will be better once you lose weight is a trap. Thinking that something is wrong with you because your body doesn't compare to others robs you of truly living in the moment. Instead, be grateful and truly appreciate what you have. See yourself as the beautiful, deserving, worthy, lovable creation that you are; this is how the Universe created you. Be kind to and gentle with yourself. Read my post on self-love for ways to help you open up to unconditional love.

We all want to live more fully and authentically, and sometimes we think that losing weight is the answer. We think it will make us more confident, more attractive, more loving, or more fun. But we can be those things without losing weight by addressing our emotional and spiritual needs first. As we resolve those issues, we remove unwanted blocks within ourselves, and we find that losing weight simply becomes an added benefit. Taking care of ourselves requires more than just burning fat cells. When we uncover the underlying reasons for wanting to lose weight, most times we will find that vanity (ego in disguise) is the culprit. Shifting our perception about weight and body image from one of dread to one of self-discovery and self-love allows us to approach life from a more holistic and enlightened point of view.

If you have anything to add, please feel free to share your thoughts below.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Let It Rain


It's raining.

I had plans to go for a run and enjoy the outdoors.

That's not gonna happen.  Not today.

So, I'm taking it as a message from the Universe to simply enjoy the falling rain.

As I watch the rain nourish the plants in my garden, I appreciate how essential it is.  It ends droughts. It replenishes the water table. It cleanses the air (and us) of pollutants. It quenches thirst. It is a powerful natural source and resource.

Water, in various Earth-based faith traditions, represents cleansing, emotions, and purifying. Many sacred traditions use water in rituals. We see it used in baptisms, anointings, ceremonial purification rituals, blessings, and more.

Today is a day to fall in love with the rain. Rather than feel down and dreary about it, why not embrace it, letting it nourish and replenish your spirit? Here are some of those ways:

1.  Open your window. Listen to the pitter-patter of rain and let it lull you. Do some deep breathing and give gratitude.

2.  Meditate to the sound of the rain.

3.  Curl up on the couch with a blanket and read a good book.

4.  Take in the scent of rain. Some people find it pleasant, earthy, and distinctive. That's due to petrichor, an oil produced by plants that gets absorbed into rocks and soil. When it rains, these oils release into the air, giving off a pungent aroma.

5.  Dance, sing, or walk in the rain. Imagine the rain cleansing you on all levels of your being. Of course, don't do this during thunder or lightning.

6.  Cook your favorite meal that you associate with a rainy day.

7.  Do some self-empowerment exercises as part of your spiritual growth and unfolding.

8.  Catch up on those projects that you keep saving for a rainy day.

9.  Luxuriate in a bath using scented epsom salt like lavender or eucalyptus as you listen to the rain.

10. Spend quality time with family without the interference of TV or other electronic devices. Play games. Do a puzzle. Talk. Do arts and crafts together.

The possibilities are endless. Be creative in finding ways to enjoy it.

I think I will go for that run after all.

Your comments are always welcome.  If you have some other tips to share, please do!  

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Spiritual Take On Menopause

Hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings! Oh my!  

Not to mention irregular periods, loss of libido (oh no!), memory lapses (what was I going to say?), and (oh, now I remember) weight gain.  These are just a few of the many symptoms of menopause, symptoms I have come to know too well.

I used to hear my grandmother tell her younger women friends, "Oh, honey, you're just going through The Change," adding an emphasis that struck a chord of mystery within my pre-teen brain.  The Change?  What the heck?

And here I am, heading straight into it with my two constant companions, hot flashes and its evening cousin night sweats. Oh, the joy to be had with these two rascals.

But the more I understand menopause, the more I understand myself. I've gone from a young girl to a nurturer to a much wiser (and older) version of myself.

Such are the stages of a woman's life. Maiden. Mother. Crone. The triple Goddess that embodies all the feminine aspects of life.

As a maiden, I flowered into womanhood with the onset of my first menses.  I learned about myself and my sexuality.  I marveled over my changing body and prepared for the next phase.

I never bore children, but I have "mothered" many. While the mother stage usually involves marriage and motherhood, it is really about a woman's sexual maturity. During this phase, I've nurtured others and developed a truer sense of self.

As a crone (I prefer Goddess, thank you), I now enter the menopausal journey.  My hormones are changing (I'm fanning myself as I write this), the ovaries are semi-retired, and I have a lot of life experiences behind me to help me accept this next phase of my life. I've come into my own. I am woman; hear me roar!

As much as society would have us believe that menopause is the end of a woman's life, it's not. Although it does signify an ending, it presents the freedom of new beginnings. This is a time of transition. It's a time of rebirth. It is a time to embrace the qualities of the Crone-Goddess to seek true wisdom. The radiance of youth may fade under the smile lines and gray hair, but we begin to glow with an inner light as we slip into our true self. Such beauty doesn't happen over night!

While this is unknown and unfamiliar territory for me, I'm embracing the mystery of it just as I have done with other transitions I've experienced in my life. While there are some minor discomforts (holy hot comes another one!), I honor and celebrate The Change. I no longer suffer the insecurities or pride or vanity of my early adult years, and I'm no longer a "human doing," taking care of everyone else's needs while neglecting my own.  I am being the Being I'm meant to be. Menopause is going to be what I make of it.

And to make the most of it, here's my plan:

1.  Look forward to growing in wisdom.
2.  Listen to my soul. Feed it when it is hungry spiritually.
3.  Listen to my body.  Notice the subtle and not so subtle changes and allow them to guide me inward.
4.  Nurture myself on all levels. Do the things that I enjoy doing with more frequency, intensity, and love.
5.  Continue meditation in order to strive to balance the various aspects of my life for self-fulfillment.
6.  Hold Crone-Goddess ceremonies under the full moon to honor the woman I have been and rejoice in the woman I am becoming.
7.  Embrace the changes going on instead of dreading them. Trust that my body knows what it is doing.
8.  The reproductive years may be over, but that doesn't mean to stop creating. See this as a time to try new things and to focus on other forms of creativity.
9.  Carry a hand fan wherever I go!

If you have any tips to share for those of us experiencing this ultimate uterine challenge, please comment below.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Animal Totems As A Spiritual Tool

Chief Seattle of the Suwamish Tribe said, "Whatever happens to the beast also happens to the man. All things are connected."  He was saying that we are not above nature; instead, we are one with it. Animals are our brothers and sisters; they are our guides and our teachers.

Nature has long been a part of my life. As a child I spent a lot of my time exploring ponds, creeks, and woods. Whenever I encountered animals, I instinctually knew that I was in the presence of something special and magical. I believed (and still believe) that each animal that showed up during my adventures was sent as a sign especially for me.  Later I would learn that those animals were my totems, spiritual beings sent to guide me, and it was my job to stop, listen, and heed their messages.

A totem, as defined in the dictionary, "is any natural object, being, or animal believed to have spiritual significance."

An animal totem is an animal to which you feel an affinity or a deep connection; it is a symbol of a specific kind of energy that we manifest and align with in life. People use animal totems to get in touch with specific qualities or personality traits found within the animal. Animal totems help us to learn about ourselves and the invisible world. They offer spiritual guidance. Their behaviors and habitats give us clues as to what message is being offered, and they help us to absorb any challenging or complex lessons. They also help us to realize wisdom and inner peace, especially when important cycles of change unfold in our lives.

Animals are some of the most powerful symbols in our spiritual toolbox, but animal totem awareness is by no means worship of any animal. It's not about deifying them. Instead, we are to use them as spiritual tools along our personal path, guiding us ever inward. When we acknowledge an animal totem, we are honoring the essence -- the spiritual force -- that lies behind it.

You can have several animal guides throughout your lifetime. Sometimes a guide will come only for a short time and then be replaced by another as your journey evolves or changes direction. When this happens, give thanks to your animal guide for instructing and protecting you, and then welcome your new guide into your space.  But to do this you need to know what your animal totem is.

There are a number of ways to discover your animal totem. Start by asking yourself some questions to get you thinking about a prominent animal in your life.

1.  Animals that fascinate us have something to teach us. To what animal, bird, reptile, or insect have you been drawn or felt connected?

2.  Our dreams are powerful spiritual resources. What animals have repeatedly shown up in your dreams?

3.  Nature preserves and zoos allow us to get up close and personal with animals. What is the first animal you want to see when you go?

4.  What animal do you fear the most? This animal can help you to confront the shadow side of yourself.

5.  What animal frequently presents itself when you are out in your surroundings or out in nature?

6.  Over time, our interests in animals change. What animal interests you the most at this moment?

7.  What positive encounter have you had with an animal?

8.  What negative encounter have you had with an animal?

If you're still uncertain as to what your animal totem is, don't despair.  It's important to have an open mind and to release any preconceived notions. It's also important to be patient in this process. Just let the animal present itself naturally to you.

You may want to start keeping a journal to record the animals that show up in your dreams.  Begin paying attention to which ones show up repeatedly. Do this for the next couple of weeks to discover any patterns or links.  In addition, keep track of animals that randomly pop up in your mind and that you encounter during your day.  Note your reaction. What feelings, emotions, or sensations arose? Did you feel pulled toward it? Did it make eye contact with you? What did your gut tell you?

You may also want to do a meditation. Find a place where you can be alone and free of distractions and technology. Relax by doing some deep breathing. When ready, ask your animal to make its nature known to you. Give thanks to it for making itself known.

Once you discover your animal totem, ask it for confirmation in the next week so that it is truly your totem. These confirmations will come in many ways. Spirit communicates in diverse ways. You may dream about it, read about it, see it on TV, hear about it on the radio, or encounter it in art or in pictures. You may even encounter someone who is attuned to the invisible world who can see your animal totem and tell you. Whatever the case, verify it, study it, learn about it to facilitate your being able to relate it to yourself. One thing you don't want to do is to brush it off because your ego didn't find it glamorous enough. Explore it; it may be quite appropriate to you.

Animal totems, as a spiritual tool, help us to understand ourselves, our lives, and the interconnectedness of all things. Connecting with the phenomena and energy of an animal gives us a new look at reality. As we learn about our totem, we identify, we grow, we learn, we rediscover the joy and mystery of the natural and spiritual world; we see all things as one.

Your comments are always welcome. What animal totems have you had or do you have?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Learning Self-Love

This morning I spoke with a young woman (I'll call her J) who is not happy with her body image. She said, "I've always wanted to be the type of person who could wear a bikini at a pool or beach and I know that will never happen."

I run into this time and time again with young women who *believe* that they are supposed to look like runway models, movie stars, and glamour queens. And when they don't, they resort to extreme dieting and exercise; worse yet, they develop eating disorders and other physical ailments. Such self-abuse takes its toll on the body, mind, and spirit.

I admit when I was a teen I often compared myself to other girls and to women in magazines.  Their images seduced me into wanting to look like them. I can recall times I've stood in front of my mirror, chanting the mantra that most teenage girls of my time were chanting, I must...I must...I must increase my bust, while trying to get my elbows to touch behind my back each time.

And then one day a bolt of realization hit me. I didn't have to have big breasts. I liked mine just the way they were. I didn't want to be a copy of someone else; I wanted to be an original. And no one would do a better job of being me than me.

So, I embraced myself, B-cups and all.

We incarnate into this world naked, innocent, pure, and beautiful. Unfortunately, we buy into lies perpetuated by the media and advertising, and we begin to think that we are not good enough.  We start living by standards set by others rather than by our own. And when we fail to live up to those standards, we are crushed, devastated, and defeated. We call ourselves failures in comparison to others.  We *believe* the lies as truth that we are less than perfect. How incredibly sad.

After talking at length with J, it's obvious that she is caught in this destructive trap. She's afraid of being seen as a failure. At her core lies shame that she learned from someone or something. It has such a grip on her that it has paralyzed her from making the changes she needs to make in order to blossom into her authentic self.  Her self-neglect and self-abuse have out-trumped the ability to love herself as the gift that she is.

It would be easy to tell J to just go love herself, but the issue is that she doesn't know how.  It's going to take some training and a lot of inner as well as outer work on her part, and only if she truly wants to make the changes.

What can J (or anyone for that matter) do to love herself more?  I've compiled a list of things that she (and you!) can start doing.  Of course, these don't have to be done all at once, but the sooner the better.

1.  Start dating yourself. Take yourself out to dinner, to a movie, or to a museum. The point is to spend some quality time alone with yourself. Get to know who you are. Learn to get comfortable with yourself. It might feel a bit awkward in the beginning.  You may feel self-conscious, or feel that people are looking at you and judging you because you are out alone. But this discomfort will dissipate and you'll soon realize how important it is to do things for yourself.

2.  Notice your self-talk. Your self-dialogue is key! Negative self-talk shames you into imprisoning your authentic self.  It is destructive to your growth.  Instead, practice positive self-talk through affirmations and I AM statements. Start paying yourself compliments. Say them in front of a mirror. Write them down. Post them where you will always see them. Read them and re-read them. Speak kindly to yourself always. Forgive yourself for past negative thinking.

3.  Do what you love. When you find things that you love to do and you spend time doing them, you will experience love, joy, and happiness, and then will you connect with your authentic self.

4.  Learn to say no to others' requests. And don't feel guilty about it. If you don't feel like doing something, you have the right not to do it. If you feel you have to please someone else and make others happy, then you are doing so out of obligation and not out of love. You run the risk of over-extending yourself. Saying no takes some practice; you want to do it respectfully. You can't please everyone and you are not responsible for everybody else's needs.

5.  Practice self-care on all levels. Take care of yourself physically by exercising and eating healthy foods.  Take care of yourself spiritually through meditation, prayer, or contemplation. Take care of yourself emotionally by listening to uplifting music, putting your creative skills to use, and being kind to others.  Kindness is the kernel of love.

6.  Avoid the comparison trap! You are a unique individual.  There will never be anyone quite like you.  This is important to remember.  When you start comparing yourself to others it chips away at self-esteem and confidence, making you depressed, envious, or jealous.  Instead, focus on your own strengths and gifts that you can offer to the world.

7.  Practice gratitude. Be happy with what you have. Be truly thankful for everything in your life...friends, family, a home, a job, etc. Gratitude keeps your heart open to love. The more you are grateful for what you have in your life, the more you attract.

8. Examine the kinds of activities in which you are involved.  What kinds of TV shows, music, art and music do you indulge?  Ask yourself if these things are adding to your growth or detracting from it. With what kinds of people do you associate? Do these people foster your growth or not? If these things and people only add stress to your life, then it's time find activities and people that feed your soul and not your ego.

9.  Celebrate your accomplishments. Don't define yourself by what you've done or haven't done. Instead, celebrate the steps you have taken to better yourself. Small accomplishments lead to bigger ones. Your progress is very important, but it may take some time. Be patient as you allow your authentic self to emerge. Every time you feel good about something you do, it's one more reminder to love who you are.

10. Stand up for your beliefs. You are who you are.  You like what you like.  You believe what you believe. You have nothing to prove to anyone.  Don't give other people's opinions and criticisms power over you. Your self-worth is not conditional on other people.

Self-love is at the very core of well-being. If we are to experience joy and self-empowerment, if we are to create and enjoy the kind of life that we want, self-love must live at our core.  You can't enjoy happiness if you are not at peace with yourself.

As always your comments are welcome.  Please share your ideas to help others on the journey to the authentic self.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mindful Decision-Making

Our lives are filled with choices. We are born into a world of choices. The gift of free will allows us to choose as we please. We can choose how to feel, how to dress, what to eat, where to go, what to believe, what to think, how to treat others, how to treat ourselves, and so on. What a beautiful thing!

At any given moment, we can choose whatever we want.  Our choices allow us to begin or to end, to start over or to continue forward. We can even choose not to choose.

Talk about options.  Wow.

But how do we know that the choices we make are the best possible choices?

Anyone can make choices, but the mindful person understands that there are consequences to choices. Choices can have positive, constructive, and beneficial effects, or they can have negative, destructive, and malicious ones. Yet, some choices can have severe consequences that pay off in the long-run. Some choices may be well-intentioned initially but have disastrous effects later on.

Whatever the case, our choices direct our lives.  When we make conscious choices, we are steering our lives in a specific direction. We control our destiny, if you will. When we let others make decisions for us, we give up our control, leaving our lives in their hands.

Our choices can make us or they can break us. Some choices are harder to make than others. We can learn from the mindful person how to make better decisions for our lives. Below are six traits to adopt to help us navigate through the tougher choices in our lives.

1.  The mindful person goes inward to think about what s/he is doing, before doing it. This means examining the possible outcomes, weighing the options, and gaining some perspective. Going inward allows the mindful person to connect with the Higher Self.

2.  The mindful person avoids hasty decisions. S/he takes some time to think about things and lets the emotional dust settle. Sometimes the mindful person confides in someone trustworthy and objective to get a better perspective of the situation.

3.  The mindful person balances his/her thinking and being.  S/he doesn't over-analyze or over-think things. This brings undue stress to the situation. The mindful person will engage in meditation, prayer, or some other contemplative exercise to allow energy to flow freely so that creative solutions present themselves.

4.  The mindful person trusts in himself/herself. S/he has faith in his/her instincts and will make choices based on how aligned s/he feels with those choices, after thinking things through.

5.  The mindful person lets go. After some contemplative time, the mindful person gives it over to the Universe/God/Infinite Intelligence/Source, knowing that all is working out for the Highest Good.  S/he doesn't feel the need to worry about it.

Sure, our lives are filled with a multitude of choices and sometimes the abundance of choices can be overwhelming, especially if we don't know what we truly want for ourselves. The mindful person knows to take a step back, a step inward, and then lets go.

Your comments are always welcome.