Step Outside…

In the past couple of years, as the planet has been experiencing a frightening pandemic, intense political conflict, and extreme weather patterns (among other things), many of us have found ourselves hesitant to leave our apartments or houses. We learned to work at home and avoid crowded public places, which held potential dangers. Even now, as we begin to venture out more, a kind of post-traumatic stress seems to linger in our consciousness. We have to break through a fear barrier just to go outdoors. It takes a real effort to walk to the corner store, let alone take a plane to another city.

We have collectively fallen into the habit of fear-based inertia, believing it is safer and easier to stay put in our living rooms than to go out into the risk-ridden world. We choose the simulated reality of Netflix or social media over the shining, ever-expanding world outside our doors. This scenario is unlike anything we have ever experienced in our lifetimes, and as we look into the future, we can’t foresee it changing. Perhaps it is we who have to change. Choose to open the door instead of lock it.

For example: On a winter’s day in February when cold or snow could trap you indoors, fearful of the icy sidewalks and the frigid wind, go outside anyway, even for ten minutes. Walk around your neighborhood or in a local park. Breathing the fresh air will clear your lungs—and your mind. So many things have kept us indoors recently. How about using a peaceful but invigorating walk as the daily movement challenge to get you beyond your door, whatever the weather? I promise you it will help break the stay-at-home inclination and also make you feel a lot better physically.

I am finding that when I begin to feel tired or depressed and unwilling to move, that is exactly the time when I need most to take a walk outdoors. If I consciously remind myself how much better I feel when I go outside, then I am able to make the extra effort to walk out the door. And every single time I am rewarded with some special moment in the world around me. In spring it is colorful flowers and newly green leaves; in winter, tree silhouettes and wild geese against brilliant blue skies. Always there are bird calls and the smell of fresh air. And the faces of individuals I pass on the street, who smile brightly if I say hello. All of this is a refresher jumpstart for my body and soul, which I would have missed entirely if I had stayed inside.

So next time you feel incapacitated by the gravity that keeps you immobile in your own living room, not fully engaged in life, make an effort to break free. Step outside and breathe in the beauty of the planet you live on. It’s not as scary as it might seem. In fact, it is still the wondrous place it always was, filled with a variety of climates, habitats, and people. We are just going through birthing pains on our beloved Earth. See them as temporary. Look up at the sun and the always changing sky, listen to the birds singing, smile at your neighbors, and you will start to walk with a sparkle in your eyes and spirit in your steps.

Timeless Slow Motion

The experience of calendar- and clock-oriented time has seemed to fade and often dissolve completely over the past two to three years of radical changes in the world. I find that many people I know comment on how they often have no idea what day or month it is until they stop and think about it. Life has given us the opportunity to live the ancient wisdom of present-moment awareness in which time does not exist. Now is timeless. There is only Presence. It may be hard to get used to at first, but gradually there is a letting go into a greater sense of being alive, one that is not constrained by human parameters or mental constructions that explain the world. Being alive and being aware of life is all there is.

In 2018 I moved from Massachusetts to Florida; in 2020 I moved back. Within that span of time, a pandemic brought the world to a standstill. Busy-ness of all kinds subsided. My own life became mainly morning meditation, yoga, writing, and daily walks on a nature trail outside my door. Most other things fell away. In 2021­–2022, as I lived through a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, even my past identity began to dissolve. I let go completely into appreciating each second of my life. Today, as people try to get back their pre-pandemic lives and return to “normal” activities, I find myself reluctant to become “busy” again. My entire being wants to move in slow motion and be fully present with a minimum of activities, such as writing or walking in Nature. I am most at peace then.

There is no time in Nature. When I walk quietly among the trees, listening to the call of the wood thrush or cardinal, I do not count the minutes and keep track of how much time has passed. I am fully in the moment and nothing else exists. The color of the sky and the movement of the clouds engage my heart and soul. I frequently stop and just stare at the beauty around me. A flower, butterfly, or bee is a tiny miracle; if I walk swiftly, I miss them entirely. “Slow” is a gift; “timeless” is a gift. I am grateful for all that happened in my life that brought me to this space of just plain “being.”

Major events, whether personal (like cancer) or global (like COVID), shatter reality and give us the opportunity to see the world and ourselves with fresh eyes and no past frameworks. If we remain in this open space without refilling it with previous mindsets that keep us spinning in place, then limitless possibilities open up all around us. The most powerful of which is just to see the world each morning with clear vision and no preconceptions.

Allow the present to move you; don’t try to control it or force it along a particular mental path. When you accept each moment as it arises, your soul can guide you in living a life that peacefully flows and flowers, even in the midst of illness or extreme changes in the external world. Indeed, maybe this is why crisis comes to humans—to teach them fluidity and gratitude. Perhaps our souls chose these particular lifetimes on Planet Earth to help humanity evolve into full conscious awareness of timeless presence and connection to something greater in the universe. Slow down, smile, and watch time disappear.

The Tree of Life

I am looking out my kitchen window at the tree in my neighbors’ backyard. It is October and the green leaves are turning golden/red, some beginning to fall to the ground. The coleus on their porch looks slightly less full and is fading in color. Soon the tree will be bare, and the coleus leaves will also have fallen to the yard below. This is the cycle of life, for trees, for plants, for humans. Seeds to fallen leaves, becoming one with the Earth from which they grew. Spring, summer, fall, winter. Baby, child, adult, elder. Birth, death, rebirth.

The tree of life has many branches, many experiences. If I compare myself to a tree, I can see the human life cycle playing out in the seasonal changes of the tree. We are born in spring, bloom in summer, come into our full colorful wisdom in autumn, and then gradually, gently, one by one, our leaves begin to fade and fall. The winter of our lives appears so much closer then. We can see death in the distance. Ironically, though, as we age, we also begin to see spring on the other side.

When I was a child, I feared death as an end, eternity as an empty void. As I grow older, I am beginning to sense the never-ending continuity of life and death. They are really one, these two experiences that we have been led to believe are polar opposites. The whole, seen together, is Presence, living consciousness that is eternal. If you have a spiritual background, you may see that as God or the Divine Mother; it is also what we are at the soul level. No separation—between God/dess and soul, between life and death. It is all infinite consciousness experiencing itself in a multitude of ways. Awareness, arising from the soul, expands throughout our lives until we are able to perceive the oneness fully.

Soul awareness emerges differently in each person. You may not see the divine fusion of life and death until the moment you transition. Or you may be shown it much earlier, at a time of great crisis or great love. Any profound human experience can open the doors of perception so that the light pours through. We all fear facing death alone with no sense of meaning, no light shining to show us the way. But the deeper you surrender to the mystery of life, the greater your trust grows in both meaning and light. Faith replaces fear.

I am not traditionally religious, but I do believe in a Spirit that fills the cosmos with light and beauty. I feel this Presence every day of my life when I watch the sun rise or hear birds singing; it has been with me since birth and will continue after I die. I see it in the tree outside my window and in all the living beings on Earth, plant, animal, and human. In the stones and stars as well. In my own heart. Everything and everyone is part of it, something so magnificent that words cannot encompass its gentle loving power. Our minds think death exists as an end, but it is only a transition to another beginning. If you look closely at the Tree of Life, its secrets reveal themselves, and you see the cycles of Spirit that never end and the exquisitely sweet flow of infinity itself.

Without a Word

I usually arise around 4 or 5 in the morning when there is predominantly silence everywhere. I sit in the darkness and rest in the stillness, soothed by the absence of noise or traffic outside. Soon the birds begin to sing, and the light of the sun fills the world. There are no voices or conversations interrupting the peace I feel at this time. I am absorbing the experience of morning without a word. Through my ears and eyes; through my cells. Presence.

So much of our lives is based in language, spoken or heard, filling our brains with thoughts. What would it be like to experience the world without mentally describing it to ourselves? Can you see a tree or bird without naming it as such? A person without mentally categorizing gender, age, race? Even beyond that, can you see anything without language, just experiencing it without a word? We humans have learned to divide the world with the words we have created to describe it. Often we aren’t even seeing what we see; instead we perceive a mental image of a word designation we have come to associate with something. We all do this. What if we tried to shift our awareness into just experiencing with no perceptual parameters? Life arising and falling away with no attempts on our part to capture it in words. Like the silence at dawn.

I’m a writer so this can seem like quite a challenge to me at times. Yet when I am walking in Nature or sitting in the silence of sunrise, it frees my mind to just experience the world from my heart, wordlessly. I practice seeing without naming as I walk among the trees, bushes, and flowers of the natural world. I can always write about it later, but in the experience itself I prefer to be and receive the full wonder of what is before me. I grew up an only child on five acres in the Illinois countryside, so I spent a lot of time alone during those years.  I had friends at school, but at home I enjoyed the solitude and silence of Nature. Somehow this has carried over to my adult life. I feel most at home in wordless Presence.

A number of years ago, when I was taking part in traditional fire ceremonies with Maya elders in Guatemala, I experienced this same kind of deep Presence. Even though words in the Maya language were spoken within the ceremony, somehow there was a profound silence that pervaded everything. No conversation, just inner quiet and receptivity. The stillness of Spirit linked our hearts and souls and also brought Nature’s magic beyond human language close to us. Bees circled in the air above the fire before the ceremony at Tikal, and birds swooped through the lingering smoke afterward. It was as if they were weaving the energy of the ceremony into the greater world. And none of us spoke at these times; to be wordlessly present was enough.

Of course, it’s not necessary or realistic to live like this all the time. Our friendships, family, and community arise out of communicating verbally and sharing life experiences, thoughts, and feelings with words. Yet, to step back at times and just be silent is deeply soothing. Your breathing slows, and your whole body relaxes. Space opens up within you for the soul to expand into present-moment awareness. Those who meditate or take long quiet walks experience this. I feel it in the stillness before the day begins. If we each found our way to including such experiences in our daily lives, perhaps we would be less busy and stressed. Sometimes the most profound moments of life occur without a word.

Do No Harm

The phrase “first do no harm” has been associated with the Hippocratic Oath, principles that physicians and the medical profession in general have been called to adhere to. The exact wording varies, depending on sources, but it probably first appeared in the 1700s. Over the centuries, it has remained part of the collective memory bank. Yet is this powerful moral directive lived out fully and consciously, not only in medicine but in everyday life? Immediately I think of the countless TV ads for drugs to treat various physical conditions, all of which include a long list of dangerous possible side effects. Doctors believe the benefits outweigh potential risks, but do the drug companies prioritize possible harm over their profit margin? I have had allergic reactions and side effects from drugs ever since childhood. There has to be a better approach, one that is harm-less. Homeopathy, herbal remedies, or acupuncture, for example. More conscious guidelines for drug manufacture. Or better yet, stopping much illness and disease at the source: environmental pollutants that compromise our health.

There are many ways to apply that simple phrase: First do no harm. Today, our physical health and well-being are of growing concern on this planet as pesticide use and industrial waste poison our land, water, and food sources. The numbers of songbirds, bees, and butterflies are declining. Toxic chemicals are creeping into clothing, cleaning products, and toys our children play with. Cancer cases continue to rise. Organic and regenerative farming address some of these issues, as do activists who call out those who sell products dangerous to health or who allow the water supply to be polluted through intentional neglect. Residents of Jackson, Mississippi, are currently working together to find ways to provide people with clean water because the state and city infrastructure has failed to do so. Same occurred in Flint, Michigan. Communities of color are at particularly high risk for the poisoning of their water, air, and soil.

What about air quality and climate change? So many industries (including coal, oil, and gas production) habitually pollute the air we breathe and cause possibly irreversible damage to the global environment. Individuals often feel helpless to stop the extent of this harm. Yet each step counts: clean affordable energy sources like solar and wind power, stopping use of equipment like leaf and snow blowers which fill the air with fumes and make the air unbreathable. Not to mention noise pollution. Convenience comes at a cost (health and habitat destruction), one that people are learning they may not be willing to pay. Corporations and governments have monetary and political clout, but people together have collective power for change once they realize what’s at stake and that there is no “other,” only “we.”

Many groups and individuals are working on so many levels to create a harm-free planet. The difficulties can seem insurmountable at times, especially when addressing things like gun violence or war. Where to begin? Perhaps it’s about compassion and interpersonal peace in our lives as much as laws and treaties. When human hearts open, everything will change. If each person, organization, and country lives with the code “first do no harm” in every area (thought, word, and deed), the world will shift to a more peaceful livability. There is a better way, and we know it in our hearts. One without ill health, environmental destruction, violence, hatred, or self-serving monetary goals. One in which loving-kindness is our first impulse. It begins with you and me. Kind actions, kind words, kind thoughts. Within kindness and heart-centered awareness, harm falls to the wayside, obsolete. This is a future we can live in if we so choose. First do no harm.