Buddhist

Find Your Voice

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Like most things, this post took its time to be ready. And now it is.

I want to share with you how I lost my voice, and how I'm finding it again.

When I was a kid, one of the things that made me, me, was my voice. I was a talker. I was a singer. I was an actor on stage, at home and on an actual, literal stage in my local community theater and high school productions. As a teacher and then as a program director, I spoke a lot each day.

I was defined, in many ways, by my voice. How it sounded, what I said, and how I said it. And then, a few things changed and this year I was struck with the reality that I had, in fact, lost my voice.

First, there was a very real experiential loss when I was abruptly fired without notice in 2009. I'd never been fired from any job I had held and had only received glowing recommendations from my previous supervisors at this particular job. When I tried to ask questions to make sense of what felt incredibly surreal and unfair, I experienced no access nor interest in providing me any answers. I don't do HR, so I guess that's what is supposed to happen. A community of hundreds of people who had surrounded me for years was strangely and unnervingly silent when the news of my "departure" broke. A colleague and mentor advised me to move on in silence, to avoid appearing "embittered and righteous".

Move on, I did. I started up my health coaching business and went from being buried in debt to financially thriving in under two years. I used my voice to speak about topics and issues that were relevant and important to me, on my own terms, in venues and using methods I chose. And it felt great.

Then, in 2012, I began to lose my actual voice. I began HRT (hormone replacement therapy) in May to initiate my physical transition. As the months passed, my vocal cords thickened and the pitch of my voice changed. At first it felt like having a sore throat and then it just felt like a lingering cold. I tried to sing songs so familiar to me they felt like breathing, and now I could hardly get a few notes out. I sobbed, overcome with grief that I, and I alone, was responsible for the loss of my singing voice. It was something I took for granted until I no longer had access to it.

As I adjusted to this change, I also realized I had become paralyzed with regards to my voice in my business. As my self-confidence waned in the face of the transition process (it ain't easy, lemme tell ya), I felt less resolve and clarity about my message. My Buddhist practice made me mindful of my ego. People on facebook and in my real life challenged my perspectives on nutrition and lifestyle habits, fearlessness and self-empowerment.

I found myself voiceless--literally and metaphorically. And it felt really, really horrible.

The experience lasted longer than I would have liked but I'm grateful for it, as I am with everything in my life. I've learned so much during this period of relative silence.

As the panic and paralysis wears off, I've found myself in a place of acceptance. Yes, my voice has changed. It's different--on purpose--not just because of hormones but because I want to use it more powerfully. This transition process isn't just about changing my physical body but actualizing how I show up in my own life, including how I use my voice. Losing it makes total sense. Finding it, from a place of real authenticity and integrity, is a new and now exciting process.

And singing is fun again, I just have to sing in a different octave.

 

Have you ever experienced something like this? Or maybe you had an a-ha moment while reading it.

Tell me what you're thinking.

 

I Made Pema Chodron Laugh-Part 1/3

This weekend was so intense and packed full of stories, I decided to write about it in three parts: 1) my interaction with Pema

2) nutrition and lifestyle musings

3) emotional and spiritual experiences/epiphanies

 

Part 1: Making Pema Laugh

I knew this post would be a challenge to write. So, I made sure I had a big salad to get my head clear.

How do I write about something that was 10 years in the making? How do I use my limited command of the English language to express the ineffable? I'll make the most of what I have and do my best. That's the theme for this post, in general.

So, this past weekend, I met Pema Chodron. That name may mean nothing to you, so I will tell you a bit about what it means to me.

Ten years ago, two friends saw my intense suffering over the end of my first love. They handed me a CD and a book by Pema. I listened to the CD laying under a tree one day and had to stop because I had chest pains. That was my first experience of having an anxiety attack.

A few months later, I tried reading When Things Fall Apart. It didn't penetrate because I was still so consumed in my habitual patterns and endless thoughts.

That went on for about four more years, so I will move more quickly to the a-ha moment I had in 2007. I was suffering over another break-up (different girlfriend, this time) and, as I reached for yet another Pema Chodron CD to bring me back from yet another emotional brink, I heard myself say out loud, "I need to start having a regular practice and listen to her more frequently. Not just when I'm panicking after everything goes wrong. I need to catch this shit before it gets to this point."

Boom. It's what Pema calls a flash of lightning in the dark night. The flash of bodhichitta: the inspiration to be free of my own suffering so I can help others be free of theirs.

Brilliant. Now I was really hooked.

For the next few years, I did just that. I developed a more regular habit of reading her books, listening to her CDs but still not, regrettably, having a regular seated meditation practice. That's ok. It's yet another area where I need to grow.

In addition to reading and listening to Pema more often, I also became a certified health coach. It's incredible what different food and lifestyle habits will do for one's patience and emotional stability. I'm here to testify. During the next few years, I did the VERY hard work of taking on my BIGGEST fears and overcoming my BIGGEST blocks.

I wasn't trying to win the Buddhist of The Year award. I was just trying to have less drama, tears, and suffering on a daily basis.

It worked. Or rather, it's working.

To celebrate my most recent fear-conquering life change, my then-girlfriend gifted me with a ticket to attend a retreat in Vermont where Pema would be teaching. I was going to go myself, and it took about a week for me to allow myself to receive the gift. Worthiness and gratitude, those are some intense and difficult growing edges for me this year. It makes sense, seeing as this year I'm celebrating transitioning to male--a gift I've given myself after living as a female for 34 years. The amount of courage and self-love it took to do that may look easy from a distance, perhaps. It's not easy at all.

So, we drive up there. It's damn gorgeous and I am elated to be getting away for a break for the first time this year. I feel numb to the actual reality that I'll be in the same room as Pema. I'll be in the presence of this woman who, through her work and her teachings, has provided me such wisdom and comfort for 10 years. How do I mentally and emotionally prepare for that?

How did I prepare? By focusing on where I was seated. We had arrived on time but others had filled the seats closest to the front. I succumbed to feeling dejected and frustrated and I instantly made plans to arrive earlier the next day. Great way to start a weekend about non-attachment, eh? Yeah, great. At least I noticed it. Then I sat in my seat in the back and said aloud, "I feel sad I won't be able see her very well." And then, I let it go. That's what she has taught me to do, after all. Drop the storyline and let it go. I chose to be grateful to even be there, instead of focusing on being a few feet closer to the front.

Within minutes, I was taught a profound lesson. As we finished up the morning's 50-minute meditation session (quite an intense but welcomed workout), I notice people moving in my peripheral vision off the right. Who was approaching the door, a mere 2 feet from my seat? Pema, herself. Our seats were right beside the door where she entered the shrine room, so I was greeted with her gaze and her smile not once, not twice but four times that day as she entered and exited for two teaching sessions. I took each opportunity to smile as brightly as possible and infuse as much love, compassion and gratitude as I was able to in the moment. I made the most of that incredible good fortune of seating location. And I made the most of my grasping at initially wanting to sit closer to her, and how it felt to forgive myself for wanting and needing that.

I ended up being so close, in fact, her little red shoes were right beside me.

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As Pema moved to the raised platform where she'd be teaching, I was in a daze. She was here. I was here. This was really happening. All those minutes and hours and weeks and years of listening to her witty and accessible wisdom during my darkest moments of despair had led me to this moment. I was sitting here, as student in her physical presence. I was sitting there, listening to her very familiar voice and witnessing her very familiar sassy delivery of these ancient teachings about happiness, suffering and the link between the two.

So, naturally, I thought of how I could make the most of the opportunity. How could I take what was already an incredible life experience and live it out the best I could? I had been sitting with a question for so long, now was my opportunity to ask a master. I set my intention clearly to act if given the chance.

Pema called on about 6 people and when I asked a staff member if that was the limit, he replied yes. But I noticed other people getting up to the microphone. I wrestled with my discomfort when I saw that. I pondered doing the same but I decided to honor her and sit still and wait, following the advice of the staff member who said, "when she calls on more, make a big deal--wave a sign for something."

I wasn't going to make sign, but I appreciated his support and advice. I did use the time to get clear on my question. I got clear on the reasons why I wanted to ask it. I got clear---and when she designated more time for questions I shot my hand high in the air from the back of the room. Our eyes met. She smiled and pointed to me. As I stood to approach the microphone, my legs were shaking. A warmth spread all over my body. I've met many amazing and famous people in my life, and this was going to be another one of those moments.

And this time, just like all the others, it wasn't about meeting a celebrity or getting an autograph. It was about being able to share an experience with someone who chose to stand out on this planet of ours. It was about interacting with a person in this lifetime who is an inspiration to me and many others. With each encounter, I've advanced on my own path, and gained greater wisdom, so I can have a bigger impact with my work.

As I approached the mic and she got settled with a glass of water, my legs shook. After ten years of waiting, I met her gaze and smiled. I asked her a question that has been on my mind and our rapport over the next several minutes had the crowd of 300+  people roaring with laughter. I made Pema laugh. We had fun together. Does life get better than that?!

You probably want to know what I asked her. And I'll tell you, in subsequent posts.

After we shared several minutes of conversation in front of this great crowd, I thanked her and stepped away from the mic. I returned to my seat, so grateful for my courage to raise my hand and create that experience for myself. At the end of my life, I will have so many incredible memories, and each one is from my own creation or from my decision to receive opportunities presented to me. There are good memories and not so good ones. All of them are valuable and precious.

That was wisdom I gleaned from Pema, from one of my greatest teachers. We all have the opportunity each day to receive ultimate happiness, joy and freedom from suffering or to reject it. 

The rest of the weekend was full of so many incredible experiences, I'll need to share them over several posts but this was the theme, the message, loud and clear. If you have an unpleasant experience, make the most of it. If it's a great opportunity, make the most of it.

Bring gratitude and compassion and love (for self and all others) into each moment the best you can.

Now, off I go to get started on that regular seated meditation of mine...

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Meditation in the Morning

Two weeks ago, I met with one of my grad school classes. On Wednesday afternoons, we meet and talk about "life". We call them salons and I love them to bits--the people and the talks. I'm a people person and a talker and these meetings brings those loves together.

One of my colleagues is a Sikh yogi and he shared his morning routine of sitting and meditating before sunrise. He said it's an extremely magical experience to be up that early and awake and meditating when it's so quiet as the sun begins to rise. When I first heard this, I scoffed (silently to myself, of course). Get up that early to sit and meditate? The beauty of his experience was lost in my own intimidation and fear of applying myself to something requiring such discipline.

Then, once his words sank in a little more, I realized two things. One, it's incredibly beautiful that he does this and two,  I've been waking up at 5:46 am for about 2 months solid. On my own. No alarm. I know it's because my upstairs neighbor wakes up at that hour to get ready for her day as a schoolteacher. She makes so much noise that I wake up, too. I've resented it so much. Truly. I was allowing myself to become really frustrated by how much noise she manages to make.

I'm up anyway, and annoyed. What better time to practice meditation?

So, I did. I've done it a few times, now. And it's pretty great.

I first learned how to meditate from my friend, Amy Glenn. It was about 10 years ago, and it changed my life forever. I've also attended a few guided, seated meditation sessions in Brookline, MA and Cambridge, MA. Those experiences were ok. Sort of "meh". But, they did teach me a lot and, combined with what I've learned from Pema Chödrön, I feel like I have exactly what I need to know to sit by myself.

And sit, I do.

I notice that my jaw is clenched really tight, even at 6:00am. I've just woken up! Imagine what it's doing all day to my teeth and gums? And my neck and jaw muscles? And my general well-being? Hmm. Breathing into that one.

I notice my monkey mind. That's Buddhist-ese for "active brain chatter", when one's thoughts are hopping and bouncing about like a... monkey, I guess. Welcome to being me. Contrary to what most people think, meditation isn't there to help us relax. When someone said that in a workshop I was at a few weeks ago, I wanted to jump out of my seat. It's meant for us to get present with whatever is on our minds. Not to shove it away and pretend it's not happening. The idea of meditation is that we do that enough already, the stuffing down and pushing away. Meditation is the chance to not do that. And just sit with whatever comes up, pleasant or unpleasant. Agreeable or disagreeable. Pretty or not.

Bring it on.

Even though I'm not someone who sits and meditates every day (or hardly at all), I have been doing the sitting with my thoughts each and every moment of each and every day for many years. The sitting still on a cushion is different. And I really like it. It allows for a clarity that surpasses just my normal everyday awareness. I never noticed the jaw thing during the day.

The endless string of mental assessments? Yep, I hear them all the time.

The to-do list? Yep.

The doubts, fears and anxieties? Oh, yeah.

 

And the alarm sounds on my phone. It's been 30 minutes. And the sun is up.

Despite being up so early, I feel incredibly energized and more emotionally ready to welcome the day, whatever it's going to bring me. And man, does it make me tired and ready for an early bedtime! I also sleep soundly through the night. I am really enjoying that part, especially since my sleep the past few winters has been pitiful.

I can't wait to see my colleague tomorrow to tell him how much he inspired me, and what I've been able to create and notice, as a result of him sharing his morning meditation routine.