leah

Since she died in 2012, I have missed my mother every day. That is not particularly special; I suspect most people feel the same way about beloved people in their lives who have died.

Equally un-special is the fact that I wanted a sign. I wanted to know she was okay, even if she is just a bunch of random energy scattered all over the universe. Well, really, I wanted a sign that was okay, too. Particularly since my father died in 2014 I’ve felt keenly the pain of being an orphan, albeit a superannuated orphan. It’s the cost of having great parents, that they become such an intrinsic part of who you are, your story, your identification and your place in the world that when they are physically gone it’s maybe harder to adjust to the new order of things.

(That was a somewhat complicated way of saying that I miss my parents a lot, and I’m sad).

My mother was a terrific cook and a really great hostess. She was the kind of hostess who made guests feel like it was perfectly natural that the house was clean, dinner was cooking, and the hostess was relaxed and available. The family knew about the ironing of napkins, the cleaning of the downstairs, the chopping, the marinating, the simmering, and the visit to Steve-the-wine-guy to select perfect wine in two-bottle sets. I absorbed the essence of what she (and my father) did on many Friday or Saturday nights: make it look easy, put your guests first, and roll with the punches like exploding fondue or the unexpected picky eater.

I have almost never entertained in my own house. When my parents were alive, their house was easier for family gatherings. Later, my brother’s house became the standard location because we had pet dander and (I have always secretly believed) because my house is not clean or modern enough. Our chairs are mismatched. So are some of our forks. I inherited the cooking gene from my mother and also, apparently, her non-cleaning gene but without the accompanying funding for a cleaning lady.

Lately, though, I have started to feed a group of my son’s friends every weekend. First, we gave them burgers, potato salad, pasta salad,and baked beans on July 4th. It was so much fun that I invited them back the following weekend for pulled pork, coleslaw and fruit salad. Nothing fancy; just good, homemade food at a set table with conversation and second helpings. Last week I made them Greek kebabs with homemade Tzatziki, pita bread and a Greek salad, and next week it’s all about Vindaloo, rice and a cool cucumber raita.

When I am planning, and buying and prepping, when I am cooking, and putting (my mother’s) beautiful summer place mats on the dining room table, she’s with me. There’s an autopilot kind of thing that points me to the next task, reminds me to listen to music as I work, and pushes me to leave space for a feet-up rest before guests arrive. I use paper plates, which she wouldn’t like, and I have been known to put condiments on the table in their original containers which, had she believed in hell, would have earned her nomination for the fastest way to get there. It’s mine, and it’s her’s, and we work well together.

Oh, and there’s this other thing about a salad and a bowl.

The other day I found myself making lunch just for me, from whatever was around. I chopped peppers and celery, halved some cherry tomatoes, drained a can of garbanzo beans and threw it all in a bowl with some shredded cheese and oil and vinegar dressing. To be specific, I threw it in this bowl, which is enameled metal, very 1970s, and lived in my original family home until I brought it here last summer:

bowl

Sitting down to eat the salad (with a book, because I am not as mindful as I’d like to be) I had a strong wave of memory. I remembered a salad my mother used to make, kind of a bean salad with kidney beans, maybe garbanzos, slices of celery, tiny chunks of cheese and a dressing she made herself that was creamy but very light. Maybe it was a 70s thing. Maybe it was a Jewish thing. Maybe, like “Hot Dogs Hawaiian” it was a recipe discovered during the early and very impoverished years of my parents’ marriage. Whatever it was, she would never have served it to guests, but to the four of us it was a staple.

“Leah,” I said to her as I put my book down for a moment “you’re totally in my head today. If you’re haunting me, it’s totally okay, but I’m going to keep using the paper plates.” I waited; she said nothing. She was there, though, from book to bowl, from confident hostess to almost confident hostess. She’s here.

Image

So I come upon this image and my heart beats faster, unbidden, because someone is living in the world I have crafted in the most secret vault of my heart, the place to which I retreat in moments unbearable. I imagine myself living just so, with books and a typewriter, working two jobs that pay my rent and buy books, and fruit, and good dark chocolate, and maybe a tiny kitchen with one pan, one plate, one glass and an old enamel tea kettle, sky blue. A Room of One’s Own but I will not walk into the water with pockets full of stones, I will live abundantly and miss nothing. Not a thing.

I shop at thrift stores, and when the moon is full I throw open my window and play “Madame Butterfly” so loud that the downstairs neighbor bangs on his ceiling with something, maybe a broom.

But

I

don’t

stop

because how is it that I am so old, really so very old when inside of myself I am so very young? I squandered youth, wasted it on fear and tightness, rules and the imagined disapproval of my wildest imaginings. I want so little, piles of books, a vintage quilt – the postage stamp kind made out of feed sacks and cherished by someone who also had nothing – and paper and colored pencils, and a painting from a jumble sale and old photographs of no one I know, abandoned, lost, found by my boundless heart and cherished as they should have been all these many years.

I want so much, the eternity to watch dust motes in a shaft of sunlight, forming unions and moving apart, the ease of knowing that no one is watching, the abandonment of possessions that do not bring me joy.

On nights when I am not working I go to free chamber music concerts and walk home humming, wearing a gauzy Indian skirt with hundreds of tiny mirrors that flash beneath the street lights. I have a small balcony, and it is dangerously heavy with pots of herbs, marjoram, basil, Rosemary for remembrance, and lavender to lean into and find peace. Also there is a small movie house showing foreign films and after I see “Jules et Jim” I make myself a sandwich of bread and chocolate, my own pain au chocolat, and eat it extraordinarily slowly with a cracked cup of tea that bears a single faded rose.

And I love the people in this life I have, and I would never wish them away, but this other world lives so vividly just under my dependable surface, beneath the graying hair, the skin on my arms turning to crepe, light years past the time to live so small, and so vast a life as I imagine in that room filled with books and light and infinite possibility and

how

how

how

do I make room for that girl with the teacup, who can take an hour to eat a single, splendid orange?

 

Buddhism and Grief – Back from the Edge

My latest post on elephantjournal.com. Please check it out – and you might just find about 673 other great posts there, too……………..

 Dear ones,

 

I’m still stuck on the whole judgment thing. It’s relatively easy to stop judging about some things, because it’s always felt mean, and wrong and backwards to judge people about how they look, or how they dress, or their grammar or what school they went to or where they work, or where they shop, or what’s in their grocery cart, or what they’re reading. You get the picture.

 

It’s harder, but doable to stop judging where there’s a big gap between your beliefs and those of the judgee – they are very orthodox something-or-other and you are “spiritual but not religious.” They are a Republican and you are a Democrat. They are spending hundreds of dollars maintaining a weed-free lawn with chemicals and you are using the space between your house and the sidewalk to grow organic vegetables. They eat meat and you are a vegan.

 

The hardest one, for me, is this: not judging people who do things that are really, objectively, legally and/or morally wrong. People who hurt other people physically, spiritually or financially. It’s hard to feel compassion towards those who siphon money from elderly parents, abuse animals or children, commit acts of sexual violence, or kill someone. I will never “understand” such acts, I wish none of them ever occurred, and I have a strong desire to see wrongdoers brought to justice and prevented from doing further harm.

 

Not everyone has a problem with judging or even hating people based on “bad” actions, but I do. My charter, a cornerstone of all that I believe, is compassion for all sentient beings. I see no danger in showing compassion to anyone. I see no slippery slope whereby acknowledging someone’s humanity and bowing to it is the equivalent of condoning their behavior. I don’t condone the behavior, but I, personally have an obligation to refrain from judging the person and to work towards a place of compassion.

 

I struggle with this. A lot.

 

And yesterday, I happened to attend the service at the church where I work, and my beloved friend Penny was giving her last sermon before retiring. The sermon was about this:

“And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humblywith your God.”

-Micah 6:8

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

-John 13:34-35

(Yup, I’m still a Buddhist. I see nothing here that conflicts, even remotely, with being a Buddhist).

 

Penny’s sermon was about a wedding she performed off-site, and the fact that the check for her fee was rejected for insufficient funds. After a couple of months of fuming, she contacted the bride, who was horrified and said payment would be sent right out. But it never was. And Penny, to whom this had never happened, had an extended “who DOES that?!?!” period. She knew that she could sue them in Small Claims Court and prevail, and she knew that she could turn the matter over to the local prosecutor because it’s a crime to write bad checks.

 

But

 

She also understood that there must be some kind of trouble that led to the bad check and the failure to make it right. She believed that the couple’s behavior was immature, and did not bode well for their future as individuals or as a couple. She knew that she could exact “justice,” that the bad check would be objectively adjudicated “wrong,” and that punishment would be exacted…and also that her own charter was to act with love and mercy. So she decided to let it go, and to pursue it no further. She chose not to condone the act, but to show compassion to fellow human beings who were already in trouble.

 

Sitting in my pew, I felt struck by a little bit of grace. I felt strengthened in my resolve to look at all other people with compassion and love, never forgetting that we are all interdependent parts of a larger whole. If we judge people (as opposed to their actions) and find them wanting, we are separating ourselves, and setting up a personal tribunal based only on our own thoughts, history, culture and beliefs. There are “good” and “bad” people,” and people, once judged “bad” are unworthy of being treated as part of the human race.

 

And frankly, just between us, I have done some things that could very easily be judged “bad” by a lot of people. But that’s not the whole of me, it makes me no less human, and it makes me no more or less worthy of love and compassion than anyone else breathing in oxygen.

 

I’m trying not to judge AT ALL, and to be careful to separate my abhorrence for actions from my ability to extend loving kindness towards the actor. It’s really, incredibly hard.

 

Some may question the value of trying this hard, since it’s pretty natural to judge harshly those who break hearts, laws or spirits. To them, I would say this: much of the suffering in this world comes from separateness, division, and believing in an “us” and a “them.” Wars, poverty, racial and sexual injustice, homophobia, genocide, apartheid…it all requires some slicing and dicing of humanity to create sides, and to pick one. A predicate to this slicing and dicing is judging to determine what thoughts/beliefs/actions are “good” and which are “bad.”

 

The good in the world comes from love, compassion, and the treatment of all living beings as worthy and entitled to compassion and care. No matter what. No matter who. Be the bigger heart.

 

P.S. I am not (!!!!!!) saying it’s wrong to have political views, values, religious beliefs, standards, ethics or morals. I am not saying that you can’t share these things, enthuse over them, teach them or try to enlist others. I am saying that you are no objectively righter or better than those who disagree.

 

 

 

 

 

In the beginning, Prince Siddhartha lived in luxury and wealth in his father’s palace. After he renounced his privileged life and became a wandering monk, he experienced the hardship and difficulty of a life with nothing. He spent years torturing his mind with hard thoughts and solitude and starved his body, enjoyed no comforts and suffered all the experiences of a life without belongings.

Not long before he achieved his insights and attained enlightenment, he realised both these extreme ways of life were as fruitless as each other. He realised that the true way to happiness was to avoid these extremes, to follow a moderate a way of life. He called this way of living the Middle Path.

Buddhists describe the three ways of life by comparing them to strings of a lute. The loose string is like a life of careless indulgence and makes a poor note when played. The tight string is like a life of extreme hardship and denial, producing another bad sound when played and, worse, likely to snap at any moment. Only the middle string, which is neither slack nor tense, produces a harmonious note — it has the same qualities as the Middle Path. Those who follow this way, avoid the extremes of indulgence and denial. They do not seek endless pleasures, and they do not torment themselves with pain, lacking and self-torment. The Fourth Noble Truth is that the Middle Path leads to the end of suffering.

-BDEA/Buddhanet

Simpson Buddhist vegetarian Lisa elephantjournal com

I am a Buddhist, I eat meat, and I struggle with that. Ultimately, I know, it’s a matter of personal choice. I get that, I really do. But I also believe in ahimsa, a Sanskrit term meaning “kindness and non-violence towards all living things including animals.”

I have thought about this, agonized about this, and experimented with what I eat for a couple of years. Almost daily, I read articles written by those who have chosen to be vegans, to eat raw, or to be vegetarians. They all sound really happy and healthy and awesome and I feel…like I am missing out and also kind of fraudulent. Because really, does it matter if I meditate and do yoga and recycle and shop locally and buy organic produce and turn the water off while I’m brushing if I’m also eating chicken in my Pad Thai?

My first inclination, because I am me, was to believe that I was wrong and to try desperately to be vegan or vegetarian. The next step was to decide that there are really very good reasons that I am neither, at the moment. The final step was to lay my rationale alongside the counter-arguments and take a hard look to see if I was deluding myself in order to avoid doing “the right thing.”

Without being judgy, that is – of myself or others. If you are a vegan, a vegetarian, a flexitarian, an ovo-lactarian and you are strong and healthy and comfortable with your choice, I am your greatest fan. You have undoubtedly thought long and hard about what you eat and why you eat it, and made a decision that fits your ethical beliefs, your budget, your body’s needs and your lifestyle.

But yesterday alone I read several pieces of writing that seemed to assume that all decent, mindful, right-thinking and intelligent people were either vegans or vegetarians, and I felt bad. Really, really bad. And I judged myself mercilessly. All of these young, glowing, juicing, raw and/or vegan people were better than me. Stronger. Smarter. How could I justify my own choices without feeling all defensive and like some clueless and unhip old person living in flyover and probably using a flip phone and ordering the steak and cottage cheese “Diet Platter” at the diner?

Here’s my answer on veganism: I am not going to be a vegan because I am a (well controlled) diabetic who lives with and cooks for two other people who do not choose to be vegans, and also has a pretty tight food budget. If I lived alone, I might express my beliefs by living on vegetables, nuts and seeds, and limited quantities of fruits and grains. I am, in fact, positive that I would give it a go and see what happened.  But my reality is that I live with people who eat meat and dairy, one of whom is a growing boy. The logistics of maintaining two separate menus, taking my blood sugar into account, and buying enough food for me to live as a vegan while also buying what my family needs…is too much. It would not be “Middle Path” for me, but a barely feasible and horrifically stressful extreme. So I’m not going to do it now.

As for vegetarianism, I have tried it, more than once, and it’s more feasible but not right for right now.  I was vegetarian all last summer, and made it work economically. It did not work well health-wise. I gained weight. My blood sugar went up. I felt cruddy. I was told by my doctor that I would do better including some lean animal protein in place of fatty nuts and cheeses. I also needed to be careful about rice, pasta and legumes, all of which are staples of most vegetarian recipes and all of which are high in carbohydrates (even if they are rich in fiber).

Relevant Embarrassing Truth: I have always been an emotional eater, and although mindfulness has made that much better, it still happens when I am under pressure. In October my mom died. In November my dad got very ill. There were times when I had urges to eat LOTS of something to feel better. It tended to be carbs, and that wreaked havoc on my blood sugar. It would have been better if I had been eating sensible portions of vegetarian meals and then burning off anxiety with a good treadmill session, but I wasn’t. I was eating sensible portions of vegetarian meals, feeling starved, sad, anxious and deprived, and then consuming bags of Veggie Booty, and boxes of Peanut Butter Penguin Puffs. 

Within three months of switching back to eating meat, I felt better and got my blood sugar under control. A meal that included a modest portion of lean animal protein along with lots of veggies and a small helping of whole grain helped me to feel full, satisfied, and less vulnerable to stress eating. It was right for me.

Right now I’m recalibrating again. I rarely eat meat except at dinner, and two of my seven weekly dinners are vegetarian. I try to eat mindfully, to savor and luxuriate in the sweetness of a cherry tomato and the silkiness of the tofu in my miso soup. I try to balance food calories in with exercise calories out. I work to deal with the triggers that set off emotional eating, and to forgive myself and move on when I eat seven spoons full of almond butter after a crappy day.

It’s not all ideal. I make decisions based on my reality. Sometimes I eat meat that came from a factory farm and is in every possible way objectionable. Because I can choose for myself that I will pay $13.00 for one organic, free-range, cruelty-free chicken breast and stretch it among the three of us, but I can’t make that choice for my family every day. This is my path, not theirs.

Sometimes I just really feel like I need to eat some red meat, and I trust my body and eat it and savor it and give thanks to the creature who gave its life.

It’s a process. It’s a Middle Path and not a final destination. It’s a path on which I treat myself with the non-judgment and compassion that I try to extend to others. I salute (and sometimes envy) those who make other choices, and hope that they will respect mine.

I hope I can respect mine, with a spirit of openness and willingness to evolve.

Image: http://www.lisabarwise.com/5-steps-for-raising-a-little-vegetarian/

“Metta is the ability to embrace all parts of ourselves, as well as all parts of the world. Practicing metta illuminates our inner integrity because it relieves us of the need to deny different aspects of ourselves.”

― Sharon SalzbergLovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Image

It’s interesting to me that thousands of years ago, long before the idea of “therapy” as we know it today, The Buddha understood that in order to love others we must first love ourselves. (To learn what Metta is, and how to engage in the practice, you might want to start here).

We hear it All The Time. It’s a cliché of the self-help industry, and I hear it so often that when Oprah/Phil/Guru of the Month says “you have to love yourself,” my eyes glaze. It seems silly, a little, and selfish to lavish on myself the kind of affection and attention I would give to my husband, my child, my friends or (honestly) my dogs. I might pay attention to myself in a “you need to exercise and cover your roots and floss” kind of way, but that’s maintenance, not love. It’s the equivalent of taking kids for immunizations and making sure they do their homework but never making them a cupcake or snuggling up to read “Goodnight, Moon.”

I’ve always felt pretty ridiculous even thinking about loving me, and I didn’t know how to do it, and when I even thought about it my mind turned to things that cost money – what could I eat/buy myself/do that would feel like love? So, up to now, I either gave up on the idea of self-love or had a disappointing rendezvous with a candy bar.

And nothing got better. And I was vicious with myself when the kid got in trouble in school, or my fat jeans didn’t zip, and I kept up this constant mental patter about why I was bad, wrong, to blame…generally awful. 

What Buddha saw was that if we can’t get past that daily, constant, tangled mess of pain and self-hatred, we do not really have the capacity to love anyone else completely and without reservation. There are conditions, and strings; we want validation, good behavior, approval, protection…we are not just loving, we are offering love as part of a bargain. It’s conditional. 

So in the practice of Metta, we begin by cultivating loving kindness towards ourselves, and eventually branch out to the rest of the world. Once we are satisfied that we feel real love for ourselves, we direct Metta towards a benefactor, then to a loved one, and we move on to a “neutral” person, a “difficult” person and eventually to the direction of loving kindness to all sentient beings.

I’ve been practicing since March, and it’s made quite a difference…stay tuned and I’ll tell you more about that.

I’m thinking about meditation. (And if you meditate, you think that’s funny. And if you don’t, stick with me).

I am often asked about meditation by people who would like to try it, but who are totally flummoxed by some combination of internal and external obstacles. The internal obstacle is one’s own thinking brain, which really just wants to think all the time. Which is really, really normal by the way. The external things can include (but are not limited to):
1. The notion that you have to learn some fancy technique
2. The notion that other people can just sit down and clear their minds of thought but you are a total failure
3. The notion that there must be religious trappings
4. The sheer volume of conflicting and well-intended programs and advice.

Here, at its most basic, is what meditation is: it is disciplining the mind to stop running around, reacting, or doing whatever it’s doing, and return to focus on your breath, and the present moment. Not panicking about the future, not ruminating about the past, just being HERE. That’s it.

It’s not some woo woo new age-y thing, but a tremendously useful tool. When you cultivate the ability to stop thinking and return to your breath, you can calm yourself and find peace no matter what’s going on in your life. It’s not supposed to relax you, or help you solve problems, or do anything but stay in the present moment. There are practices aimed at both of those things, but your basic, mindfulness meditation is not that.

Our minds want to do stuff, and we are encouraged from birth to identify and solve problems, and to get ahead by thinking well at school and at work. Many of us define ourselves as “smart” people and that becomes our shtick, our way to distinguish ourselves as special – we do well in school, we are logical, and we know things. Turning that off is incredibly, incredibly difficult and counterintuitive. It does, however, lead to more peace and less suffering. I promise.

So to meditate, you do not need to view it as a spiritual practice. You do not need a mantra, a special cushion, a meditation timer that has special lights, a singing bowl, a Buddha statue, a Ganesh statue, incense, or a hermetically sealed and totally silent space. You do not have to sit in the lotus position. You do not have to have an “Ohm” T-shirt or a wrist mala. If you like any of that stuff and it makes you feel good about meditating, go for it.

Well, except for the silent space. Because, this: what you are working towards is the ability to return to your breath, right here and right now, NO MATTER WHAT. If you are a monk, I guess it might be reasonable to practice meditation in silence. If you are most of us, there’s going to be stuff going on. So disabuse yourself right now (see how I used my brain to come up with that thinky word?) of the need to have silence and freedom from distraction when you sit. Don’t try to meditate in the path of a parade, maybe, but otherwise take what you’ve got.

Here’s what you actually do need: a place to sit, and some kind of timer. I used to use a sofa cushion, but I splurged on a buckwheat zafu (cushion) because I really wanted one. I use a cheap meditation timer app on my phone, but you could just as easily use a kitchen timer. You sit down, cross-legged, lotus position, or however you are comfortable and able to stay alert. You may sit up in a chair. You set your timer for 5, 10, 15 minutes or whatever you feel you can devote to meditation, then you close your eyes, and focus on your breath until the timer goes off. You can count breaths, you can say to yourself “breathing in, breathing out,” and you can notice that some breaths are long, some are short.

You will think ALL THE TIME. By which I mean CONSTANTLY. Here is my meditation this morning: I breathed twice, thought about writing this, breathed once, had a cat on my leg, breathed once, thought about dinner, breathed three times and found myself lost in a long mental story about a work issue…that’s just how it generally is. When you find yourself thinking, notice it, and direct yourself very gently and kindly back to the breath. By which I do not mean “you idiot, you screwed up!” I mean you can say “I’m thinking” and start over again. As many times as it takes. There is no judgment, there is no success or failure, it’s just a process. The goal is not that you stop having thoughts but that you develop the ability to catch them quickly and let them go.

You may also have feelings, which are different than thoughts. A feeling is a tightness in your throat, an ache in your gut…a physical thing. Don’t fight that. Don’t tell yourself stories about what it is, either (“I’m sad, I’m still angry about that e-mail, I’m so anxious about everything I have to get done before the party”). That’s thinking. Feelings will come and go, and you acknowledge them, watch them without judgment, and let them go. If you feed them with thoughts they will grow and thrive and take you far from the present. Just acknowledge them, and they will pass. As you become more skilled, you will find that you have a similar ability to watch a feeling pass through you any time without reacting, or characterizing it as “good” or “bad.”

Everybody has “monkey mind.” Everybody. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t need to meditate in order to be present. And in calm and abiding presence, no matter who you are or what you believe, there is peace in the midst of any storm. If I can do it, you can.

I’ve been asked about judging, a topic near, dear and terrifying to me.

I have been a judger my whole life, although I am now a recovering judger. My family of origin, although lefty and socially activist, taught me to judge based on intellect, class, politics and wordliness. There was a double standard: we were not ever, ever to judge people who, for whatever reason, could not help using poor grammar, wearing mismatched clothes or smoking in a car with their babies. To those people, we were to show compassion and extend a helping (if somewhat patronizing) hand. If, however, the offender was a person with the means and opportunity to do better…all bets were off. Bad grammar, bad manners, tacky art, wanting to eat at MacDonalds while in Paris, all of these were judgeable offenses.

I also went to school in a public district that could have been Andover or New Trier. “They” were slender, privileged, college-bound white kids with Docksiders. I was fat, frizzy, unathletic and eccentric. I was teased, and somehow (Stockholm Syndrome?) internalized all of their standards. I judged as they did, based on looks, clothing, and popularity. I judged myself harshly and brutally, and I after high school became something of a comic sniper about bad clothing choices, bad hair, visible fat rolls and other things that deflected my deep terror about being exactly the same as those I judged.

Coup de gras: I hung out at college among very socially active, progressive, cynical people who organized protests, majored in studio art and generally viewed most of the American public with a scathing mixture of disdain and pity. Jocks were stupid, The military was fascist, Republicans were stupid, all businesses were unethical, the American consumer was stupid, religious people were delusional, and basically anyone not listening to The Butthole Surfers and creating giant installations of nuclear warheads made out of plastic milk jugs was hopeless and useless. There were not many acceptable people left.

So for many years I was just one cynical, judge-y, miserable person. Sometimes judging made me feel self-righteous, sometimes it made people laugh, and it always made me feel like I was a little safer from being judged just by virtue of getting the jump. It was pretty sick.

When I decided to stop judging, withdrawal was painful. I had really come to believe that we were all part of a whole, and that no one is any better or worse than anyone else. I had also seen that directing genuine compassion towards the “other” makes it much harder for there to be an “other.”

I worked on not judging people by their geography, their religion, their political affiliation, their TV watching habits, the way they raised their children, their prejudices, or their education. A thousand times a day I bit back comments and corrected thoughts.

A thousand.

I had defined myself by my judgments, by what was “bad” and “good.” I also lived in a social milieu in which certain judgments were so routine and accepted that my refusal to participate was not necessarily well-received. Telling folks I would not mock Sarah Palin because she was a human being did not go over well. Explaining the difference between social action motivated by a desire for justice and attacking a person based on her public mistakes didn’t help. I tried, I slipped up, and I tried again, It’s an ongoing process in a culture of division, preference, judgment and separation.

The biggest problem for me, still, is when other people are judgmental. Often, these people are my friends or family. Months ago, I received an e-mail from one of my work volunteers, a woman I adore, warning me that a certain person was going to want to volunteer for me, and telling me all the reasons that wasn’t a good idea. It was pretty incredibly judgy, and I was flummoxed. Not because I wasn’t going to let the new person volunteer, but because I didn’t know how to respond to the purportedly helpful “warning.” Should I ignore it? Speak up and say I didn’t like that kind of thing?

I asked a wise friend who said this: if you judge her for her behavior, you are judging. Don’t encourage it, and don’t participate. Show her by your example that you are not going to perpetuate a “good us” and “bad them” mentality in this fragmented world. So I did that. And it was okay.

And I wish I could say “and we all lived happily ever after in a big circle singing Kumbaya,” but of course that didn’t happen. It’s now pretty much a mindfulness thing for me, and one that must be constantly monitored. I try to catch myself judging the second I’m conscious of it, and to stop myself before the words “how could anybody….” pass my lips. I do not always succeed. I try to decide, on a case-by-case basis how to respond when other people are judging. If it’s someone who knows me well, they usually understand if I don’t participate. If it’s not, it’s not for me to correct anyone. I do not always succeed in either scenario.

I still get drawn into gossip, although less often. I still look in the mirror and think “blech!” I think harsh thoughts about people who leave dogs in cars on hot days, or babies on car tops. (To be clear: some actions are objectively “bad.” Hating and judging the actor, however, doesn’t help. We all make mistakes, some pretty damaging).

I am trying to untangle and disarm a wiring system that took almost forty years to build. We all are, although decades and severity may vary. Maybe the best we can do is be aware of that, watch for it, and challenge ourselves on every single thought that creates division based on our internal sense of “good” and “bad.” That includes judging the judgers. That includes judging ourselves.

I am thinking today about falling down, literally and figuratively. Last night I passed out for the first time in my entire life, coming down on a hardwood floor. I’m okay (probably a bad reaction to medication) except for a divot in my left knee and some residual aches, but it shook me up. It also reminded me in a very literal way about the shock of “falling down” due to loss, disappointment, perceived failure, or myriad other psychic gravitational pulls.

We start out falling perpetually – there is no other way to learn how to walk. Because we universally know and accept that, no one is horrified when a baby pulls herself up only to land suddenly and forcefully on her diapered posterior. She may cry, we may comfort her, but soon she’ll pull herself back up and try again. It is not perceived as a tragedy. We do not feel that the child is a failure, or scarred for life.

We also understand that there will be other bumpy processes associated with growing up. There will be sticking points and triumphs in the classroom, in social situations, and in lots of other places. There will be the year that she doesn’t make the team, and the year she gets a good part in the play. There will be periods of intense friendship and times of change and separation, one-sided crushes and the joy of love returned. There will be teachers who love and support her, and teachers who don’t. It’s all walking and falling.

Of course, some children are more sensitive, and feel the pain more keenly, which may make it harder for them to rise and try again. (Raises hand). Others may not receive the kind of support that lets them experience hard knocks without shame and self-hatred. The thing is, though, that we have no control over such things. Maybe they “shouldn’t” happen, but they do – and they often shape the most compassionate, present and loving people on earth. We learn coping skills, ways of getting up again, and we grow into adults with rich histories of pain and joy.

As adults, though, and I don’t know when this changes, it’s much harder when we fall. We have, perhaps, lost the flexibility of earlier days. We also know, or believe, that we are falling much farther, that more is lost when we plummet from adult height rather than the short stature of childhood. A fall is perceived not as inevitable and natural, but as an injustice, a tragedy, and something from which we may be unable to move on.

I woke up on the cold, hard floor last night hurt, scared and shaken, believing that something was terribly wrong. The less literal falls feel much the same – life is unfair, it shouldn’t have happened, I’m not as flexible as I used to be, it’s going to leave a mark and maybe…maybe screw it I’ll just stay down here. The divorce, the bankruptcy, the promotion that doesn’t happen…they all feel like that. We cross that invisible line and there is no acceptance, no sense that we are learning a hard lesson and will move forward better and stronger.

Someplace in the aging process we lose the early knowledge that change, loss, all kinds of falling are just inevitable, and we resist them like crazy. We focus on the unfairness, the wrongness, the idea that we have come so far that there should be no more falling. Dues are paid, learning curves should level out and we are entitled to rage against anything that runs counter to that mistaken understanding.

There are things we can do, though, to stay softer, more open and more resilient. If we can, I guess, we internalize the best kind of loving parent who now speaks through our own soul when we find ourselves on the floor. (That would be Metta). We tell ourselves that the falling is always a part of life, and that by accepting reality, staying present and by being willing to acknowledge pain rather than fighting against it we insure our ability to rise again and again. We will face losses, from loved ones to our own youth. Our children will grow and leave the nest, and the older we get, the more we’ll know someone in the obituaries. Those falls are inevitable.

We do not have to “give in” at the first sign of trouble. A serious illness may require that we are down many times, and that we use our energy to regain health or make the most of the time we have. A marital or financial setback may ask much of us in terms of creative thinking, flexibility, and openness to change. That’s getting up again. And when the time comes that there is really nothing more to be done, after the shock and pain, we accept reality. That’s getting up again, too. We don’t need to be unnaturally cheerful, or oblivious, or even detached, just…loving and gentle with ourselves.

We need to accept that there are things beyond our control and that fighting against them leads to terrible suffering. The peace is in that acceptance.

I am achy tonight, and there’s still that red, raw divot in my left knee. I’m a little scared about stairs, and nervously monitoring myself to make sure I don’t fall again. (Which of course I can’t do, because I could trip on a rug or slip on the ice or, most likely of all, take a header trying not to step on a cat). It left marks, inside and out, that fall, but I’m up again. It’s a thing that happened, not a great thing, not a terrible thing, just a thing.

I wish for all of you flexibility, love and support from inside and out, and the curiosity to get up off the floor every time to see what happens next.