Happily Ever After…

stephenkingA lot of people do life like a movie. You know how it is when two characters come together, and then a conflict arises, and they separate, or they fight, or there’s a misunderstanding, and then some other event pushes the story forward and there’s a shift, and maybe the two people come back together and we have our “happy ending”, and then the credits roll? Like, they get married, and ride off into the proverbial sunset?

 

Really, in life, that’s the beginning of the story, not the end, but a lot of people think that way. If I just meet the right person, I’ll be happy. The end. If I just graduate from a good school and get a great job, I’ll be happy. The end. If I just buy a big house and have a few kids, I’ll be happy. The end. Did you ever see those National Lampoon’s Vacation movies, where the Griswolds head to Walley World, and have this insane journey to get there, only to find that it’s closed when they arrive? Or the one where they head to the Grand Canyon, and are so furious and frazzled and exhausted when they get there, they look for two seconds and go? This is pretty much what happens when we get so caught up in our destination, we forget to enjoy, or even take in, the experience of traveling and connecting and observing and being, and when we finally get to wherever it is we’ve been going, we don’t really know what to do.

 

The chapters are always unfolding. If you think the happy ending begins when you say “I do”, you’re forgetting that a relationship is a living, breathing, entity that needs to be fed or it will die. So many people get wedding fever, and then they experience marital depression the day after the big event. Or kids work like crazy to get into a good college, and are burnt out by the time they get there and end up partying for four years. Maybe the graduation day from said college is exuberant, the key-note speech is poignant, but the year after is like ice-water in the face. Often, the way we’ve envisioned something is not the way it turns out to be, and when reality fails to meet our expectations, we freeze, or we numb, or we panic or we internalize the experience. We think it must be just us flailing and floundering around, confused and surprised and, weirdly, unprepared, because college doesn’t really give us the tools for life, any more than dating prepares us for marriage, or pregnancy prepares us for that first year of motherhood. Most of the biggest, most dramatic changes in our lives require on the job training. We learn as we go, and there isn’t a lot of time to process our inexperience or fear or surprise.

 

Life is not waiting for any of us. It’s happening right here, right now, and we are in the flow, or we’re out of it, but the flow doesn’t stop and it doesn’t care if it’s meeting your expectations or mine. I think there are some life skills it would be smart for us to teach, like how to balance a check book. Just practical, necessary stuff. How to create a budget. How to be a good partner. How to listen, and how to communicate with kindness and compassion. How to recognize the voice of your intuition. How to nap with your baby when you have a newborn. How to ask for help when you need it. It would be great if these things were taught at home. The other night I took my kids to see “Into the Woods”. It turns the classic fairytales on their heads. They loved it, and I enjoyed it, except for the part where (spoiler alert!) Prince Charming cheats on Cinderella with the Baker’s Wife. And the Baker’s Wife, it should also be noted, cheats on the Baker, who happens to be caring for their newborn at the time. Anyway, I talked to my kids about this after the movie. I told them I wanted to be sure they understood it’s not cool or okay to be kissing other people when you have a husband or wife, girlfriend or boyfriend. They assured me that they knew this, and my daughter, who’s five, then said, “Don’t worry about it, Mommy. You can’t find a real prince in this world, anyway.”

Of course, she meant we don’t have royalty in our country, but I thought it was pretty hilarious, and I told her that, actually, you can find a real prince in this world, but you have to look carefully, and that people show you who they are by what they do. Anyway, I don’t get it right in every moment, or anything, but my point is, a lot of this stuff does have to happen at home. We can’t hope our kids’ teachers are going to take care of the difficult or awkward conversations, or that they’re going to teach our kids to be compassionate and kind and fully present. Many of them do. Many of our teachers are absolute godsends. I’m just saying, none of us can afford to shirk our responsibility when it comes to creating a generation of people who, hopefully, do it better than we have so far.

 

I really do feel there’s a shift happening. I think a tremendous number of people are recognizing the old formulas we were sold and taught just don’t pan out. They don’t lead to that happy ending. I think a lot of people are hip to the fact that nothing external brings long-term peace and fulfillment. We all have to work for that, we have to dig for it. But just in case anyone reading this is still thinking that happiness is something you chase, I figured I’d go ahead and turn that fairytale inside out. We are always in process. We are always changing, and so is everything around us. If you want a happy ending, you really have to figure out how to live each day well. Then the days will end well, and so will the weeks and months and years, and one day, hopefully one day way out ahead of us, the happy ending will come because life has been so full of love.

Wishing that for you,

Ally Hamilton

Spiritual Bypass

hemingwayThere’s a huge difference between focusing on the good in your life, and ignoring or denying difficult or painful issues. There seems to be a manic need from the spiritual community at large to be positive and light in every moment, which is alienating to so many people, because the truth is, life is not “all good.” Part of being at peace has to do with our ability to integrate all parts of ourselves, and all chapters of our story. Part of loving other people has to do with our willingness to accept the whole person, the gorgeous parts, the quirky ones, and the stuff that’s raw and tender. Integrating the painful parts is different from dwelling upon them or magnifying them. We all have our struggles and our fears. We go through periods of confusion or despair, or we suffer because we’ve become attached to a picture in our heads of how things should be. Leaning into those uncomfortable feelings is an act of compassion, and it’s also the gateway to liberation. Pushing things down requires enormous energy, and when we repress feelings, we inadvertently give them power. They’re going to come out in other ways.

Clinging to happiness is no different than clinging to anything else—it’s going to cause you to suffer. The minute you feel anything other than positive, you’ve become a disappointment to yourself; a failure. If you reject any feeling that can’t go in the “gratitude column”, you’re going to be at war with yourself, judging yourself for those feelings and thoughts you deem to be negative or ungrateful or petty or unkind. You’ll just compound your pain with shame. We’re all human, and none of us operates from our highest self in every moment. When we sit to meditate, we don’t deny thoughts when they arise, we observe them. “Ah, I’m thinking, judging, clinging, obsessing, daydreaming…let me return to my breath.” Denying your experience is a sure way to create inner dissonance, when the whole point of a spiritual practice is to know yourself, to accept yourself, to find peace, and to feel the connection between yourself, and everyone and everything around you; to find union. Denial won’t get you there, and neither will rejection.

Imagine if you were getting to know someone, and they told you they only wanted to hear the good stuff about you. How close could you get? Yes, we always want to stay focused on all the things we do have—our good health if we’ve got it, the amazing people in our lives, the fact that we have a place to call home, and food to eat, the gifts we’ve been given, like time, our ability to feel the sun on our faces and the breeze on our skin, or that we can see the leaves blowing in the wind with their million shades of green. Laughter of the people closest to us, and also, laughter of total strangers. There’s so much to take in, and so many ways in which we’re gifted, just because we woke up today. Unless, of course, you’re going through knifing loss, and today is a day when it’s hard to breathe. We have to allow space for that possibility, too, because someone out there is dealing with that right now, this very minute, and they aren’t thinking about leaves, or their good health, or sunlight on their face, they’re trying to understand how the earth is still spinning, and people are doing things like putting gas in their cars as if everything has not changed.

A spiritual practice ought to be there for you when times are tough. It takes strength and bravery to face life head-on, and it also requires acknowledgement of our inherent vulnerability. If you want to do life well, if you want to do love well, you’re going to have to get acquainted with the underside of things. You’re going to have to be strong enough to face the dark, and also to embrace the light. If you try to pretend they don’t both exist, you’re not living in reality.

Joy and despair are flip sides of the same coin. I’m not telling you to be grateful for despair when it comes, I’m just saying we wouldn’t recognize joy the way that we do if we’d never felt bereft. If we’d never felt rejected, misunderstood, unseen or dismissed, we wouldn’t appreciate the feeling and relief of being totally accepted. I can look back on all the experiences in my life, particularly the devastating ones, and recognize how they opened me and taught me things about myself, other people, and the world at large. They were not always things I wanted to learn. There are a couple of lessons I would really, truly give back, but we don’t get to choose. Sometimes your heart breaks wide open and you think, “I won’t make it through this.” That’s when you have to hope the people in your life show up for you. Kindness matters. Caring matters. Being there matters, in fact, it matters a lot. The most insightful, kind, compassionate people I know, the most open and sensitive and trustworthy people, happen to be the same people who’ve suffered and grieved and found a way to let their experiences soften them instead of harden them.

Don’t ever let anyone shame you for your feelings. Feelings are not facts, and they aren’t forever. They arise, they peak and they subside. Some feelings take longer than others to cycle through, and if we’re going through something particularly brutal, like the loss of an entire person, we’re going to move through all kinds of feelings, many times. None of them are comfortable or positive. Shock, grief, confusion, rage, panic—those feelings are real and appropriate when we’re going through tragedy. These experiences and feelings do not have to go in a file marked, “thank you for this”; you don’t have to be grateful for everything. Just feel what you need to feel, and trust that over time you’ll be able to breathe without reminding yourself to do that. And let your suffering matter, eventually. Grow from it, and see if you can use it to be there for other people. At least, in that way, some beauty arises from the ashes.

Sending you love,

Ally Hamilton

Just Be There

Compassion-is-hardSometimes the very best thing we can do for someone is hold some space for them to be where they are, to listen intently, and reflect back our understanding with love. To say, “Yes, of course that would hurt. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.” That’s often the best we can do for people, reassuring them that they are not alone in their experience, that we get it, that we’ve been there, or that we haven’t been there, but still, we can mourn with them, or just be there to make a meal, or take them for a walk. It’s very hard when people we love are suffering, or grieving, or enraged, or feeling bitter, or maybe all of those things at once. It’s natural to want to get in there and fix it, to brainstorm about solutions, or to offer our unsolicited opinions about what our friends should do. The reality is, we never know what another person needs for his or her own healing or grieving process or growth. Sometimes people are in so much agony, the people around them become uncomfortable, and this discomfort propels them to give their friend a push to “get back on their feet.” That’s really the last thing a person needs to hear when they have no way of doing that for themselves. As Earl Grollman rightly states, “The only cure for grief is to grieve.”

Some wounds are self-inflicted. Sometimes we need painful lessons again and again until we get it. That isn’t easy to watch, and of course if someone you love is harming themselves, we’re in a different territory. Then, you step in and do everything you can to get them some support, or you find some for yourself so you can honor your own needs and boundaries while you try to offer a hand up, or a shoulder to lean on. But you can’t save anyone, and if you’re confused about that, you’re in a precarious position. We can never carry the burden of another person’s pain, nor can we be responsible for anyone else’s happiness. Each of us must do our own journey. We all have to find a way to be at peace within ourselves, and sometimes the journey to that peace is fraught with roadblocks, self-imposed, or provided by the twists and turns and losses of life.

Whatever we have to bear, having loyal and understanding friends with whom we feel safe can be such a comfort. Knowing that there’s at least one person we can share our fears or insecurities or doubt or shame or guilt or jealousy with, without hearing a solution we didn’t ask for and don’t want, is really a gift. It’s hard to just listen. I think a lot of people feel like that isn’t enough, that if someone is coming to them in some pain or discomfort, implicit in their sharing is a request for advice. People will ask for our opinions if they want them. Most of us don’t listen to advice, anyway. We tell ourselves that’s the way it is or was for our well-meaning friend, but it’s not the way it is or will be for us. I’ve gotten into the habit of asking close friends when they share with me, “Do you want me to just listen, or do you want to know what I think?” People will tell you. Most people just want a safe space, and some understanding. Hoping we can all be, and have, friends like that, and sending you love,

Ally Hamilton

Compassion: Tastes Great, Less Filling

Before-you-speak-askOnce when I was fourteen, I walked to the front of the room in my science class to hand in a paper, and I heard giggling. When I returned to my seat, this girl I had always liked leaned over and loudly whispered, “You can see your panties through your skirt. Nice flowers!” And then she and another girl I’d also thought was a friend, snickered. One of the guys in my class leaned forward from the row behind me and said, “Don’t worry about it, you’re looking good”, which only intensified my embarrassment. Shame is such a powerful, uncomfortable, debilitating feeling. It hits you in the gut and makes you feel wrong and bad and unworthy of love or kindness. I remember being annoyed with myself for blushing and making it obvious I was bothered. I wanted to be tough, to act like it didn’t phase me, to deny those girls the feeling that they had any power over me. Things like that seem such a big deal when you’re fourteen. My heart was racing, and I was cursing myself for not having checked my reflection before walking out the door. I felt betrayed and confused by these girls I’d considered friends, who now seemed to be taking pleasure in humiliating me. Beyond that, I wanted the world to open and swallow me so I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day with people laughing because they could see through my skirt. I think about it now, as a grown woman, and shake my head. I wish I could go back to my teenage self in that room and say, this is so not a big deal. But it’s funny that it stands out, all these years later.

We all have moments when we feel exposed. When we’ve shown our fallibility and our vulnerability more than we’d intended; when we’ve accidentally let people see the flowers on our undies. There’s so much I could say here. We tend to be so hard on ourselves. And on each other. Gossip magazines (which I never buy and encourage you to boycott along with beauty magazines which are anything but) are nothing but mean girls gone wild. Look at this awful thing this person is doing! Here’s someone else with their life falling down around them. Here are ten ways you really suck, and even though you’ll never measure up, here are ten things you can try so that you won’t suck so much. With an occasional story about a person with a fairy tale life you could never hope to live. It’s a big plate of awful.

The thing is, you’re always feeding yourself. You’re feeding your body, but you’re also feeding your mind and your heart with everything you watch, or read, or dwell upon. And you know the old saying, “You are what you eat.” If you focus on all the things people are doing that are terrible, and all the ways you’re disappointing yourself, it’s so defeating. You really don’t want to feed the idea that, “people suck.” Because they don’t and you don’t, either. It’s simply not an easy gig, this work of being human, especially when you’re trying to be kind, conscious and compassionate. That’s why it’s important to be vigilant about what you feed yourself. If you look around and find you have contempt for people easily, it’s probably time for a change in diet. Compassion: tastes great, less filling. And when you have some for yourself, you’ll find you have some for other people, too. We’ll all make mistakes, every single one of us. We’ll all have choices we’d love to make over again. It’s easy to be the person who points a finger and has that snarky, biting thing to say. But I don’t think it feels good at the end of the day, and it definitely doesn’t up the happiness quotient. Choose love. Feed that. Sending you some right now. Ally

Sit on Your Hands, Please!

Public-ServiceYears ago I had lunch with a guy who was fairly well known in the yoga community. He’d just come back from a month at an ashram, and I met up with him because he was passing through Los Angeles on his way back to Chicago where he lived with one of my closest girlfriends. She asked me to meet with him because she had a bad feeling and she wanted me to be the one to break the news to her if there was news to be broken. She said while he’d been gone their communication had been odd, and she sensed he may have met another woman. She hadn’t asked him directly, and I think part of her didn’t want to know, and was hoping it wasn’t true. So off I went to have a meal with this guy I’d never really vibed with, to have a conversation that could have been extremely awkward.

As it turned out, it wasn’t so much awkward as it was enlightening. He started telling me about his trip, and how transformational it had been. And he alluded to a deep spiritual connection he’d developed with this woman while he was there. So I asked him if he meant he’d had sex with her, and he choked on his tea and laughed, and said he supposed so, if that was how I needed to put it. He said it was an elevated experience, and that the feelings were so strong and so deep, he’d had to “honor his truth.” And that he expected my friend would understand. I told him I thought he was mistaken, and that I believed my friend was going to be heartbroken. Because she was in love with him, and because they were in a committed, monogamous relationship. In fact, he’d been possessive of her, and threatened by any contact between her and her most recent ex, who happened to be the father of her little girl. They’d been living together for six months at this point, and had started looking at houses. My girlfriend had put a deposit down on a place he said he loved before he left for the ashram, and they were about to close on it.

I asked him how he could reconcile the concept of non-harming with his actions at the ashram, but he said because he was aligned with his truth, no harm could result. Hmmm, really? And then he said, “I guess I’m just an enigmatic and mysterious creature.” I told him as far as I knew, there was nothing elevated or spiritual about cheating on a person you claimed to love, and that you could dress it up in mala beads all day long, but it was still crappy behavior. And that I thought, “honoring his truth” would have involved observing his feelings without acting on them, or discussing it with my friend before he acted. So that maybe they could regroup, or come to some kind of understanding together. That maybe the experience could have brought them closer, but not this way. And I also asked him who describes themselves as enigmatic and mysterious? Because really, there are few things in life that leave me speechless, but I think my brain froze for a good minute after he said that.

Here’s the thing. If you want to be at peace, you’re going to have to figure out how to get right with yourself. How to heal those places that are raw, and in need of your kind attention. You’re going to have to learn to observe your thoughts without getting carried away by them. Feelings are not facts, and you don’t have to act on every feeling you have. Not all of them are worthy of your energy, time, attention, or action. The feelings aren’t bad, they don’t make you a bad person. We’re all human and we’re going to have all kinds of feelings and thoughts and ideas and fantasies. It’s how much energy you decide to feed that stuff. How much importance you grant to the thoughts you’re having.

Restraint is a tough one for most people. We all want to do what we want to do. But if you want to talk about being “on the path”, if you’re trying to “do the work”, then you’re going to have to find some discipline. Especially when other people are involved. If your path is causing you to become egregiously self-absorbed, it’s probably not a great path. If you’ve gotten to a place where you think you’re justified in doing whatever you want because you’re honoring your truth or following your calling, you’ve really gotten lost along the way. A huge part of this thing is kindness and compassion. Honesty and integrity. Keeping your word. Thinking about the impact of your choices on other people. I don’t expect everyone to want to work this way. But I cringe when people twist a beautiful and demanding practice to suit their own desires. Call it what it is, and I have no issue with it. Say, “I went to an ashram, and I was really attracted to this woman, and I cheated on your friend even though I knew it would hurt her. And now I have a huge mess to clean up.” That’s truthful. But don’t call it elevated or spiritual because it isn’t either of those things. As it turned out, the other woman was also devastated, because she thought it was going to be a long-term thing. My friend broke it off, and then had to work to make sure her daughter was okay. Because she’d become attached to this guy as well. When you leave a wake of pain behind you and describe yourself as an enigma, you’ve taken a wrong turn on your path. You probably followed a sign that read, “Self-Absorption Way”.

I think people get confused sometimes, because the initial movement when you’re healing, is inward. If you want to know yourself well and deeply, you have to examine your pain, your resulting tendencies, your coping mechanisms, the way your nervous system responds to stress, stories you might tell yourself about your life, or why you are the way you are, areas where you’re stuck in rage or blame or bitterness. You have to figure out what’s true for you. You do all this internal work so you can understand yourself, so you can be accountable for the energy you’re spreading as you move through the world, and for the way you’re treating yourself and everyone in your life. When you become well-acquainted with yourself, and you figure out what brings you peace and what lights you up, what particular gifts are yours to share, then you can take that information on the road. That’s where the joy happens, in the connection. In the sharing. You can bring it out into the world and shine. The ultimate purpose of all that internal work is to help you uncover your connection to everyone and everything. To recognize that while our stories may be different, in so many ways, we’re the same. We’re connected. We’ve all suffered. We’ve all been selfish, and hurt people carelessly or unintentionally. We all have choices we’d love to make again, and differently. That’s all part of the process of growing up. So there’s no need to kick yourself if you were the guy or gal at the ashram. We’ve all hung out there. The thing is not to let yourself off the hook. Not to cloak it in sage and walk out the door and pretend to yourself or anyone else that you’re good to go. You’ll never feel great about yourself if you’re living a life that’s all about you and every desire you have. You’ll never satisfy that beast. You can feed it for awhile if you need to, but you’ll find the hunger never goes away. It will never be enough, you’ll always be ready for more. Mass-consumption has gotten us into all kinds of trouble, both personally and globally. It doesn’t work and it doesn’t feed your soul.

In my view, being, “on the path” means you’re trying to see yourself and others clearly. You’re aware of what’s true for you, and you’re able to express it calmly and with compassion. When “what’s true for you” may end up hurting someone else, you handle it with integrity and sensitivity and honesty. You’re thinking about what you’re saying and doing, and how it will affect those people around you. You’re thinking about the path, too. The literal path, the one you’re walking on. The planet, in other words. Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it with as much consciousness as possible. And when you blow it and don’t show up the way you want to, which will happen, you examine it and figure out what went wrong so you can own it, and make a different choice the next time. It’s not perfection we’re after, it’s a practice. But it does require a discerning mind and a willingness to be honest with yourself. Sending you love. Ally