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Just Breathe

Affirmation:  When I
focus on my breath, I feel calmer and when I am very attentive to it, I
recognize I am connecting to the Divine.
 
Jill Sockman led the class. 
It was at the third annual Yoga Fest in Raleigh, NC.  This was Howie Shareff’s inspiration.  He heads an organization called “You
Call This Yoga” and his organization was sponsoring this event. There were
over 500 people attending the day long workshop and I had been “called”
to be one of them.  I hadn’t felt any
inclination to attend either of the first two but the message had come through
to me loud and clear that I was supposed to be at his year’s Yoga Fest.  I didn’t know anyone else who was attending
and I had a trip the next day for which I needed to pack but that interior
voice was screaming at me, “Go, you need to go” and so, I did.
I would be taking four classes over the course of the day and I
didn’t know one teacher from the other. 
They all looked interesting and I know I can always learn something new
from any experience so it didn’t really matter to me which class I took.  I decided to trust that whichever class in
which I found myself it would be exactly the class I was supposed to take.  
The first class was good, very good.  The room was packed and I learned a breathing
technique I had not consistently applied to my practice.  Nice! 
The next class was titled “Finding Your Edge.”  I wasn’t really sure I wanted to participate
in a dynamic flow class, which is what I assumed this class would be but I was
signed up for it and following my own advice, I decided to stay for it.  It was not very good, it was
inspirational.  Jill was a master
teacher.  She was young and wispy and
confident and all that is nice but those are not the qualities not that make a
teacher a master.  She was wise and she
clearly imparted her wisdom in a concise, universal language.  This, I knew was why I had been led to come
to Yoga Fest.  Where was my
recorder? 
Jill began by reminding us to take a full deep breath and to fill
our lungs and chest and a deliberate exhale with a reminder to draw in our
belly buttons to our spine and engage our Mula Bandha (the pelvic floor).  We then went on with some Kapalahbati
breathing, she incorporated several series of Ohms and she then ended with
another round of Kapalahbati.  I felt an
internal shift take place.  I
“returned” to Kripalu, the home of my training and a place where I
had absorbed the positive, calming energy of the yoga practice. 
The breath is the foundation of life.  We begin life with our first inhale and we
end life with our last exhale and yet, how many times during our day do we even
notice our breathing?  A dear friend gave
me a plaque one day that said, “Things I need to do today,
Breathe.”  One of the most important
yogic tools is the breath.  There are
dozens of different types of breathing, some are slow and deep, others are more
like panting and some require one to hold one nostril closed and alternate
between the two.  Yoga is not just a
series of poses or asanas.  The ancient
writings of Patanjali, the father of yoga, describes eight limbs or disciplines
involved in the practice of yoga.  The
breathing or Pranayama is one of them. 
They all interweave with each other. 
When you unite your breath with your movements, you unite your mind with
your body and with your spirit.  It’s a
very powerful tool.  I like to start my
yoga classes by inviting the practitioners to watch their breath.  “Watch the rise and the fall, the in and
the out, the up and the down. Do not judge. There’s no right or wrong, no good
or bad.  Just notice.”  Calm penetrates the atmosphere of the
room.  It’s palpable.  I decided I was at Jill’s class to be
reminded of how powerful life can be when I choose to focus on my breath. 
In the ten week course on Mindful Meditation at Duke’s
Integrative Medicine, the main teaching is how to calm the mind and therefore
the body by simply sitting quietly and watching the breath.  The basic teaching is to “watch” the
breath and when thoughts come along, which they always do, notice them, release
them and go back to watching your breath. 
Most meditation practices focus on the breath.  Many practices also invite you to create a
mantra, a word that you can repeat over and over.  I’d like to claim to be a devoted meditating
but I am not.  I pray, I journal but I
have only meditated sporadically, not religiously, even though I truly believe
it’s one of the best paths to optimal mental and physical health.  When I have meditated and searched for a
mantra, I found myself focusing on the word, “Jesus.”  My inhale led me to “Jees” and my
exhale to “us.”  Then I
realized that even if I’m not in a meditative state, I’m always breathing and I
could use my mantra any time I stopped and took a deep breath.  “Jesus”  It was a short prayer, a short prayer that
brought me home to my God.  Now, all I
needed to do was to put the exercise into practice, to make a conscious choice
to take that deep breath whenever I possibly could, whenever I would think to
do so.
The focus of my daily reading during the month of February in Spiritual
Insights
is on meditation.  Actually,
any of the self-help books I’ve ever picked up have at least one section
devoted to meditation.  I am presently
reading Richard Rohr’s, The Naked Now
He too speaks about the breath. 
He explains that the Hebrew term for God, Yahweh, is believed to be
derived from four sounds, Yod Hay Vov Hay. 
The sound of breathing.  It was
such a sacred sound, the name of God, that the Hebrews rarely spoke it.  They didn’t need to speak it, they honored
God, brought God to them, into them with every breath.  The breath is the life giving force which
sustains us and which, if we choose, can keep us connected to the Divine. 
I think I’ve figured out that I was “called” to Yoga
Fest for several reasons, some of which I may not even know just yet but one of
the reasons I believe was to help me refocus on the importance of paying
attention to my breathing.  I’ve had a
really rough start in 2014 and I’d lost touch with my breathing practice.  It was a wonderful gift to receive from Jill
and the other yoga instructors.  It’s
interesting to me how often my yoga practice helps me to strengthen my faith
and helps me to reconnect with my God. 
It’s amazing that something so simple, breathing, can be so complex and
so very powerful.  Join me, “Take a
deep breath, and exhale fully. Again. One more time.” When I focus
on my breath, I feel calmer and when I am very attentive to it, I recognize I
am connecting to the Divine.

A Secret Ingredient

Affirmation: Even when I am doing little things of service, I
include a large amount of love.
What’s your favorite food? 
Everyone has a favorite.  It’s a
great question to start a conversation or to open a group discussion because it
seems as if most people have an immediate answer.  My favorite food has always been my mother’s
chocolate chip cookies.  Her cookies were
probably the reason I could never lose those extra five pounds I’ve always
wanted to lose.  She’s told me it’s
simply the recipe on the back of the Toll House Chocolate Chip package but I
don’t believe her.  I think there’s a
secret ingredient, perhaps one of which she’s not even aware.  It’s a mystery!  I’m not the only one who loved her chocolate
chip cookies.  They were a favorite for
the whole family, especially my son Joey. 
For years she baked him a special batch. 
“Those are only for Joey.” 
I think he was one of her favorite grandsons.  Recently, I’ve had other people tell me she
baked special batches of cookies for them too. 
“She told me, these were only for me.”
I have many friends who like to bake.  It’s a gift to be a baker.  It runs in our family.  My mother passed on her love and skill to
both my youngest daughter, Ellen, my sister’s daughter, Samantha and to my
brother’s daughter, Stacy.  The food
doesn’t just taste good but it looks yummy. I was stunned when during one of my
visits to Ellen; she asked me if I’d like to see her journal.  I couldn’t even imagine where this offer was
leading.  Was she going to confess some
deep dark secret or worse yet have one of those mother-daughter “come to
Jesus” conversations?  Then she
pulled out her baking journal.  It was
beautiful. She had all the recipes she’d been trying and the adjustments
recorded to make them more to her liking and photos of the cookies and cakes.  I was honored to have her share her passion
with me. 
It seems to me the thing about baking is that most bakers want to
share their treats with their friends, family and whomever they think would
enjoy them.  I watched my mom and I’ve
watched other bakers go about giving away their cookies to whomever they wanted
to grace. It didn’t need to be a special occasion.  It might just be because someone needed a
pick-me-up or perhaps it was a way to say “thank you.”  My mom would give her yummy cookies to the
hair dresser, the auto mechanic, the nurse and doctors she frequented, to an
ailing friend or perhaps to her friend’s caregiver.  They were always warmly and graciously
received.  Many times our Christmas
presents to her were fancy “cookie” boxes with her initials on them
or several cookie tins with varying designs. 
She even began saving some of the small used plastic containers from the
grocery so she could package up just two or three cookies and present
them.  I envy people who like to
bake.  I too would like to be seen as a
warm, generous person who says “thank you” with a tangible yummy
treat but, I don’t like to bake, especially cookies.  So, I wondered what I could share in a
similar manner.
I’ve decided there is no substitute.  There is nothing as heartwarming as a
homemade treat.  Let’s face it even if you’re
not eating sugar or can’t eat sugar, the gift still warms your heart.  You know someone really cares and they’ve
taken the time and the energy necessary to let you know.  Perhaps sharing food in any way brings those
same warm feelings.  I’ve been to many
events where people showed up with food as a form of love and support.  My experience of living in the Midwest and
now here in the South affirms that belief. 
If someone has a tragedy or is going through a difficult time, people
bring meals.  During my many months of
cancer treatment we were supported with some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten
and on the flip side, I’ve dropped off meals whenever the opportunity presented
itself.  I usually make dinner and include
some sort of chocolate candy.  I don’t
bake.  I do, however, make every effort
to be affable and caring on a daily basis. 
As I go through my day, I readily share a smile.  I have found it uplifts not only my spirits
but usually the recipient too.  I’m an
avid hugger.  I learned that skill from
my husband, Sandy and my mother-in-law, Yolanda.  I know not everyone wants to be hugged.  If I’m not sure I open my arms and
hesitate.  It’s usually fairly obvious if
it’s not welcomed.  That doesn’t happen
very often.  I love to send snail-mail birthday
cards with a blessing over them and a few loving words inside.  I know these small gestures do not hold a
candle to a good chocolate chip cookie but it’s my way of letting people know
they are loved; they are an important part of my life.  I value them and their relationship. 
My mom, Margaret Grolimund, passed away this week.  We included in her obituary the fact that she
was famous for her chocolate chip cookies. 
When I spoke to the presided of her Requiem Mass, Father Doug Reed, I
shared her notoriety and he wanted to know her recipe.  I told him what she said that it was simply
the recipe on the back of the Toll House Chocolate Chip package.  I, however, knew she was not sharing the
secret ingredient.  Now, I know why.  I don’t think she was aware of it.  It was magical!  Her secret ingredient was her love.  She made those cookies, cakes and pies with a
heart filled with love.  We all show love
in different ways.  This was my Mom’s way
and she did it marvelously. Love is the secret ingredient in every special gift
we share with another.  It’s that one
thing that tells someone, “These are only for you.” I love you.

Embracing Lent

Affirmation: The challenges of Lent enhance my life. 
Wednesday of this last week, March 5th, 2014 was Ash
Wednesday.  For Catholics it marks the
beginning of one of the holiest seasons of the church year.  Practicing Catholics go to Mass or at least
to a Lenten service and have a thumbprint of ashes smeared on their
forehead.  The words accompanying the
ritual are “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt
return.” (Genesis 3:19) The ashes normally come from the palms that were
blessed for the previous Easter season. 
At my church, St. Michael the Archangel, here in Cary, NC, the practice
includes sprinkling holy water into the dishes holding the ashes.  That makes them pastier and then the priest
or the minister can really smear them on. 
I don’t remember them being so black and pronounced when I was a
child.  We are then encouraged not to rub
or wash them off until we would normally cleanse our faces.  I found myself eating lunch at the local
Panera on Ash Wednesday and was charmed by the number of Catholics who proudly
proclaimed their faith that day.  Let’s
face it, it’s hard to miss a big black smudge on someone’s forehead and it’s
the perfect opportunity to share your faith without saying a word. 
I live in the Bible Belt which I understand to mean we have a lot
of practicing Christians in this area, many of whom are evangelical.  They have a mission to convert the world, the
whole world to Christianity.  This is not
the place to live if you are wishy-washy about your faith, unless you’re living
in Chapel Hill.  (That’s a little hint
for anyone reading this who is thinking of moving to our beautiful state.) I’ve
lived in the Bible Belt now since 1976. 
First, I was in Cincinnati, Ohio for ten years and now, I’m here.  How is that different from other parts of the
United States?  If you look at one of USA
Today’s graphs, you will see that the south east and mid-west areas are shaded
darker when the shading represents the number of people calling themselves
Christians.  As the map expands to the
west, California, Oregon etc., the shading becomes lighter and lighter.  My experience with this part of the world has
been wonderful.  I have noticed that the
people here who are working to be faith filled are kind, caring and
compassionate.  I don’t think one need be
religious or perhaps even spiritual to have those qualities but when your faith
is an integral part of your life, I believe you are enjoined to raise yourself
up to a higher level of responsibility to lead a more exemplary life. 
I know all about the hypocrites, those who
show up at services all holy and righteous only to lead small, mean lives.  My experience has not led me to be surrounded
by that type of practitioner.  My
experience, especially that of living here in NC, has been one of support and
kindness and compassion from the people who are actively participating in their
faith, especially lately.  Perhaps, I’ve
just been lucky because even some of my friends don’t belong to an established
religion are loving and compassionate. Could it be, however, that the God
energy of this area has permeated more souls than elsewhere?  It’s a nice thought.  It brings me comfort and hope.  Maybe mindfulness in itself encourages people
to live lives of caring and service.  Supposedly
there was a study done many years ago that showed when a Transcendental
Meditation seminar was being held, that section of the country had less
crime.   
Lent is my favorite time of the year. My part of the world is
gray and wet and soft right now but I know that in just a few weeks everything
will be in full bloom, the Dogwoods, Azaleas, and Daffodils to name a few will
come forth and brighten and color our entire area.  It goes from dreary to delightful.  It’s slow and deliberate and if you pay close
attention, you can see the metamorphosis taking place.  That’s what I like to imagine is happening to
my inner life too.  Lent offers me the
opportunity to grow and blossom, to go from dreary to colorful.  It’s up to me how I use the time.  For me, it’s a more deliberate time, an
opportunity to be even more mindful, than any other time of the year.  I always hope the changes I’m making stay
with me, as I move into the rest of the year, and hopefully some of my Lenten
practices do just that and that’s exactly the reason we are called upon to set
aside this time to develop more self-discipline and to be of greater
service.  We are called to pray more,
give alms and to practice acts of denial. 
We are called to be more mindful, more intentional about our lives.  It’s a practice we could use every day not
just during Lent but with Lent comes the deliberate intention to grow our inner
lives, to make us and our worlds kinder, gentler and more compassionate. 
The main question at Lent is, “What are you giving up for
Lent?”  I know I could give up wine
or chocolate or some such food item and have the added benefit of reducing my
waistline. This year, however, I chose a more difficult practice. I decided to
give up doubt.  When Oprah interviewed
the famed televangelist, Joel Osteen, she asked him if he had ever doubted
his belief in Jesus Christ.  He
emphatically answered, “No.”  I
am not a Joel Osteen.  I am more of a
Thomas.  After all these many years of
practicing my faith I still have my doubts. 
Let’s face it, it’s quite a story! That however, is not how I want to
live my faith, the promises are too great. 
I want to believe with all my heart that Jesus Christ is God incarnate
and that I can have a personal relationship with Him that will enhance my life
and lead me to a place where I reach out to others with pure love.  I want to believe that with Him, not only
will I and my loved ones have eternal rest and peace, but that this life will
be a more rewarding experience.  I
haven’t yet had any direct messages from the spirit world that would allay my
doubts but I don’t care.  This is how I
want to live my life and for me it seems to require practice and Lent, my
favorite time of the year, offers me that perfect opportunity.  “Loving Father, help me to better know
and love Your Son.  Amen.”

God’s Garmin


Affirmation: I am in awe of the guidance God sends me, through people as I travel down a new and difficult path.
What is needed in order to navigate through new territory?  Lewis and Clark, Columbus and Magellan and Dr. Livingston are a few examples of pioneers who headed out into the world without any foreknowledge of what lied ahead and created trails for others to follow.  There are now maps for most anywhere one wants to go.  There is even Google Earth, where we can examine almost every square foot of our planet without leaving our home. 
When my daughter, Ellen, moved to London I desperately wanted to see where she would be living but flying over there was not in our plans.  She sent me a video from Google Earth with her apartment circled in red.  I could then move the cursor around on the page and see everything she could see from her front window.  It was miraculous.  Since then I have occasionally gone to the site to see the areas where I resided when I was younger.  It was fascinating to see how the areas had changed and to share the photos of the neighborhood with my children or with my friends.
Yes, it seems as if the whole world is mapped out and we aren’t in need of pioneers any longer.  Even the moon and Mars have “rovers” with cameras on them.  Of course there is the rest of the Universe “where no man has ever gone before.”  I don’t believe many of us will be faced with an adventure into outer space.  In addition to outer space, however, there are also the Olympics.  Right now, the 2014 Winter Olympics are taking place in Sochi Russia.  No one needed a map to get to Sochi and no one is following a geographical path that hasn’t been carefully laid out but these gifted, dedicated and determined young people are definitely blazing new trails.  The new gold medal winner for the Men’s Snow Boarding Half Pipe, Iouri Podladtchikov, not only performed an almost flawless run, he created and executed a new maneuver called the YOLO.  The men and women skiers and skaters broke all time speed records, and the Russian figure skating pairs gold medalists Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, the 2013 world champions, broke at least four world records with their performances.  There were also many other records set.  All the athletes needed guidance to reach the peak of their skill.  They went higher and further along the path of their craft than anyone had gone before.  Their coaches and families helped them lay out the map for their successes.
I’ve always loved a map.  Maybe it’s because it’s a little like a puzzle, a maze which can help get you to your set destination.  I’ve usually been the navigator when my husband and I traveled.  My expertise wasn’t always in evidence.  For example, from my reading of the map, I once insisted we were are on the right road to reach the main highway when it dead-ended in someone’s driveway.  At one time, I used to contact AAA for little map booklets that had a different section of the road on each page to lay out our path.  I’m sure they don’t have them anymore. Now, my husband and I don’t use maps at all.  First we graduated to Map-quest and would have sheets of paper listing the twists and turns and the distances and the estimated arrival time.   We even used Map-quest for one of our European trips.  It was a lot easier than trying to read maps in a foreign language.  Then we went to a Nuvi or a Garmin and we had audible turn by turn instructions.  I must say in the beginning it would seem to me the device would sometimes take me to my final destination by way of another continent.  Now, we have the smart phone. The technology now seems to be much more accurate and I can rely on it anywhere I travel.  I’ve also become so used to having a computer map on my dashboard that I feel “lost” when I’m in a car without one even if I’m going around my neighborhood. Recently, however, I have had to chart a new path. 
There wasn’t a map or a Garmin for this journey.  My 91 year old mother left the hospital after her first two surgeries ever, a hip replacement and a pacemaker and was admitted to a rehab unit.  I needed a map or an audio guide.  I needed any direction and guidance that was available and there was very little “out there.”  I did do some research on the web to determine the best facility in the area and I did make the necessary phone calls to make sure that’s where she was admitted but after that I felt like I had just landed on an alien planet, not country, but a planet beyond our solar system.  I have never been so intimately involved in the care of a seriously ill individual, and to be honest my mom has led a very independent lifestyle up until her fall.  I wish someone wise and experienced had taken my hand and led me step by step down this road. 
I wish I knew in the beginning of this journey what I know now.  I’ve prayed for years for dignity for my mom and mother in law in their old age.  Now, I’m seeing what dignity can look like and may not look like.  After entering the rehab, mom contracted C.diff.  One more thing I knew nothing about, another huge detour on the road.  I’ve reached out to God and to everyone I know.  I actually sent an email to several of my communities that was titled “Help!”  Help has come and hopefully will keep coming.  Help not just for my mom but for me, the main caregiver.  Yes, I am seeing the blessings.  Some of the best help has been what I now consider to be “God’s Garmins.”  They are all those people in the know who have taken the time and effort to share with me what I need to be doing and in what direction I should be going. 
When Sandy and I traveled to Ireland several years ago, we found the most joyful part of the trip was getting lost because we would stop and ask an always delightful, friendly Irish man or woman for directions.  We stopped once on a back road and were invited in for tea!  That’s been my experience here with my mom and her illness, the people who have reached out to me explaining the path best chosen have brought clarity and joy to a very frightening and strange road.  I’ve decided there is very seldom an easy way through chronic illness or the dying process but like all our adversities there are blessings to be found and usually, they come in the form of loving, caring people who take our hands and our hearts and lead us along the path of what we call life.  I like to think of them as God’s Garmin, audibly directing us down the road to our final destination, Peace.