Presence and Peace

“The Dash” is a Poem of Comfort and Action


I’m in the final week of my first (and probably last, at least for a while) grad school class. Below is an updated post that originally ran in July 2010.  

There’s a poem called The Dash,” written in 1996 by Linda Ellis.

The story in the poem speaks about the measure, or the width, of our existence, what we do with the years after we’re born and before we die.  The dash represents our hopes, dreams and accomplishments as well as our failures.  It is the sum of each of our moments and how we’ve chosen to string them together.

I thought about The Dash once while listening to someone express its meaning in a different way.  He reminded his audience that the first sentence, actually a question, of Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous reads:  “Who cares to admit complete defeat?”

As hundreds of heads knowingly nodded, he went on to refresh our memories with the first sentence of Step Twelve which reads, “The joy of living is the theme of AA’s 12th step and action is its key word.”

As I listened to the chorus of ahs around me, I remembered the dash.

A friend’s dash

A guy I used to know named Jim had his dash inscribed after he died in a motorcycle accident.   Several of his friends are good friends of mine and

I pictured them standing in the parking lot of the funeral home, before they fired up their Harleys, cussing and discussing his dash.  For Jim, and for my friends, the dash and the distance between the sentences of Steps One and Twelve are synonymous.

I suppose the dash is the final mile marker on the distance of Jim’s journey.

As it is for all of us.

Sometimes, though, I get caught up in a small incremental portion of the dash I’m creating.  During those times, I definitely do not want to admit complete defeat and there is definitely no joy in my living.  I’ve completely cast aside the key word of action.  Typically, I have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired before I holler “uncle!”

I’m ready now, though. This year has been especially trying. The details don’t matter, because when push comes to shove, everybody has tough days, months and even years. How we deal with them by taking responsibility for choosing differently, all gets built into the dash.

My dash (could be yours too!)

I’m choosing differently now. I’m taking action. After all, I embrace the lines of another favorite poem, “Invictus”

I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.

These lines from “The Dash” help me make things better:

If we could just slow down enough
to consider what’s true and real
and always try to understand
​the way other people feel.

Like Jim, when my journey’s distance reaches its end, I want my spirit to smile broadly, knowing that I’ve chosen the joy of living and created a really wide dash.

To read “The Dash” in full, click here.

Photo courtesy of click

Denial is More Than a River in Egypt

file9091344746881Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. These are the five stages of grief according to Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

I read today about denial in Melody Beattie’s The Language of Letting Go. She writes that denial presents itself as trying to control, focusing on others and neglecting self. I’ll also add obsessive thinking to the list.

Yes, I’m guilty of each of those pieces of the definition of denial as my sweetie and I struggle to come to terms with her job loss nearly 10 months after mine.

“Denial is more than a river in Egypt”

About nine months into recovery, more than 20 years ago, I regularly saw a therapist famous for the denial quote above. I can still hear her sassy laughter each time she said it to me–which was frequently–and it never failed to piss me off.

Yet I still practice denial every day when I try to make something different than it is. Melody explains that we want to wrap our grief in a neat and tidy package. People like me, who crave structure, want the steps of grief to clearly show themselves so that we can walk through each door, take a deep breath and close it firmly behind us. Done with denial. Check. Move on.

I suppose if life were that robotic, we could smile stiffly and say, “No worries now. I’m good.” Or, more correctly, mutter through gritted teeth, “I am FINE!”

Do I need to spell out the FINE acronym for you?

Grief takes what it takes

The point is, I think, that grief is not a single-shot destination; it takes what it takes to get there. Even when we reach the last stage–acceptance–we’re not finished. Grief is fluid; a momentary flash of acceptance is a terrific relief, but we’re probably not going to stay there. Chances are something will trigger a response in us that sends us back to anger or bargaining.

I most often circle back to those two stages–anger and bargaining–when I find myself anxious about money, which in the 10 months since I lost my job, happens a lot.

Like every other particle of my life, I must be present to grief. Not in a boo-hoo way (although tears are appropriate when grieving), but in a “here I am” way.

Showing up for grief is like taking medicine–you do it so you will feel better. When you have an infection, you’re told to finish the entire bottle of antibiotics. When you’re grieving, you have to go through all five steps, sometimes out of order and sometimes over and over again.

Two things I know for sure: Although grief over a major loss may never completely go away, it does lessen in intensity. And, grief changes you. Too often grief hardens people into a cynical knot of negativity. More often, I think, when we stay present to our grief, we remain malleable.

Sometimes keeping my heart soft is not the easiest thing to do, but I keep trying because I know joy lies on the other side of grief.

Photo courtesy of ronmerk

Have Faith in What Will Be


A couple of weeks ago, In the, a recovery website I like, posted this on Facebook:

“Accept what is, let go of what was and have faith in what will be.”

I could get analytical and reply that it’s not quite that simple, that life complicates the equation. But the truth is that life is doing what life does and I am the complicater. I am a perpetual storyteller and I too often tell myself stories that assume feelings are facts.

Does this sound familiar?

My sensitivity gets all out of whack; then the stories get really juicy. For some reason, night-time becomes the right time for my mind to play its version of whack-a-mole.

I sometimes have trouble finding God during the night. It’s as if I assume s/he is on the sunny side of the world playing with the pretty people and doesn’t have the time or inclination to visit me.

Poor me. What happened to this moment, this blessed now? I want to be jolly and righteously upbeat and happy right now. But sometimes I’m not. What happens then?

Opportunities for practice

What happens is I get to practice sitting in whatever moment I find myself, even if it’s uncomfortable or itchy or downright miserable. I get to practice being with myself even in those moments and then when I’ve had enough, I get to choose to do something different.

I’ve been practicing lately. I sit in my red Ikea chair in the corner of my snug private space. To my left is the hedge of autumn-red and green Texas shrubs and lilacs. To my right are some of the books I love.

At my 1:00 line-of-sight are my framed On the Beam and Off the Beam lists. Off the beam: fear, worry, resentment, check, check and check.

At my knees, curled under a blue blanket, is the gentle rise and fall of my Jazzy’s breathing. I shift my gaze to the On the beam list: hope, love, faith. I can check those things, too.

Practice, it all takes practice. I don’t always want to do what’s good for me. Oh sure, I can have willingness, but without the practice, I get nowhere.

The shift is my goal, and although it may be gradual, even the slightest movement allows me to turn just a little closer to the beam.

How do you know if you’re on the beam or off? Know that falling off is okay, so long as you practice getting back up.

Hugs from Texas on this Mindful Monday.

Photo courtesy of pippalou

Mindfulness: A Tool for Recovery and Discovery


This is a guest post by Beth Burgess

Have you ever snapped at someone and you didn’t know why? Have you ever woken up feeling blue, and not been able to put your finger on the cause? Have you ever relapsed into unhelpful behaviors and couldn’t work out what went wrong?

There is always a reason why we find ourselves acting out. There is always a reason behind our low mood. There is always a reason why we fall back into bad patterns. All these are indicators that something is not sitting right with us – and yet most of us are too busy to notice the red flags waving until it is too late.

Mindfulness is the art of noticing, and it can be very useful when applied to acknowledging our innermost feelings. Many of us carry around stress and worry without even knowing it. But it is there, usually seated within our bellies, sending out subtle signals that something is awry.

But because we are ignorant of our own stresses and the toll they are taking upon us, we find ourselves reacting recklessly to things, rather than responding with insight and care. Practicing mindfulness allows us an insight into what our emotional blockages and limitations may be before we respond to our day.

I advise my clients to practice 10-15 minutes of Mindfulness every morning, where they sit and pay attention to the sensations arising in their gut. Is there any tightening, which could denote anger? Or a sinking feeling associated with worry? Or a heavy feeling, which might be a sign of sadness?

Once you know what you are really feeling, then you can be aware of how vulnerable you are to the further stresses and strains you may encounter in the day. You know which emotions may threaten to color your responses and when to keep yourself especially safe from dangerous triggers.

Bringing our attention to our belly not only allows us to notice any negative feelings in the present moment, but it enables us to identify when things sit well with us. Many people don’t pay attention to their gut instinct, the intuitive feelings as to whether things are a good fit.

With practice, we can learn to ask ourselves questions about where we are going in life, and can attune ourselves to our own gut responses. In this way, we can learn what really makes us tick, what resonates to our innermost core, and which path would be the wise one to take for us.

So Mindfulness is not only about cementing recovery from setbacks in life, and making sure you stay mentally healthy, but also about discovering where you want to go next – and how to get to that place of peace, growth, fulfilment and joy.

Beth Burgess is a therapist and coach specializing in addiction and anxiety disorders, as well as helping clients deal with other mental health issues and setbacks in life. She is the author of The Recovery Formula and The Happy Addict. Beth has also published a mini ebook What Is Self Esteem? and runs workshops on self esteem and stress.

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Photo courtesy of audrey630

5 Ways to Overcome Unworthiness (And Soften Your Heart)


Pema Chödrön tells the story of being a lonely six-year-old girl who one day walks past the house of an old woman who was sitting out in the sun.  I know it’s hard to imagine, but the young Pema was kicking anything she could find out of frustration for feeling unloved and alone.

Pema tells the end of the story, “Laughing, she said to me, ‘Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.'”

It’s quite possible that Pema’s life as a teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition began that day.  On that day, the six-year-old girl learned that she could make a choice to allow life’s events to harden her or she could  use those events to do the opposite, to soften her heart.

Buddhists call the softening bodhichitta

Pema writes, “Chitta means ‘mind’ and also ‘heart’ or ‘attitude.’ Bodhi means ‘awake, enlightened,’or ‘completely open.'”

So, what’s with the lesson in Shambhala Buddhism?

Because the character trait of unworthiness is rampant in our society.  We watch it play out every day in people who touch our lives, in the places we live, work, go to school, perhaps even worship.  Unworthiness may be hard to spot because we’re so used to seeing it every day.

Don’t you know someone who feels inferior?  Who says their work is less than adequate?  Who self-denigrates and then laughs because s/he thinks it’s acceptable to feel and believe those things?

Come on, people!  Have we forgotten who we are?

The process of remembering

We are, depending on your preference, children of a divine creator.  I sometimes call that being GUS (God-Universe-Spirit).

We are sooo much better than the untrue beliefs we hold about ourselves.  Believe me, I need to read this stuff as much as I need to write it.  My feelings of unworthiness run deep and I’ve honed them for half a century.

When we remember our true, authentic selves, we begin to unlock the habit of turning to unworthiness.

In fact, that’s the first way to overcome unworthiness.

1.  Realize that when one of your buttons gets pushed, you react out of habit. Yes, the trigger may be real, but you can change your reaction.

2.  When something happens to upset you, say a co-worker makes a hurtful, mean remark to you, do not respond.  Instead, try to find a mirror and spend a full minute looking into your own eyes.  You’ll know the truth is not what that person just said.

3.  Don’t spend time in maudlin-ville.  It’s a sure track to pity, remorse, and self-denigration.  You deserve better.

4.  Eliminate all “o-u” words from your vocabulary.  No more should (as in, “I should have . . . “), could, would or even ought.  Thou shalt not should all over thyself.

5.  Decide to begin a new spiritual practice.  It’s not hard, I promise.  If you’ve accomplished the other four, this one is a piece of cake.

Just for today–because today is all we have–I want you to feel, really feel, that you matter.  You come first, not because you’re selfish, but because if you don’t put your oxygen mask on first, how can you possibly be of any use to the rest of GUS’ kids?

I dare you to write me and tell me your heart hasn’t softened.

May your week be filled with soft landings, my friends.  Peace out.

Photo courtesy of melschmitz