Spirited Breath

It is no mistake that the first thing we do upon entering this world is take a heaving, life-giving breath. And on exiting, a final, agonal gasp denotes our demise. Our soul, spirit, prana, qi, shen literally rides and survives on the tides of the breath. We can live without food, shelter, water, love, even, but it only takes minutes of suffocation and our time here is done. The inhale/exhale pendulum is like a metronome of measurement that reflects our state of being. Calm, cool and collected is mirrored in steady, full and easy breathing. Short, fast and shallow breaths show major distress, whether fear, pain or a feeling of imminent danger. The mouth forcefully opens and the breath quickens uncontrollably in the throes of passion, allowing for full oxygenation to carry one through the beautiful intensity of climax. Our breath increases and deepens with effort of a physical nature, and indirectly correlates to the fitness and resilience of the individual. The breath is the wind of our voice and allows us to communicate and connect. It is the whisper, the scream, the stories, the outcries, the songs, the sobs, the source of all laughter, the bellows of our lives. We sense breath from behind us and quickly intuit whether it is threatening or an impending sweet kiss to the nape of the neck. We feel another’s chest rise and fall while in their long embrace. The breath carries smells of sickness or vitriol and alerts us to someone’s relative health or mood. It flows as a collective to breathe life into trees, an unconditionally symbiotic and reciprocated act, the forest’s roots reflected in our own alveoli. When slow and deep, it calms our vagus nerve and allows our mind to focus and our senses to stay sharp. When heightened, it fuels and readies our muscles in order to fight or flee. Breathing is the taste of all things around us, higher resonance, universal truth. It is the connection between air and movement, as the sole act of breathing is our own internal masseuse. Our breath happens without thought or consciousness, yet we can override and control it at any moment. It is truly the source of sacred life. And it unites us all.

As with many things in our lives, we often don’t appreciate them until we are bereft. When I was about 10 years old, my extended family was in town for the summer from New Orleans. Oh how fun to visit their hotel and spend the hot Atlanta days in a nearly empty pool! My cousin was about 4 at the time and not a stellar swimmer. We were all just enjoying ourselves when I caught a glimpse of my cousin, floating, face down, not moving an inch except with the ripples of our most recent cannonball. Time stood still as the reality hit the surrounding adults like a carbonite tomb. My aunt, her momma bear instinct in full throttle, ran from across the patio and jumped in, shoed and clothed to save her eldest child. She gasped her way back into this world, not ready to bow out at that young age.

In my college years, I worked as a lifeguard at a very busy public pool. One crowded day, my fellow lifeguard pointed to the bottom of the pool in front of her, glued to her chair to no avail. I saw her concern, a large teenage boy face down and sunken. I dove in and grabbed him, his face and lips blue as I dragged his heavy, limp body to the side of the pool. I stood frozen over him, knowing exactly what to do, but unable to take action. Thankfully, another lifeguard took over to give him life-saving breaths, sharing his own air in order to revive this young man with a full life ahead of him.

As a wilderness guide, I took troubled teens into the woods for 10 day backpacking trips as a way to instill new confidence, teach healthy accomplishment and frankly, allow natural consequences to shift some negative behaviors. Thankfully, the majority of trips were uneventful in the emergency realm and hugely successful in their behavior-modification attempts. On my final trip in North Georgia, just prior to moving to Oregon, I had a student with exercise-induced asthma (unbeknownst to my fellow trip leaders and me, unfortunately). We were hiking for a few miles and I could tell she wasn’t feeling well, so I encouraged her to drink water and eat. Soon thereafter, she collapsed and stopped breathing, showing signs of cyanosis on her lips. I grabbed the CPR mask and started breathing for her. She came to and we carried on. I radioed ahead to the the state park that was about 2 miles ahead of us. Several of the other students wanted to help, so I had them carry her and I hiked at her head. She would stop breathing every few minutes and I trained them to set her down every time I shouted, “breathe!” so I could rescue breathe her. We made it down the trail and were met by EMTs who administered O2 and transported her for care.

When my dad was in the last stages of dying from cancer, my infant son and I were there with my siblings, mom and extended family. I remember waking up on his final day of life to the telltale sound of agonal breathing. I told my brother this would be the day. His death rattle continued for hours, as we watched his body literally drain into the various tubes and bags hanging from his at-home hospital bed. But his breath continued its fight, desperate to hang on as long as possible. Its sound shifted in the last half hour, and the regularity succumbed to an erratic rhythm. Each labored respiration seemed to be his last, but then another would emerge as a startling attempt from his soul to remain. A candle we lit for him burned out and within minutes, we had heard his last, gasping breath. The sense of peace and relief induced a flurry of long sighs among us, as we knew his suffering was finally through.

My grandmother died in New Orleans just before Mardi Gras in 2014. I booked last minute flights for my family so we could attend her funeral, with a bonus week for Mardi Gras (pretty sure that was her final scheme!). It was a 5:00 am flight out of Redmond and my kids were scattered about the plane, with my youngest seated next to me. Despite my strong espresso, I drifted off as we climbed west toward Denver, our first stop. In my sleepy haze, I thought I heard the flight attendant ask for a doctor on board. I wasn’t sure, so I waited to see if that was a dream or reality. Sure enough, she announced her desperate request yet again and I hopped up to see what was happening. Most passengers were asleep, including my little one. There was a man in an aisle seat, likely early 60’s who was unconscious, slumped over, with one eye open and one eye shut. The one and only flight attendant went to fetch the defibrillator while I assessed him. Not breathing, no radial pulse, but a faint carotid. I tried for a response, but got nothing. I did a sternal rub and he took a sudden, stiffled inhale, and slowly revived. I called for an emergency landing in SLC, where we were met with EMTs and a plane full of confused passengers as they awoke on our descent over the Great Salt Lake. My assessment? TIA or mild stroke, based on his presentation. The pilot gave me plastic wings. Amazing what the body will do to survive.

In my kayak days, I remember being upside down after getting hammered in rapids, aerated bubbles everywhere, no clue which way was up, hoping that my paddle placement would give me the grab I needed in order to snap my hips and roll up for air. Although there was a sense of urgency and perhaps even panic at times, there was always an undercurrent of peace. My lungs frantically wanted air, but somehow, my body found its zen (perhaps hypoxia-induced) under the surface of the water. And now, in my martial arts days, I have had the breath squeezed out of me, my face against the mats, a very strong and skilled man taking my back and/or choking me out, pushing me to use my inner strength, my will to fight back, my ingrained skills to escape and regain control. It was all I could do to breathe, despite my touted pride in controlling my breath in classes when many others give way to panic and panting. Knowing my own vulnerability has been one of the most valuable things to emerge from my training, ironically. Despite my knowledge, my strength, my awareness of surroundings, and my inner confidence and courage, I realize fully that it doesn’t take much to be overpowered and ultimately, breathless.

Here I land, in the present moment, where I have been faced with much grief, sudden change, and huge potential loss but in the same breath, I am bathed in immeasurable beauty, overcome with obscene joy, and filled with insurmountable hope. My breath becomes the tether to the here and now, the reset to my wanderings, the anchor to my emotional storms. In Chinese medicine, the lung’s emotion is that of grief. Yes, grief has been a chronic theme as of late. But the polarity to sorrow is ritual and higher power, a connection to something greater than ourselves, symbolized by the element of metal and by a huge, snow-capped mountain. From here, we draw our strength, gather our reserves, fill our chests and take yet another life-saving breath, as that is all we have. This moment, this inhale, this exhale, the tide of our soul, the air that infuses us with vitality is what reignites our will to live fully with purpose. It is always a breath away.

Raw

Certain scenes remain burned in my brain, whether from an actual experience, an intense nightmare (I have many vivid, detailed dreams that all too closely abut reality), or images from movies. One such cinematic memory is the notorious heart removal clip from Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. Perhaps it was my prodrome for studying medicine, my age, or my human rubber-necking tendency to absorb every ounce of detail that subsequently burned this recollection deep into my hippocampus. It was not hard-wired parallel to fright thankfully, but its intensity etched itself, carbon-copy style into the deep recesses of my psyche. I don’t know about you, but my memories are extremely visceral. They collect like iron filings to a magnet on my soul. I never suppress them. They serve as my navigation system, real, evoked, stories told, or otherwise, and they become mine. I savor the emotions they spawn, perhaps somewhat masochistically. This famous heart-ripping scene not only symbolizes mortality, imbalance of power, trauma, and gross cinematography (for its era) but it epitomizes vulnerability, cloaked in miraculous beauty.

Beauty, you ask? And to that I answer a resounding…maybe. Let’s first consider the actuality of this situation. If one were in the presence of another who could literally rip a heart out, well, that is a daunting and (perhaps) unfortunate situation. One’s instincts might be to avoid this person altogether, naturally, or to somehow protect oneself from his or her power with elements like distance, averted eyes, a posse, an implement or piece of armor. For the sake of argument, let’s also say the interaction with said power is inevitable. What now? Our DNA-imprinted self-preservation spawned long before our bipedal ancestors tread the earth, and that alone was millions (like 7 million!) years ago. Our sweet minds pain to imagine that amount of time. Brain explosion if we try and perceive billions of years. Suffice it to say, living organisms live to survive, no matter what the timeframe. So, in a situation where our heart is at risk, what do we do? We guard, we fight, we run, we play dead, we seek protection in the masses, we go to battle, or we surrender. And then we are spared. Right?

The symbolism of heart-wrenching cuts a deep crevasse, whether physically, emotionally or energetically. And the protections we aggressively put into place remain akin to each other across the board. So, all theatrical references aside, what if the raw vulnerability of our tenderized hearts is actually the road to authenticity? Suppose the jostling or our unguarded emotions is the real path to love? What if we take our hearts out, have a good look at their capabilities, their insufficiencies, their losses, their blockages, their emptiness, their voids, their abundance and finally see the overpowering truth? That love is sustained from within and without. That love needs no other to foster it, but begs for everyone once it is ignited. That love is magnetic, self-promulgating, bountiful, ever available, and needs exposed nerves to electrify it into being. That love is ever-present and available for the taking, especially when pain and suffering are climaxing. That love knows no color, no sex, no age, no era, no species and is raining down like the most toxic and pervasive storm that Earth could conjure. What if love is YOU? What if love is ME? What if love is everything? What if our perception is the only thing tainting the reflection of pure love in the mirror?

What if all that needs to be done is to blink, take a breath, and open our tender hearts? Would you be willing? Would you be vulnerable? Would you be raw?

Exposed

Nudity. A place from which we all were birthed, yet one persistently swaddled in shame, judgment and vulnerability. It is one of our strongest desires, despite being shrouded in societal parameters of self-deprecation, heathenism and lust. Ironically, naked is precisely how we both enter and leave this world, much to undertakers’ chagrin. Flesh and bones, bare to the core. We spend a lifetime covering up for the sake of others, or for warmth and protection, due to embarrassment, or to abide by rules of various institutions. The first time I was naked in public as an adult was in the beautiful Umpqua hot springs. It was a thrilling medley of exhilaration, liberation, and raw exposure. After years of Southern catholic school (our uniforms had to be to the tips of our fingers, and I, sadly, have an extra long ape-index), and growing up in a rather body-conscious household, it was rather fun to tap into my newfound Oregon self, despite my freshly shaven armpits. I shed layers of indignity with every scrap of clothing, relishing in the comfort and confidence of those around me, savoring the various shapes human forms embody. It was a gateway into my womanhood, my femininity, a timid step on my long and sorted journey to loving my own skin.

At that point in my young twenties, my experiences with naked humans had been less than optimal. A near-assault from a naked man in downtown Atlanta, a man driving next to me on the highway at full speed (both with his truck and his palm), another man fully disrobed and jacking off for show by the riverside while I was out for a morning run, some less than par sexual experiences (with a few decent ones sprinkled in), accidentally walking in on relatives changing or in the throes of passion, my aunt’s breasts post-reduction surgery, the obligatory female rite of passage of stirrups and a speculum, and a dash of enticing cinema my college boyfriend stole from his dad. These experiences formed a milieu of pure confusion and disconnect from my own sensuality and sexuality. Confusing, daunting, and bathed in naivety.

Fast forward a decade to my medical schooling and I began to view bodies from the inside out, at least on the physical front. Peering at cells under the microscope, dissecting muscles and organs from cadavers (and doing acupuncture on them!), drawing classmates’ blood, palpating abdomens, auscultating hearts and lungs, and doing gyn and procto exams on peers and teachers alike were everyday practices. Observing naked bodies swiftly became rote and my draping techniques quite stellar. I forcefully learned to be comfortable being examined and examining others. Add to that multiple required Qi gong retreats to Breitenbush and a birth…or three, and I was in for some prominent reshaping, to say the least. My soul however, remained heavily cloaked from nape to ankles, her sinful flesh hidden from the seething eyes of percipience.

Perhaps you have found yourself in a situation where you felt so raw, so vulnerable, that you had no choice but to push through and see what became of it. Public speaking is a common one, or a competition of some sort. Maybe just being at a party with new people, or the first week at a brand new job. These moments slowly unbutton the thick sweaters of our souls. I have been in such settings and had many tastes of emotional exposure. But it wasn’t until 2015, when I first bowed onto the mats of my dojo that I truly began baring my naked self, despite the gis we all must don. My very first lesson was brutal on the ego, thanks to my once competitive self. I was swiftly competent at most endeavors in life (aside from the many “wet-exits” I endured before finally learning to roll my kayak). Knife hand blocks in a back stance would evade me for many weeks, if not months. I still butcher them on occasion. I quickly began to recognize the direct correlation between humility and soul-baring. As one grew, the other was forced. My first rank test from white to yellow belt stripped me to my bones. In my martial arts toddling, I knew not how to regulate my breathing, to give my all in each moment, nor had I found faith in my training. That wisdom has inched its way in through countless hours of my calloused feet on said mats, and still demands oh so much more. Witnessing the whittling of my own and others’ guards and fears leaves us all stripped bare. I see it on my comrades’ faces when they are being attacked by multiple people at once. I see it in their eyes when they struggle to learn a new form. I smell it in their sweat when I try and sweep them from guard. I hear it in their stories when they celebrate their 4 hour test for a symbolic stripe on their belt. The exposure runs marrow deep and tears apart all the self-induced inhibitions of our toxic chatter, leaving us free to finally see the truth.

In continuing my circuitous journey of martial arts, I sense the inklings of all that I do not know. I recognize the grandiosity which I hope to overcome, but have not a clue how that unfolds. The more I know, the less I understand, and the more I shed, the more I see. Look, it’s unlikely I’ll perform in a burlesque show (despite the disagreement from several of my closest friends), nor will I intentionally show cleavage shots amidst my prolific social media posts. But I will bare my raw self, my deeper truth, my fumbling mistakes and my deep fears. Thanks to HIPPA, I am an excellent keeper of secrets. Once vaulted, I hold stories close to my heart. But I look at my own journey as a hopeful place of teaching and insight for others, much to my children’s blushing dismay. Exposé is slowly creeping into my skin through my desire to inspire, to model confidence for my kids and to offer a contagious forum for a healthy lifestyle. But these are merely a molecule in the universe of my spirit’s breaking, the scattering of ashes from my bare self, the growth that I can only pretend to imagine as I shed one belt for the next, fully exposed for who I truly am, a stripped soul under my naked skin.

Haunted Heart

I grew up in a fancy-ish part of Atlanta (despite us being un-fancy) with large, mosquito laden yards, prolific dogwoods and parades of lightning bugs that put phosphorescent surf to shame. My siblings and I attended school just down the street and had many friends in our neighborhood. We spent the majority of our time at the “duck pond”, a lovely park blocks away with obligatory ducks and plenty of crawdads lurking in the creek drainage. My brother and I would rush through our homework so we could gather at the park and play kick the can or capture the flag with our posse of cohorts from the ‘hood. Our dad had the most incredible ability to whistle and, despite being many blocks away, sweat pouring down our faces while running for the flag under the sultry Southern dusk, we could hear his beckon from our screened-in porch and knew we best hustle lest we hear the wrath (from our mother, actually). When I was 8 years old just before Labor Day, after homework was complete, I headed over to my friend’s house a few doors down. She had the steepest driveway on our block, but it was rather short and ended abruptly into a fence that led to her back yard. We decided it would be a wonderful idea to test her bigwheel at high speeds, tandem, of course. Needless to say, the “brake” (you remember that little metal friction bar?) failed and my instinct was to stop that freight train with my feet. Brilliant, except for the fact that I was donning flip flops, since we were in the throes of eternal summer. The screams that emerged from my lungs were primal and my mom, from the confines of her sweltering sewing room (she actually loved sewing, but her room happened to be near the attic without AC) could not contain her mother bear response and came rushing to the scene, even before my friend’s mom came outside. She scooped me up, tended to my bone-revealing wounds on my ankles and knees and put me to bed. The next day, we left for our annual trip to Nantahala, NC, a quaint, then rustic mountainous retreat where we rafted, jumped into frigid waterfalls and spent time in the woods with extended family. My legs were miserable, but somehow I endured the 3 hour drive.

What still strikes me deeply about that day is the intensity of love that emerged from my mom. She likely would have shoved a bulldozer out of the way to fetch me off that driveway. It was a power I had never seen or truly known, but have been fortunate enough to experience in many different facets since. Love comes disguised in the most elusive garb, but rears its beauty and grandiosity in sudden, often very timely moments. In recent years, I have come to recognize that against society’s strange commercial or reality tv definitions of love (really? A single rose handed to one woman in a pool of fawning ladies denotes true love?), it is a profoundly pervasive quality that touches hearts with which we interact often, if we allow it. In Chinese medicine, the heart is known to be “the Empty Vessel”. In our culture we may be aghast with that concept, as everything is driven toward having a full heart. But ancient medicine is centered around flow and balance, and if the heart remains empty, it is without burden and always ready to fill. Like an inverted glass jar, it allows emotions to flow through, swell up, and then move along so that the next emotion can do the same. When this flow stagnates and we grasp for a certain feeling, or do not allow them to move through, we create damage, disconnect and our jar becomes cluttered, leaving no room for more love to enter. They say love is blind, but is it? Or does it actually allow us to fully see? Instead of being blind to the “flaws” of someone we love, perhaps we voraciously embrace those quirks, appreciating and accepting him as a beautifully unique human. Or we gaze upon our daughter’s face and see only the brimming joy, despite the tears that she might be shedding. Or we receive written words which are perfectly timed, poignantly phrased and stop us in our tracks, forcing us to have a brighter perspective.

In navigating my current phase of life, I have come to recognize that I have a fresh take on love. It is begging me to notice the nuances. Ironically the thing that we so desperately need, that we often seek, is the same thing that we tend to fear. We dance around love as if it is scary, toxic or dangerous. We quantify it, creating rules and boundaries about how it should look, with whom it is appropriate, and how it should be honorably expressed. Then, in the midst of loss, we regret not having loved fully, not having shown our true affection, as life is fleeting and love is truly abundant. We stifle, suppress, or cling, rather than allowing the fluidity of love to enter us whenever it sees fit (all of the time!). I am in the fortunate circumstance to be able to explore many different types of relationships, with perhaps a tiny bit of experience behind me. And I am feeling love in so many places, from and for so many amazing people. I am slowly learning to peek above the guardrails of institutional parameters about love. And all I see is abundance. I catch a glimpse of my old bigwheel scars and feel the love enter. Although my heart remains somewhat guarded and tentative, it aches for a new way and yearns to share love on every level with friends, family, lovers, children, teachers, patients, and communities alike. My heart was haunted by fear, damage, trauma and debris for many years. Undoing those patterns is simply up to me/us. Continue the old ways of constraint and inhibition? Or love and be loved. The choice is truly within our empty hearts.

Valiant

The heaviness of our current culture permeates deeply. It is an undercurrent which perfuses our thoughts, shakes our core and jades our hearts. Much of this struggle has been due to violence, oppression, abuse and assault; none of which is acceptable. I am proud to witness the surging movements amongst families, women and especially our youth who seek to make changes and shift consciousness. As disheartening and painful as these transformations might be, I fully surrender to the process that allows for new ways to percolate up and take hold. It is a beautiful thing to see. What I have been fortunate enough to experience as of late, despite the atrocities in the political and Hollywood scene is a renewed faith in men and the male ego. It is both humbling and inspiring.

Perhaps my own spiritual growth begs for it, but I have been humbly imbibed by so much beauty, kindness and compassion, bathed in masculinity (not seething in bathrobes) of many of the men in my life as of late. I firmly believe that we magnetize exactly what we need, whether that is via our thoughts, our energy, our perception, or even our words. I have had a jaded veil over my heart for too long, but thankfully my son is one of the first who has dared to tug at that shield. He has allowed me to see the tenderness and valor of a developing male soul. Despite my numerous missteps in parenting (my kids are actually my teachers, even though our culture often mistakenly reverses that), he is slowly coming out the other side a charming, considerate, emotionally mature young man. Sure, he still likes to entertain himself at the expense of his sisters’ precious possessions, and there is plenty of boy energy to dodge, but I am in awe of the hugs, the deep conversations, the door-holding, the intuition, the curiosity for the world around him, and the deep love for his family. This in the midst of massive changes in his home life which he has transcended with overall grace.

With gratitude, I have also found myself immersed in recent burgeoning male relationships that have offered so much growth, insight, support and perspective; more than I could have ever imagined. It dances on the cusp of selfishness, knowing that what I am learning about myself as a woman is blossoming out of relating with lovely, kind men in various facets of my life. Refreshing, with the mounting sexual assault claims that have painfully affected so many victims, their courage for coming forward a beacon of light for others. What I am learning after an upbringing of suppressing both my femininity and sensuality as shameful parts of me, is that I can still be a strong, professional woman and mother, while simultaneously owning my inner goddess, inviting others to allow that to emerge and shine within themselves. My eldest daughter and I had a discussion recently about clothing and lipstick (of course!). She asked if I make choices about my attire/appearance out of vanity or a desire to impress others. I can’t say that my answer is 100% true, since I’m a Leo and I don’t mind catching an eye, but what has shifted internally is the need for the eye. I choose to doll up, act sassy, over-post selfies, push boundaries for ME. It is my way of expressing my own value and worth, not as a measure of how others respond, but as a process that allows my true self to continue to develop and unfold in her glory. My wish out of it is that this way of living is contagious to those around me.

After decades, I am learning to temper and observe my negative thoughts, drop the fear in which these are rooted, and am oh-so-slowly releasing my tight grip on attachments to desired outcomes, while still visualizing my best self living a fulfilled life. The details are not up to me, as it is a journey saturated with beautiful mystery. Non-attachment is a challenging, yet liberating place in which to reside. We have no control over others’ actions, nor the happenings around us. Living as an active observer is likely the most oxymoronic attempt one could make. It teeters on insanity, begging for constant titrating back to pure intention. I fail this system frequently, as my thoughts and ego throwback to my 3-16 year old self, wanting exactly what I want when and how I want it. It ain’t pretty. Nor is it graceful. I find myself using (abusing?) my studies on quantum physics in an attempt to manifest the outcomes I crave. As beautiful and essential as visualization is, the minutiae of such paths is where the intention becomes muddled and disappointment rears its ugly head. This is where I become lost in the storm. Slowly, however, I am starting to recognize these patterns (tantrums), as life forcefully whips me out of my trance. My collective of male teachers, friends, guides and confidantes offer gentle and stoic perspective, allowing me to tether to a mountain of wisdom and experience, despite their own battles, scars and struggles.

I’m so proud of much of the male contingent for learning to tread the feeling waters of our current PC society, yet remaining true to their DNA and Y chromosome, in whatever way that best suits them. You guys are often overlooked, unappreciated, devalued, feared, and certainly lumped into a stereotypical collective. Thank you for being role models to our children, for staying light-hearted in the midst of growth and change, for continuing to learn new ways of communication, for honoring your vulnerability yet maintaining your manliness, and for overshadowing the damaged male ego with a confident, respectful and valiant masculinity.

We see you. We need you. We appreciate you.

 

Slow Fog

Wrapped in emotion that grasps at your ankles and drapes across your back, the world appears in a haze. Your eyes are heavy, straining against gravity enough to allow light to enter, which seeps its way into your brain, whose only job becomes deciphering the muted reality in which you stand. Feelings surmount and engulf you in their solidifying concrete, ironically dulling every sensation. Your attempts to move are futile. Deep breaths require full effort. You see life zooming around you in a whirl of excitement and joy, leaving you more bereft, more distraught, more isolated, a sinking island in a cobalt sea. You decide to relent, allowing the swirling despair to drag you down with it as a flash of brilliance catches your bloodshot eye.

The crystalline blue draws you in, surrounding you with compassion and empathy. You cannot look away. Her eyes seduce you into their innocent reveal. A sense of belonging envelops you, a slow fog of connectedness that is the raw curiosity of a child. It seeps into your weathered bones. She gazes on you with an angelic compassion that is both seductive and contagious. Your woes wash away, spiraling reluctantly into the drain of history as if they never even existed. You summon the courage to take a step toward her, and as you glance down to steady your gait, she is gone with the warm breeze that kisses your neck. Nothing hinders your sight as you receive every ounce of your surroundings, a rejuvenated perception of what was so recently trite. Colors take on a piercing hue such that your retina ache from absorbing their beauty. Your heart lifts and fills with hope. You begin to notice the people walking past, taking in their faces, seeing their truth. The sky morphs into luminous depth, making you feel immersed and drowned in cosmic expanse. Your nothingness has turned into totality, a transcendence of self.

With strife comes meaningful growth. In our darkest moments, we have the opportunity to see the boldest authenticity. The veil wears thin in times of struggle so we may peel away the layers guarding our soul. In this shedding comes the ability to know—our true self, the chatter of our thoughts that does not define us, the presence of universal energy within us, the tether to all that is a fulfilled and meaningful life. It is always here. Our heart radiates reality in a whisper, but our mind drowns its message, maintaining our armor. Our presumed armor. But this supposed protection invites suffering and ultimately shields us from love, joy and compassion.

In preparing for my imminent 1st degree brown belt test, I have spent many hours training, both on and off the mats. The physical and mental demand is somewhat absurd and certainly assured. It is something than many (sane?) people would never choose to inflict upon themselves, much less pay for. I honor and admire the commitment that my fellow karate partners and I must make to travel this path. I am grateful for the changes I’ve made in my body and brain over the last 2+ years. But what keeps me staying the course and coming back for more assaults, kicks, punches, takedowns, and potential injuries is not the physical or mental gains. The draw for me is what it does for my soul. While karate has gifted me with courage and a sense of armor, it has also stripped me of my guards, allowing me to become my true self, by observing my beautiful imperfections and dark shadows that make me a flawed and humble human. I am but a seedling in this transformation, but even the tiniest of buds has laid roots, the imprint of its full flower coursing through its DNA. My job now is to show up with wise effort and continue to surrender to the unknown, a path that is already unfolding at my feet with each faithful step.

In knowing our true selves, we must relinquish expectations, ideals and control for how we think things should be. If we wander the world with a sense of wonder and curiosity, its fullest offerings and gifts will present themselves to us. When we grasp to our “stories”, we stifle our growth and our learning. They begin to define and compartmentalize us. We take the brunt of the hits. Our armor only shields us from love. If we become the patient observer however, broadening our perspective, we are able to witness the unraveling of our soul while the disorienting fog gently lifts.

Tenacious

Under the guise of self-reflection, as this time of year often invokes, I recognize the lengths to which I have gone for the sake of my family and ultimately, for my soul’s growth over the last year. This equates to 2017 having been both the worst and the very best year of my life. I would never wish it upon anyone. But I know it is exactly what was meant to be in order for me to step assuredly onto this uncharted path upon which I now tread. The bliss and excitement that fill my chest at the unknown turns, the steep switchbacks, the overgrown and rocky descents, the treacherous climbs of unforgiving scree are fuel for my veins and open my eyes and heart with the anticipation of a 4-year-old checking under her pillow for tooth fairy loot. There is a hint of fear that she’s a no-show. But mostly I am filled with overwhelming curiosity and fervor that lure me down the underbrush laden trail. I am wide-eyed and ready.

In perusing this year, although honoring the choices I’ve made, the huge lessons I have learned, the humility I have repeatedly been force-fed, the judgement I have fielded and the darts I’ve ungracefully dodged (mostly), what becomes as clear as the Blue Pool is that it is really all nothing in the scheme of what many souls endure. Tonight, a dear friend of mine visited and told me about a woman in her late 30’s who was just killed by a drunk driver 2 days ago while out for a bike ride with friends. She leaves behind 2 children. It sparked memories of two of my closest friends in life who are also deceased, one due to collapse and a possible heart issue and another to electrocution; just a freak accident. Both left 2 children and adoring spouses behind. I mention all of this not to be heavy and disheartening, but to give credence to the fact that we all are on our respective journeys and we have the choice to be tenacious and own our lives or to surrender and be the victim of life. I choose tenacity.

Thankfully, I am witness to resilience on a regular basis. Truly, we all are if we have our eyes open. The mom in the store who is struggling to hold her 6 month old while her 3-year-old tantrums in the cart about pretzels. I’ve been her, so don’t judge! The man at the gas station who, when the relentless freezing fog settles in, still cleans the back windshield and offers your dog a treat with a smile. The woman in front of you at the checkout who sees you only have a couple of items and offers to let you go first, since she’s “really not in a hurry”. The teacher who makes extra time after school to debrief about what might seem to be a minor debacle but is a major triumph for a child’s courageous spirit and she spotlights this in front of his entire class. The woman who stands up and speaks out about harassment. The man who cares so much about his job as an instructor that he spends countless hours figuring out ways to provide meaningful feedback. The teen at the dojo or on the field who shows a flash of defeat across her eyes, but then blinks it away and performs well beyond her training. The girl who takes an extra moment to be sure her sister makes it safely into her dance class. The brother who holds the door for his family and for 3 other families after his own. The woman on the trail who takes a minute to pet your dogs and offer them a treat. The aunt who calls when you most need her, out of the blue. The woman who bravely leaves the security of her job to find her true passion, tirelessly making connections and setting priorities for happiness, health and wealth. The husband and son who support her efforts. The person who may not be great with people, but has a gift with animals and works tirelessly to find safe homes for strays. The man who shares his gifts with the world, despite the fact that his travels keep him away from his family more than he’d like. Everyone who has lost a loved one. Everyone who has suffered heartbreak. Everyone who has struggled to make ends meet. Everyone who has had a health condition. Everyone who has felt lost or alone. Everyone.

Tenacity is not something we either have or we don’t. It is innately part of the fighting human spirit. Survival of the fittest is a testament to tenacious ancestors. We have it pulsing through our arteries, through our nervous systems, dripping into our cortisol from our adrenals. It is there. Like any muscle, we may choose to train it and foster its power, or we can let it wither and wilt. Visualization is the kettle bell of tenacity. Gratitude is the bear crawl. With these two techniques, we may harvest our resilience. Visualizing allows us to “see” our success. It sets our thoughts into motion, imagining things as if they have already happened. The mind bears witness to action as if it’s been done, and then when the action ensues, the body performs. This is certainly not to be confused with wishful thinking. The distinction here is that the mind has no doubt and the body has already been experienced in overcoming such adversity, even if this is a brand new hurdle. Like building muscle, our brains on visualization are able to perform because there is no other option. Gratitude allows us to recognize the gifts we have in every moment of our lives. We are able to see challenges around us, or dodge those coming our way by honoring the beauty in every step of our jaunt in this lifetime. Neither of these tactics means we will avoid suffering, loss, or pain. What they do allow is the ability to grow (like said muscle), learn and thrive in the midst of difficulty.

Although I don’t really buy into resolutions as I believe that they often set individuals up for failure (goals are a whole different practice that I love!), I do have hopes and dreams for myself, my family and for the world. My wish for all of us is that we may harness our tenacity. We will then taste the fullness of life. We will not lie down when we are hit with a brutal blow. We will summon our forces, power up the ignition and dive fully into our lives. We will broaden our scope to see the beauty begging to be noticed all around us in every moment. We will stay in motion so that our actions allow us to experience breadth. We will savor our respites so we may rejuvenate. We will make heartfelt connections and surrender those that no longer bring out the best in us or others. We will be grateful at all times. We will look into someone’s eyes with a tender heart, bowing to each others’ unique journey and knowing that our collective force will drive us forth into the brilliant unknown, confident that we will only be better for each tenacious step.