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Changes are shifting outside the world*

9 Jan

As a student of English Literature, I learned that for a narrative work of any kind to be truly engaging, the main character has to undergo a change.

imagesIn the terminology of dramatic structure, going all the way back to Aristotle, there is a climax or turning point that marks a change – for better or the worse – in the protagonist’s affairs. Consider the Shakespeare plays you recall: In the comedies, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, things had gone badly for the character up to this point, and now the tide will turn and things will get better. In the tragedies, like Hamlet or Othello, the opposite occurs, and events shift from good to bad at the climax.

Of course, by the time we learn about this literary device, we’ve already been exposed to it many times, from the earliest fairy tales and stories that were read to us as very young children on up through just about every form of entertainment that is a part of our particular age group’s contemporary culture. We can all name our favorites: I recall being enchanted by Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and Great Expectations.

images-3As adults, whether we love fiction, theater, opera or rock-n-roll, we are most inspired by those works of art in which a transformation occurs. I will find myself quite bored by films in which the main character never “gets it” and conversely reduced to tears by those in which the change the protagonist undergoes is portrayed in a startlingly realistic way. Some random examples of favorite films are The Razor’s Edge, The Darjeeling Limited, Sally Potter’s Yes, and most recently, Jack Goes Boating. Similarly the music which affects me most profoundly – penned by artists like Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, James McMurtry, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle and Vic Chesnutt, just to name a few – does so through its ability to portray characters realizing something transformational.

Joseph Campbell took the Greek notion of dramatic structure a step further to define the common plot element in all stories as the hero’s journey. In any narrative, things are going along routinely, and then the main character is faced with an upheaval of some kind in which all he thought was stable has now changed, requiring him to rise to the occasion and fight a dragon of some sort or another, usually representing a personal fear. It is through this battle that transformation occurs and the hero emerges a new, better, stronger person than before. Think Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Castaway, Avatar, the list goes on and on.

62463I recently watched a film called Finding Joe that expounds Campbell’s hero’s journey concept. It does this through interviews with a dozen or so articulate speakers who have achieved greatness, some well known and others who worked quietly behind-the-scenes to accomplish successful projects. “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” This quote, which might as well be Campbell’s tagline, is one of the main ideas behind this uplifting film, from which you’ll come away feeling like an esteemed squad of cheerleaders including Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood and Laird Hamilton is rooting for you personally.

But to witness another person taking on the ultimate hero’s journey leaves us empty, mystified and lost – because when the final dragon is met and fought with, the essence of what the person was here in this realm of form actually seems to leave us, nevermore to return.

In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle writes, “The weakening or dissolution of form, whether through old age, illness, disability, loss, or some kind of personal tragedy, carries great potential for spiritual awakening – the dis-identification of consciousness from form. Since there is very little spiritual truth in our contemporary culture, not many people recognize this as an opportunity, and so when it happens to them or someone close to them, they think there is something dreadfully wrong, something that should not be happening.”

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Trying to come to some terms with my mother’s death over the past five months has been like trying to wake up after being heavily sedated. One is so overwhelmed with the grieving process that it’s like being mired in physical, psychological and emotional quicksand. After many months of struggling just to get through each quagmire of a day, finally, strangely, you begin to process emotions and information like yourself again.

A few weeks ago, I was driving through the woods at sunset feeling as if I had been a victim of amnesia and was trying to remember something about who I had been before. It was like hearing snatches of a melody and parts of a lyric hovering just below the mind’s surface, almost reachable and yet, still distant.*

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After chasing my ethereal thoughts for roughly a 24-hour period, a revelation of sorts began to emerge from the clouds, like mist rising from a mountain ridge. It was slowly dawning on me that just because I can no longer see and hear and feel my mom doesn’t mean she is not still on her journey.

Separate wholly from any learned connection between death and religion, the simple truth becoming less and less dim was that, given our limits of understanding, there is no reason to believe the changes do not go on. Changes are very likely still shifting outside the world as we know it.

As Tolle explains, during illness and finally in death, “what is lost on the level of form is gained on the level of essence.”

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The night my mother died, I awoke from a deep sleep having heard some sound in our shared room. When I reached her, she was unconscious but still living. And then I experienced something I never could have anticipated. Her essence, what some would call her spirit, left her body and very rapidly spread out around me with a palpable aliveness. It is impossible to describe this because I didn’t see or hear it or even feel it. (I was actually quite devoid of emotion at the moment it occurred.) I simply experienced it. And when it was over, her body had become a shell, not unlike that of an insect. Her essence went on. It was tangibly not trapped in the shell, which had died.

From that point on, I knew that to honor my mother was no longer to look at or touch her body, for it was no longer her. And so I sat near the body for only a short time, and then left the room and did not watch when it was carried out of our house.

Mother had fought the ultimate dragon; she had faced her fear and gone through the consummate change. Or had she?

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The way we experience time in this realm of form brings a horrible finality to this type of separation from someone we love. But, we need not lose interest in the plot as we might do when watching a movie where no transformation seems to be occurring. Change can still be going on – and who are we to say that it couldn’t be? Maybe the essence that used to appear in the form of my mother finally found the doors where before there had been only walls. For all I know, Mom is now on some level of the hero’s journey that is beyond my comprehension.

My continued closeness to her essence gives me the impression that changes are indeed shifting outside this world and that she is still learning, growing and changing as she has always done.

Nature photography courtesy of Nathaniel J. Miller. Computer generated paintings by Kathleen Farago May.

*The title of this essay is an intentional misquote from the song No More I Love You’s in which the lyric actually reads, “Changes are shifting outside the words.” The Annie Lennox cover of the song written by Joseph Hughes and David Freeman provides the very personal aural backdrop against which this essay was conceived.

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What do the Rolling Stones have to do with Gratitude?

25 Mar

I got a call today from an old college friend, a friend who knows me well and appreciates my eccentricities. When he asked what I was doing, I replied that I was watching a Rolling Stones video. I then tried to explain that I was doing research for my blog and that the Stones were helping me practice Gratitude. This ended up sounding lame even to me, and I had to tell my friend to just wait for the blog, and then it would all make sense. And so, here it is…


A year ago at the time of the Spring Equinox, I was living in the tropics, taking part in an exotic international experience full of adventure, romance, fun and excitement. Immersed in the beauty of the ocean environment, I relished gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, thrilled to amazing ecosystems and rare wildlife sightings, all the while embraced by the warmth and openness of the Latin American culture. The full moon rising over the Pacific Ocean on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica took my breath away. There was never a dull moment.

Over the past year, my mom had some health issues back in the states, my romance became more challenging than nurturing, and I realized that in order to be true to myself, I needed to transition away from the exotic life of travel, and back to what I felt was a much more mundane existence: living with mom in my bland, dull, ordinary, conservative hometown, what some half-affectionately refer to as “Rifle Town,” Winchester, Kentucky.

Then, in one of life’s awesome little ironies, my former husband gave me this book called “How to Want What You Have: Discovering the Magic and Grandeur of the Ordinary” by Timothy Miller. And I opened myself to the possibility that maybe life was not so bad.

This is not a book about anti-materialism or voluntary simplicity, as the title might suggest. It’s about how to stop constantly wanting something other than what we have right in front of us. Miller is a cognitive psychologist who writes in a very simple, straightforward style, exploring ideas based in Eastern philosophy from a modern psychology perspective. He examines how we drive ourselves crazy by focusing so much attention on our human desire for more of everything… more wealth, more stuff, more power, more attention, more sex, even more spirituality or more love! According to Miller, whether what we want is good or bad for us doesn’t really matter; it is the act of focusing on the desire that prevents us from living in the here and now, appreciating what we have, and treating others the way we want to be treated.

One of the passages I like the most talks about how meditation – or taking a meditative approach to life (however you choose to do it) – is conducive to wanting what you have because when you meditate, you realize over and over again that you just need to stop thinking about what you want and just sit there with an empty mind. “If you meditate regularly, the cycle of desire and renunciation is repeated thousands of times,” Miller writes. “You might think of it as reprogramming a computer. The original program essentially states, ‘Try to get what you want. Try to gratify your instincts.’ Meditation gradually alters the original programming.” Meditation also is conducive to helping us practice Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, which are the disciplines Miller advocates to facilitate wanting what we already have.

When I was talking to my friend about this earlier, he reminded me that Sheryl Crow must have read this book when she wrote “Soak up the Sun,” which has that line, “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.” But I actually use three other songs to remind me of the three practices that Miller advocates to keep us focused on wanting what we have: Attention, Compassion and Gratitude. You are free to try this at home, and the videos provide a fun way to remember the ideas.

Practice: Attention

Artist: Carly Simon

Song: Anticipation

Theme: “These are the good old days.”

Concept: Being here now and realizing this is the precious present. We can all easily remember the line that ends this classic tune, and remind ourselves that even though we tend to always look to the future and think of what we think and hope is going to happen, even that future, when it does occur, can ultimately only happen “in the now.” If we use the reminder “These are the good old days” as a way to bring our attention back to the present, it becomes easier to see how good we’ve got it, right now, and to realize we have no control over what will happen.

Watch the video.

Practice: Compassion

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Song: Hungry Heart

Theme: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”

Concept: Empathizing with others and seeing that everyone you encounter is just trying to get the same things you are in life. In another of life’s little ironies, I’ve never been as big a Bruce Springsteen fan as is the partner I recently left behind. But I have to admit it resonated with me when Miller mentioned “Everybody’s got a hungry heart” as the mnemonic to help us in realizing that even the people who annoy us most (he uses examples such as neighbors with barking dogs or kids scrawling graffiti on our town’s infrastructure) only want the exact same things we want in life: acceptance, shelter, power, love.

Watch the video.

Practice: Gratitude

Artist: Rolling Stones

Song: You can’t always get what you want

Theme: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”

Concept: Being happy with what you’ve got and thankful for the things that surround you each and every day. Remember the opening funeral scene of The Big Chill? This song was the perfect choice for expressing the resolute nature of grief when we lose something, or someone, we thought would always be there. This theme is a perfect way to remind me that, even if I may not have everything I think I want, I always have all that I really need… and then some. And that realization makes me immensely grateful.

Watch the video.

This year, the Spring Equinox visited central Kentucky with an appearance of the incredible super moon, the same moon that shines over the Pacific Ocean, and over the tropical beaches I have now left behind. I’m now focused on taking part in what adventures, fun and excitement I can find in and around my old Bluegrass stomping ground, immersed in the beauty of a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home in a wonderful park-like neighborhood with older trees, squirrels, rabbits and lots of bird species. Here I am embraced by the warmth of very close friends, some of whom have known me for more than 40 years. I relish this special time with my mother, here and now, a relationship that is precious and which I know I cannot have forever. When I practice Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, there is never a dull moment… and occasionally, if I’m lucky, I even get to soak up the sun.

Watch the video.

Read another cool blog post about this book.