Home to Ourselves for the Holidays


Paperwhites, photo by Celia

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” ~David Whyte

 “I have gone forth,

but not in search of sensual pleasures.

Seeing the danger in sensual pleasures

— and renunciation as rest —

    I go to strive.

            That’s where my heart delights.”

~ The Buddha, “Pabbaja Sutta: The Going Forth”, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.)

“The more difficulties you have, in fact, the greater opportunity there is to let them transform you. The difficult things provoke all your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface. And that becomes the moment of truth. You have the choice to launch into the lousy habitual patterns you already have, or to stay with the rawness and discomfort of the situation and let it transform you, on the spot.” ~ Pema Chödrön


Dear Friends,

It’s busy out there. We are shopping, hosting, checking Amazon Wishlists, buying Secret Santa gifts for the office, traveling to be with relatives, making New Year’s plans, and let us not forget there’s always some last minute shopping. There’s overwhelm and preparations for the hosts and tremendous longing for those who are unable to be with their families. There’s also isolation and sadness for those who are not part of the dominant Christian culture or are alone on holidays. December is both the busiest and loneliest time of the year.

More than a dozen years ago, I read about a simple holiday practice of making gifts for the wild animals. The author made peanut butter pinecone bird feeders for the chickadees and the squirrels and scattered dried corn for the deer in his yard on Christmas day. These simple gifts for those whose opinions won’t get us a promotion or be able to reciprocate in kind really touched me. This man was able to detach from the loud voices of the commercial world, to listen to the quieter voice of his own deepest intentions and honor his own kindness, inclusivity, and unrequited giving. That is my message today, a heartfelt encouragement for us all to take some time to stop and listen deeply to what our lives are calling out for.

This was the choice the Buddha made. Born into a life of privilege and power, he recognized that pleasures and comfort were not enough. His life needed to become simpler to find the truth. So he left. The Buddha must have been deeply discontent and unable to participate in a life that was so unsatisfactory. Instead of burying his heartsickness and living out his life comfortably as the pampered son of a tribal leader, he listened deeply to his own sense of responsibility for his own salvation and wellbeing. We know his journey ended with enlightenment and his teachings on the end of suffering have set free countless numbers of humans. For most of us, taking off from our lives, leaving our children and spouses to begin our spiritual quest raises issues about honoring our agreements and our compassion for others, not to mention our financial responsibilities and subsistence. As lay people with families and jobs, we can remember that there are many ways to come back to ourselves, to our true intentions and stay in our role as parent, partner, and householder.

We can start small and take a five-minute break to listen. Listening to ourselves is a way to remember who we are and what is going to set us free. We can begin with mindfulness of the body/mind. How are we feeling today? What’s the territory of my mind—what emotions are visiting and how am I really? We can ask if we are aligned with our heart’s intentions.  How are we living our deepest desires today?  Have we dropped our aspirations to spend today in the present moment and unconsciously consented to exchange our peace and ease for irritation and exhaustion in the form of a completed shopping list and a clean house? We can ask the poet David Whyte’s question, “What brings me alive right now?” What do we want our lives to be made of?

At this time of year, we can remember that all moments contain choice. We can pause and consider what we consenting to in each encounter and each moment. Remembering that returning to our inner wisdom and stillness is available for us even in this season of doing and getting. That’s my wish for us all as we turn towards a new year, that we may deepen our trust in our own goodness and learn to listen to our truest desires.

Wishing you joy and happiness for the new year.

May we all trust our light,



To Reconcile Means to Trust

Winter Stream

Winter Stream. Photo by Rick Errichetti

“The wounded child is there and we don’t even know she is there.

The wounded child in us is a reality, but we can’t see her.

That inability to see it is a kind of ignorance. This child has been severely wounded.

She or he really needs us to return.

Instead, we turn away.”  ~Thich Nhat Hanh from Reconciliation

“It’s a cause of growth in the Dhamma and Vinaya of the noble ones when, seeing a

transgression as such, one makes amends in accordance with the Dhamma

and exercises restraint in the future.”

Digha Nikaya verse 2

“The people around us, our family and friends, may also have a severely

wounded child inside. If we’ve managed to help ourselves, we can also help them.

When we’ve healed ourselves, our relationships with others become much easier.

There’s more peace and more love in us.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, from Reconciliation

Dear Friends,

The holiday season brings lots of opportunities for families to connect and be together. For some of us, these celebrations are a real celebration, joyful occasions where we renew our connection with our families experience support, trust, and feel at home again with those we are closely linked to. And then, there is the dark side of the holiday, when old habits appear, people say things and react uncovering old wounds or creating new ones. We may leave the holiday table feeling bruised and battered and running for shelter instead of experiencing a safe refuge where we encounter care and consideration.

There is no standardization in how families react to hurt feelings and disappointment. Some minimize or ignore, some have a blowup and engage in simultaneous loud and energetic opinions. Some decide who is at fault and who to punish, while some distance, not trusting that there are welcome and respect. Individuals may stay away and try to keep safe from afar. It can be painful to have division and discord in our families especially at this time of year when there is a cultural expectation about what a happy welcoming family is.

Our expectations can make these situations much worse. These are the “shoulds” we insert in our judgments; my daughter should call because I am the parent. We should get along because we are family. My parents should apologize because they are wrong. He shouldn’t say/ do/think that. She should…fill in the blank. We believe that families are supposed to get along without conflict and when they don’t, we experience a loss. This loss of an ideal can hurt as much as the actual words and actions of family members. There is an often unconscious belief that if we try harder or were a better person, or they were a better person, we would stop feeling hurt and angry and there would be a magical spontaneous healing and understanding.

I recall being on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh when a son asked about staying connected to his father who spoke with anger and refused to listen to him. Each conversation ended in a fight and hurt. Thây recommended that the son stop communicating with his father and care for his own suffering. He needed to listen to the part of himself that was hurt and discouraged, to hear the longing for trust, respect, and care for his own loss and sadness. Only then would he could be able to engage with his father without reacting from the place of rawness and quick reactivity.

In Buddhism, there is the opportunity to do lots of violence to the self through spiritual-bypass. This is a rush to get over our hurt, because –if we are good Buddhists, we know this world, including all spoken words and even our solid appearance of a self, are in the ultimate reality a chimera and have the consistency of a soap bubble. That is an often convenient mindset to escape the nitty-gritty and humbling work of looking at our own words, deeds, and intentions. We all exist in the historical dimension and when we use the teachings as an escape route from admitting our culpability or to not take responsibility for how we hurt another, we are abiding in ignorance.

Forgiveness and reconciliation and two different things. Tibetan nun Thubten Chodron says that one cannot truly forgive until they fully understand the depth of hurt they have suffered. This doesn’t mean to dive into self-righteous recounting and blaming but is a call to do the work of sitting with the difficult feelings with empathy, tenderness, and pure understanding that we are all sensitive beings who desire love, trust, and consideration. We cannot forgive until we have cared for the parts of the self who are hurt. A rush to forgive and reconcile before one has the time and space to meet their own needs results in a veneer of friendliness that tears apart quickly at the slightest offense. True forgiveness requires patience and the willingness to care for the self before extending ourselves to another who has hurt us.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes a beautiful article about forgiveness and reconciliation for the sangha and in our own lives that outlines some of the stages in this process. He writes, “[r]econciliation — patisaraniya-kamma — means a return to amicability, and that requires more than forgiveness. It requires the reestablishing of trust. If I deny responsibility for my actions, or maintain that I did no wrong, there’s no way we can be reconciled. Similarly, if I insist that your feelings don’t matter, or that you have no right to hold me to your standards of right and wrong, you won’t trust me not to hurt you again. To regain your trust, I have to show my respect for you and for our mutual standards of what is and is not acceptable behavior; to admit that I hurt you and that I was wrong to do so; and to promise to exercise restraint in the future.” Reestablishing trust is at the root of reconciliation. There can be no friendship, no connection, or willingness to be near someone we do not trust. And we know that trust takes time to build.

Social scientist Dr. Breneʹ Brown describes building trust as adding marbles to a jar. Each time we encounter another and experience safety when we share what is dear to us, we add a marble to the jar. When the jar is full of these small moments, we have a foundation of trust. When we do not feel safe with another person, when there are unkind words or actions, there is no trust and the marbles spill out of the jar. Building trust means we are sensitive to the needs of another and their feelings and it takes time. Rebuilding relationships does not coincide with a calendar date, as much as we may feel pressure to do so.

This holiday season, no matter what side of the table you find yourself are on—the one who feels hurt and unheard, or the one who acted and spoke with good intentions, but was unskillful and is experiencing the consequence of unmindful speech, please start at the beginning. As Thay would say, come home to yourself and make your own home a safe place. Take the time to listen to that hurt in you—and the part of yourself that needs your own care, compassion, and nurture. Remember that healing is non-linear and doesn’t go in a straight line. True forgiveness and reconciliation happen when there is enough self-care to heal the willingness to trust again.

May we all trust our light,


When Another Person makes you suffer...




I Choose Both

Snow in Hanover, ME

Snow falling in Bethel, ME. Photo by Karen Swanson

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

“When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“A human being is a deciding being.”

                                                            ~All quotes Viktor E. Frankl


Dear Friends,

Have you ever experienced a feeling of dissonance despite the fact that you are doing what you should, taking the best course of action for your job or as a parent, and yet, there was a scratchy feeling of unrest and anxiety? I am paying attention to this feeling and what I am unearthing is the effect of hidden mixed motivation. Often there are more than one motivators at play in our lives. We usually go with the ones that show us in the best light, make us look unselfish or generous. Our choices often stem from our conditioning and wanting to be seen as good. This evaluation of good and bad motivations can keep our deeper desires and needs hiding from ourselves and result in subtle and not so subtle feelings of distraction and anxiety.

One of the biggest and most concealed drivers of our actions is to be seen in a certain way. We want to do the right thing—to be the generous one, the saintly one. We certainly don’t want to be the selfish lazy one, the one who just wants pleasure and their own comfort. This desire to be seen in a certain way is one of the three hungers the Buddha spoke about, the hunger of becoming. We want to become something specific in a conditioned setting. This hidden desire for a way of being can cause great conflict when we do not have the honesty to confront our desires directly.

In Buddhist forums, I’ve heard folks confess that they really want ease, recognition, or comfort and are surprised how that desire is driving them. There is an unspoken evaluation of “bad” attached to wanting a life free from suffering, with ease, and enjoyment. It’s much more acceptable to speak about service and the Bodhisattva ideal of liberating all beings instead of disclosing the truth of feeling irritated when caring for sick parents or acknowledging how much research and upheaval it creates cooking for a child with a gluten allergy. We may carefully attend to the sick parent and create delicious gluten-free meals for our kid, but when we have an unacknowledged conflict in our intentions, it blocks our spacious generous heart and creates resentment and a limited capacity.

The first step in opening to allow true generosity is removing the dualistic and discriminative label of good and bad to our motivations. Visiting our ill parents, or moving in to care for an elderly parent can conflict with our need for autonomy, for spaciousness, ease, and enjoyment. When we label these desires as selfish and bad, we don’t want to own them or be associated with them. Dropping the conditioned judgment and looking beyond the labels we can give ourselves the understanding that, of course—we, just like all beings, desire to create our own lives. All beings long to be in charge of themselves. At the same time we desire our freedom, we may want to honor our commitments and care for the people we love. However, when our ability to create our own lives is not supported, that lack of understanding blocks the ability to open-heartedly attend to another intention.

When we are able to regard all of our desires and motivators as benevolent—even the ones that in the past have incorporated the unskillful tactics of greed or anger, we can acknowledge them without shame or turning away. Recognizing and allowing all of our motivations takes the first steps towards accepting the whole of our humanity with compassion. If we allow all of our desires to be seen with the same valuation we step into a new way of relating to our choices—they become conscious and the methods for caring for ourselves and others become more creative and varied.

When I know I desire some rest and fun after a hectic week AND I also want to help my friend with the herniated disc pack up her kitchen because I value her friendship and want to make life better for her, allowing both those things to have equal weight gives me relief. If I believe that helping my friend is more holy, generous, and pure than caring for myself, I will create conflict through an involuntary act of self-abandonment. If I do not see the whole of my motivations and I chose to stay home and take a nap and watch a movie, I will have guilt at my choice because I continue to see one as more evolved and better than the other.

The simple practice of looking deeply and honestly gives us the freedom to choose. Knowing what we are needing and legalizing our humanity gives great relief. Recognizing the validity of wanting ease, joy, and to be seen in a certain way is already a freedom that gives us more choice. When we accept our mixed motivations without judgment we can make choices that nourish all of our desires, clearly, without punishing others for needing help and without becoming martyrs. When we act from a place of clarity, we choose the seeds we want to water and how we want to live, authentically, and with equal compassion for self and others.  

This week you may want to use the guidance of the emotions to alert you to when you are operating from conflict. Looking honestly without judgment can give you the freedom to choose to follow one path of action because that value creates a more beautiful life. Recognizing our choice point that gets buried beneath the “should’ and the “have to” creates a life that includes both autonomy and compassion. When we wake up to the choices we make in each moment we are no longer a passive victim. We can recognize our responsibility and our capacity to create lives in accord with our deepest intentions.

May we all trust our light,


Mindfulness is a source of happiness