Amy Ward Brimmer

mother daughter wife teacher writer dreamer sister worker seeker activist minister healer student human


Are We There Yet?

My daughter just graduated from Hampshire College (squee! so proud!), and as always I was struck by the word "commencement." As Barbra Streisand says in The Way We Were, "that's a funny word for the end." Of course, commencement ceremonies are called that because the graduates are about to begin the next chapter of their lives. So although it marks the end of an era, it is also just the beginning.

Another word for this is transition. I love transitions because within them we can see our habits of mind and body so clearly. I often encourage my Alexander students to bring full attention to transitional activities, such as walking through a doorway, up or down stairs, moving from car to walking or the other way around. It can be a challenge to practice body-mind unity during an activity, especially at first, but it's pretty easy to shine the light of awareness between actions.

Doing this brings about radical change. Why radical? Because it's the last place we show up. We are always thinking ahead, moving toward something, or away from something. Who brings intention to reaching for the door handle and opening the door? The point (we think) is to get on the other side of the door. So when we intend to be present during transitional moments, we transform habitual "endgaining," as F.M. Alexander termed it, and are awake for the means by which we are acting.

Mindfulness, whether in formal meditation practice or otherwise, shows us how addicted we are to the future. Anyone who meditates sees right away that the mind likes to plan, organize, and control what it anticipates will be coming. This tendency has a helpful adaptive quality, and our ability to scan the horizon for future encounters is part of our evolutionary heritage. But when this is the only way we operate, we suffer.  It is deeply unsatisfying to be constantly looking ahead for happiness, hoping that what we really want can be obtained "someday." This hamster wheel of desire (samsara in Buddhist parlance) keeps us chasing dreams and fantasies, all while missing what is happening in the here and now.

You already know this. You can think of an example from your life right now, can't you?  It's like the little kids in the back seat of a family car trip, asking "are we there yet?" It's like me, obsessively checking my peony plants to see if the blooms are out yet. I caught myself doing this yesterday, staring at them, being kind of critical about how long it was going to take until they opened up. As if their only value is the flowers they produce, and can't they hurry it up a bit? Seriously, how nutty is that?

Yet this is how we are, how we so often relate to our experience of life. And this is why mindful guidance repeatedly reminds us, "there is nothing to do, nowhere to get to, nothing to become." That is absolutely true, if you are in the moment. Yes, the peonies will bloom, but what is even more true is that, in this moment, they are blooming. They are as perfect now as they will be when the blooms are fuller and more fragrant. When I notice how I want them to be in a different state than they are, I can learn everything I need to know about the ways I create and increase my own suffering. Is "suffering" too strong a word for such a small dissatisfaction? Maybe, but multiply that by the hundreds of times a day when I want things to be other than they are, and that adds up to an unhappy state.

Being there during transitions helps with this. Try choosing to bring present moment awareness to something you do every day, like the transition from finishing a meal and getting on with the next thing, or the moments between reading an email and replying to it. Keep it simple, without analysis or expectation. Can you be there, not chasing the next thing but really in transition?  If you can, you will discover the truth that everything is flowing, changing, and dynamically balancing.

Are we there yet? Nope, and we never will be. We are here, now. That's all, and that is enough.


Three Words for 2018

It's that time again, a new year. A new opportunity to take stock, review what has come to pass, and set some intentions for living into 2018. I've been choosing three words to guide me for the past several years, words which point to concepts that support my curious inquiry as I make my way, as I keep learning how to allow Way to open as it will.

My words for 2017 were Simplicity, Power, and Forgiveness. As always, I had endless opportunities to explore each one, when I remembered to. I went long stretches without including these three in my awareness or in direct experience. When I recalled my intentions, however, examples of each were everywhere around me, either by their application or by their absence.

As I knew it would be, Power was absolutely the issue of the day.
Whether in the #MeToo movement, or the dangerous egocentric posturing of the President toward foreign nation-states (toward nearly everybody), or taking a knee on the football field, or even in my own spiritual community, people have been pretty confused about power: what it is, how we wield it, how to get it, and how to hold on to it. On the flip side, there is Powerlessness, the sense that one has no choice, no agency over their experience. I continued to face my own powerlessness over the things I'm addicted to (Step 1 in the 12-Step tradition), and I noticed an uptick in students telling me "I can't" or "it won't work" or other types of resignation. This helped me move closer to the idea that Power is mostly an agreement between one or more people; like everything, it's relational. I cede my power to you, or we share power with each other, "empowering" us. Perhaps that's the social contract we need to maintain, I don't know. What I do know, after a year of considering it, is that true power comes from within.

Sorry if you were expecting some new insight. I can only confirm that what wise teachers have said for millennia is true: there is no real power except what we each possess innately, and there is a power that exists among and between us too, which I call interdependence (a word from 2016). How we use that power is up to us, and even under duress we have the option of exercising our unique agency. This doesn't have to be reserved for big conflicts among groups, like what happened in Charlottesville last summer. It can also be accessed under boringly mundane situations, like when I was sick last winter and could only function in the most basic, simple ways.

It was in that brief illness that I saw the power of Simplicity, and throughout the year I witnessed many instances of how I often needlessly complicate things, which reduces my power. Feeling overwhelmed by too much to do, too many ideas, hopelessly juggling everything in the hope that somehow everything will work perfectly -- this is neither reasonable nor effective. It weakens my actions and renders my good intentions moot. It makes me feel like giving up. The simplest remedy I know, one I keep rediscovering, is The Pause. Pausing adds a little gap wherein I can drop the extra effort or the added plans and concepts and sense what's immediate and essential. On a larger scale, of course we all need to "live simply so that others may simply live." Yet untangling from the many ways I participate in unjust economies and human interchange systems is not easy. When I can pause, I find freedom in the gap, and can make better decisions about what to participate in, and how.

When I don't remember to pause and give space to present moment reality, I mess up or I miss the mark because my aim is off (a classic definition of "sin"), or I'm just not there as my life unfolds. That's where Forgiveness beginsIn researching forgiveness and what it means, I was reminded of the wonderful work of the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley. Their website is an incredible resource, where I found several helpful articles about forgiveness, like Eight Essentials When Forgiving. GGSC not only provides instructions about mindful practices on myriad topics and issues, but also includes the reasoning behind the practice, the evidence for why it works, and the sources of that evidence. The forgiveness practices are long-term and intensive, because forgiveness isn't easy, and it's a process, not a destination. It's important to remember that forgiveness is for the one extending mercy, not for the one who is being forgiven. Jack Kornfield explains this with a powerfully moving story in this short video, also from the GGSC website.

I was able to forgive a lot this year, and I feel pretty good about that. The good feeling isn't pride or satisfaction with "self-improvement." It just feels good to forgive someone, even myself. Letting myself off the hook, lowering the bar, radically accepting my many flaws and screw-ups allows me to also do this with others. Forgiveness doesn't eliminate the need for accountability or consequence, it just dissolves the weight of whatever burden one has been carrying, and the sticky ties one has to the person one is forgiving. Forgiveness is liberation.

Thus it was a big year full of big changes, consistent practice, and continuous learning. 2018 is shaping up to be even more so, and to navigate whatever it will bring I have again chosen three guiding words:
  • Renunciation
  • Appreciation
  • Faith
What arises for you as you read these words? My next blog post will be an examination of each one, and why I chose them. 

In the meantime, I'll be busy spreading the word about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class (starts on January 28!), Alexander Technique lessons, and Qigong practice. I'll use the simple power of forgiveness as I share.

The Light in me honors the Light in you.


It's Like This Now

The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care, and let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.  - The Buddha

On Sunday I returned from a 9-day silent meditation retreat at Insight Meditation Society. I intentionally didn't listen to the news on my drive home, wanting to preserve as much as possible the continuity of awareness and mindful power I'd worked so hard to cultivate. I sensed that something socially or politically significant had occurred while I was off the grid -- these days that's a pretty safe bet --but whatever it was, it could wait until I got home.

When I heard the story of what happened in Charlottesville, my first reaction was to open my heart and send wishes of loving-kindness to all involved. I felt sad and deeply disturbed, and once again wondered what it must be like to view everyone who is different from you with suspicion and hatred, to be so threatened by difference that you feel the need to dominate and destroy. Thus I included the fascists and neo-Nazis in my on-the-spot metta practice, because I had just heard my dharma teacher say multiple times a day, "everything belongs" and "be willing to include."

I wish I could say the story ends there, but it doesn't. That attitude lasted about half an hour, until I heard Trump's remarks about how some "very fine" people had been among the "alt-right" group, and that there was blame on all sides. I heard this person -- whose number one job requirement is to represent and protect all citizens -- defend hatemongers who seek to destroy our democracy, and I watched a slow-burning fury begin to grow in my belly. The anger that arose within me at that point has grown exponentially over the past few days, coming on me in waves that require me to sit right down and feel, breathe, let go. Can I get inside the head of a neo-Nazi? No, thankfully, but I sure know what rage feels like, I know the urge to smash something, to want to see someone punished, and punished cruelly. And when I look intimately at that rage, what I find is fear. Sticky, searing, life-choking fear.

That's why they're called terrorists. They act from fear and incite fear and misery in others.

So Trump won't call them terrorists, but I will, and so will anyone who can tell the difference between love and tyranny.

Still, what are we supposed to do at times like this? How do we speak the truth and hold haters and their apologists accountable, without adding to the violence and terror? How do we work with the rage within and without?

My Buddhist teachers would say, "turn toward it," "allow it to be however it is," even "say yes to it." Wha!?! Say yes to neo-Nazis? Say yes to hate? That just doesn't sound correct, not at first anyway. But what that really means is to accept whatever is, however it is, in the present moment. Then take appropriate action. If something is unacceptable, if harm is being done and you can stop it, by all means please do. But do it skillfully, consciously, humbly. I may not be a terrorist, but I've got the capacity for a whole lot of manic bitterness and violence, and if I don't know this about myself it will manifest somehow. If I can't move in close to my fear and let myself feel it without judgment, it will become the driving force that determines my conduct and my speech. I have learned this through experience.

A recurring meditation instruction from Mark Nunberg is, "Something is being known. It's like this now. Can that be okay?" The "okayness" is not about the object being known, but about the way I'm relating to it. Can I be okay with how afraid I am, how angry I am, how much grief I feel? Yes. I can say yes to these true facts, moment by moment. And the interesting thing I have observed is that turning toward these energies as they arise within me often diminishes them. The powerful urge to kick Christopher Cantwell in the balls or to see Trump humiliated and thrown out of office is not a solid thing; it is an energy that changes, impermanent like everything else. It's unpleasant, and not very peaceful or loving, but I see it. I'm beginning to know its ways, make some space around it so it can't take hold, can't push me around anymore. In this way I create choices, can take effective action, or no action if that is what is called for.

It looks like the violence in Charlottesville is just the beginning; at least, that's what the fascists are promising. So we absolutely must be ready to stand up to this hate, act in love and faithfulness, be willing to make sacrifices, and find a way to unite so that we can make a world where "everything (and everyone) belongs."

It's like this now. Are you willing to include?


On-the-Spot Ways to Not Freak Out

Last week I found myself in a challenging situation that felt like a crisis, in spite of knowing that it wasn't -- at least not yet. My husband, who has a history of heart problems, was experiencing dizziness and other symptoms that might have indicated another heart attack, so a friend took him to a nearby ER. I got a phone call to consult about whether the ER visit was necessary, and I agreed that it was a good idea. During this discussion I was a model of calm concern. I remembered to stay grounded in my body, to breathe, to listen carefully. My dear one was in New York City and I was in Philadelphia, so it made sense to wait for a report from the ER before deciding whether to take any action, like hopping the next train to NYC.

I don't know about you, but waiting patiently is not my strong suit. Having nothing constructive to do feels helpless, and that is not a feeling I enjoy. I did what I had been doing, which is to breathe, send positive healing energy to my husband and those caring for him, and get back to the tasks at hand, hoping to be distracted from the supremely unhelpful running commentary in my mind.

At one point I had the bright idea to post on Facebook: What is your go-to method for letting go of worry when there is zero you can do about a scary situation?
I got a lot of very interesting answers, and many of them are listed below. Some are religious or spiritual, some are body-based, some are more psychological. These are practical, easy things anyone can do under stress, and I thank everyone who replied on my Facebook page.

And hallelujah, it wasn't a heart attack. Just a wakeup call.

Coping Methods (in no particular order):
  • Breathe.
  • Pray. 
  • Once when I was scared for someone, I sat through the fear and wrote them a letter. I never mailed it, but the duration of the focus was a true "Holding in the Light." Now I do that by coloring and drawing too. You could do it with movement.
  • A prayer I use is "God is with me now and all is well." Also, say the name Jesus repeatedly.
  • Something I've used with some success is the idea that if there is no solution, it is not a problem but rather an event -- like, say, a rainstorm. Problems have solutions that require planning and sometimes can benefit from a bit of timely worry.
  • I try to stay very present. Wash hands, feel temperature, etc etc....keep coming back....and of course breathe.
  • Going for a run.
  • Do an activity you enjoy - reading, crafts, TV, walking, etc.
  • Put on a song I love and focus on the music. Breathe with it.
  • Placing yourself firmly in the present can help. Rub your toe into the floor to remind yourself where you are. Grasp something small, whatever is close by.
  • Say the Serenity prayer.
  • I remember I am never alone, whether I simply visualize love and support from my community or reach out like you are doing now.
  • 4-7-9 breathing. From Dr. Andrew Weil. Breathe deep to count of 4. Hold to count of 7. Exhale to count of 9.
  • Look at the big blue sky. Makes every worry seem small.
  • Worrying is praying for what you don't want; it is always better to just pray.
  • Herbs that ease anxiety and fear - motherwort, oatstraw, nettle, skullcap.
  • Under the circumstances, let the rain wash it away. [It was pouring on this day.]
  • Looking at what is the worst case scenario and asking if you can survive it. Thank Mother-Father God for giving you the strength to deal with it.
  • Trust my gut to take the next step. I choose to take one step at a time without trying to figure out an ultimate solution. I remember I'm not alone.
  • Relax your pelvic floor. You will feel better immediately.
I put my favorite one last. I cannot tell you how often that has made all the difference for me. I know it's not helpful or even necessary for others, but I'm so grateful to my Alexander colleague for reminding me of this.

Next time you feel like you are in a tough situation that is out of your hands and all you can do is wait for more information and then be ready to act -- try one of these methods. Or combine several: Breathe and look at the big blue sky and relax your pelvic floor muscles while you remember that you are not alone. And ask for help on social media; people just love giving advice!


The Power of Tiny Repeatable Actions

Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day, saying "I will try again tomorrow." -- Mary Anne Radmacher

I've had a quietly courageous week. I learned how to use mindfulness practice when suffering from the Puking Flu.(Hint: nausea comes in waves, like the breath. Try not to struggle.) I discovered more about what simplicity means; it is amazing what the most basic things like a warm bed, soft pillow, peppermint tea, and a loving cat can do for you when you're feeling like death warmed over. I was able to recognize my luxurious existence, at least compared to some others. I wondered what it would be like to be so indisposed and ill without a reliable place to call home, or someone to come and murmur sympathetically from time to time, without the ability to maintain a little dignity and privacy. I was relieved to discover an ability to respond to an unpleasant situation with some gratitude (when I wasn't feeling terribly sorry for myself) and interdependent understanding.

More and more, I'm seeing that stepping back and searching for the big picture in any situation is often all that's needed. Taking the long view is called for right now, don't you think? I'm hearing some discouragement around questions of whether one's individual efforts can make a real difference. Whether in relation to socio-political chaos or about daily mindfulness practice and changing movement habits, folks are expressing doubts about the power of tiny repeatable actions. Is calling your senator effective? Can one big splashy march truly change hearts and minds? Is moving my computer monitor higher or lower really going to stop my neck pain? Is it really so bad to skip a day or two of meditation?

Yes and no. No, because just one person does not make a movement. Nor will occasional, sporadic attempts at meditating establish steady concentration leading to wisdom. (Really, it will not. I speak from experience.) Also yes, because each person in a group is just as vital and necessary as any other. And each time you sit meditation, you are recalibrating your inner and outer fields. That affects the wider field of everyone you come in contact with. Each time you notice an inefficient or tension-producing habit, and you stop the activity and apply some Alexander thinking, you are bypassing the old automatic neural pathways and carving out new ones.

I've written about my experience of incremental change and "progress" before. I have told the stories of my many failed attempts and what I've gained by them. But I must need more lessons in this, because the Puking Flu was the culmination of some days of deep internal darkness, a feeling of severe tension in all parts of my body, and a lot of what Stuart Smalley calls "stinkin' thinkin'." Whatever virus got into me, my body responded by forcing me to focus on the most basic aspects of my existence, with little or no time to indulge in despair about humankind. I did best when I accepted tiny victories like being able to digest saltines, and small comforts like nurturing music and blessed sleep.

I don't have any deep wisdom about the power of the individual and the power of the collective; I look to other teachers for that. I am learning about this daily, as I get curious about what we mean by power anyway. I now know, however, that when I feel overwhelmed with despair, I can get simple. I can step back and look for the big picture. I can break it down and take small bites. In this way, it seems, the possibility of opening the body-heart-mind to compassion and healing grows, incrementally.


Pathways 2017

Perhaps you follow Way Opens Center on Facebook, and if so you've probably seen some images that I've been posting there. "Way Opens" is a Quaker phrase that implies faith and also forward movement. Each day in 2017 Way Opens Center will post a picture of The Path, as a reminder that there are many avenues to explore, many terrains to navigate, one step at a time, over and over again. These pathways may look familiar, they may look strange, they may barely look like an actual way through, but each can provide a little reminder that "we make the road by walking."

Each month I will share a slideshow of all the images from the previous month.  Here is the show for January. 

I am currently drafting a post on one of the 3 words for 2017, Power. Stay tuned. An until then, enjoy the view of whatever path you are on.



Three Words for 2017

Last year I began the practice of choosing three words to inform and guide my life for 2016. They were Prosperity, Interdependence, and Love. During the year I set the intention to notice how these three concepts showed up in various ways, and looked for ways to deepen my understanding of what they mean and how they operate.

Prosperity was the easiest one to work with, perhaps because it is tangible and not esoteric. I expected to learn about ways that are prosperous, and how that might be different from financial wealth. Things like an increase in public recognition of my work was a sign of prosperity, as was the wonderful, generous outpouring of financial support for my MBSR training fund. (You can still give, until January 15, here: I prospered in positive feedback, in skill development, in deepening connections with others. I confirmed what I suspected when I chose Prosperity: you don't have to be rich to prosper.

Interdependence was so beautiful to work with. This is the most wonderful reality of life, the way we need one another for our well-being. This is not just healthy psychology or sound philosophy, it is nature. Interdependence describes the foundation of all life. Trees, for example, use an intricate network of roots, spores, etc. to communicate and help other trees thrive, because when one tree thrives, they all do. That is true for all life forms, including humans. So in a year that saw the worst effects of polarization, petty hatred, and an "I got mine" mentality, the need for recognizing interdependence has never been more important or relevant. I sought out, and was blessed to experience, many instances of interdepent life. Everything's connected.

Love? Well, love could be the watchword every year. It's still a mystery to me, and as far as I can tell it is the reason we are here. I think life human life is a course -- a doctoral-level course -- in love. I (re)discovered some qualities of love, such as the fact that when love is present it makes you want to move closer to another person rather than farther away, or it makes it less impossible to do so. When there's love in the equation, courage arises, or compassion, or openness and flexibility. Love makes one stronger, more clear, more willing and able. This is why Michelle Obama encourages us to "go high when they go low." This is why Jesus advises us to love our enemies, because in the act of bringing love into the mix, we ourselves change (not sure what it does for the enemy). And of course there's romantic love, sexual love, spiritual love, friendly love, love for the earth, and so on. Love takes many forms and it's been an eye-opener to recognize love in action.

For 2017 -- a year that arrives full of foreboding and determination in equal measure -- I have chosen three words that hold huge potential for personal growth. Like last year, I'm choosing concepts that are a bit daunting. If I want to experience and cultivate these elements, I will need to make some pretty big changes. Part of my discernment process was to identify the words that scared me the most or made me react by contracting. That's often a sign that I'm at my growing edge. I also wanted to notice which words intrigued me the most, what ideas I was willing to explore thoroughly and consistently through the year. It's no surprise that in each case, I am both curious and afraid. How like life!

My three words for 2017 are (drumroll please):

  • Simplicity
  • Power
  • Forgiveness

  • I'll be writing more about each as the year unfolds, but for now I will say that I chose Simplicity because I tend to over-complicate things and burden myself unnecessarily, and I want to stop doing that. Simplicity is one of the "Quaker Spices" or shared testimonies of our faith, and in my opinion, the least understood or followed by Quakers. Mostly, though, I want to understand my own lack of trust in the simple way.

    Power was sort of a no-brainer. The power grab in the U.S. by neo-Nazi elements, the myth of "people power" in an election run by the corporate oligarchy, the stories I keep hearing about how disempowered people feel, the lack of justice for people of color and women and immigrants -- it's all a swirly mass of fear and craving about who's got the power. So I am super motivated this year to learn about what constitutes true power. Stay tuned, I think we're all apt to learn about this in 2017.

    Forgiveness feels a little like Love, in that it is universal and absolutely necessary for a peaceful life. My immediate task is to cultivate forgiveness for myself, even as I seek to learn better how to forgive others. I don't believe in New Year's resolutions but I did renew my vow to recognize when I am being unkind or oppressing myself, and then to stop and extend some compassion my way.

    Like signposts along the way, my three words guide and even nudge me towards more fully awakening to life. May 2017 provide you with guidance and encouragement as you too seek awakening.