Sharon Salzberg’s Street Loving Kindness


Sharon and her gang of creative, amazing, wise and compassionate friends have been making videos about how to practice compassion wherever you go. I just LOVE them.

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And they make me feel so inspired to make some of my own featuring Chicago places. Lord knows I feel every day like I need more practice in loving kindness too living here. I confess that at first I was like, WOW, those videos of hers are so awesome and also a little jealous or something because I had JUST BEEN THINKING OF MAKING THE EXACT SAME THING! Augh! And so for a time I did nothing.

But I realized after sitting with it all for a while, that there’s no way two creative people will do the exact same thing at all anyway and that even more importantly, I believe we need as many reminders to practice loving kindness as possible. So, stay tuned. I’m making some videos on how to practice “On the Fly” here in the Windy City.

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I’m also offering two new classes that will support your own loving kindness toward your own fine self as well as the rest of the world.

One is a Gentle Tai Chi class, made for all body types and abilities. We’ll meet every Saturday from 3:30-4:40 starting on 11/4. You can sign up via Eventbrite or via Chase QuickPay. (calm chicago at gmail dot com) or email me and we’ll figure out what works best for you! Cash is cool too!

The other thing is Second Sunday Meditation which I co-host with Matt Johnson in our shared space, where he teaches ving tsun kung fu and I do all the things I do, like photography, tai chi, coaching, and all kinds of things which are always growing and evolving. Check out the next one where our theme will be gratitude.

Till then, may all be happy, strong, healthy and at ease.

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Lots of love to you, Hillary

 

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Being Your Own Best Friend:Booting Anxiety & Building Compassion


Being Your Own Best Friend:Booting Anxiety & Building Compassion

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The rose doesn’t strive to be beautiful. It just opens.

This is one of series of Calm Chicago Chill Out sessions, which bring very small groups of people together for self care, listening to each other and ourselves, healing, and exploring the possibilities of living fully, authenitcally and from a sense of grounded peace and interconnection. The cost is low to make it super accessible. I invirte you to join in right away while there’s still spots.

We’ve all seen thos folks who always seem calm no matter what’s going on, right? Whether it’s in the midst of some crazy crazy weather, or a major deadline at work, or the El has broken down and sitting on the tracks forever, or dealing with major medical or health stuff. They just seem to be able to surf through it. While we are quietly or not so quietly cursing and secretly hating them, and knowing that for sure, we sish that was us but that we are the sort of person who is not CALM or self possessed and never will be.

If anxiety (social or otherwise) is a thing in your life and you’re tired of that being so; if you’ve heard about the importance of self care and compassion but can’t seem to get any, this workshop is for you.

Abiding calm and self love are not things that we can just wave a wand and BOOM, you have infinite amounts of them but you can learn how to cultivate them through simple practices that you can do at home, in the bathroom, in the car, on the El, everywhere you are in your day to day life. We’ll use tools from mindfulness, yoga and positive psychology, to give you the direct experience of learning how to get better at dealing with anxiety and bulding up your self love so that you can really become your own best friend. You’ll leave knowing how to practice these outside of class so that you can keep building those skills and feeling stronger and better day by day.

You will learn:
We’ll take these 2.5 hours to focus on supporting and encouraging you with specific exercises to help you feel better right here and now and making sure you know how to take the practices home with you with confidence.

How to practice simple awareness that bring you back to the moment with love
How to practice “on the fly”
How to identify what makes you feel great and get more of that good stuff
How to give yourself love and then spread that around to help create peace inside and out in the world
Quick tips for pausing amidst the chaos of life and emotions

Who should come to this?
You. Anyone who wants to be able to be able handle lifes inevitable ups and downs with more grace and ease; wants to feel safer, shappier, stronger no matter what is going on.

Who’s teaching this?
Hillary Johnson is a photographer and mindfulness and creativity coach who’s been leading retreats and helping people feel better and companies work better since 2008. She’s into travel and helping people feel authentic interconnection between themselves and all things. Also border collies, cattle dogs and bicycling.

Register with PayPal to: calmchcago at gmail dot com
$15.00

Daily Practice is Never a Waste of Time


“Daily practice is never a waste of time.” (Sharon Salzberg)

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Even though we might not see the fruits of our practice right away (like, while we are actually DOING our formal practice, while our butts are on the cushion or bench or whatever), we CAN have confidence that the fruits WILL come.

Sometimes the effects might be very subtle or we might not feel it or notice it, but then something HAPPENS! (Cuz you KNOW life is ALWAYS going to give us opportunities) And then – BOOM! We suddenly notice that the way we are reacting is DIFFERENT than it was before.

This weekend at Kripalu, while I was on retreat with Sharon Salzberg and Stephen Cope, Sharon told a funny story about one of the first weeks she ever sat and did Metta practice all alone. She spent the week focusing on her self, using Metta phrases like, May I be happy, may I be safe, may I be strong, may I have ease of well-being. She said the whole week felt sort of dull and boring; nothing interesting happening at all and that she was sort of wondering if she hadn’t wasted a week because she didn’t feel anything special while she was sitting and practicing.

But then life intervened. A friend got sick and a bunch of the folks sitting had to leave the retreat center to go help them. In the rushing around of getting ready to leave the center, she dropped a big glass jar of some kind, sending shards of glass all over the place. A real mess. She noticed that her first thoughts were, God, you’re a clutz but I love you. She realized in that moment, that in the past she would have really been angry at herself and that clearly something had in fact been happening during her week of  Metta practice toward herself.

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Perhaps we are calm when we might’ve flown off the handle. We don’t holler like we would have done just last week or last year. (Like when the cats woke you up at four a.m., hollering for food even though you just got home from an intense weekend. AND, even though you did just feed them a few short hours ago… Don’t they KNOW you need some sleep for God’s sake!) In fact, this did happen to me this morning and I know I handled it totally differently than I have in the past.

In the past, I’ve experienced the rapid heartbeat of being startled awake and muttering under my breath or even actually hollering at the cats. A lot of  God damn it, why can’t they just shut up or be more like a dog and wait for the freaking food to arrive when I get up! A spray bottle of water has been involved many times. In the process, I’ve awakened my sleeping husband, who has the amazing capacity to sleep through absolutely anything! And how does he sleep like that? Why doesn’t he wake up and feed them? I got these cats FOR HIM after all. Shouldn’t he be taking care of them not me! Doesn’t anyone see the terrible injustice which I am now suffering!? ARGH!

I have stormed down the stairs fuming and slammed food into their dishes and wondered in my raging head, how  much longer will the darn beasts actually LIVE! (They are now 18 years old, heading toward 19 with no obvious sense of physical decline.) And in case you think I’m a cat hater, know this: I am not a cat hater. New to living with cats, yes. But I love them and for proof, feel free to check my Facebook or Instagram feeds for copious evidence. Pinky, who adopted me with a fierce and adoring intensity after my dog Tiger, died, has been renamed by me, AKA The Assistant. He actually has his own hashtag. He’s a happy part of my daily writing life. He tells me when it’s time for a break by jumping up and laying across my arm so I can do nothing other than pat him. Put down that pen Mom. And I listen to his furry feline wisdom.

This morning, when they woke me, I was really tired from a day of traveling back from retreat, but I could just empathize with the reality that they were hungry and needed food. They have the communication skills they do (meowing, box and paper shredding Very Loudly for a few examples) and use them well. I was able to have a feeling of tender appreciation of their plight rather than anger. The weekend of Metta practice definitely is already making a HUGE difference. Sharon, my cats thank you deeply for your teachings. 

I tiptoed down the stairs, picked Pinky up and cuddled him and quietly opened the can of food and plopped some into their dish and actually enjoyed the funny sounds they make while eating. It’s like a super yummy sound (think Young Frankenstein) with lots of lip smacking and purring. How wonderful to do something which created so much kitty happiness so easily. Then I crawled back into bed for a little extra R&R. Shortly after, I had two furry cuddle buddies. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Though our formal practice might have felt kind of boring, or uninteresting, under the surface we were changing and it just took having an opportunity (something life will ALWAYS give us) to see that change become manifest.

So have courage yogis! Have some faith.

Look closely at your thoughts, the things you say and things you do.

I bet if you look with a close attention, you will notice that you’re changing slowly, bit by bit.

Your daily practice is NEVER a waste of time.

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May all be happy. May all be peaceful.

Crying on the Yoga Mat


“Mr. Duffy lived a short distance form his body.” – James Joyce

Lying on my yoga mat last night in class, between poses,  just grateful to be there even though I’m sweating like crazy and thinking I must really stink when the teacher, Jessica Young of Tejas Yoga in Chicago (also a friend and killer human being, writer, defender of rights of all beings) comes to adjust my posture. 

Jess is calling out the cues for postures and I’m following along like a dog, a grateful yoga dog, breathing (ok sometimes it sounds like feels more like panting,) and stretching as much as I can.

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I’m beginning to stop being such a border collie and going full out into what could be way too much for me on a given day and accepting the body as it is, day by day.

Striking that blessed balance between effort and ease.

I just love that I can come here and someone else will tell me what to do to help me heal my body and my spirit, my heart and my mind. An hour or more of asanas, one after the next after the next. Lots of sweating.

Finally, the rest pose, corpse pose, savasana. And I love that Jess clicks on the AC , “to take the edge off.” I pull a blanket over my body with deep gratitude. Savasana is often an emotional time for me. Whatever has been under the surface comes bubbling up.

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I love that yoga class ends with this. Well it doesn’t “End” with it but it does marks the beginning of the end of each and every class.

Corpse pose, letting everything fall away and down, the brain resting in the back of the head, the eyeballs falling into the little craters in my face, the occipital orbits.

And the breath just happening on its own, letting go of all effort-fulness.

So last night, I’m lying there, suddenly my husband’s words about gentleness and living gently come to me and I’m crying; the tears leaking out of eyes and running into my ears. I don’t move but let them come. I let go even of worry and analysis.

I’m feeling grateful for his presence and what feels like a total softening of our whole thing together. I wonder if it’s all the Metta practice I’ve been up to lately or all the shit that’s come down in the last weeks or so, but I guess I don’t really have to know. I can tell you this: We have both lived our lives util we knew each other, under a great deal of duress and extremes which are next to the words in the dictionary: not gentle living. (if that was a real entry)

It feels good this gentleness. Like crazy good. Like we are finally relaxing into who we really are, deep inside. Healing the wounds. Developing the gifts. But that’s another idea for later.

After corpse pose, there’s the rolling over to the side into a fetal position and taking breaths there and when ready, allowing yourself to be born again, using the strength of the arms and the breath to press yourself up into a sitting posture. Then Om Shanti Shanti Shanti, and final gratitude and wishes for all beings to find peace. 

I love being reborn every time I unroll my mat. Where else can I get that?

I end class with this. So simple yet challenging to live out fully: Committing to being here each moment as it is, but really being here instead of a short distance away.

I wish you well.

Thank you so much for stopping by.

Hillary

Thich Nhat Hanh on Compassion


Thank goodness that meditation and Metta practices are just that, practices. If we had to be perfect at them, we’d all give up crying.

But we do call them practices, not perfects.

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It is truly an irony of the human condition that sometimes when we suffer the most, we contract and pull away from our loved ones. The pain can be so awful, especially when loved ones fails us. When we feel that a loved one should have said or done things differently but they instead chose actions which we feel have harmed us. This is the worst pain of all because it carries such loneliness inside of it.

Perhaps a father has not cared for us the way we wished. He is trapped in addiction.

Maybe our mother didn’t cuddle us enough. We longed for more of her touch. Her unconditional love.

A guardian may have failed to protect us from abuse of one kind or another. Someone allowed us out the door and we got hurt. We rage against this later, screaming in our hearts, why didn’t you protect me?

A partner didn’t meet our every need or read our mind to know what we wanted or needed without being told.

When we feel this way, we feel cut off from everything, even from the life force itself. If we get stuck here, we may wither until we die from sadness. Sometimes this looks like depression, very bad depression. It can be so hard to move.

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I know this is true from my own experience. If I argue with my husband, and feel cut off from him, I feel a sadness, a loneliness so deep. The worst kind of pain. And I can make this pain worse by further condemning myself for having this reaction. I should do better. I know better. It feels just terrible. Fortunately, this happens less and less frequently because I have practices to lean on.

But we can also forget what we know to be true and so we need loving reminders. It can be so wonderful, such a blessing to hear a healing truth again and again, so that the door to compassion may be opened in our hearts.

Few are some simply beautifully eloquent as Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh in this regard. Please enjoy this lovely interview from Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday with our teacher Brother Thay. I’m especially loving and honestly moved to tears by, his mantras for transforming relationships.

May all find peace, happiness and strength. May all live with ease.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves


The stories we tell ourselves are so interesting.

It really is true that our focus determines our reality. If we tell a negative story, we tend to see how things are sucking and that quality of suckiness proliferates.

If we can see the good that is there, for real, not in a false, pollyanna way, we tend to write very different life narratives.

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The more we cultivate lovingkindness for ourselves – simple acceptance of who we are right here and now, given the complexities of the ten million things, the causes and conditions which have formed us, the more we can breathe greater space into our heads and hearts allowing for greater potential and possibility to arise and be present.

The way opens to us for love of self, of others, for our work.

I think that I try and work with these ideas in my writing too. Seeing in my fiction, my characters for who they are, warts and all, accepting them as they are and knowing that they too in their own way, wish for freedom, for awakening, for that freedom shift that allows them to see that they are not defined by their past lives no matter how much suffering was there.

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Like I have this one character, Louis. He’s a funny one. He tells a terrible lie in a moment of social/moral weakness, arising from his craving for a sense of connecting to community or something…still digging into that one.

Anyway, by the end of the story he has a serious and subtle but profound epiphany. But he hasn’t quite earned it yet. I have to walk with him further into the dark night of his soul and survive getting called on the carpet for his lie. He must face himself to earn what he comes to at the end.

This is one of the stories I want to work on in my writing retreat. I hope it will prove a useful process of growth for me as a writer and I hope it might be of benefit to future readers too. A kind of mirror. Or a bridge.

If this is something you can get behind, I ask if you might consider donating to my crowdfunding campaign to get to writing retreat.

I wish you happy reading and writing you glorious human beings you. We are all in this together dear ones. Let’s enjoy the embrace of the community, of the air around us, the sun, moon and stars.

Blessings,

Hillary

GoFundMe for Haven Writing Retreat


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WHO I AM:
My name is Hillary Johnson, and all I’ve ever wanted to do, since I was old enough to hold a crayon and scribble words on paper, is write. With the exception of a brief episode at age five, when I told any grownups who cared to inquire, that when I grew up I planned on being an astrophysicist; this has been my story. And I’m sticking with it.

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At some level, I still am that person, except instead of applying high-tech gear, the laws of physics, or string theory to unravel the nature of the universe, I use my heart, mind and pen to plumb those same mysteries. I write short stories,, novels and memoir. I believe as Dani Shapiro does, “…that everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.”

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Writing is my attempt to speak to the living and the dead, to make sense of the gorgeous chaotic mess that is what Zorba the Greek called, “the full catastrophe.” I f I don’t write, I don’t know who I am. It’s not for nothing that a number of writers have realized this deep truth: writing is a form of profound personal discovery, a doorway to revelations. Flannery O’Connor said, “I write to discover what I know.” Joan Didion wrote that she didn’t know what she thought until she wrote about it.

Following in their footsteps, I write to make sense, to interpret the land, to find the patterns, to discover compassion and wisdom amidst the pain and seeming randomness, to find the universal thread connecting me and you and all the rest of everything. To say that reading and writing has saved me, more than once, is hardly an understatement.

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In writing, I claim as Stephen Cope describes it , both my wound and my gift. Writing is my dharma, my purpose. I’m doing everything I can to make the best possible version of my work and my self. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. Letting go of the results and giving it up to the universe, or God or the ground of being or whatever you want to call it. When I’m done with a piece, I share the results of that hard earned fruit with the world. I publish, teach.

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WHAT AM I RAISING THE MONEY FOR:
All of us needs help at some time. For me, now is one of those times. While asking for help generally produces in many of us, (me included) a heart-pounding, sweat-dripping fit of angst, Amanda Palmer with her TED talk and book, “The Art of Asking, ” leads us to a new way. She establishes that asking for help is actually a form of strength, not weakness. Further, what she advocates, and what I’m proposing here, is not a form of virtual pan-handling but rather a meaningful exchange.

I’m raising funds to attend Haven, a writing retreat (June 8th) led by Laura Munson, the author of the New York Times and international bestselling memoir, This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness (Amy Einhorn/Putnam 2010). Haven, (in the Glacier National Park area of Montana) has been featured on CNN, and named one of the top writing retreats in the United States. Haven has been intentionally designed to help writers do the hard work of digging while being held in community.

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My purpose in traveling to Haven is to make final edits on my short story collection, titled, The Reason Vincent is Alone . You can read the title story here. To step away from the bustle of everyday demands, friends and beloved family, to consciously choose to be in a place of support and silence, space and permission. I go to dig into each story with Annie Dillard’s, “miner’s pick…surgeon’s probe…” To listen deeply, with the ears of the heart, to each character, each story. Palpating as the physician does to find the active reflex, the beating heart, the resonance, the shimmer of the real.

The stories in the collection are bound together by a common thread; that is, all the characters are struggling with the power that their past life choices have over their present moment experiences. They’re on the battlefield of their lives, some raging against the machine, some experiencing quiet epiphany. But each attempting to forge life anew, seeking liberation from the tyranny of the past. Once revisions are complete, I’ll begin the process of submitting them for publication in magazines and literary journals.

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HOW WILL THE MONEY BE USED:
All funds raised will be used to cover costs of traveling to Haven and being a resident there. The total costs are about $5,000. My intention is to do my best to earn about $1,000 of what’s needed through teaching and other work (while taking care of other necessary bills – little things like electricity, groceries etc.)

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I work with writers and other people, teaching them how to use writing as narrative medicine, for personal discovery and creativity, by integrating meditation, writing and gentle movement. I offer both group work and individual sessions. If you’re interested in any of that, please let me know. The work can be done face-to-face or long distance using phone or video conference call. I also work in a restaurant three nights a week.

HOW SOON DO I NEED THE FUNDS:
Payment for the retreat needs to be made by May 8th, though there is a little wiggle room there because Laura and the Haven folks are very nice and eager to help make things work. You can click here to donate now through gofundme.

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WHY THIS MEANS SO MUCH TO ME:
Wow. This is a hard one and easy all at the same time. There’s a few reasons. I’ll try to briefly yet fully articulate the main ones for you.
1. Indurability- Since this writing thing is a life long dream, ther’s a lot of energy there. I can literally trace my entire life span so far in terms of reading anad writing. The first story I read to my mom. Writing in my journal as I lay on the floor of my bedroom when five, seven, ten, eleven, and so on. Miserable teen confessions, drunken ramblings as a young adult, alone in my first apartment, traveling to Paris alone, also Germany, England, Africa, Spain etc.
2. My High Schhol Teacher – Frank Weiner was my high school AP English teacher who became a second father to me. He was the first one who told me I’d be a writer. (also a teacher) On a paper I turned in to him way back in 1979; he wrote,”Despite the fact that you can’t spell or punctuate, you will, one day be a writer.” I still have that paper. I loved Frank more than I can say and pray that if he were alive, that he’d be proud of me. I am who I am largely because of his love and support.
3. Spiritual Crisis – I’ve always been a spiritual person. As a kid, I was thought to be kind of a weirdo that way. I felt as if I had this backback strapped across my body containing a huge clock, tick tick ticking so loud, always reminding me that life was passing quickly and had best be addressed with reverence and purpose. I was the kid recuing earth worms after a hard rain, weeping if they drowned before I could save them.

In college, after having what psychologists might call a unitive experience, I tried to share and describe that experience in a class presentation. To say it didn’t go well is the understatement of the century.

Jump ahead to the early 2000s. In my quest for a truth, I gave up writing completely. I had a teacher at that time; a kind, wise, compassionate, and generous person who none-the-less thought that reading and writing fiction of any kind was at the least, a complete waste of time, and at worst, a severe hindrance to spiritual practice. Fiction and works of imagination were seen to make suffering worse and impede progress along the path of purification with its focus on the narrative of suffering caused by individual egoic craving, desire and so forth.
Take David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife, what a character wants, how far the character is willing to go to get it, what is in their way and so forth, and what you have is a whole lot of story centered on dukkha. I was craving direction and clarity and had a tendency to extremes. So I gave up the one thing which had given my life meaning and purpose.

Needless to say, the more I stayed away from writing, the worse I felt. It took a few years and study with other teachers, exploring other less austere paths, but I was finally able to reclaim my purpose, my identity as a writer and feel the joy in being alive return. Those years without writing were painful and dry indeed. Reclaiming my writing self and learning to live that fully along with my spiritual practice has been akin to being reborn.

The grace of God or whatever you want to call it, has brought me to this: I can have my cake and eat it too. I’m joyfully able to inhabit reading and writing practice as sacred, central, essential to my own spiritual practice. Stories, whether fiction or non-fiction allow us chances to connect and understand each other in ways otherwise impossible. They free us from the bondage of isolation. We can read something and feel less alone, more connected, can realize the relief of WOW, You too!

And so, this is why I write.

This is why going to Haven feels so huge to me. It’s not just about story or any particular book. It’s not incidental. It’s about being alive, fully alive, knowing it, claiming it with its wounds and gifts and expressing it as fully and joyfully as I can. It’s about going on a quest or hero’s journey and then returning to the world to share what treasures I’ve found along the way.

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GRATITUDE:
I ask for your support in all humility. I’ve been fortunate throughout life to have been on the receiving end of various kinds of generosity and make it a practice to always pay it forward myself whether that means giving money, time, a listening ear. Whatever resources I might have, I freely offer.

The exchange which I mentioned before is this. In return for your help you’ll be invited to unlock the stories you have in yours hearts, minds, muscles and bones. Some of you may be able to attend in person day long retreats to help you engage in your own writing or self discovery processes. For others who may live far away, you’ll have other options. You can participate via virtual conferencing using things like Google Hangouts or Skype. You’ll also have access to online materials with guided meditations and exercises designed for you to do on your own.

You’ll have my deepest gratitude always. I thank you now, in advance for helping me reclaim the power of intention, of story and to light the way for cultivating my soul’s purpose and intention. I dedicate myself not only to writing but to helping others reclaim their highest, best selves, to offering compassion and generosity at every turn.

I’m using gofundme to support this fundraising project. You may also participate via Square. If you scroll down, you can also make a donation in any amount you feel comfortable with.

Breaking down the math. If 400 people donate $10, we will reach my goal. If 160 people donate $25, we reach that goal even faster! Thank you so much for considering participating. I hope you will join us now and for the retreats and online materials later.

The light in me salutes and bows to the light in you.

May all beings be safe.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be strong.
May all beings live with ease.

Write on and thank you,

Hillary

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