Ditching Evaluation

What if- just for a little while today we gave up all that constant evaluation of everything, most of all, our own sweet selves.

Evaluation, while it does have an eventual place under certain conditions, is generally just a form of death in which we give up our choice.

Because if we decide ahead of time whether something is either “good, bad, friendly or mean,” we eliminated all choice and are basically saying I’m not actually here and have no reason to be because I already “know” how it’s going to turn out. And we write off others in their truth and so much possibility!

But part of the juice and excitement in life IS making choices as we step moment by moment into the beautiful wild uncertainty of life.


Mindful Metta Mondays In Evanston

So excited, humbled, honored to announce that I’ll be teaching at this amazing place, The Heartwood Center, in Evanston.

Mindful Metta Mondays start Monday June 6th, 7-8pm at the Heartwood Center!
Four-week sessions in June, July and August. $72 for the month or $20 drop in. Registration will open in the next day or so. Each session will integrate meditation and writing to help us cultivate Metta or loving kindness for ourselves and each other.

GoFundMe for Haven Writing Retreat


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.

HAVEN logo

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.)


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.

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.


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.


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,


HAVEN logo

No Story. Only Observation.

Photo Credits: Lin Suihong

Stopping the story means dropping the duality between the person doing the qigong and the inner critic assessing and offering a steady stream of commentary on the practice.


“Oh! Very good! Look how smooth that was!” or conversely, “What are you doing? You’re stiff as a board. You call that tai chi?”


Instead, we only observe without judgement. This is not to say we ignore errors. But we need not judge them.


We can notice our movements as facts of action. Arm too high? This is not a problem. When we can directly experience the arm too high ourselves, then we can see it and begin to correct the action without recriminations.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When we can let go of the duality, let go of the chatter connected to observation, we can unite the two, acter and commentator into one; a fluid being who moves.


Sometimes, we try too hard at nearly everything and anything? DO you do this sometimes? I know I do.

When you practice qigong or tai chi, smile. Everything becomes easier then. Trying very hard falls away and there is only doing and enjoying.

How wonderful to be together practicing!





qigong and tai chi class

Chronic Conditions Benefit From Meditation

The following summary statements highlight key findings from research studies originating at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, UW-Madison.


People suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma – in which psychological stress plays a major role – may benefit from mindfulness meditation techniques.

The study was the first designed to control for other therapeutic mechanisms, such as supportive social interaction, expert instruction or learning new skills.  The results show that behavioral interventions designed to reduce emotional reactivity are beneficial to people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions. It also suggests that mindfulness techniques may be more effective in relieving inflammatory symptoms than other activities that promote well-being. Rosenkranz, M.Davidson, R.MacCoon, D., Sheridan, J., Kalin, N., & Lutz, A. (2013) “A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain, Behavior and Immunity.’



The Number One Secret for a Happy Life


I know, right? Discipline? You gotta be kidding.

No. I’m not.


Isn’t discipline stressful? (No again!)

Earlier I asked you all, “how many of you feel stressed?” So, we have to imagine the virtual show of hands. Usually, when I ask this question in a room full of people, everyone raises a hand and several people raise two. Okay. This is not a problem.

So, if we can reduce, remove, eliminate stress, imagine how happy all of us could be.

See it.

Seem impossible? Not at all.


Whether we are talking meditation or making a living; working out or anything that we want to accomplish, changing behavior from not useful to useful; wanting to stop feeling sad, angry, depressed, whatever – discipline is the number one way we get there.

Discipline is what gets our butt out of bed in the morning to meditate. It can be a challenge in the beginning but very quickly, that discipline of getting up and practicing becomes it’s own reward. How? Because when we do it instead of just talking about it, we FEEL DIFFERENT! We feel better, more calm, focused. The brain in our heads actually changes in all kinds of positive ways. Those neurons up there with habits maybe for laziness, hitting the snooze button, begin to fire together in new patterns. And those that fire together, wire together. The whole beautiful thing is self-reinforcing.


Soon, we can’t imagine hitting the snooze button. Because through discipline, we begin to experience for ourselves, by eliminating all the picking and choosing, “should I get up now? I don’t know….it’s cloudy today. Maybe I’ll stay in bed awhile…” and so on…. that sticking to a routine for doing things which are beneficial does a mind and body good. We don’t have to wonder about it because we can see it/feel it/experience it for ourselves.

So, I challenge you. I implore you. I encourage you… Pick a day within the next 7 days and start. Write it in your calendar or iThingie or device. Decide to be determined about meditating every day at the same time. I like first thing in the morning because it changes the whole day. Write down the time you will practice and for how long. Stick to it as if that moment you picked for paying attention really matters, because as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “you know, because it really does.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn


Try starting with 15 minutes. Just sit and breath. When the mind wanders, notice, maybe label it, “thinking thinking thinking,” and gently return your full awareness to the physical sensations of breathing. Maybe notice the feelings as the air comes and goes in and out of the nose. Maybe feel the belly rise and fall. Whatever. No need to judge anything. Just be. Just breathe.

Then, be disciplined and do it again tomorrow. Do it every day for a month. Tell people who will support you in your pursuit of a peaceful, happy heart and mind. They can encourage you. They might even want to do it with you. How cool is that? (Very!)

Check in here and let me know how it’s going. What do you encounter? What questions do you have?

If you feel like you need a little support, come on in and we can help. It’s nice to sit together in a group. I like knowing that later, when we are all back at home, that intention for practice is out there. That others are trying too.

You can get your happiness, one mindful breath at a time.

Thank you so much for stopping by. I hope you might find this useful.


Who Me – Meditate?

A Few Good Reasons Why We Should All Meditate


According to Professor Mark Williams (2011), Oxford University “Mindfulness is a translation of a word that simply means awareness. It’s a direct, intuitive knowing of what you are doing while you are doing it. It’s knowing what’s going on inside your mind and body, and what’s going on in the outside world as well.

Most of the time our attention is not where we intended it to be. Our attention is hijacked by our thoughts and emotions, by our concerns, by our worries for the future, and our regrets and memories of the past. Mindful awareness is about learning to pay attention, in the present moment, and without judgement. It’s like training a muscle – training attention to be where you want it to be. This reduces our tendency to work on autopilot, allowing us to us choose how we respond & react.” 

Interest in mindfulness has been growing steadily in recent years. There are now thousands of research studies into the uses of mindfulness, and professionals are using mindfulness in Boardrooms, Schools, Prisons, Court rooms and hospitals across the world.  Mindfulnet.org  is an independent mindfulness website that aims to provide  “everything you need to know about mindfulness in one place”.  


Moment by moment, non-judgemental awareness and  These benefits include an increase in the body’s immune system’s ability to ward off disease, a shift from a disposition towards right prefrontal cortex, associated with anxiety, depression, and aversion, to the left prefrontal cortex, associated with happiness, flow, and enjoyment. Other benefits include a different and less invasive way of healing patients with chronic pain related illnesses, a reduction in debilitating stress and the hormones that come along with it,(such as cortisol,) and an improvement in one’s overall happiness and well-being in life.