Who the heck do I think I am, anyway?

Dear Whomever,

The other night I dreamt of an orchestra. It was an odd dream (aren’t they all?)- it had nothing to 10857830_10153961465707729_1143988602728086179_ndo with how the music sounded. Instead it was sort of a broad overview of an orchestra as a unit. I saw my dream-orchestra clearly as a collection of people, musicians with instruments, a conductor, the players who created the whole. I noted how, over time, individuals joined, lived out their careers, retired, and were replaced by new individuals. In my dream, I thought, ‘The orchestra changes over time as people come and go. It’s made up of many different fluid parts, and yet we refer to it as one solid unit- a thing- as though it were permanent, individual, and unchanging. That’s how you see yourself, too. But it’s not true.’

This thought woke me, and I opened my eyes in the dark to look toward the ceiling. I felt myself breathing and absorbed this thought. This wasn’t a new concept to me- my teacher, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and many other Buddhist writers speak of this frequently. But I felt I wanted to share this with you, to try to explain how it’s unfolding for me.

“A river flows with fresh water, always changing, and we still call it a river. If we visit that place a year later, we think it is the same river. But how is it the same? If we isolate one aspect or characteristic, this sameness falls apart. The water is different… ‘Appearance’ is quite an unstable basis for ‘truth.'” –Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, What Makes You Not A Buddhist

In my experience, it has taken some time, coupled with meditation and contemplation to begin to have a felt sense for how this might be true. After all, isn’t there some continuity to our experience? Aren’t I the same person I was when I was a baby, a child, a teen? Upon examination, the facts don’t really support this assertion: cells in our bodies die and are replaced. Studies show that through meditation we can alter the structure and function of our brain.  And I certainly don’t look the way I did 10, 20, or 30 years ago. We can accept that some things will change. In another part of the same passage listed above,  Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche notes,”of course, we say that some things change. A bud blooms into a flower, and we still think of it as a truly existing flower as it changes. That growth and change is part of our fixed idea about the nature of the flower. We would be much more surprised if it became permanent.” Still, I think, it feels more comfortable and familiar to feel that we are essentially the same person, with a quality of identity, self, or me-ness that we reinforce through habits and labels.

Initially, I experienced some discomfort with the idea of not being the same me. I began to unravel some of the stories that reinforced my idea of a continuous, ongoing, more-or-less-unchanging Laura experience, and found that I had some nostalgia, an attachment, to those labels- even when they were negative. I remember seriously asking myself- “Who am I if I’m not depressed?”- Yuck! There was a sense of fear, emptiness, and an immediate need to fill that gap with a new label. “I’m a yogi- or a recovering depressed person- or something-!”

Returning gently to this inquiry again and again- who am I?- or, even better, letting go of the “I” and asking, “‘Who is it that is experiencing this/breathing/eating this piece of chocolate cake*”- I began to feel that I could loosen up and relax into the ambiguity of moment-to-moment experience.

“In a book I read recently, the author talked about humans as transitional beings- beings who are neither fully caught nor fully free but are in the process of awakening. I’m in the process of becoming, in the process of evolving. I’m neither doomed nor completely free, but I’m creating my future with every word, every action, every thought. I find myself in a very dynamic situation with unimaginable potential. I have all the support I need to simply relax and be with the transitional, in-process quality of my life.” -Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change

What does it feel like to ‘relax’ with this quality? Like most humans I know, there are things I’ve said and done that have caused others and myself great pain or even harm. You know: moments that used to make me cringe; things I’d tucked away into dark corners of my memory as too painful to recall. The time I threw a plate at my ex-boyfriend. The hurtful, mean things I said to a friend. The way I ran out on friendships or relationships rather than dealing honestly with the challenges. If I experience myself as a fluid, changing, “transitional being,” I am able review these past actions with a quality of genuine kindness and understanding while still feeling remorse. Because I can now look honestly and critically at these events, I’m able to resolve to handle myself differently in the future.

Yet habits are strong, and the more we repeat them, the stronger they grow (remember this blog entry?). So, in many cases, I’ve found myself repeating many of the same “mistakes.” I forget that I am fluid, in-process. Sometimes I even feel trapped, as though I have to do something simply because I’ve done it so frequently before!

A few months ago, I experienced this when I visited a friend for a weekend. He’s an incredibly kind person, and when he asked me how I was, I crumpled like a Kleenex- I was sad about the end of a relationship and his warmth just triggered my tears. After I pulled myself together, I felt the pull of my past habits. “Now,” I thought to myself, “I’ll be depressed for the next two days. I’ll skulk around and avoid everyone because they saw me cry and be sad.” (Hey, I’m not saying this makes any sense, I’m just saying this is how I had handled this in the past. Maybe you have your own neurotic tendencies. I bet you do.)

So here’s the “aha” moment- I felt an almost physical shift-lightness- in my body as I realized- “I don’t need to do that at all. In fact, that would be really kind of silly, and a huge waste of time.” I remembered this passage from Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living (yes, i do have it memorized):

“At any given moment, you can choose to follow the chain of thoughts, emotions and sensations that reinforce a perception of yourself as vulnerable and limited, or to remember that your true nature is pure, unconditioned, and incapable of being harmed… If you’re determined to think of yourself as limited, fearful, vulnerable, or scarred by past experience, know only that you have chosen to do so, and that the opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.”

That’s it, guys- the opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available. You’re not the same person you were yesterday. You’ll be different tomorrow. The orchestra seems like a continuous, solid entity- and for convenience, we refer to it that way- but it’s constantly changing, and so are you. So is your partner, your best friend, the guy in front of you at the grocery store who’s maybe a little bit smelly or rude or whatever offends us.

Again, I am speaking here to my experience- for me, one of the dangerous things about the earliest steps on the spiritual path has been my tendency to feel like “I’ve got it!” So, in reading a piece like this, for example, someone may be feeling like, “Yeah yeah, I’ve got this, I’m changing, I’ve changed, I quit smoking, I do yoga, things are great now! High-five, soul sister!” One of my meditation instructors- a compassionate, kind, brilliant man- frequently says, “Every insight is a false summit.” I return to this again and again. Every time I think I know something- every time I think I understand a concept or really “get” impermanence, for example, I find that I really don’t know anything at all. It’s humbling: the more I learn, the less I know. So right now in my life, I’m asking myself, again and again, Who Am I? Who Is This?- and hoping that maybe I’m continuing to loosen up. Flow on, fluid friends. You’re not trapped. You’re not stuck. You’re in process. And that’s really good news.

Love,

Laura

 

*This is Pema Chodron’s idea- in fact, I believe she says she might ask herself, “Who is eating this third piece of chocolate cake?” More reasons to love her!

Creating New Karmic Patterns, & Some Crazy Good Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies

In last week’s post, I talked about the self-sustaining karmic energy of recurring habitual patterns. I mentioned that meditation has been helpful in creating the space to identify the pattern and then to create a new pattern.

How exactly, though, does the new pattern get created? In the past year, I was lucky* enough to find myself facing similar situations again and again. In fact, sometimes it was really almost the identically same situation, with the identically same person. Thanks to my meditation practice, I was able to see this happening (okay, after a while. Not so much right away) and I gained some time between stimulus and response.

Then I’d ask myself: 1) How did I handle this last time? 2) Was I happy with that outcome? and 3) If not, what had I not yet tried that might have a different, better outcome?

This was a pretty painful process at times. It caused me to look back at the many previous times I’d been in the same situation, and how my actions had caused suffering to others, as well as to myself. There were days where I felt like a total scumbag and thought it might be best to stop interacting with other people. But seeing how I’d hurt others was powerful enough to enact change where the fear of simply hurting myself wasn’t enough. As I mentioned in last week’s post- I just had to try something different.

No doubt I’m still wreaking havoc with my life, but I’m certainly trying to do better. Being able to ask myself those three questions feels a bit like standing at the entrance to a labyrinth- which way to go?- knowing that even if I screw up, I’m still moving forward. In Richard Buckminster’s words, after all, “there is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”

In the spirit of trying something totally different, I offer you this delicious recipe for vegan ginger chocolate chip cookies. If you’re a fan of soft molasses ginger cookies, and love a dark chocolate fix, I think you’ll enjoy this mash-up. This recipe started with this delicious recipe from Oh She Glows. Thanks, Angela!

(Oh, and to illustrate my point? The next time I think, “I’d like a cookie, why don’t I bake two dozen,” I’ll stop and ask myself those three questions. Because really, I don’t need to be unsupervised with two dozen cookies. 🙂 )

Try Something Different: Vegan Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup molasses (I like sorghum)
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp ground chia seeds (I ground them in my coffee grinder, but you could leave them whole if you had to. They add crunch that way)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • a sprinkle of cardamom, or get creative with any spices you like!
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup dark (vegan) chocolate chips (if you leave these out, it’s still a fantastic recipe)

Making It Happen: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine coconut oil, sugar, molasses, vanilla, and chia seeds until well-mixed (I throw it in my Kitchen-Aid and let it run while I mix the dry stuff). Separately, mix the dry ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to the wet until combined, but don’t over-mix. Add chocolate chips. Wet hands lightly, and roll into small balls. Flatten lightly with your hand and bake 10-12 minutes or until done. Rest on baking sheet for a few minutes before moving to cooling rack. Enjoy! photo

 

*Not being facetious. Until I was challenged in this way, I was likely to keep creating the same karma again and again. I was forced into growth!  

Getting off the Ride- The Karmic Energy of Habitual Patterns

Summer at the amusement park: unrelenting, humid, hot, hot heat. You find yourself in a line of sweaty bodies, too close for comfort, snaking half a mile through a hot indoor maze. Fans drone from the corners, their sad, smelly breeze offering a brief moment of sparse relief. You feel ripe, over-damp from sweat and over-stimulated by the crowds and poor nutritional choices you made earlier in the day. Maybe you don’t really want to be in this line. How can a 10 minute ride be worth this 30 minute wait? Your eyes are on the crumpled plastic Coke bottle in the corner, which has become a symbol for how slowly you are moving, and a metaphor for everything about this experience that you despise. In another five minutes, you think, I’ll be past the Coke bottle. Perhaps you plan to pick it up and recycle it, in a quiet show of self-righteous dignity. Before you is a family that you have come to know too well during your time there. You think critical thoughts about hygiene, discipline, and the poor manners of other people’s children. Your judgment turns inward: Stop being so mean. Why did you do this to yourself? There’s NO WAY this is worth it. 

But- great joy!- finally, you’re a few steps from the gate. The family in front of you- minutes before, downtrodden and miserable- is transformed as they squeeze through the turnstile into a bouncing, joyful photo opportunity. “I’m in the front!” one shouts with glee.  A benevolent fondness toward them warms your heart, knowing you will never, ever have to see them again. And it’s almost your turn!  In a few minutes, you’ll be on the ride. You feel lighter, excited, the previous hour’s suffering forgotten. A bored teenager waves you into your seat and you strap in for the exhilarating rush of emotions.

In ten minutes- probably more like five- it’s over. As you disembark, heart still pounding, dejection has set in, and you’re already planning the next ride. How many times have you done this? How many times will you do it again? As many times as you can. Even when the pain of the line no longer outweighs the joy of the ride, maybe you will keep going- it’s the thing that you’ve always done.

A friend’s recent assertion that karma is all “bullshit” felt like a challenge to me, and I’ve been thinking about how I can share some of my (really limited) understanding with you to de-mystify the concept a bit. This week, I want to look at one aspect of karma: the cyclical energy that drives us to repeat the same actions again and again.

While I have not been to an amusement park this summer, I have been doing a lot of meditation and working with my understanding of karma- and the roller-coaster metaphor really worked for me.

Let’s say you have a bad habit. Okay, let’s say I do (cause I do). When I am feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, or otherwise emotional, I eat. Actually, I binge. The formula is simple:

Stress Occurs -> I Eat Too Much -> I Feel Awful Cause I Ate Too Much

Every time that this happens, I am creating more karma that makes it likely that I will do the same thing again in the future. This makes sense, right? From a neuroscience point of view, every time I repeat an action, I strengthen the connection between the neurons in my brain so that it becomes easier and easier to do it again in the future. And because I’ve always done it, it feels “good”- even when it feels super awful.

Pema Chodron, in No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattvaspeaks directly to this: 

“The…fault of the kleshas (afflictive emotions)  is that we welcome them. They’re familiar. They give us something to hold on to, and they set off a predictable chain reaction that we find irresistible…. Each of us has our own personal ways of welcoming and encouraging the kleshas. Being attentive to this is the first and crucial step. We can’t be naive. If we like our kleshas, we will never be motivated to interrupt their seductiveness; we’ll always be too complacent and accommodating… It is just as difficult to detox from emotions as it is to recover from heavy drugs or alcohol. However, when we see that this addiction is clearly ruining our life, we become highly motivated.”

As I look back at my life, at my sense of who I am, I can see that I am a collection of habits: given certain situations, I am likely to react in a certain way. As in the ride at the amusement park, the habitual rush of emotions is familiar, comfortable, even stimulating. But there’s suffering afterward, and suffering again leading up to the next “ride.”

Pema Chodron is often quoted as saying, “Nothing goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.” This is true, in my experience: we will be presented with similar situations again and again. Each time, we can make a choice to react in the same way we’ve done before (because that’s our brain’s pattern, or, if you will, the karma you’ve created for yourself)- or, you we can try to make a different choice, creating a new habit. Better karma.

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When I encountered this Sharon Gannon quote earlier this week, it really clicked for me. Of course! I’ve had a lifetime of being Laura, of reacting in predictable ways, but there’s no reason that I can’t be a different collection of habits.  There’s no reason I can’t create good karma for myself. Get out of line for the roller-coaster.

Here’s why it’s not so simple: it is hard work creating new habits. It’s hard work even noticing the old ones. But, through meditation, some space has opened around my habitual reactions so that I can see more clearly.

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s Turning Confusion Into Clarity puts it this way:

“With shamatha practice, we learn to detect impulses in their early stages. We can check an impulse toward anger before exploding like a volcano. If we do not recognize that impulse, then the repetition of angry outbursts strengthens the tendency toward anger and creates its own karmic energy, its own propensity for reoccurrence. Recognition allows us to disrupt the habitual identification that we have with the impulse, and therefore to separate from it.”

I’m going to go ahead and give a testimonial here. Meditation has helped me to handle some of the biggest challenges of my life in a way I didn’t know was possible. The type of meditation practice my teacher mentions above- shamatha- is a simple technique that is easy to practice and completely forgiving. I cannot recommend it enough. You can learn more about this style of meditation at the Tergar website (this is Mingyur Rinpoche’s online community). You can even participate in a free Introduction to Meditation course that is really fantastic.

Yes, it’s work. Hard work! It’s not always easy to make the time to meditate, and it’s really, really uncomfortable to clearly see your own negative patterns. It takes time and patience and a big amount of kindness. So you can start small, with a few minutes a day, and gradually build up.

The alternative? Well, I could keep doing the same things, I guess, couldn’t I? I could spend the next half of my life repeating the choices I made earlier. But I’d rather not suffer in those particular ways anymore, and a lot of the choices I made caused suffering for other people, too. Once I saw that, I couldn’t consciously go on without at least trying to change my patterns.

Happy Labor Day Weekend, and good luck with your habitual patterns (and wish me luck with mine- I need it)! I’ll leave you with a picture of Stanley, me, and one of my favorite karma shirts.

 

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Much love,

Laura

Staccato is a Rhythm- Confessions of a Color-Coded Calendar

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“I used to be so consistent with my (yoga practice, meditation, eating plan), and then (my job changed, the kids were off school for the summer, I broke my toe)…”

“I can’t seem to get into the swing of things.”

“I wish I could just get into a good rhythm.” 

“I lost my groove.”

Does this sound familiar? I know I’m not alone in the feeling that things are easier when there’s a sense of consistency, or rhythm, in our lives. Habits of meditation, yoga, communication, self-care are easier to plug into a schedule when we have an actual schedule. Maybe we even feel that we can’t move forward, make important life decisions until we’ve arrived at a more consistent stage in our lives.

Physiologically speaking, I’m guessing that this is sort of hard-wired in. We need to eat every few hours, sleep once a day, rest after we’ve been working- and we feel safest and at our most secure when our lives are predictable.

When I became self-employed a few years ago, I sorely missed the comfort of my 9-5 schedule. When would I get it all done? How many hours should I work? How would it all get done? Would I burn myself out? Was I crazy to think I could make any money at this*? In an attempt to alleviate my anxiety, I created elaborate systems of scheduling using my Google Calendar. It was a thing of beauty, color-coded so that at a glance I could see exactly how much time I would spend doing each type of  activity. Green was free time, yellow was for classes I taught… sometimes, if I were feeling unsettled, I would open it up and look at the time slots to reassure myself that there was some kind of order in my life. I liked to show other people. “Look at this! See, there’s PLENTY of time for rest!”

You can guess how well that worked out, people. Somehow, my life neglected to fall into its appointed color-coded time slots, and at the end of the week, I still had to-do list and somehow I felt that I hadn’t found time to actually really live. I had that nagging feeling that if I could just find the right rhythm, somehow it would all fall into place; that there was some formula I was missing that would bring it all together for me. Stuff getting done, but I really missed the imagined comfort of a simpler schedule in which, I thought, there would be an ease of fitting things in.

Sometime later, I had a fantastic revelation that shifted my mindset. I was walking the dogs (While texting. I was still working on not multi-tasking) when a (musician, and yogi) friend of mine texted me: “I can’t seem to get back into my yoga routine. I was practicing every day, but now it’s like I’ve lost the rhythm and can’t seem to find it.” “I know what you mean,” I wrote back. “I feel like my life is too staccato to even try any more.”

“Yeah… but even staccato is a rhythm,” he responded.

This was a beautiful moment of revelation for me. I’m sure the heavens parted and a shaft of sunlight fell upon my little iPhone. Staccato is a rhythm. 

Life does have its own rhythm, I thought. It appears chaotic, but the chaos is its consistency. The tune is so big we can’t even see the rhythm. Maybe there are notes we don’t hear.

While we all may long for the security of a life that offers certain predictability- like a melody or rhythm that you know by heart- well, that’s not even an option.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. -Helen Keller

Accepting this was a big relief. I began to release the illusion of my color-coded security blanket  to fall into this chaotic, mysterious, deeper rhythm.

Practically speaking, how do I work with uncertainty, fear, and a “schedule” that is likely to fall apart at any moment? Well, meditation, mostly. Basically, I practice being uncomfortable and living through it. This can start in your yoga practice on the mat, where many of us first encounter this principle. As we enter an asana that we don’t like, we are confronted with all of our habitual reactions. If we can truly witness these (with kindness, allowing ourselves to see them without criticizing) we will have the first glimmers of understanding of how we react to discomfort off our mat.

In meditation, I can observe my need to try to control my life. I don’t have time to sit today, I might think. Okay, I know I need to sit, but I really need to write down these five things I just thought of so I don’t forget to do them. If I continue to sit, to be massively uncomfortable (ARGH, I am going to forget to do those five things!), I am practicing for those moments in my life where life’s rhythm is out of my control**. This isn’t to say that there aren’t times where I feel crazed about making everything happen, but overall, I can look at my schedule (no longer color-coded, but a general collection of things that I’d like to get done and places I need to be) and feel like I’m effectively functioning as a balanced human being.

I can also see that in years past, I’ve used life’s unpredictability as an excuse to avoid some activities- even those that would have been really beneficial. I’m also learning to be attentive to the gripping energy of things that seem like they MUST get done and to ask myself if that’s real or not. Sometimes “urgent” tasks are really just me trying to control something. Yep, old habits die hard.

I’ve found so far that the truth is that everything always gets done, and if it doesn’t, then somehow everything’s still okay. I’m learning to listen to the own tidal rhythm of my body and feel that it needs a nap, or a massage, or exercise- and somehow I can find time to fit it in to the staccato beat of life’s unpredictability.

I guess I could say I’m in the groove now. Forgive me if my dancing is awkward- I think I’ll be learning this rhythm for the rest of my life.

*Yes, kind of. 

**Wait, that’s all of life. 

My Big Brother: On the Gift of Compassion and Love

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In the back of my closet, under a mountain of dust bunnies, there’s a packet of letters. Not, as you might imagine, letters from an old lover, or anything so romantic. These are letters that I wrote over 20 years ago to my older brother. I was in middle school, or high school, and he was at college (before the Internet was available to us, can you imagine?).

The thought of this package makes me cry, not so much because of the heartbreaking content- and it’s pretty wrenching for me- but because of the great kindness and love that it created.

I wrote these letters to my brother during one of the first great bad times of my life. I had always been a depressed and anxious kid, but adolescence was really pretty awful. I woke up every day sick and miserable at the thought of having to go to school, where I felt that I never fit in- that I was too ugly, too fat, too literate, too just not cool. I had some friends, of course, and there were always those who were worse-off than me, but I took my share of bullying* and there was no escape- nobody to tell. My friends all knew and their lives weren’t much better. What could I say to my parents- I’m miserable because nobody likes me? Who’s going to admit they’re a total loser? Of course I wouldn’t disappoint and hurt them like that. Instead, I cultivated a sort of evil mantra for myself that sticks with me still, two decades later, in moments of great darkness- I wish I were dead. 

Seth, seven years older, had escaped to Pittsburgh for college, and wrote me faithfully. I don’t know why, but he found time in his life to think of his little sister, who had always idolized him and generally been an irritant- but there was some good karma here, and he wrote asking how I was. I found that I was able, in writing, to share the pain I felt. Don’t tell Mom and Dad, I said. I’m so unhappy. I don’t know how I am going to make it. I just want to die. 

Rural central Pennsylvania is not a place to be different in any way, as my brother had found out 7 years earlier. He’d grown his hair long, and I’m sure he was called names, as I was when I shaved my head a few years later (Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” always makes me think with pride of us both: “Most times you can’t hear ’em talk, other times you can/ All the same old cliches: is it a woman or a man?”). He was a becoming a vegetarian and an animal-rights activist in a time when that could have been a recipe for someone kicking your ass. Like his little sister after him- like so many people in small towns, and everywhere- he was just trying to be himself in a culture that valued conformity deeply. In a bigger city (our town had one red light and two gas stations), neither of us would have been anything out of the ordinary.

But here is the great gift he gave me: having “survived,” so to speak, he remembered the difficulty he experienced, and instead of turning away from it, he let it open his heart. He felt such compassion for me that he continued to send me letters encouraging me. You will make it. I promise it gets better. I know it seems like it won’t, but it all gets better after high school. I love you. I understand. I’m sorry you’re going through this. He told me I was smart and beautiful and interesting and cool, when nobody else** believed it, including myself.

Over the years, Seth has become closer to me than a friend or family ever has to be. In typical Seth & Laura fashion, he sometimes has felt very self-critical of his treatment of me. I’m sorry I wasn’t more there for you. I’m sorry I was mean to you. This too, makes me feel quite bittersweet sad- because I understand regret and shame, but there’s just no need for it anymore. I can’t overemphasize for you the depth of the gratitude and love I feel for him when I think of the  depth of his unconditional love.  In times of distress, I have always been able to call him and, like a gentler reflection, been shown the situation from his perspective. He understands- he does not judge- and he says, this will end. I understand, I love you, I’m sorry you’re going through this. He reminds me that things will change, as they always do, and that I can get through whatever it is.

I’m fortunate to have had this close relationship with someone who has understood me so fundamentally that he can be a light in the darkness- not only because of the help that it’s given me in my own life, but because it has shown me that I can be a light for others. I can be a well of unconditional understanding, compassion, and love for those who are broken-hearted, suicidal, don’t fit in, think the pain will never end. I can listen, and, instead of saying, I wish I were dead, say I understand. I love you. I’m sorry you’re going through this. 

For many of us, there are times where we’re not strong enough to endure our own lives without this kind of support.  I’ve spent the last five years learning to believe what Seth has always said. I am smart. I’m cool. I’m beautiful. Everything does end, and I can be kind and support myself with love and understanding. As a result, my way of handling pain has shifted a bit. Now, in times of great personal misery (and those will still come, I believe, as long as we’re suffering through this human life), I allow myself to feel the pain, and I ask: May this open my heart. May this pain be of service to others.

So, you might wonder- how did the letters come to be in my closet, if they were the ones I mailed to Seth in Pittsburgh? About seven years ago, Seth called me. He was moving out of state, and cleaning out his own closet. If you could have heard the emotion in his voice, you would know what it is to love someone fully. “I found these letters,” he said. “They’re so, so sad- I can’t just throw them away-” We agreed that he would mail them to me, and I would keep them in my own closet. I’ve never opened them- I don’t need to- but oh, what a reminder they are.

In recounting this story to you, I’ve cried quite a bit. Please understand that it’s not my own pain, grief or sorrow I’m feeling- it’s deeper, broader than that. It’s a thank you, to my brother- to the misery we both suffered- for giving me this love I have for those who need it. I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience.

Happy Birthday, big brother.

 

*Speaking of compassion- the girls that picked on me- well, looking back, their home lives were much worse than mine. No “forgiveness” needed; they were doing the best they could to manage their own unhappiness.

**Mom, I know you and Dad always did. The fault was mine for not telling you how unhappy I was. You’re wonderful and I love you.

A Favorite Dal Recipe

I could eat Indian food every day of the week.

In fact, many weeks I do eat Indian food every day of the week (they know me quite well at the local India Palace). Restaurant Indian food tends to be heavy- and not vegan- with the addition of butter and cream. Oh, it’s delicious, but really pretty decadent for a daily thing. And while I know that I really only need a bowl of soup and an aloo paratha, I often find it hard not to order more… and more… and more… just because I’m there!

Luckily, I am in possession of the Very Best Indian Cookbook Ever Written, also known as Lord Krishna’s Cuisine. This was a gift from my brother, who’s been cooking from it for over 20 years.  It’s 800 pages long and full of so many different ways to eat vegetarian. Some of the recipes are crazy complicated, but every one has been worth it. And I’ve found it pretty easy to make most recipes vegan; cashew cream stands in nicely for yogurt, coconut oil works for butter, etc.

As much as I love cooking, my life doesn’t allow much time for it on a daily basis, so I really cherish the rainy Sundays when I can do a little cooking and stock my freezer. I love to keep several different kinds of prepared dals in the freezer. If you’re not familiar with the cuisine, “dal” is both the word for “bean” as well as the name of a bean dish- generally, soup-consistency. They defrost quickly after a night of teaching for a light dinner, and are so nourishing. If you’re a protein freak, rejoice: dals are naturally quite
high in protein. This recipe I’m about to lay on you boasts 8 grams per 200 calorie serving.

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Today I made one of my favorites- Urad Dal with Tomatoes (Urad Tamatar Dal).  Below is my slightly-tweaked version, but honestly, it’s hard to improve on the original. It’s just simple comfort food.

Urad Dal with Tomatoes – adapted from Lord Krishna’s Cuisine

Serves four-ish.

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Ingredients:

  • 2/3 cup split urad dal (they are pale yellow, almost white. May be called udad dal. You can find these at an Indian grocer; locally, at India Spice in PSL or Planet Ozone in Stuart)
  • 6 cups water
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 3 Tablespoons coconut oil
  • one box of grape tomatoes
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh ginger, shredded or minced (I like a Microplane for this)
  • 1 1/2-2 teaspoons cumin seeds 
  • 1-2 whole dried red chillies broken into bits (sub hot pepper flakes if not available)
  • 1/4 teaspoons asafetida powder- called hing (see note below)
  • Chopped cilantro, to taste
  1. Sort the dry dal, discarding anything that’s not looking like a dal (rocks, etc). Wash thoroughly and rinse.
  2. Bring water, turmeric, and 1 T the oil to a boil over high heat. Add dal, boil again.
  3. Reduce heat to moderately low. Cover and boil gently for 30 minutes. Add tomatoes. Cover and continue cooking for 1 hour or until dal is soft and fully cooked. It should melt in your mouth- no texture- and it may even be falling apart. Remove from the heat, add salt and stir.
  4. In a separate pan- preferably cast-iron- heat oil until hot but not smoking. Quickly add ginger, cumin, and chili in “rapid succession” (author’s phrase, makes me smile). Don’t even think about walking away from this pan. Fry until the cumin seeds and chili turn brown- it won’t take long- and then add the asafetida powder (hing). Count to two, and then pour the fried seasoning into the dal. Cover and allow the seasonings to soak in. Add cilantro and serve.

NotesHing is a stinky delicious substitute for onions or garlic. You can buy it at Indian grocery stores or online. It will stink up your cupboard, but I kind of like the smell now. If you prefer not to bother, I would add some small diced onion- maybe 1/4 cup? or a clove or two of garlic to the spice mixture at the end (careful not to burn). Also- I like to be generous with the cumin- the original recipe calls for 1 1/4 teaspoon. 

 

 

Dear Local Restaurant: It’s Just Not That Hard to Make A Vegetarian or Vegan Meal

Do you have a pet peeve?

Something that irritates you, gets under your skin, makes you complain, or rant (or, in my case, sigh heavily) in a way that surprises even yourself?

One thing that really drives me crazy is going out to eat with friends and finding that the menu includes virtually no vegetarian options. “Oh look, a salad!” A friend will say hopefully. “You can have them leave off the bacon-wrapped chicken bits…”

I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, and first was a vegetarian there in the 90’s. It wasn’t easy, but one manages. Any vegetarian knows how to cobble together a meal out of side dishes. Who doesn’t love a meal of French fries, green beans, and mashed potatoes? Perhaps alongside the salad, which still costs $14.99, minus the bacon-wrapped chicken… * Man, if a place has a veggie burger, I am pathetically grateful. You just wouldn’t believe.

Still, as a culture, we’ve come a long way, and it just doesn’t make sense to me when I go out to eat and the chef (or owner?) hasn’t even bothered to try to put together a meal that omits animal products. I just don’t get it. Even if they’re card-carrying members of the US Beef Council** who are going out of their way to annoy tree-hugging vegetarians, or something, they will still find a willing audience of people who want to eat lighter, or who have sensitivities to animal products, or choose not to eat meat for any reason at all.

Not to mention that a lot of plant-based food is SUPER CHEAP.

Maybe you know that prior to my career as a yoga teacher, I thought I wanted to be a personal chef, and went to cooking school. Although I will be paying that debt until the day I die, it was absolutely worth it. I learned the following secrets, which I will now share with you, thereby saving you $40,000 (you’re welcome):

  1. Use a bigger pan than you think you need.
  2. Clean up as you go.
  3. Learn a few basic flavor combinations and you can make dinner out of almost anything. Okay, sorry, I guess that one requires some practical experience.

Tonight for dinner I made myself a variation on beans and rice and some vegetables. It tastes amazing, cost me probably about $10 total, despite the fact the most of the ingredients were organic, and I will get SEVEN meals out of it (bigger guys might get less). The photo is kind of lame, and the recipe isn’t anything super fancy, but really, I’m just making a point: It’s not that hard.

A restaurant owner or chef could easily have a “Beans and Rice” of the week dish on his menu and use up leftovers creatively. Thin it out and it’s a soup. Wrap it up and it’s a taco, a burrito, an enchilada, a lettuce wrap. Cook some of the ingredients separately and call it a Buddha Bowl. It could  be Gallo pinto. Vegetarian dirty rice. Slap it on a flatbread and it’s a pizza. Nachos. Dude, the sky’s the limit. You’re going to make money, I swear. We will buy it if you make an effort. 

Anyway, here’s sort-of-recipe.

A Minimal Amount of Effort Beans and Rice Dish

Heat up three tablespoons-ish of oil in a big pan (I use peanut oil). Slice up two organic leeks that you bought weeks ago at Fresh Market, though you can’t remember why, discarding anything that you don’t want to eat. Once your oil is hot but not smoking, brown the leeks over pretty high heat until they caramelize and smell amazing, stirring often enough that nothing sticks and burns. Meanwhile, you can be slicing up that celery that’s about to go badthe last three mini bell peppers in the fridge, along with any leftover onion you have (I had 1/4 onion, so threw it in). I also sliced in two cloves of garlic. I like to slice them very thin- when they brown slightly they taste nuttily amazing. Once your leeks are almost totally caramelized, throw in about two teaspoons of whole cumin- you will smell it cooking, a smell that I like, but is also vaguely reminiscent of body odor.

At this point you might go, “Sh*t, kale!” and run outside to trim about 3 cups worth of kale off of your kale plants. Collect the dogs and run back inside to ascertain that the leeks have not completely burnt, and then throw all the celery, bell pepper, onion, and garlic in there to cook down a bit. If you have other vegetables, you could certainly use them. If you want to add jalapeño or some hot pepper flakes, add them here. 

Now your time will be limited, because although they taught me in cooking school to time things, I never quite remember to think of everything I’m adding until the last minute, so you had better chiffonade your kale SUPER FAST and throw it in the pan. You want it super thin so it doesn’t take all year to cook.

Meanwhile, start cooking your rice. No, I’m not going to give you instructions, read the bag.

Now, your vegetables will be getting nice and cooked, and they’ll be starting to think about burning, so it’s time to add some more moisture. Zip open a can of organic fire-roasted diced tomatoes and dump it in. Note that if you don’t want huge tomato chunks in your finished product, you could blend them up first. The last thing to do is open a can of organic black beans and add it to your mixture. Let it cook for a few minutes, giving it a chance to “marry” a bit, and then test for seasoning.  Add salt and pepper, maybe some oregano. Still bland? I always have (in this case, like 1.5 tablespoons) homemade taco seasoning ready- you’ll want to check out this recipe for it.

When your rice is done, you can eat. If you have cilantro or a lime, or oooh, an avocado!! garnish away, but it’s pretty much amazing without it. Reheats beautifully or freeze for future taco-type events.

One (small) serving of rice and beans has approximately 270 calories and 5 grams of protein.

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*To be fair: a friend of mine taught me to ask for a discount when I do this now, and most managers are pretty accommodating.

**Also in the 90’s, I took part in a sort of random “protest” against the US Beef Council. I had no idea what we were trying to achieve, but I got a great “Meat is Murder” shirt out of it. My picture was in the paper, which was a little awkward for my father, whose job required that he be friendly with many of these “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner” folks.

Ishvara Pranidhana: Your Practice Is Bigger Than the Size of Your Shorts

Ishvara Pranidhana is the last of the Niyamas, or moral “observances” of yoga (read more about Patanjali and the 8 limbs of yoga here). It translates sort of like, devotion to God, which is a little tricky for some folks (I’m a Buddhist, so I feel free to go ahead and take some liberties here, which I’ll talk about shortly). It might also be one of the least popular observances to talk about in your sort of contemporary yoga class setting, at least in my experience. I guess it’s easier to talk about feel-good santosha (“be happy with where you are today!”) and “work it, girl” tapas (“one more navasana, guys!”) than it is about, um, devoting your practice to the divine.

For myself, though, and many others, a yoga class devoid of spirituality is not really yoga.  At our yoga studio (YogaFish), the teachers believe there is something more to the practice than just the physical element. This is why we do pranayama in our classes, offer free meditation, and offer chanting as part of the practice (even if it’s just the “Om”). Here’s how I summed it up for would-be visitors:

There are lots of great yoga studio options in the area. What YogaFish offers is an atmosphere of acceptance with an emphasis on the mind/body/spirit connection. Sure, if you want to come to class and just stretch and sweat, you can do that. We believe that what keeps people coming back, though, is the way that they start to notice their lives changing. In addition to the physical benefits (strength, flexibility, overall feeling of better health), there’s an increased awareness. More mindfulness, more appreciation, more self-insight. YogaFish instructors understand that experience- that’s how we teach. Our classes are designed to help our students achieve those insights.

As teachers and studio owners, we can create the space for students but ultimately, it’s up to the practitioner to decide how to handle their time on the mat. Ishvara Pranidhana is your opportunity to devote your practice to a higher power. In my classes, I offer time at the beginning of class to create a sankalpa– an intention, dedication, or resolution that can be a touchstone throughout the practice. I also suggest students bring their hands to heart’s center (anjali mudra) and chant Om with this intention in mind, so that any time their hands return to this mudra during class, they can be guided back to the higher intention.

Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, in his essay “Is Yoga A Religion?” says:

“At the heart of all forms of Yoga is the assumption that you have not yet tapped into your full potential as a human being. In particular, Yoga seeks to put you in touch with your spiritual core- your innermost nature- that which or who you truly are….you are free to allow your personal experience and realization to shape your understanding.”

In other words, you are free to interpret Ishvara Pranidhana however you like (in fact, you’re free to ignore it altogether)! Some students may choose to create a sankalpa that focuses on cultivating a particular positive attitude in their practice, or they may dedicate the practice to someone they know who needs that positive energy. To me, these are all different expressions of devotion, and I think a valid way to practice Ishvara Pranidhana. Not everyone agrees. According to Sharon Gannon and David Life and their school of Jivamukti Yoga, specifically devoting your practice to the divine is really a necessity:

“The yoga practices amplify and direct the pranic flow. If we do not consciously aim that flow upward, it will flow to whatever tendencies might be passing through the mind… The psychotherapeutic power of the yoga practices lies in their ability to bring unconscious feelings to the surface. This can be overwhelming, unless the practice is steadfastly dedicated to God. When that unleashed energy is directed toward God-realization rather than toward expressing unconscious selfish emotions, it becomes liberating rather than binding.” –Jivamukti Yoga

There have been times over the past two years where I came to my yoga mat and sort of felt like, What’s the point? Why bother? It felt like a job, or a chore. Sometimes it just felt like exercise.

Although I understood (and paid lip service to) the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana, it wasn’t really clicking for me. As a teacher, I knew I needed to maintain my self-practice in order to stay fresh and able to offer insight into my students’ practices, but I wasn’t able to make that direct connection. I was working from ego on my mat, that is, thinking about myself and my own practice and its ups and downs.

Interestingly, as I was feeling disillusioned with my asana practice, my meditation practice was growing, and I felt a disconnect between what was happening on my yoga mat and what was happening on my meditation cushion.My meditation practice includes time at the beginning and end of each session to dedicate the practice to the service of all sentient beings. I was in meditation one day when it occurred to me in one of those awesome lightning-bolt-of-intuition-moments that I was wasting the opportunity I had every day on my yoga mat. I could dedicate each whole asana practice in the same way!

Ashtanga yoga, which I practice, lends itself handily to a meditative experience. Students are asked to follow the tristana method by focusing on the breath (Ujjayi), drishti (a specific gaze/focal point in each pose), and the asana (which includes the bandhas). If you’ve ever tried to do all of these things at once for a whole 90 minute practice, then you know how hard it is to stay focused.

But with my understanding of asana practice as service- my Ishvara Pranidhana– I was able to use each of these three points of meditative awareness as an opportunity to serve. Every time I drifted away, I said to myself, “Hey now, engage your bandhas for the good of all sentient beings.” If this sounds a little nuts to you, I understand- at one point, it may have to me too. But I don’t need to understand how it works. Maybe it’s as simple as this- by bringing meditative awareness to my own practice, I’m learning more that I can share with my students. When I have a hard time doing something in my practice, or when my awareness drifts, or when I start wishing I had worn different shorts, I can use it as an opportunity to be compassionate toward others who experience the same thing. It’s not about me and my practice any more- it’s about something bigger than that.

Finally- for those days when even getting to the mat feels like a chore- I’ve been inspired by a Buddhist text that says the following:

Used well, this body is our raft to freedom. Used badly, this body anchors us to samsara (the ocean of suffering in which we all live).

May I continue to serve, to use this body well, for the benefit of all beings. 1972261_655174854544705_1407643906_n-1

 

 

Laura’s Magic Kitchen, Now with Expanded Menu Options

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A few months ago, I started reading The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz, and it’s had a serious effect on the relationships in my life- including that most treacherous of relationships, the one with myself.

I could say a lot about this book- but today I just want to share with you one of my favorite themes in this book- Ruiz’s “magical kitchen.” He says:

Imagine that you have a magical kitchen in your home…you can have any food you want from any place in the world in any quantity. You never worry about what to eat; whatever you wish for, you can have at your table… Then one day someone knocks at your door, and it’s a person with a pizza. You open the door, and the person looks at you and says, ‘Hey, do you see this pizza? I’ll give you this pizza if you let me control your life, if you do whatever I want you to do. You are never going to starve because I can bring pizza every day. You just have to be good to me.’ Can you imagine your reaction? In your kitchen you can have the same pizza- even better. Yet this person comes to you and offers you food, if you just do whatever he wants you to o. You are going to laugh and say, ‘No, thank you! I don’t need your food.’

Ruiz goes on to describe what it’s like if you forget that you have a magic kitchen. Suddenly, you’re starving, and the pizza deal sounds not so bad. And then you’re hooked on the pizza- and dependent on the pizza pimp.

Your heart, of course, is the magical kitchen, and food is the love that we have for ourselves and others. Our ideas of self-worth, self-appreciation, are all cooked up in this kitchen. When we forget about the kitchen, then we try to look elsewhere for love, appreciation, validation. Sometimes we get pretty desperate and do some stupid stuff to try to feed the unending hunger.

This metaphor was really powerful for me (because I love food? I dunno) and came at the perfect time in my life. I realized that, despite all the work I did, and continue to do, I’d forgotten that the power to feel loved, valuable and worthy was in my own hands– not in someone else’s. And yet, I kept forgetting it- I was looking for someone to feed me.

If the thought of falling in love with yourself sounds overly dramatic or self-centered, perhaps the magic kitchen metaphor will appeal to you more. To me, it’s so silly that it’s sort of fun to work with. Sometimes I like to imagine myself turning around and saying, “Oh, there’s the kitchen!”- as though I’d forgotten about this room in my house for a while.

It also lends itself to more elaborate metaphorical musings. For a while, I was really longing for a relationship. ‘Sure,’ I thought to myself. ‘I’ve got a magical kitchen, but all it makes is burritos. I’d just like a freaking panini once in a while.’  With time and distance, I came to feel that the panini wasn’t so great. Laura’s Magic Kitchen Brand Panini is way, way better.

Here’s an inferior panini story: I dated someone not too long ago who expressed great appreciation for me in many ways. At first, it felt good- yay, pizza!- but occasionally the (still metaphorical, are you tired of it yet?) pizza supply would dry up a little bit. “You know,” he’d say, “If you want to lose weight, you should….” Or, “I even like this about you.” This hurt, of course, because I was depending on the pizza to fill my growling tummy.

I saw the panini guy not too long ago (he’s no longer dealing, or at least I’m not buying, so to speak). He has also read The Mastery of Love, and we spent a little time talking about the Magic Kitchen. When we hugged goodbye, he said to me, “Thanks for letting me bask in the warmth of your Magic Kitchen for a while.” I loved this!  I’m like a food truck, y’all, out driving around loving myself, loving you, just doing the best I can to remember that I’m behind the wheel, standing over the oven…(this metaphor is really getting out of hand, I think I’m about done with it).

Okay, but one last little story to share. That picture at the top of this post- me doing a handstand? That’s from a photo shoot by the genius, talented Jennifer Sampson of Sampson Photography. And it almost didn’t happen because I forgot about the kitchen.

I’d had that photo shoot scheduled for months, and when it finally arrived last week, I was feeling pretty lousy. I weighed more than I wanted to, my skin was utterly broken out, and I felt, in general, like a hideous beast. I know how stupid this is. I do, I promise. But I also imagined people looking at the finished photos and picking out flaws. Once again, I’d put the power of love and appreciation and worth in someone else’s hands, rather than in my own.

Don Miguel Ruiz puts it this way:

There’s no problem at all with being beautiful or ugly, short or tall, thin or heavy…There’s no problem with being gorgeous. If you walk through a crowd of people and they tell you, ‘Oh, you are beautiful,’ you can say, ‘Thank you, I know,’ and keep going. It doesn’t make any difference to you. But it will make a difference to you if you don’t believe you are beautiful and someone tells you that. Then you are going to say, ‘Am I really?’ This opinion can impress you, and, of course, that makes you easy prey.

I do believe I am beautiful, and that things like weight, skin, and hair will come and go. Sometimes it takes me an embarrassingly long time to remember that I believe these things, but it’s getting easier. Not everyone is going to think I’m beautiful. Not everyone is going to fall in love with me. And, with my new extended menu options of self-worth and appreciation, I really don’t need them to.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone-  may your kitchen be full of delicious options today.

 

 

Is Your Love Enough? (The Post About Depression)

Depression, for me, is a drag. It looks a bit like seeing  the world through dirty glass. It feels a bit like  walking through knee-deep water. It’s like Monday morning after a weekend spent doing chores. It’s like your car needs new brakes and your toilet won’t flush and you know something else is going to go wrong, but you’ve accepted with a bone-weary knowledge and keep trudging forward.

It’s also a little bit like I’m the only person in the world. It’s a selfish thing that hurts the people I love, if I let it. It’s like I’m standing on a beach full of pebbles, and I’ve picked up one tiny pebble and am holding it in front of my eye and it’s enormous, and now I can’t see the others because I am confronted by this boulder.

“How can people kill themselves?” a friend of mine asked recently. “How can they do that to everyone around them?” Well, in my experience, there’s a certain kind of self-centeredness that comes with serious depression. It’s an ugly side effect.

The holidays were hard for me this year- after the sweeping life changes of 2013, the holidays by myself felt a bit like a dirty nightcap at the end of a wild party I didn’t want to attend. I felt more down than I had in a long time.

Yoga and meditation have been a tremendous help to me in fortifying my defenses against this disease, though. Recently The Onion published this piece:  New Antidepressant Makes Friends’ Problems Seem Worse. Although it’s a really funny idea, there’s a great truth to it. The antidepressant is compassion. The secret is love.

I do what I can to remember this: When I am allowing depression to get the better of me, I am not able to give my best to the people in my life. Now, this doesn’t mean that I can just “snap out of it,” but it does help to give me direction- to remind me to do the best I can to take care of myself so that I can be more available to people who need me. Friends, family, students. It helps me to make better decisions.

Michael Franti and Spearhead have a great song- I’ve posted it at the top of this entry- that I have been listening to in dark moments. Although it’s about free speech, the chorus speaks to me like a call to arms: “Is your love enough? Can you love some more?”

So I am reminded that I can help myself to walk through this time by doing the things that will help me- my practice on the mat. A walk in nature. Meditation, regularly. And if once in a while I need to take a nap at 3 in the afternoon because I just can’t face the world, then dammit, I’ma do just that. I’ve got work to do, serious loving compassionate work to do, and I’ll do what it takes to help myself get to a place where I can be more effective.

Here’s a poem to share with you. It arrived via Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac in my Inbox on December 30, and I burst into tears when I saw the title. If you’ve ever been so far down that you thought you couldn’t keep going- if you thought nobody would care- I hope this speaks to you as it did to me.

No Hemlock Rock (don’t kill yourself)

by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself.
Don’t. Eat a donut, be a blown nut.
That is, if you’re going to kill yourself,
stand on a street corner rhyming
seizure with Indonesia, and wreck it with
racket. Allow medical terms.
Rave and fail. Be an absurd living ghost,
if necessary, but don’t kill yourself.

Let your friends know that something has
passed, or be glad they’ve guessed.
But don’t kill yourself. If you stay, but are
bat crazy you will batter their hearts
in blooming scores of anguish; but kill
yourself, and hundreds of other people die.

Poison yourself, it poisons the well;
shoot yourself, it cracks the bio-dome.
I will give badges to everyone who’s figured
this out about suicide, and hence
refused it. I am grateful. Stay. Thank
you for staying. Please stay. You
are my hero for staying. I know
about it, and am grateful you stay.

Eat a donut. Rhyme opus with lotus.
Rope is bogus, psychosis. Stay.
Hocus Pocus. Hocus Pocus.
Dare not to kill yourself. I won’t either.