Grief’s Hidden Gifts

Portrait of CaseyI have some sad news to share.  Last month Casey, my muse, my mascot, my writing partner and four-legged best friend for 13 years, left the physical plane.  She had a massive seizure, most likely a complication from a tumor that was close to her brain.

The doctors were able to stabilize her so that we could sit with her and say good-bye.  David, the girls and I encircled her and spent some time stroking her, talking to her, telling stories about all the joy and sweetness she added to our lives.  At one point, my wise girl must have caught a look on my face and she said, through her tears, “It’s OK to cry, Mommy.”  So I did.

If you’ve been reading this blog over the past few years, you know that my practice is to work with the full spectrum of emotions, and to realize the healing and empowering benefits of feeling and expressing them.  It’s my practice because it doesn’t come naturally to me.  I would rather avoid pain and conflict and I just want everything to be OK.  So I need to mindfully practice feeling my emotions fully, and expressing them in healthy ways.

blurred people2In her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brené Brown says “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”  And I know this to be true.

We numb ourselves with food and alcohol and busy-ness… but when we constantly distract ourselves from our feelings, we pinch ourselves off from being fully alive.  So here’s what happened when I let myself experience the fullness of my sadness the night I said good-bye to Casey.

We got home from the animal hospital late.  Not wanting anyone to be alone, David and I each slept with one of the girls.  Lying on my daughter’s trundle mattress, I was so very tired.  I would get close to falling asleep, but as I started to let go, a tidal wave of grief would surge through me.  This happened several times, wave after wave each time I almost drifted off to sleep.

Each time, remembering my practice, I allowed the waves to wash over me, and I felt that sadness fully.  It was a real, physical grief in my whole body that made my skin and my insides hurt.  But I stayed with it.  I felt it all, as if absorbing the wave-water into my body.

After some time, fully feeling the sadness felt more like there was a thick force field around my body, and I was pushing through it. Staying with it and pushing through it, feeling it completely, and then, to my amazement and pure relief, I would get “through” that thick field, to the other side, where all the joy and all the love of Casey still was.  And you’d better believe I let myself feel that fully. It was, and is, still there.  If I hadn’t allowed myself to push through that path though the depth of my sadness, I would not have known that joy was there on the other side.  The pure emotions of happiness at seeing her cute spotty face, the bliss of feeling her soft chin resting across my leg, the love that she always expressed through her eyes and her enthusiastic “aroo’s”… were all there… are all still here when I feel for them.

Arooo!

So over the past few weeks, my practice has been to let the sadness knock me to my knees, like when I looked under the bed for my slippers and saw the water bowl that I had slid out of sight that first night.  Like when I came home from my errands and for the first time was greeted with empty silence.  And when I would recall the events of that night, and the sight the tears on the cheeks of my husband and the girls.  I let myself have my sadness, and I let myself sob.

And when I was ready, I also let myself open the hidden gift inside the pain, to feel the sweetness of it.  I felt the relief of letting the sadness move through me.  Then I could also feel how our loss was deepening the connection among the four of us, causing us to grow together in love.  I could recall and feel again the tenderness and compassion from the doctors, and the outpouring of kindness and support from our friends and larger family.  Letting myself fully feel these blessings, I found my heart was more full than empty.

Fully feeling sadness and pain did not make it magically go away, but it did open me to my own inner strength, and to the beautiful feelings that are enfolded within the hard ones.

Casey and Me

The morning after Casey died, the girls and I went for a walk by the stream where Casey loved to walk.  We asked Casey’s spirit, which we felt so strongly, to give us some signs to help us know that she was there.  In the mud we saw paw prints.  Walking in the creek photo by shannon mayhewFloating in the air we saw white fuzzy dog-fur-looking dandelion seeds.  And the next day, a doe moved into our back yard and helped herself to a buffet of weeds!

Earth Angel Doe

For us this was a sign that Casey sent an “earth angel” to watch over us.  After a few days of visiting and weeding, the doe lay down on the hill behind our house and sat there all day.  Then, she disappeared for a while.  Just a few days ago, a doe came right up to our house in our front yard, with a buck, and their two fawns following closely behind.  Was this mama our doe?  Our messenger from Casey, showing us with her spotted babies that Nature is constantly being renewed?  That life offers us magic when we look for it, comfort when we are open to it, and joy when we are committed to being fully alive?  We like to think so.

dappled fawn

The intensity of grief has softened, and we are at peace.  I am missing Casey for sure, but not suffering.  Feeling sad when the sadness hits. Receiving the joy that comes with reminiscing, funny stories and pictures.  Welcoming the love that flows naturally when I embrace it all.  Practicing presence.

With love from my open, healing heart,
Shannon

caseycute

Your Life is Your Art

Create Art

In every breath, there’s a brushstroke. In every moment, a miracle. Notice and amplify the beauty around you, and so decorate your life. Embellish with wonder. Saturate with kindness. Paint with the colors of the full spectrum of aliveness. Express with joy. Your life is your art.

Love,  Shannon

What’s the point of suffering?

What a gift Helen Keller has been to the world. As a kid, learning about her made me realize that people are capable of amazing and beautiful things.

What Helen says in this clip brought tears to my eyes. I do believe that this is the point of all suffering — deeper understanding of and connection with each other, and the emergence of our greater capacities that we discover only as a result of our suffering.

Seeing the “bad things” that happen in the world through this lens helps me to feel empowered rather than overwhelmed.  It is a practice that I have had to cultivate and continue to work on, because I am very sensitive and tend to take on the feelings of others.

And this is the focus of my latest meditation on the Presence and Prose YouTube channel :

This is a guided practice for releasing emotions that are stuck or not being processed because feeling them is being avoided.  (In Grace in the Muck, we looked at the work of Dr. Candace Pert, whose research suggested that repressing emotions creates a blockage of neuropeptide signals, and that this insufficient flow creates weakened conditions that can lead to illness. )

But through the process of “zooming in,” we find that, with a little attention and understanding, our challenging thoughts and feelings can move through us, and the body responds with a sense of healing and release.

The practice addresses that we can’t control what other people do or say, but we have so much power within ourselves to choose how we respond to life’s events.  We can meet our thoughts and feelings fully, with wisdom and understanding.  We can release what does not serve our greater purpose, and bring harmony to the body and mind.

Understanding that life’s challenges are gateways to discovering our genius and our deepening capacity to love empowers us to live with courage and compassion.

The photo, by the way, was a spiderweb  I found one morning, cradling droplets of rain water.  See the beauty that zooming in can reveal? 🙂

I Can’t Draw, and So Can You

Tiffany was the best colorer in our first grade class.  She would draw along the outline of the image with a dark, steady and confident stroke of her crayon.  Then, gently and evenly, she would complete the inside with just the right colors.  (Except for skin. For some reason, she always thought yellow was the best color for people’s skin.)

Crayons

I would try to copy Tiffany’s technique, but my dark outline looked somehow ominous and less confident.  As if the crayons themselves were aware of that border’s lack of authority, straggles of color always escaped from within the lines.

“You’re good at art,” I remember telling her.  Growing up, seeing my abilities, compared with what some other kids were able to do, I formed a concept of myself as “not artistically inclined.”

“But you’re so creative!” was the encouragement I’d hear from people who knew the wild stories I wrote and the other projects I concocted.  “I know,” my answer would be.  I allowed the label of creative.  “But I can’t draw.”

Well, something has happened to me this year.  More likely, it’s been happening since becoming a parent ten years ago, which has caused me to look and to see in new and different ways every day.

Seeing DinosaursWhen my older daughter was three or four, she loved the PBS show Dinosaur Train.  One day, she made some drawings that depicted a series of scenes from that show.  Looking at her picture of the dinosaurs, I noticed that she drew blue stripes along Buddy the T. Rex’s head and back.  “Buddy has blue stripes?” I thought… and in watching the show again, sure enough, he did.

Dinosaur Train on the moveOn the next drawing, she showed the train from above, heading off-screen.  I would have drawn the train in predictable shapes and in full view, and not from above… I would have drawn the train as I interpreted it through my lens of expectations and experience, rather than how it was actually presented on the screen.

I realized that she and I look and see differently.  And when she started doing paintings that looked to me pretty amazing for a young child, I suspected it was because of the way she looks at things.  (And, note to Tiffany, she uses three or four different crayons to create a particular skin tone :)).

Kaiyas sunflower

Here are her sunflower, painted when she was four, and fire, painted when she was five.

Kaiyas fire

Fast-forward, to last year, when I started to get this urge to draw my beautiful dog, Casey.  I joke that her cuteness is beyond comprehension, so I think I wanted to draw her to try to understand what I was feeling.  Well, I was taken aback when what I drew somewhat resembled what I was trying to draw.  I mean, it wasn’t a masterpiece, but for me, it was like nothing I’d been able to do before.

First Casey drawing by Shannon Mayhew

I thought that this result was just a fluke, and that I could draw Casey because I love her so much.  I thought maybe the emotions around what I was doing gave me access to a higher power, where genius resides, and I was able to let a little of that through.  And I still think that may be part of the shift that happened.  But over time I felt compelled to draw other dogs, especially when I saw lines and wrinkles.

First non-casey drawing by Shannon Mayhew

Then, I started doodling on my daughters’ napkins on their school lunches.  I just love the critters that illustrators Jan Brett and Jane Chapman bring to life in the picture books I’ve read to the girls thousands of times.   So, I riffed off of those animals, and was surprised to find that I could reasonably re-create some of those furry characters with pen on a napkin.

Critter napkins by Shannon 3    Critter napkins by Shannon 4

Critter napkins by Shannon 5Last month, a dear friend had a baby girl, and sent me some
pictures.  And, you guessed it, I was so inspired by the sweetness and newness of this tiny person, that I needed to try to draw her.

First baby drawing by Shannon Mayhewsmiling baby by Shannon Mayhew

At this point, it occurs to me that something is really happening here.  But what?  I can’t draw.  I can only draw Casey.  OK, I can only draw Casey, and some other dogs who are floppy and wrinkly.  And also maybe critters on napkins.  And babies.

I think what is happening is that I am looking at things differently.  As I tried to draw that sweet little face, I kept wondering things like, “Why doesn’t this side of her face look right?” and then, at some point, a shadow would emerge that I hadn’t noticed before and I would lightly shade that part of the drawing, and it would make all the difference.  I would stare and stare and suddenly realize, her eyes are not actually on the same plane.  The left one is lower, in line with that wrinkle on her hood…

So this process of drawing seems to be as much an allowing of the picture to express itself to us, as it an attempt to manipulate the pencil and eraser.

I think the other thing that is happening is that I am looking at myself differently as well.  The idea that I am a person who “can’t draw” comes from my former, fixed mindset.  Throughout my research in psychology and education, both in my career and in my personal journey, I’ve come to believe in the potential we all have for growth and change.  It seems that I have developed a “growth mindset” (check out the book Mindset by Carol Dweck).  The growth mindset views genius as made and not born, and sees failure and challenge as foods that nourish your genius.

Dr. Dweck says that a growth mindset can be taught and developed.  So if you feel you may have a fixed mindset, whenever you hear your fixed mindset say “I can’t…” answer it with a growth mindset.  Add the word “yet.”  Allow yourself to see your struggles as vital components of success.

Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, says “It seems that your brain already knows how to draw.  You just don’t realize it.  Helping people move past the blocks to drawing is, however, the difficult part.  The brain, it seems, doesn’t easily give up its accustomed way of seeing things.”

How do you see?  Are you open to the idea that things are not always as we expect them to be… and that you may have new talents, waiting to be developed?

New Casey Drawing by Shannon Mayhew

I am still learning.  I don’t really know how to see myself now, or whether to believe that I am actually learning this “ability.”  But I know how I see failure.  There is no such thing, as long as you are growing.  The only real failure is not trying at all.

Jean Houston Meditation, and New YouTube Channel!

Happy New Year! snow angel

I have obviously been away from the blog for a while.  I’ve been busy making snow angels, oh, and recording meditations!

I have set up a “Presence and Prose” YouTube channel, where I’ll be posting new meditations that folks can use to de-stress, energize, go to sleep, manage strong emotions, set boundaries, and many other things that are easier done when you access the subconscious mind.

While language works well for our rational, conscious mind, the subconscious mind communicates in images and emotions.  When we use imagery and metaphor in meditation, we have better access to our brain’s “operating system” and have greater leverage in changing things like habits and emotional patterns.  (For more information on this immense and fascinating topic, see “The Genie Within: Your Subconscious Mind — How it Works and How to Use It”; “You Are the Placebo” by Joe Dispenza; or “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves” by Sharon Begley.)

The first meditation I’ve recorded is a wonderful tool for relaxation, but it is also a powerful method for soothing and shifting your energy when you feel overwhelmed.  By “pouring blessings into the hollow spaces” via this exercise, you can reconnect with your source of power and joy.

I am a big fan of Jean Houston, who is a brilliant scholar, author, co-founder of the “human potential movement,” and advisor to the United Nations (to name a few of her roles).  When I came across her exercise entitled “Entering the Heart of Reality,” I was so moved by reading it that I reached out to her to ask her permission to record it and share it here on my blog.  And to my great delight, I was given permission to do just that!

Jean created this exercise as part of a new training program she is offering called “Unlock Your Quantum Powers.” The course is offered through Evolving Wisdom, and you can learn more about it here: www.quantumpowernow.com.  Every time I listen to an interview or lecture by Jean Houston, my mind stretches so much, it’s almost disorienting.  And amazingly refreshing and empowering.  Her class is bound to be amazing.

OK.  Enough with the words and the reading. I will post the meditation below, but feel free to subscribe to the Presence and Prose YouTube channel also so you can know when I’ve posted more videos.

Enjoy!

Magic portal adventure

“Remember when, as a child, just the sight of a swing-set, or a pony or a hula hoop, would get your heart racing and your imagination somersaulting?  And without even thinking in words, you felt that surely, the world revolved around you?  That you were the most blessed creature ever to live, and that having fun was number one?

fun is number one photo by shannon mayhew

Well, I still wonder how, at such a tender age, you knew so much.”

— Mike Dooley

In this lecture, entitled “Dancing Life’s Dance,” Mike Dooley (author, Notes from the Universe) goes on to say “everything in your life has that kind of magic when you are in the now.  And you can put yourself there on purpose.”

If you are familiar with this blog, it’s not a stretch to see why Mike’s message resonates with me.  Presence does transform our lives, helping us to experience the magic that is available to us when we choose to let it in.

But as we’ve explored in earlier posts, sometimes it feels impossible to get there from here.  We have real life worries, responsibilities, and regrets that can make it difficult to access our joy at will.  There is no “magic portal” that we can jump into to tell our life situation, “hold on, I am going to enter the NOW so I can feel better….”

Actually, there are five such portals.

I know what you’re thinking.  “Too much Magic Tree House, Shannon.”  And it’s true that I tell my kids bedtime stories, where portals lead to the lands of pirates, mermaids, knights, and American Ninja Warriors.

K's rainbow portal

I guess that’s why this metaphor arose for me when I sat down to write.   Yes, each of us has five of our own built-in portals for accessing the now.   I am talking about our physical senses.   This is essentially the same practice I talked about in “Milk it.”   It’s about taking in through the senses what’s good at this particular moment, and allowing yourself some time to enjoy it.

In “Grateful Heart, Happy Brain,” I talked about the power of this practice to create a happier brain.  Current neuroscience tells us that, by noticing and allowing ourselves to experience and enjoy the good and beautiful things in our day, we actually create new brain structures that cause us to see more good and feel greater happiness.

I’m going to propose an adventure for you to take, to really experience this for yourself — a journey through the five magic portals over the next five days.   So, for today, we can pick sight, for example.   Create an intention to notice what you can see that looks good, or beautiful, or pleasing in some way, and then to take 15-20 seconds (or more, if you want) to allow yourself to really enjoy it.  Then, throughout the day, see what you can see as beautiful/good in some way, giving yourself time to appreciate it and take it in.

look with care photo by shannon mayhew

Just noticing and allowing are enough, but if you are inclined, you could even photograph, draw or journal to further enhance your trip.  It’s your portal adventure; might as well make it fun.

Then, pick a different sense tomorrow.  The others may be less obvious than sight, but they are there.  As you go through your day, listen.  Allow what is beautiful in the world to find you through sound.  Listen to the noises of friendliness at the grocery store, or to the rushing sounds of your pipes, bringing life-giving water right into your home.  The breathing-hum a person makes when you hug them, or that your dog makes when you rest your head on her scruff. Throughout the day, notice, appreciate, and allow.

Next day, maybe breathe in the morning moisture and let the smells of autumn remind you that this very moment is changing in color. All day, allow the clean cotton laundry smell to ground you in gratitude for warmth and clean clothing.  Draw in simmering food smells, the smell of possibility in fresh cut wood at Lowe’s (yeah, we spend a lot of time there), the scent of the top of a loved one’s head where you place a kiss.

Then, there is a day to appreciate touch.  The smoothness of sheets as you slide your feet out of bed in the morning. The heat of the steam lifting from your coffee mug.  The aliveness of your skin.  The silk of a dog’s ear, and the fuzz on the top of her nose.  The way a hug can  pour into you, filling  you up, or turn your stress into water that streams down your back.

Fuzziness photo by shannon mayhew

Tasting day is going to be fun — eating mindfully and savoring so many tastes offered within each meal.  Even a deep breath tastes good, when it is drawn in with appreciation.

Notice.  Appreciate.  Allow.  Focus on one sense each day for the next five days, and let me know how you like your adventure.  Come back and comment after a day or two, or five.  I want to know, did your portals lead you, or maybe catapult you, into the present?

Did you find magic?

magic photo by shannon mayhew

Ahhh….

The kids are back to school.  The house is quiet, and Casey and I have mixed feelings about that.

flat Casey photo by shannon mayhew

We miss them.

But, we have some time to write!

Casey perks up photo by shannon mayhew

The extra quiet around here gives me the chance to focus on the blog, and to let you know what you can expect to see here this fall.

In this re-focusing, I thought about all of the things that I do.   I teach yoga, work with kids on managing stress, write bedtime stories and poetry, and I take photos and write for you on this blog.  Why?  I asked myself, what is the common thread that weaves it all together?

And the answer has to do with the title of this post.  You know that feeling you get when you are just coming out of deep relaxation after a yoga class?  Or if  you haven’t been to yoga (what are  you waiting for?), it’s this feeling when you are moved by a poem or a photograph.

zinnea photo by shannon mayhew

Or when you breathe relief through your body, when a particular source of stress has been removed.  Or you have one of those nights where you go to sleep feeling safe, cozy and content.

The feeling of “ahhh…..”  That is what I want to offer, through all I do and create.  When you are feeling “ahhh,” you are in tune with your sense of wonder and passion; it’s your soul saying, “yes, this is you.”

The sound ahhh can be found in most of the names we give for the Divine.  It is the sound of the breath, which draws the force of life throughout our bodies.

And ahh can unite us with one another, when several of us are connected with something that feels true and intense and beautiful.  As we say in yoga, when you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are one.

Namaste.

My first podcast!

We have a command center that gives us access to how the  brain interprets our feelings.  It’s called “the body.”  When you bring your awareness fully into your body, you are at the controls.

Welcome back!  Things look different around here.  That’s because the folks who host my website discontinued their blog services, so I moved over to WordPress.  I plan to bring back all the previous posts over time – probably not until after summer though!  I have been busy running through the sprinkler with the girls and collecting seashells, oh, and also reaching out with my message in some exciting new ways.

Last month I had the amazing opportunity to do an interview with Ari Meisel of lessdoing.com.  In the interview, we talk about depression, and how healing can occur when we create better feeling states via the body.  We also discuss gratitude, learning, nutrition, parenting, and even how to get to Sesame Street!

Ari is a parent,  yogi, Ironman, and productivity expert.  He wrote the book “Less Doing, More Living” and has also given a Ted Talk about his amazing journey in healing from Chron’s Disease.  Ari has had many exciting guests on his show, and I am honored to have had this opportunity!

During the first half-hour of the podcast, Ari talks with his co-host Felix Bird about methods and tools to improve productivity, health and wellbeing.  If you want to jump right to the interview with me, it is around 31 minutes into the podcast.  But you might find some useful information in the whole show if you have the time.

Enjoy.  And please share your comments or questions!

 

Bio

Last year I attended a great conference held by the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.  I learned so much about both the craft and the industry of writing books for children, but the one piece of advice that resonated most strongly with me was offered by Jill Santopolo, author and executive editor at Philomel Books/Penguin Group.

“Connect with your readers emotionally, by drawing them in through the senses,” she offered.

snuggle morning photo by shannon mayhew

Yes!  I’ve been working with using the senses in yoga to help manage strong emotions (“Embracing Anger“), and to help people access the emotional state of gratitude (“Milk It“).  In fact, I’m so excited to let you know that this week I’ll be talking with “the James Bond of productivity,” Ari Meisel, about my method forBody Gratitude.  I will let you know when the podcast is available on Ari’s “Less Doing Radio.”

So it makes sense (I always intend the pun) that the senses create a pathway for us to access our emotions in writing as well as in yoga.

Another piece of advice that I seem to keep hearing everywhere, is to connect with adult readers by showing your vulnerability.  Hmm… this one is less easy for me, but here goes.

Since the statistics tell me that this spring there are many more of you finding my blog (welcome!), I’ll take this opportunity to put myself out there and share a kind of Bio.  No fancy schooling or job descriptions — just an experiment in connection.  Hope you like it…

Bio

1970’s
I’m from August alley wiffle ball games
I am up to bat,
graveldust sticking to scraped shins
Thick breezes carry garlic and soy
I’m from tiny houses, big cars
Roller skate to Pency’s to buy Dots
and cap-gun ammunition
I’m from race you home after school –
Wednesdays we run hurdles
Five garbage bags in one leap
Steer clear of the tough kids, so desperate for their own power
Fourth Street kids play board games on a splintered picnic table
Maria sits underneath and peeks at Clue cards
We laugh, and eat Doritos and egg rolls (made with urgency and gratitude)

1980’s
I’m from dusk cornfield hide-and-seek
Crunching footsteps, rustling stalks
reveal your position
Winds carry pine, cut grass, pungent fertilized fields
I’m from rooftop stargazing, boisterous crickets
Ripples, stone-skips, echoing toad-croaks
Three-legged skunk snacking on patio catfood
Climbing trees
Stinging bees
Mudpies, inchworms, cattails
Cats, miracle kittens, life emerging from life,
and settling to stillness in garden graves
with geode headstones
I’m from orange tabby sunsets
Ropeswings, tied to trees, creaking and swishing
As I swing into a creamsicle sky

Where I'm From photo by Don Beltz
photo by my dad
and first photography teacher, Don Beltz!

So, that’s me.