We are two nights away from the Winter Solstice. It is the darkest time of the year, and we are in the second year where sickness has moved around the world and destabilized all of us. It's a second Christmas where many families are forced apart, where masks are worn in supermarkets, where we remain tethered to our devices, because many of our social supports fell away in 2020 and we're not entirely sure when they'll reappear.
And I find myself wanting to document a few big blessings of this year. Before our planet starts to chart its path back to the sun. And take a moment to be thankful to you all for being part of this journey.
The sangha jewel
In Buddhism, we learn about the "three jewels". They are Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha is clear enough. He is the mind scientist, the spiritual doctor who was able to diagnose the human condition, and understand where suffering comes from and how it can cease. "Dharma" means the teachings, the methods he taught. It also means the realizations of these teachings, such as love, compassion, patience, and wisdom, that become alive within us.
And "Sangha" means our fellow spiritual practitioners. Our community. We are taught that we need to rely on all three in our practice - and each has an equal importance.
In 2021, sangha came to life in way that deeply moved me. This photo above is from this summer, when a group of us from across the state gathered together in a beautiful forest home in midcoast Maine. This is when I realized viscerally that meditating as a group is A THOUSAND times more powerful than meditating alone.
Hanging out with sangha is inspiring. We see other humans trying to navigate the path to being kinder versions of themselves. We need to see these good examples around us, it's how we learn as humans. I am thankful for my Maine meditation community, and our amazing teacher in Boston, Gen Khedrub, who has nurtured our community here like a master gardener.
The photos below show the 'Maine Meditation Tour' we organized this summer. Free meditation classes were held in parks up the blissful Maine coast. It was a joyful week. Then, in September, our in-person classes started again in Portland. After 18 months of being on hiatus, suddenly now we were able to meet again in the holy setting of the Portland New Church. The year of Maine Dharma came to a close on December 13 when Gen Khedrub gave a talk for students, staff and faculty at Bowdoin College about 25 miles north of Portland. More info on that amazing event here.
Tim and the cats
About a month or so after she passed, a friend texted me a photo of a kitten who had been found in a trash bag in a dump somewhere in a southern state. We reached out to the rescue organization and before we knew it, we were welcoming Gus and Leo into our lives. About two weeks after their arrival, Tim started to realize that Gus was in fact not Gus but a female cat, who we renamed Mei. She has also proven to be of Bengal origins, which means she's rather wild, likes to stay up high and pounce out at Leo from surprising angles. The fact that Leo is a big, sturdy male, is helpful in this respect!
I spend many days thanking myself for marrying Tim all those years ago. He's a consistently kind person and moving to Maine was a wonderful decision. It's a state that is staggeringly beautiful. While it's hard to be far from family, I hope that many of you can start to come and visit us in coming years. It's a beautiful, blessed part of the world and please know we should have a spare room appearing in our attic in 2022 or 2023.
Farmers and forests
I would drive down the road once a week and come home with peonies and chard, raspberries, all kinds of herbs, and celery so green I didn't know what it was. One of the best things about doing this was getting to know the local farmers. Getting to know their routines and their struggles too, as the strange rains and strange cycles of weather were reported via their email newsletter. All of this helped me build more compassion and more understanding. Meanwhile, all those veggies helped to build strong immunity in both Tim and I.
The Stream out back has continued to be the most wonderful teacher. While the cats have been teaching me all about love, the forest has been teaching me about emptiness and impermanence. Nothing stays the same in the forest for a moment. (Neither does it anywhere else in our lives.)
Being a global family
On December 18th, I reached out to one woman in particular, who I like to call my third grandmother of this life: Queta. She is one of the most loving and spiritual people I know. When I was four years old and my mum went back to work, she moved into our family home in Hong Kong. She helped to run our household for the next 20 or so years.
It was her 83rd birthday on December 18th, and while contacting her, I learned Queta and her family had just survived one of the most horrific storms in recent memory. Super Typhoon Rai has ripped most of their roofing out, and they have lost electricity possibly for months. Her family is in need of some help. As the holiday season is a time of giving, I have thus built my first ever GoFundMe campaign! And I would love to invite you to donate! If you have a few dollars/pounds to spare, please consider donating! Even if it's just a few dollars, it will be a real help to Queta's family and her neighbors.
(Deadline is Jan 4th, at which point I'm heading off social media for a month of meditation retreat.)
Love as the great protector
In many respects 2021 was a super challenging year. As part of my work, I host a podcast for HR audiences. In 2021, I interviewed behavioral health experts throughout the year, and by September, the Chief Scientific Officer at McLean Hospital was warning us of huge effects now taking a hold on the wider population. You can hear that episode here, he offers some wonderful advice. But in recent months, I think many of us have seen people feeling burned out.
There were a few moments in the fall, where I felt beyond exhaustion and was starting to lose my center of gravity too (a quick note about that here). But those moments were also followed by deeper insight. As Buddha taught, we're like the lotus that grows and blooms into its full potential while being rooted in the mud. We practice amid all the challenges of daily life. The longer I practice, the more I appreciate the words of my teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche, that developing compassion and wisdom and helping those in need is the real meaning of our lives.
PS. And there is a GREAT video about Jan retreat here (I'm not attending the NYC one, but listening to these two teachers is amazing!)