Before I could begin this daily practice of joy, I had to spend time in a dark place in which so much became obscured; where little seemed likely, let alone possible; where neither love of self nor of the Divine surfaced freely; where the desiccated comforts of the past no longer held promise; where only limited ideas of what is possible subsisted; where even the distant light seemed an imagined mirage. From deep behind very tired eyes, I mirrored out a very tired world.
It was there I began to rediscover myself and slowly reawaken to the light of the possible, to the Love and joy that never leave us.
In that self-imposed cloistered cell, one of the practices that helped me gradually awaken was the practice of witnessing. I read a blog by Ram Dass that resonated at a time when I really needed something to come through and sing!
He wrote: "One way to get free of attachment is to cultivate the witness consciousness, to become a neutral observer of your own life. The witness place inside you is simple awareness, the part of you that is aware of everything — just noticing, watching, not judging, just being present, being here now."
I loved that — because my longtime companion has been a judging voice, and the person I judged the most was always me! To just witness, without bludgeoning or condemning. . .what a relief!
Ram Dass continued: "Witnessing yourself is like directing the beam of a flashlight back at itself. . .The witness is your awareness of your own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Witnessing is like waking up in the morning and then looking in the mirror and noticing yourself — not judging or criticizing, just neutrally observing the quality of being awake. That process of stepping back takes you out of being submerged in your experiences and thoughts and sensory input and into self-awareness. Along with that self-awareness comes the subtle joy of just being here, alive, enjoying being present in this moment."
That’s what happened for me. As I gradually moved out of self-judgment into the slightest glimmer of Love, my lifelong habit of self-loathing lessened. By directing that gentle flashlight beam back at myself, I was able to see the way my habitual thought patterns kept me in a rut, and begin to make choices that allowed me the possibility of transformation.
It was from this more self-aware place that I wrote my first Daily Practice of Joy blog at the beginning of April. And from there, over the past four months, both practices of witnessing and joy have blossomed! (For those of you interested in learning more, this is a terrific article: https://www.ramdass.org/cultivating-witness/)
The past two weeks since returning home, I have had the opportunity to practice both joy and witnessing in myriad ways: I am home for four whole weeks, before heading out on the road for another three months. After spending most of the past five months traveling, I have a newfound appreciation for where I live. Add to that yet another impending long journey away from my home and dogs. . .it has all engendered in me a very conscious choice to be here now!
This came up very strongly the other night when I was walking in my neighborhood and found myself chatting with a woman I know only slightly about how much we love where we live. Suddenly, I heard myself sharing with her that my landlord was planning on selling the place where I am living, and that after settling back in after my travels in the fall, I hoped to find a way to buy it, if he would extend my lease a few months so I could come home from my travels without having to jump into any major changes. I shared with her that, in fact, this is my favorite place I have ever lived in my adult life.
Without missing a beat, she exclaimed, "Chris is selling! Oh! I want to buy it. I am going to email him right when I get home."
I felt stunned. I didn't even know she knew Chris. Actually, I'm pretty sure my jaw literally dropped. But I only managed to lamely mumble, "I just said that I was hoping to buy it. . "Oh yes," she went on blithely. "Well, if I buy it, you can certainly stay for a few months after your travels."
At this point, I actually burst into tears. Which surprised even me.
Suddenly she was taken aback, and bowed an awkward namaste, and moved away. A few hours later, after I had chatted with my landlord, he let me know that she had indeed emailed him and was very interested in buying.
I love my home. It feels like a light-filled sanctuary surrounded by trees and birds and meadows Whenever I return from a trip or have the privilege of being here for a week or ten days, I feel pure joy and such relief. But because my job takes me where people hire me -- to design their homes, to speak, to make appearances -- I have had to recognize that I have no control of my future. I can only lean, listen, and trust.
If I think about losing my home or wonder where I am going to be in half a year, I could rapidly descend back into that dark place from which I have only just recently emerged. But not for nothing have I been practicing joy, witnessing myself, making a commitment to stay in the light. As usual, it all comes down to fear or Love. These past two weeks, I have consciously chosen Love. Specifically, I have chosen to witness all the things I love about where I live and to feel immense gratitude for the privilege of living here.
This has been made easier by sharing Santa Fe with Darlene and her granddaughter Anais, who have allowed me to see Northern New Mexico (where I have lived for over 25 years) with suddenly fresh eyes. Because I spend so much time on the road visiting new places, I have mostly loved the familiarity of coming home. But these past 10 days, I have enjoyed being here in much the same way I enjoy being on the road -- in a spirit of exploration and appreciation.
But in order to do this, to really do this, I have had to face down a familiar old nemesis -- my bosom buddy, workaholism. Every morning, I witness the anxiety with which I awaken, the looming panic of my massive To Do List. I start chipping away at that damned list, only to watch it mushroom by the afternoon with emails asking whether I have done something yet, with phone calls that become unreturned voicemails, with tasks that slip lower and lower in priority and yet still need to be completed. If I stay mired in that list, I might as well live in a darkened cell in the middle of nowhere and tattoo the word WORKAHOLIC to my forehead. If my list becomes me, who cares where I live, because I have given up on how I live.
So, after I answer the most urgent emails, tick off the most pressing tasks, make the most important phone calls, I make myself take a long long walk among the yellow flowers in riotous bloom along the side of the path and reconnect to my joy. And from that freed place, I suddenly see the ways in which I have become the taskmaster of my own life -- just like my father in The Ten Commandments. Unlikely casting for us both!
And then I am able to lay aside my list for long stretches of each day and just have FUN!!!
We have hiked through aspen groves, been tourists on the Plaza, wandered through a museum during a torrential downpour, shopped in all my favorite local stores and eaten with friends and family at most of my favorite restaurants, gone to the Opera, visited art galleries, walked Canyon Road, driven through tiny backroad villages, trekked through national monuments, seen Minions (where we adults laughed as hard if not harder than the kids), made a pilgrimage to my favorite climbing tree in my beloved hidden orchard, gone horseback riding, eaten more tortilla chips and guacamole than I would have thought humanly consumable, gone to tourist traps and cut-rate fabric stores to find what we need to make doll clothes, played make-believe games with stuffed animals, and made imaginary cakes on iPads!
But there was one moment in particular that I know my heart will always remember. Darlene and I had just picked Anais up from the airport and her very first solo plane ride, and taken her to lunch. The three of were driving through Albuquerque, and I asked her what kind of music she liked. She picked a Spotify station with mash-up pop songs performed by a group of teenagers with surprisingly good voices. We cranked the radio up and, while driving on possibly one of the ugliest stretches of Route 66, we all started to car dance. I felt a smile begin to surface from a depth of childlike joy I had come to believe I might never again be able to access. A place of life and love and hope and elation and fun and silliness and laughter and connectedness and and and . . . In that instant I understood the gift that my dark night had been in resurfacing my joy. Without my willingness to relinquish the familiar -- "to give up all the other worlds except the one to which I belong" -- I would never have known what I understood from my whole swelling heart right then and there . . . that the power of light and Love can never be dampened, let alone extinguished. That dark womb of Love really did bring me to this horizon from which I will never again succumb to living a too-small life or condemn myself to the slavery of insular expectations grooved like ruts in my soul. Car dancing to teenage pop while driving through a destitute neighborhood under a searing summer sky, I remembered what none of us can ever really forget -- the extraordinary joy of being deeply alive and filled with Love. The truth that eventually sets us all free: None of us are ever beyond Love.