Frequently, when I’m stressed about something, I succumb to migraine headaches.  Several years back, I went to Mayo Clinic’s Headache Clinic, to see if there was a solution.  To my surprise, my doctor said an interesting thing: “Did you know, Elissa, that having a headache is similar to practicing the piano?  The more your brain gets headaches, the more it continues to get them, because it’s memorized a certain way of doing things.  It’s a vicious cycle.  The solution is to catch the headache at its onset, so it doesn’t have a chance to go down those neurological pathways.  You’ll be retraining your brain.”  So I followed his advice.  I took something if I felt the teensiest of symptoms coming on, and it seemed to work.  Before, I would wait and wait, hoping the headache would dissipate on its own, and by doing so, I was unwittingly contributing to my ongoing problem.

There are other things I practice, but I don’t mean to.  Thoughts that are judgmental or selfish or jealous.  You know, the usual.  And “practicing” them works the same way as my brain “practicing” its headaches.  Practice becomes habit.  Isn’t that an awful thing to realize?

It’s all about intention and positive practice.

Another example: we model appropriate behavioral responses with Liliana.  Of course we can’t think of them all–who can?–but we find that she is more able to stick up for herself if she has reenacted the bullying scenario several times.


I shove her.

She frowns and says, “No thank you,” and as she’s walking away, she’s saying, “And now I walk away.”  It’s funny, but she wants to repeat the role play over and over.  Maybe she’s wishing it were that easy.  Maybe I’m hoping it’s that easy.  [But really, come on, what bully is going to accept, “No thank you?”]  It’s a start, at least.

We hear the word karma a lot, and because it’s used so frequently, we may not know what it really means.  Karma is all about cause and effect.  In other words, what you sow, you reap.  And by this, we create our own karma.

An excerpt from Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart:

“A good way to begin to understand karma is by observing our habit patterns.  When we look at habit and conditioning, we can sense how our brain and consciousness create repeated patterns.  If we practice tennis enough, we will anticipate our next hit as soon as the ball leaves the other player’s racquet.  If we practice being angry, the slightest insult will trigger our rage.  These patterns are like a rewritable CD.  When they are burned in repeatedly, the pattern becomes the regular response.  Modern neuroscience has demonstrated this quite convincingly.  Our repeated patterns of thought and action actually change our nervous system.  Each time we focus our attention and follow our intentions, our nerves fire, synapses connect, and those neural patterns are strengthened.  The neurons literally grow along that direction.

“What we practice becomes habit.

“We can work with habits…we can rewire our nervous system.  The genesis of this transformation is our intention….Through mindfulness and non-identification, we can choose a new intention.  We can do this moment by moment, and we can also set long-term intentions to transform our life.”

Kornfield goes on:

“Setting a long-term intention is like setting the compass of our heart.  No matter how rough the storms, how difficult the terrain, even if we have to backtrack around obstacles, our direction is clear.”

And we must always begin with ourselves.

“Rodney was a young activist who wanted to help foster peace on earth.  When he learned meditation, he realized he also had to find peace within himself.  He dedicated his energy to first make his own heart and family a zone of peace.  From this his commitment expanded and he trained in human rights and conflict resolution at Columbia.  Now he works for the UN in a mission in West Africa.  In each step his dedication has carried him, and he has embodied the words of Wendell Berry: ‘If we are serious about peace, then we must work for it as ardently, seriously, continuously, carefully, and bravely as we now prepare for war.’

“When we read something like this, it is inspiring.  It touches our own innate nobility and courage.  But it can also bring up guilt and self-doubt: What about me?  Am I doing enough?  Why isn’t my life as ‘noble’ as Rodney’s?

“It is good to question our own dedication, even if it makes us uncomfortable.  To what have we dedicated our life?  How deeply do we carry this dedication?  Is it time to rededicate our life?  But comparing oneself to someone else is useless.  Rodney’s dedication is not ours.  We have to be true to our own way.  I heard a story about a school principal who spent part of her evenings making sandwiches for the homeless.  After she finished she would travel around the poorer parts of the city and distribute them.  Even though her day was already full, this late-night activity didn’t overwhelm her.  It actually made her happy.  She didn’t do it out of guilt, duty, or external pressure.  She simply shared in a way that made a difference for her.  Even when she was rebuffed by those to whom she offered food on the street, she didn’t feel rejected or angry, because she wasn’t doing it for the acceptance or appreciation.

“Then the local media heard what she was doing and printed a story about her.  Instantly she became a minor celebrity.  The public, even her fellow teachers, started sending her money to support her work.  Much to their surprise, she sent back the money to everyone with a one-line note that said: ‘Make your own damn sandwiches!’”

Excellent point.

On a more personal note, I’ve recently turned down a huge opportunity, something that could bring me a larger audience, something that could give me a “platform” to speak from.  The decision itself caused much pain and sorrow, because my mind was counteracting the truth that my body felt.  In the end, I realized the opportunity didn’t fit the intention I had set for me, way back when, and I had to stay true to me.

I told Dan this morning, “I’d rather die anonymous and happy than famous and miserable.”  It was a dramatic statement, more for effect than truth, but in many ways it’s true.  If I stay true to me, then I will find the right way in the world for me.

“Thomas Merton once advised a young activist, ‘Do not depend on the hope of results…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.  As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.’  By aligning our dedication with our highest intention, we chart the course of our whole being.  Then no matter how hard the voyage and how big the setbacks, we know where we are headed.”

May you remember your own intention today.  Practice it, mindfully.  For by doing so, you’ll reap what you have sown.

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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