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EASING OUT OF COMPULSION, EASING IN TO CHOICE

brainThere are lots of ways in which we as human beings can get caught under the vast net of stress in our lives. We oftentimes find ourselves feeling trapped by difficult circumstances and the attending feelings and thoughts that arise from them. All of this can create a sense of being overwhelmed and life at times can appear unmanageable. We then struggle and we suffer. Often times the root cause no longer exists but our coping strategies themselves have become problematic.

For instance, we may initially have found some short term relief in the pleasure of eating, in particular rich comfort food laden with simple carbohydrates. These foods produce feel-good chemicals in our body and we get a quick surge. Unfortunately, and just as rapidly, we then get a marked drop in energy and mood. The same is true of addictions of all kinds, alcohol, cigarettes, too much TV, too much social media…the list is endless. And it can be an endless loop unless we step out of the ring.

Beginning and maintaining a mindfulness practice has shown to bring healthful and lasting relief to the stress in our lives that is simply part of daily living and relief from the compulsions and bad habits that are largely maladaptive coping strategies.

women meditatingIn an original research article published in Frontiers in Psychology (2015), short term meditation was shown to significantly enhance cerebral blood flow in areas of the brain critical for self-regulation. These are the areas of the brain that support us in good decision making and in overcoming unhealthy habits and addictions of all kinds.

Collaborating researchers from the University of Oregon, University of Texas/Austin and the Institute of Neuroinformatics at Dalian University in China discovered changes in the anterior cingulate cortex and insula in the brains of those who had been only meditating for 5 days (30 minutes a day). These parts of the brain have also been reported to be associated with positive mood.

The study showed neuroplasticity (changes in the brain) demonstrated with fMri imaging and consistent mood improvement reported by participants as well.

These findings provides hopeful news that regulating our emotions and responses doesn’t have to be an arduous, protracted process but it does take discipline. The benefits reported are only maintained by continued practice.

And there are many mindfulness practices you can engage in. It can be helpful to begin with guided meditations. It can be a little tricky starting out on your own and a guide gives instruction and support. You can find several of them here on this website for free. There is no sign up or commitment involved, except a commitment to yourself to show up and practice and trusting in that.

Wherever you are on your journey, may you have compassion for yourself. May you healthy and happy.   IMG_0050

THE MUSE: MINDFULNESS WEARABLES

What about a headpiece to help you to train your brain? As mindfulness continues to gain acceptance as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, it too has become lucrative fodder for inventors and investors who see its potential amidst the big business wellness industry.

Like the Fitbit wristband that measures your movements towards the goal of physical fitness, the latest gadget to help you meditate and improve your focus is called the Muse. At a price tag of about $299, this headband uses electroencephalography sensors to measure the activity of your neurons to detect when your mind is focused and when it’s not.

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The piece sits behind your ears with a thin plastic band with the sensors stretching across your forehead.

With headphones on, the app begins to measure your brain activity as it coaches you through exercises to help you focus. For instance, as you begin the app prompts you to think about musical instruments or well-known celebrities. It then asks you to bring your attention to your breath. Counting your breath as sounds of nature play in the background; the sounds themselves can signify that your mind is starting to drift away from your point of attention.080322a8447 (1)

A session last several minutes and produce for you a line graph that details brain activity in percentages of active, neutral, and calm states. You earn points (little birdy icons) for the times you were calm.

The Muse creatively uses the latest in neuroscience to effectively engage the firing of neurons in our brain. This is good! It is fun. We all like fun. Another real positive is that this latest cool shiny object may actually be the catalyst to entice you to sit down and experiment with meditating. Its carrot approach that provides “rewards” for when you reach some moments of calm focus may keep you coming back and practicing. If you continue to work with it and see some noticeable benefits, (initial reviewers who are new to meditation have found it helpful), you may become interested in sitting and meditating without it or learning more.

In other words, it could lead to fully experiencing and working with mindfulness and its ability to transform, inspire and engender compassion.

Conversely, the nature of novelties is that they tend to peak quickly in popularity and fall from favor in the same fashion (most of my friends that ran out and bought a Fitbit are no longer wearing them or even know where they put them)! It will be interesting to follow up with Muse wearers in a year and see if they are still wearing them daily.

The marketplace eagerly responds to our perennial search for the magic bullet, the quick and easy fix. AND as anyone who practices mindfulness will tell you, instant gratification leaves you grasping for more and more in order to satisfy.

What neuroscientists have also discovered is that when you stop, the brain returns to its wandering mind. It’s our default mode network. Just like our muscles atrophy when we stop lifting weights or exercising.

To learn to be become focused, present, and calm is a process and a daily discipline, just as eating healthfully and getting physical exercise is a lifelong journey. Time and effort are required to build consistent concentration and equanimity.

If you understand that the Muse or any similar device, can be useful if employed as part of a larger program, and you can afford it, give it a try.

I would love to hear from you 365 days from date of purchase.

MINDFUL HUGGING PRACTICE

There is truly no greater gift to give someone than your full, pure presence. We intuitively know this to be true. Perhaps you can recall a time in your own life when you’ve had the experience of someone’s complete and undivided attention. What did it feel like? The feelings may have been profound or subtle, but are almost universally life-affirming.

How were they embodying that presence? We often recognize that the body is relaxed and quiet; the emotional energy is clear and focused. Their shared thoughts back to you reflect a deep state of listening. meditation_selfcompassion

Yet we also know this is a rare occurrence. How often do we really give our full attention to someone? Our child is sharing their day and we are only partially listening while we cook dinner, fold laundry, return a work text. We are having a conversation with a friend or a coworker and simultaneously remembering a task undone or impatiently waiting for them to finish so it’s ‘our turn’. This is a human tendency. Fortunately, we can choose to communicate in a more skillful, even transformative way. Read more

REWIRING YOUR BRAIN

2006-3-8-tree-pathUsually we start a new personal development program (whether that be practicing mindfulness, getting physically fit,  eating more healthfully) with a great burst of enthusiasm. Yet after the initial “excitement” wears off, and despite our best intentions, we sometimes find we don’t follow through on our commitment. We don’t persist. Perhaps we don’t see immediate results so we become disheartened. Our efforts dwindle or we stop altogether.

And the not so helpful habits…they’re right there. So instead of feeling bad about this, perhaps even a little guilty, what to do? How do we re-engage in this moment our commitment to be more present?

We can remember that we are re-wiring our brain and that this takes time. Mindfulness practices are among the most powerful agents of brain change known to modern science. Practitioners have know this for centuries from their own lived experience: feeling less stress, having a better memory, enjoying greater happiness. And now in a growing number of research studies, we are seeing actual changes in brain structure that confirm these experiences in the lab, in a relatively short period of time.    The first study to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s grey matter was led by a team at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Participants in an 8 week program who practiced mindfulness an average of 27 minutes a day at least 6 days a week were shown in MRI imaging to have measurable changes in brain structure, the regions associated with learning, memory, self-awareness and compassion were growing (grey matter increasing), and those regions involved with stress and anxiety were shrinking (grey matter) decreasing.

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PUTTING YOUR STORY DOWN

For some time now, my three children (20-somethings) share this little mantra with me, often accompanied by a big grin. It goes like this: “Just do you, Mom!”

be yourselfWhether that means wearing a funky flowered hat, leading a guided meditation on the quad of a local campus, or making friends in line at the RMV, I find this call to just be myself a lovely affirmation every time I hear it.

I believe their call to me is an echo back from my daily attempts to encourage their discoveries about themselves ever since they began that discernment process.  Of course, like all of us, they have shifted and morphed as they “tried on” various versions of who of “being them” might include: jock, artist, rock star, philanthropist, hipster, or adventurer.  Some they have tossed out of hand.   Others have become integral pieces of who they are.

And of course, like all of us, they have suffered. There have been grave losses, illness, dark times, and broken dreams.  Yet, I have seen these unwanted crucibles, time and again, transform them in miraculous ways to  live life fully present.  There seems to be no profound personal or spiritual advancement without them.

However, the most challenging experiences, in fact all experiences, can also be places where we can get stuck. 070711a7017 (1)

The journey of who we are and why we are is a life-long one. The task is made more difficult when we hold onto particular stories in our personal history, identities about ourselves that don’t tell the whole story.

Students come to my classes to reduce stress, alleviate anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and  illness. There is much relief in discovering there is a common thread of suffering among participants.

Sometimes their first identifier when introducing themselves to the group is  along the lines of, “I am a recovering alcoholic,” “I am a survivor of abuse,” “I am a divorced single mother,” and so on.

It is powerful and healing to share these parts of ourselves as sources of demonstrated strength, resilience, and a tenacity to rise above.  Both speaker and listener are inspired and connect deeply with one other. They are living proof that we as humans can go through the worst and come out the other side.

Even more generally, an introductory description may be,  “I am a Mom/Dad/Lawyer/Nurse/ _” (fill in the blank.) There is a natural tendency to identify with our roles at home or in the workplace.

020206_trdp_s6 (1)All of these experiences, the challenging and the fulfilling, are hugely important facts.   These experiences help to shape us. AND THEY ARE NOT US. Each of us is much more than the sum of all our stories.      

Clinging to your personal history as it IS you, is at best incomplete and at worst, leaves you unable to see clearly what is here for you in the present. Self-descriptions are a good deal about what has happened to you, how you dealt with it, the work you do, and the people in your lives.

061006_cr_5659 (1)To widen our perspective, we become aware of what is around us and within us now, in this moment. Embracing your past and your roles from this perspective, you have a spaciousness to see that all your stories are not the final truth.

Honor and accept where you have been and what you “do”, utilizing it in the present where need be. But release the tight attachment to your stories.  They will not disappear if you let go of your over-identification. Nothing gets lost.

“Just doing you”‘ is the quiet call to the present…the modern version of “just be you”. Releasing our stories, if only for a time, allows us to widen the container of our life.

In this container, there is no need to put labels on who we are.  We can live unencumbered by our own or other’s definition of who we are, we see things with fresh eyes.

“Just do you” is the vibrancy of noticing what’s around you right now: a smooth pottery coffee mug, cloud formations or rain at the windows.  People and animals, landscape and cityscape, offering themselves for your enjoyment.

The authentic you arises naturally from this place. Try it.  You may discover a lightness and a rightness about being you in this moment.

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FULL CATASTROPHE LIVING

Our title today is taken from the ground breaking book, Full Catastrophe Living (1992) by premier leader in the field of mind/body training and the founder of the University of Massachusetts Stress Reduction Clinic at UMASS Medical School, Jon Kabat-Zinn.     dreamstime_7048996 (1)

This book  has long since been dog-eared and worn thin by its continual use as an invaluable instruction manual for me. “His major research interests which include mind/body interactions for healing, clinical application of mindfulness meditation for people with chronic pain and stress-related disorders, and the societal application of mindfulness,” align with my own.

While I entered this stream of contemplative practices long ago from the opening of spirituality vs. the current tide of science and medicine; they are in some ways one and the same stream.

In living the full catastrophe, we accept the pleasurable experiences of life and the painful ones with a quiet balance towards them, not getting too wrapped up in clinging towards one or running from the other.  Understanding in a deeper sense that both of these are just passing phenomena, we can be with either.  

For instance, this morning my mind continued to play the daily theme it has done for some weeks now. With frigid temperatures continuing, along with my chronic, cold induced cough, I think,  “I need a vacation.” Perhaps you’ve had this thought recently too? Many, many others thoughts follow this, but they are all stem from this one.

100414a1266 (1)And there is nothing wrong with this thought (or any other for that matter).  Vacating your life for a bit, whether for a week, a month, or even a long weekend (especially if there are turquoise waters involved) can push the refresh button on our minds and bodies.  We log in so much information and activity every day. The amount we can or choose to delete never really a significant de-cluttering of brain space.

And here is some more thinking, “Some warm weather may help me with this winter cough…”

But what if  we can’t take a vacation or we got to take a vacation and it didn’t “take?” Whatever problems we have, whatever inner turmoil, doesn’t necessarily or even likely cease just because we have gone somewhere other than where we are.

If you have been struggling with sadness, anxiety, or anger before you left, chances are there will be moments while you are away that these emotions still arise.  The saying  “wherever you go, there you are”(a title of another book by Kabat-ZInn by the way) is an undeniable truth.

Since you ARE here right now, being here is always an option.

You can make room for moments right now that are exceptional and rich by not going anywhere. How? By engaging with the art of non-doing.  By being present to comfort and discomfort alike, with no particular preference.  By not judging yourself for not doing, but instead just seeing what IS here.  

As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, “The flavor and joy of non-doing is difficult for Americans to grasp because our culture places so much value on doing and on progress. Even our leisure tends to be busy and mindless.  The joy of non-doing is that nothing else needs to happen for this moment to be complete.  The wisdom in it, and the equanimity that comes out of it, lies in knowing that something else surely will.”

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Right now, there is sunlight peeking through the frost covered windows of my bright alcove in my office. A host of bird songs are making themselves known on the evergreens outside.  Cars are speeding past this little cottage while my dog sleeps.  I can breathe in warm steam and hot tea and smile at this fortune.  I can send out thoughts of healing for myself and everyone else who is coughing this morning. I can notice how warm my feet feel in these slippers.

All this from non-doing.  What is in this moment for you?

   

FOLLOWING YOUR INTUITION

This summer, I went out to Northern California to attend a silent retreat for a week at the Spirit Rock Center.  There was a lot of guffawing from friends and family back East, about me being silent for a whole week.  I am a talker! A shamelessly fast talking flamboyant one at that….at times.  But I wanted to deepen my daily meditation practice, shake off the daily dust that was gumming up the works in my mind.  Image

Have you ever had that experience with records (yes, I’m dating myself), where something almost invisible to the naked eye gets caught in the grooves, the needle gets stuck, and you keep hearing the same few lines again and again?  Well, the daily little things of life were like those mites, stanching the flow of my inner voice, so I was only hearing it in bits and pieces. Hard to trust a voice with the annoying habit of repeating itself mid-sentence, with occasional volume amplification.

There were some persistent “gut feelings” I had been experiencing regarding major decisions on a particular work issue and the direction of a couple of close relationships. And it should be noted that I am an intuitive type, who has often acted on the sheer intensity of my perceptions. Still I wasn’t clear on how to respond.

In other words, I wasn’t sure if I could trust my intuition. I mean, what is intuition exactly?  Carl Jung said that intuition was “perception via the unconscious.”  He called it the right-brained ability to understand something immediately without the need for conscious reasoning (left-brained activity).

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Checking one half of your brain at the door while making some of life’s most important decisions doesn’t seem, well, logical, right?

Well, not so fast. This is only partially correct.  They are different ways to know things and many kinds of knowledge. The knowing I was seeking was not why moths are attracted to light or why is it that my washing machine is shrinking everything lately, but self-knowledge and perhaps with that, wisdom.

All the great spiritual traditions, as well as the latest findings in the areas of neuroscience, have consistently demonstrated that awakenings or the ability to “see” clearly, occur during long periods of meditation and consistent daily meditation over a long period of time.

Thomas Merton, a 20th century Contemplative who sought to bridge Western and Eastern philosophies, said, “Without realizing it, life without (daily) meditation desensitizes us so that we can no longer perceive grace, listen to our inner voice, or receive intuition.”

After about day 3 into my retreat, sitting and walking and working in silence, my own innate capacity to glean right action was reawakened, reactivated. Through the task of ‘just’ being present in every moment (simple but not easy), clarity bubbled up naturally, without effort. The solutions I had struggled for meant great change and serious vulnerability for me. (Perhaps this was part of the reason for my reticence in looking deeply?)

This is what I “know.” We all have this intrinsic ability.  While we learn much about the world around us by others, this we discover experientially. Intuition is a combination of empirical data and a heightened sense of observation.  And while speculation and deduction have vital roles in many of our everyday decision making process, so does intuition.

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Abella Arthur said, “Intuition is like a slow motion machine that captures data instantaneously and hits you like a ton of bricks”. She called it, “Cutting through the thickness of surface reality.” It is the Sherlock Holmes approach to mindfulness. Others can share their opinions or guide us, and they can be valuable. Yet we do have the ability to know valid solutions to problems and decision-making. Our direct intuition will rarely fail us if we are tapping into a reservoir of experience combined with a conscious awareness. Trust yourself.

In the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (6th BCE), “At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.”

HAPPY BIRTHDAY NUN TUCK (A LENTEN JOURNEY)

It’s been a year this week since I began this little exercise called “Nun Tuck’s Almanac.”  I can’t believe it, it started off fast and furious with posts almost everyday and gratefully, much traffic.  Then life did it’s little John Lennon thing, you know the “Life happens while you are out busy making other plans” thing as it is wont to do, and so this little venture has been gradually being whisked out to the fringe of my daily activities.   

But whenever I am away for a week or a wee bit more, I miss this kind of spiritual writing and more importantly, thinking about the essence of who we all are, attempting to draw out with the use of language, feelings and understandings  that we all share deep down where the heart resides.  In addition, it continues to be my pleasure to share what little I know about world religions. Islam seems to be the one most people want to learn about and there is no surprise there, world events rapidly unfolding as they are.       

Birthdays and anniversaries of various kinds are great milestones for us to take stock.  And we Christians (Unitarian ones included!) are in the first steps of our annual Lenten journey; another invitation for us to engage in more self-reflection and to employ discipline, not as a punishment, but rather as a tool that chips away at the excesses, compulsions, and indulgences that lead us away from our truest selves. 

Thomas Merton, a well-known modern mystic and Trappist monk, spoke these words which have been resonating or more aptly, percolating with me for a  time now: “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.  The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his or her work for peace.”

OK, wow and ouch.  No one has categorically summed me up so succinctly before…you can just put a ribbon on it and there you go.  The three words in particular that shout out in neon to all those with an addiction to doing  to PAUSE or HALT or STOP are “FRENZY” and “VIOLENCE” AND “NEUTRALIZES”.  

As Mark Nepo in “The Book of Awakening” writes, “Merton wisely challenges us not just to slow down, but, at the heart of it, to accept our limitations.  We are at best filled with the divine, but have only two hands and one heart.  In a deep and subtle way, the want to do it all is a want to be it all, and though it comes from a desire to do good, it often becomes frenzied because our egos seize our goodness as a way to be revered.” 

So when I ask myself what is at the root from my seemingly inability to say no to another great cause, event, another tug on my time and resources (even while the endeavor may be a great one), it is the sneaky ego. People who have difficulty saying no, often say that it is because they don’t want to let anybody down.  So then I ask question, why don’t I want to let anybody down? Is it because  I don’t want anyone to think I am less than this wonderfully compassionate human? 

Being compassionate enough is (in cases of the activist) probably more than enough.  Saying no to one more thing is self-compassion and self-care, which allows one to walk in the world PRESENT to it.         

Pray daily for all the worthy causes out there that you would like to grow and flourish in their goodness, but devote your time to the one or two that speak most closely to your soul…for today.  The old adage to ‘do one thing and do it well’ applies here.  Wherever I cannot bring my entire being, I am not there.      

What a remarkable gift I have received on this birthday edition of Nun Tuck, to take a day to reflect on my pursuit of the good, to choose to pour my energy into the redemption of my own heart, and then I can perhaps help the rest of the world a little more effectively, and that is to say, more peacefully.

Blessed be.

STOP RUNNING

For many years I had been obsessed with running…a little too obsessed is what friends and family members had hinted over the years.  I ran in any weather, like the postman, through rain, sleet, and winter’s snow.  I was out there.

Partly it was simply a well ingrained habit, like teeth brushing. And on those days when I was exhausted and blown out, pushing myself to “just do it”, I often returned with a renewed sense of energy…a clearer energy.

Lastly, lacing up those Asics and taking to the streets was a ritual akin to meditation for me.  The rhythm of my breath and the sound of my sneakers hitting the pavement always took any remaining frenetic energy down a notch.  Mindful running- a time to think and to not think…both realities of meditative practice.  Sometimes, I spent the first two miles or so simply repeating to myself, “one, two, one, two.”  Often, returning to work feeling calm with the added occasional bonus of gleaning some insight on a problem that has been bedeviling me for a while.

That all sounds good, right?  This is all reasonable and healthy…right? (bad knees notwithstanding).

But there was a fly in the ointment that only the sweetest, daffiest little lady that used to walk her dog as I ran could see.  Smiling wisely as I run past, shouting, “Good morning, can’t talk now, gotta run” and her kindly reply, “What are you running from today?”

What are you running from today?  Good question.  There was often a sense of urgency that I had felt for much of my life. Perhaps you too have experienced this at times, or more times than you can count?

What a shock when this urgency is unmasked as a terrible illusion.  When feelings or situations APPEAR too hard to face, when being in our body is more than a little uncomfortable, this is when we need to stop running. The only thing that will allow for transformation is letting all of it…all those monsters real and imagined… just BE.  To sit still, to allow painful emotions, whatever is there to wash over us like waves, while we sit like the mountain, like a Redwood, like the Buddha.  This is where peace resides.

Mark Nepo, in The Book of Awakening, speaks to our instinctive flight or fight responses, ” The doorway to your next step of growth is always behind the urgency of now.  Now more than ever, when all feels urgent,  you must cut the strings to all events.  Now more than ever, when the weights seemed tied to your wrists, you must not run or flail.  Now more than ever, when each decision feels like the end, you must believe that each question is a beginning.” He continues, “In this way, pray to have your True Self inch through your turmoil.”

I have been taking this advice for a time now. Renewed courage and expanding compassion bubble up from where my True Self resides.

Of course, in accepting my own human frailties, there are moments when I don’t dip that proverbial bucket down deep enough in order to access that well where ease and wisdom exist eternally.  Again and again, I need to be reminded to go back to the well, to tap it.  It is a well that never “runs” dry.

I’d like to close with a quote for the day (haven’t done that for a while!):

“All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.”  – Blaise Pascal

 

SPIRITUAL NOTES TO MYSELF

Hugh Prather, whom the New York Times has called “an American Kahil Gibran”, wrote a book with the title of today’s blog.  In it, are anecdotes, observations, and  spiritual wisdom that Prather has collected and absorbed for himself in over 30 years as minister, lecturer, and counselor.

You may have notebooks or quotes on your memo board that speak poignantly to your heart.  Or perhaps, they are there in way as a reminder for spiritual or emotional hopes you have…the person you would like to be at your best.

Also, there are literally thousands (probably more like millions) of books on meditation, prayer, affirmation, every religion since the dawn of time, and spirituality…practices, techniques, and thoughts.

I have more than a few of them myself.  I also keep several notebooks full with quotes, ideas, and prayers that inspire, teach, or bring comfort to me.

However, I tack a few up on my cork board beside my writing desk for several months at a time.  After absorbing their wisdom, I rotate in fresh ones . Here’s what’s up there right now:

“I will not die an unlived life.  I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.  I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me, to make me less afraid, more accessible, to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise.  I choose to risk my significance, to live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom, and that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit.”  – Dawna Markova   

“For things that you believe in, pray like a preacher but fight like the Devil”.

“If we hold resentments toward the people who let us down, we’ll be exhausted.  It’s better to focus on the ones who have been there for us”.

The content of two fortune cookies are pinned up there: “Everybody feels lucky for having you as a friend” AND “We are made to persist.  That’s how we find out who we are”.

“In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”- Edith Wharton

A note that my beloved Dad (who tragically died too young) had written me many years ago:

 “In case you’re depressed today and feeling lonely: You are pretty!  You are smart!  You are vivacious! You have a warm smile!  You have an interesting personality!  You are a little wacky!  Five out of six ain’t bad, Love, Dad xxx” 

These thoughts make me laugh, give me a spiritual shot in the arm, and keep me reaching towards my Higher Self, the one God wants for me.

These are fitting thoughts as my little/big chicks fly the summer coop: one off to another year of college in Rhode Island, one on a year’s adventure, first in Paris and then to Senegal, and the “baby”, 6’1″, driving a car, writing his own music, towering over me, teasing me, “his little mama”.  

In closing, a gem from Mr. Prather: “Our children can see us.  They can’t see God.  Our function is not to describe God’s love or to talk endlessly about it, but to reflect it so that it can be seen.”