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Susan's Writings about Living an Awakened Life

Have some nutritious soup

Did you see the movie Julie and Julia yet? I caught it on a flight back to California from Florida after attending the memorial service for a girl I grew up with back in my native state of South Dakota. She was only sixty-six and died of breast cancer.

So, I was admittedly in a pensive mood, thinking existential kinds of thoughts. I was captivated by the basic premise of the movie: this girl Julie has always loved Julia Child and decides to cook all of the 524 recipes from her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in a year and blog about her experiences. As we all now know, she has this amazing response to the blog with thousands of followers.

I found myself thinking about how interesting it is that we humans are so fascinated with nourishing the body and how difficult it is for us to find time to nourish those deeper levels of ourselves: what we could call the spirit or just deep self.
I know there is a longing for nourishment of these parts of ourselves. In my practice as a psychotherapist and as a teacher of classes in Universal Wisdom, I hear people cry, I hear people despair of their disconnection from their essential selves and the resulting disconnection from others. I have many who, like my client last week, tell me they don’t have time to quiet their minds, think about guiding universal wisdom teachings or do simple meditative practices. I was suggesting ten minutes a day. My friend and teacher, Yuan Miao has told me the two Chinese characters which written together mean busy, separately mean heart and death.

Miao is one of my teachers of universal wisdom. Her lineage comes from her Tibetan grandmother, Yeshe Tsuomu, meaning Ocean of Wisdom. Grandma taught keeping things simple and pure: she made soup said to have amazing healing power from three garden roots. Her teachings of universal wisdom are like this soup: simple, pure and powerful.

Like Julie in the movie, I am devoted to my teachers and committed to incorporating their teachings into my life.  So, the idea to do this blog came to me. I will be choosing a universal wisdom teaching, a recipe so to speak, and I will be trying to practice it in my life. If you are as interested in food for the spirit as folks were in French Cooking, you can come back to my blog once a week, pick up a teaching of universal wisdom and hear my tale of how it was to try to incorporate it into my life. I promise to keep it shorter than this, and simple.

If you want to “cook” along with me, I’d love to have you share your experiences.


Impermanence: the natural order of things

Back home in my native state of South Dakota, just outside the city limits, sits a big old two story wood frame house. It holds the energy and memories of sixty years of my family’s life. We moved to that house when I was one and a half. It still echoes with the sound of toddler feet, birthday parties, Easter egg hunts, teenage discussions about boyfriends and grades, huge family reunions, laughing grandchildren, and even the last words my mother spoke before she died five years ago. My sister and I regularly rode our horses into that yard to get cookies from her. We built snow forts in winter with all the neighborhood kids. I’ve gone back to visit every summer of my life.

Since my dad died a year ago, it’s been sitting empty. I haven’t been able to bear the thought of selling it; it has felt like selling my past.

However, I have a present day life with my own family in California; my sister has made hers in Massachusetts. It has become clear that no one in the family is going to move back to the family homestead in South Dakota.

My sister brought things into focus recently when I was dragging my feet about selling by saying, “So what exactly is your thought, Susan, that we just keep it as a museum to mother and dad?”

I had to think about that. What is my thought? I realize it’s irrational, really; I just don’t want to let it go. It’s been part of the bedrock of my life for sixty years.

So it seems obvious that the first of Grandma’s wisdom recipes I need to try is about impermanence. Grandma knew that impermanence is the natural order of things. Her  impermanence wisdom soup  would be very simple, with three roots: expect it, accept it, and embrace it with an attitude of, “That’s good.”

Here’s a sneak preview of a passage from my upcoming book, Mudras, Mantras and Chemo:

By accepting impermanence we can more fully embrace and value our life as it is at this moment.

Knowing that even the most wonderful things in our life are impermanent, we are motivated to stay present, and fully appreciate them while we can. When they naturally pass, we can more easily let them go and embrace what comes next. Knowing that the unpleasant things in life are also impermanent, we can resist less and find what there is to learn from them, knowing that they, too, will pass. The challenge is to meet life as it is with no attachment, no aversion. An inability to embrace impermanence separates us from the pulse of life and the life force of the universe.
It is the nature of energy to keep moving: form arises, form dissolves, over and over in a beautiful, rhythmic dance. When we are one with that dance we are healthy and vibrant, when we are out of step we experience suffering in many ways, emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually.

So, I will be getting on a United Airlines jet this Saturday, winging my way to my past. My challenge will be to know that it’s good to embrace impermanence and let the house go. There will be new life and new energy to fill the rooms. I can dance on, more fully connected to my present life in California, knowing that in a blink of an eye this form will also be dissolving. I wouldn’t want to miss it while I am clinging to my past.

Check in to my next blog to hear how it goes. I’ll be posting on location in Yankton, South Dakota.

The Realtor’s Office

My sister and I are at the realtor’s office today, signing the papers to sell our South Dakota family home of sixty years. We procrastinated until twenty minutes before closing time, ostensibly obsessing over the final asking price; but really we were paralyzed by the enormity of what we are about to do.

My German paternal grandfather came to the Dakota Territory as a nineteen-year-old boy in 1877. My paternal grandmother’s parents immigrated here in 1873, setting up the first mercantile store in the Dakota Territory in the town of Yankton. My maternal great, great grandmother came to Dakota Territory in 1892.

Our family has one hundred and thirty seven years of continuous history in this town. My mother and father met at Yankton College, one of those fine old liberal arts colleges for which the Midwest is famous, and after World War II they decided to return, wanting, in my father’s words, “To give back all that was given to me.” They also felt it would be a wonderful place to raise a family, and it was.

With the sale of our family home, my sister and I officially break the chain. We make it real that neither we, nor any of our children, will be returning to take over the old homestead. We commit to lives in California and Massachusetts.
We are in a dissociated state as we sign page after page of legal documents. I periodically gaze at the signed photograph of George and Laura Bush hanging on the agent’s wall (Democrats are somewhat few and far between here), and find myself irrationally disliking all three for taking my childhood home away from me.

My hand has mechanically been filling in blanks designed to prevent future litigation, while I struggle to keep my balance on ground that is shifting under my feet.

So here I am in South Dakota, trying out Grandma’s recipe for tasty impermanence, using three simple roots: expect it, accept it and greet it with an attitude of “That’s good!” My first attempt seems like an abysmal failure.  After the signing, my sister and I go to swim laps to burn off some emotional energy. I am sobbing as I swim, gulping water and causing the young, thin blonde lifeguard to actually stand by the side of the pool and start taking off her sweatpants, readying herself to save me.

I’m thinking of my father who loved being a doctor and worked until he was seventy-eight, walking out of his retirement dinner saying, “Well, it’s done.” I wanted to wrap my arms around him and save him too.

But that’s the point: there is no saving any of us from impermanence. It is the natural order of things and we are presented with that lesson over and over as we live our lives. The literal saving grace is found in grandma’s recipe. “Greet it with an attitude of ‘That’s good.’”

I couldn’t really feel that in the core of me as I left the real estate office. I had to do the letting-go, sobbing swim first. My western trained, psychotherapist self would say that is a necessary step, not to be skipped: the feeling of the emotions. Slowly though, I’m beginning to fantasize about a new owner of our house planting roses, daisies, tomatoes and onions, and maybe even greeting children on horses who ride up hoping for cookies. And best of all I even find myself thinking, “It’s done. That’s good. Gary and I are free to dance off to Belize or Oregon or maybe even Tibet.” Now that could be a good soup.


The Kitchen Table: Releasing Attachments
Now that the decision has been made to sell the family homestead, my sister Ann and I need to divide up the “stuff.” We’ve managed to put this off until our last night. We have 6:45 A.M. flights back to our respective homes in California and Massachusetts from the Sioux Falls Airport, a one and a half hour drive from our hometown of Yankton. We need to be up at 3:00 A.M. to get on the road in time.

It is now 12:30 A.M. and we are wandering through my parents’ home, looking at all that remains of our parents’ lives. Because my mother died suddenly and my father became blind, they did not have the opportunity to clear out their home in their own way. It remains like a movie set – just the way it was when they were living here. I keep expecting them to enter, stage left, and deliver their familiar lines.

“Well, there are the travelers!” my dad will say.

“It’s so wonderful having you home,” my mom will add.
I can feel their soft, warm bodies embracing me in loving hugs.

It’s an odd feeling. I know what is left behind is only material “stuff,” but since it is all I have left of them, I have somehow imbued the objects with my emotional attachment to my parents. We are trying to decide who will take what. I know my sister well enough to know that we feel attached to the same things.

We have fixated on the kitchen table in the family room, which was the gathering place for the family through three generations. My sister and I spent endless hours at this table doing our homework, while my dad sat at the other end doing medical records. Without leaving his chair, he could place logs on the fire while South Dakota blizzards howled outside. My high school boyfriend was expected to spend at least ten minutes sitting at the table, conversing with the family, before he could take me out for the evening. Our family laughed and talked and ate here during decades of family reunions.

An epic battle is raging inside me. I can’t bear to let anything go, even to my beloved sister who misses my parents as much as I do. I am horrified by that part of myself. I judge it harshly, and then am horrified at how judgmental I can be. I want to want nothing. I want everything. I want the kitchen table, and I know that my sister wants it too.

I know Grandma would have a very simple cure,  “Let go of attachment. Add big doses of compassion and love. A freedom and natural fearlessness will result.”

As I’m struggling to find the ingredients for that soup inside myself, Ann offers me a taste of hers, “Why don’t you take the kitchen table, and that wheat lamp I know you want.” Her voice is kind and loving, filled with compassion. She is the teacher, showing me how to let go. Making it look simple, like Grandma’s recipe, she just opens her heart, pushes the obstacles aside, and releases attachment.

So, I get the kitchen table, but it is Ann who took a chance and experienced soaring through life, fearless and free. I found out that she is an awesome cook.


A Little Bit Married: Adding No Judgment to the Soup

Have you been thinking about the Zeitgeist lately? Me neither — until I went to a writer’s conference through the Harvard Medical School Department of Continuing Education.

Hannah Seligson assured us that we need to have our finger on the Zeitgeist if we want to stay relevant (and incidentally get a book successfully published.) Wanting to stay relevant, I went to my room and Googled “zeitgeist,” just to be sure. Wikipedia told me it is “the spirit of the times.”

Who is Hannah Seligson? You obviously don’t have your finger on the Zeitgeist. I had never heard of her either. A self-described Gen Y-er, born in 1982, she’s only twenty-seven years old and was a featured speaker at the conference.
No, she was not some Harvard brain-child (OK, she did get her B.A. from Brown – way back in 2004). She is a freelance journalist and writer who, with her finger apparently right on the Zeitgeist, has just published her second book, “A Little Bit Married: How to Know When to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door.” You can check out her website here.

What does it mean to be “a little bit married?” Well, she informs us that for millions of twenty-somethings there is now a sprawling life stage between puberty, around thirteen, to marriage, often past thirty, in which there is a lot of coupling and uncoupling, but there is often at least one committed long term relationship. “Today,” she says, “the long term relationship is a rite of passage that’s as significant a developmental marker as your first kiss, taking out your first mortgage, or deciding to have kids.”  It feels like being married, but it’s not marriage; it’s more “a little bit married.” It is, apparently, ultimately a temporary state: impermanent, and destined to be followed by actual marriage or breakup.

So, she has me thinking about Zeitgeist. What is the spirit of our times? Why only “a little bit married?” Well, in an article in the Daily Beast (she has me really Zeitgeist connected now!), she says, “The zeitgeist today is expressed in lines like, “I’m in no rush.” Apparently the timeline to adulthood has been loosened; there’s a long period in which young people consider themselves “emerging adults.” People are switching jobs, career paths are uncertain, moves across country and even to other countries are common.

Then there is the fear of divorce, left over from preceding generations with too many ultimately abandoned relationships. This may be contributing to spending many years trying to uncover your perfect “soul mate” before attempting marriage.

So what’s the common theme? It looks to me like impermanence. The emerging social structures reflect a world dominated by constant change. The zeitgeist is change, impermanence. Why be in a rush to get someplace if everything is constantly changing?

So what’s Grandma’s recipe for the Zeitgeist? I think we are still experimenting with the three-root impermanence soup: expect it, accept it and greet it with an attitude of “That’s good.”  I think this week I will try to sprinkle in a little “no judgments” and compassion for the twenty-somethings. They seem to be trying to find a way to fully embrace the present moment in a world of rapid change.

However, I would really love to hear from them. I know many of you know or have kids in this age range. Please send them the link to this blog (copy this – – and paste it into an email) and let’s get some intergenerational dialogue going.

© 2012 Susan Sattler