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Begin Within Monthly Journal
& Favorite Easy Meals
September 2015; Letter 10
I turned 40 this month. On the 25th to be precise. Nothing very exciting to report though. Whereas my 29th was very emotional (an 'early-life crisis’), the date marking the passage of another year no longer means much to me. Just a nice excuse to celebrate what’s good, have a bottle of champagne, go out for a nice meal, and splurge an a fancy hotel for a few nights during our upcoming trip to Costa Rica.
The meaning of any event only comes from our thoughts about it.
When I was 29 I became somewhat obsessed with turning 30 and ‘what that meant’ to my life. It made me very unhappy to think about. Though at the time I didn't feel I had any control over it. But, of course (as has become obvious only relatively recently), there is no external situation or event that can make me feel anything. Nothing has meaning apart from that which our thoughts give to it.
When I finally ‘got’ that, everything became so much simpler, smoother, and happier.
However, getting to that point, although it could (in theory) be in instantaneous shift, usually takes some inner work and a gradual readjustment of perspective. It is extremely tempting to be the victim in this world. I never would have considered myself a victim until I became aware of how often I wanted to blame some outside event or person for my state of being, for how I felt, or for all the problems in the world. It was incredibly hard to shift to 100% responsibility. (Though I must add that I have never done anything more rewarding.)
Yet, it’s very important to clarify that self-responsibility does not equal guilt. As I discovered, this world absolutely runs on guilt and is quick to turn to it. If I am responsible, then I am to blame? No, no, no. I am responsible for my reactions and how I feel inside. (And it is amazing how ‘contagious’ this can be, for better or worse.)
Trying to place blame and guilt 'where it belongs', while trying to avoid our own vague or specific feelings of guiltiness and unworthiness, is the international pastime of Planet Earth. (Some also like to wallow in a false self pity, which really goes back to playing the victim and blaming others). If that sounds radical, it did to me when I first heard it too.
As a simple experiment, you can start with yourself. (Usually the best place to start anything.) Try this simple exercise, right now, and see what comes up.
Sit or lie somewhere totally quiet and free from distraction. Give yourself at least 5 minutes. Take some deep breaths and relax all of the muscles in your body. Then, imagine that there are no private thoughts, that everything in your mind is an open book, that you can read everyone else’s thoughts, and they can read yours.
If you are at all like me, or most of the other humans out there, you will probably recoil with fear at this idea. We can see perfectly the judgment that would rain down on us if only others could really see inside our minds.
If you can breath into it and stick with it a little longer, you can start to see what some of the specific thoughts are. Just pay attention. There’s nothing you have to do about it right now. Just become aware of the feelings that arise. And realize that we are all in that same boat.
The trickiest thing is that, on the surface, most of us would say we don’t feel any guilt. (Though when we start to go into our minds this way, we begin to realize that is definitely not the case.) Then, unconsciously, we take those hidden doubts and fears and instead of facing them and moving through them to a place of fearlessness— which is our true 'true self', we project them out into the world and onto other people. Then we let guilt run rampant over everything, ever imagining it’s 'them' and never us.
Whether it is our spouse not doing what we want them to do (and we play the guilt card to try to get them to act differently), or our kids not acting out their roles as we imagine they should be (guilt again), or the person who was injured physically and can’t let go of the anger (wanting to blame someone, guilt again), or the management at work who just ‘doesn’t get it’ (though we do get it, of course!), or the things we think we should have done and didn’t (guilty me), or that we have more money than others (oh the guilt!), or those people who are ‘destroying the planet’ or 'ruining the country' (they are bad and guilty, see how good I am!). The list goes on and on.
Surely most people would say they want world peace. But how can we ever have peace when we have so much violence inside each of us? Every single person feels justified in judging others for their actions. The bomber feels justified because his/her family was bombed. The thief feels justified because ‘those people’ have so much more than they do. The corrupt businessperson feels justified because they ‘know what it takes to get things done’, or maybe even the people deserve it for being so dumb. The son feels justified in condemning his parents for way they raised him. The wife feels justified in her anger because her husband and kids prevent her from living the life she wants. The guy who lost his leg feels justified forever being a victim of the person who caused the accident that left him limbless.
We are always looking outside ourselves, pointing fingers at everyone else. Yet this world is exactly what we make it. It’s not ‘them’ making things wrong. It’s us.
Until we can create peace in ourselves, and in the relationships closest to us, we ought to steer clear of trying to direct anybody else.
Speaking of which, there’s an excellent book called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman Ph.D.
It’s extremely practical and based on the results of many years spent studying actual couples. He and his team got to they point where they could predict with very high accuracy, based on the way a couple argued, whether they would stay together.
Various factors that indicate a relationship will likely succeed (or not) are covered in the book, (and none require learning how to ‘be a good listener’!), but the two that stood out the most to me were defensiveness and allowing reparations.
Defensiveness, Gottman writes, is one of the 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’— a negative relationship indicator. Of course, being defensive goes hand in hand with blame and guilt. The other person starts talking and we jump in to tell them how they got it all wrong, how THEY are are the guilty party, we are innocent.
(The other three ‘horsemen’ are criticism, contempt and stonewalling.)
In addition, he explains that the partners in the relationships that work out long term also allow for reparations to be made. Meaning, if one person tries to make amends (by joking to lighten the mood to outright apologizing), the other person is open to letting it go. Which is another way of saying there is forgiveness. And forgiveness, I should add, is the ‘cure’ for guilt and all of our worldly ailments.
Dropping blame and defensiveness, and letting things go. Great guidelines for all relationships. Unfortunately, it can be hard to be the person trying to figure out how to do this on their own in a sea of judgment and blame. It takes honest self exploration and forgiveness to find that inner place where there is no need for defensiveness and everything is not only understandable but forgivable.
As I get better at this stuff, the more clear and honest I become, and the easier it is understand the beliefs, feelings and actions of any other person. It’s all inside of me too. I may not be playing that particular role in this lifetime, but I could be in their shoes, and I could be doing the same thing they are doing. It’s only my judgment of the situation that makes me angry, upset, fearful and that sees them as so different. In reality, we are not different at all.
In line with this topic is a documentary I watched recently. I’m not generally a fan of documentaries. I suppose I read non-fiction and then want to watch fiction; and many documentaries are often too dry- or too much propaganda- for my taste.
Yet this one stuck with me. It’s called Dhamma Brothers and is about a group of inmates at a prison who do an intensive 10 day program where they learn and practice a type of Buddhist meditation.
For the 10 days the small group is completely silent (even while eating), separated off from the rest of the prison, with just each other, their mats, and the two teachers from the outside.
For the bulk of each day, for 10 days without stopping, they sit in silent meditation.
What’s really fascinating is to see how affected these hardened criminals are by the experience. Afterwards, most of them reported it was the most difficult thing they had ever done.
You can see the hard looks in their faces at the beginning of the film. I found myself thinking that these were some very tough dudes, who's sooner kill someone than stop to ask a question first. (Many were in prison for life for murder.) But the transformations were incredible.
Some told how they sat with tears rolling down their faces, wanting to run away at points during the long days of silent sitting, but they didn’t. They reached new and deep levels of understanding within themselves, levels of peace and forgiveness that no one could ever have given them, because they would never have been able to receive it from outside themselves.
Imagine the guilt these men had buried within. Not just for the crimes they had committed, or the people they had physically hurt; but for their family members that had been affected, the children left without fathers, the mothers without sons. If these men could find peace and release guilt behind bars in one of the toughest prisons in the US, then it certainly gives hope for the rest of us. It's not where your body is, it's where your mind is at.
Did the effects last, you ask? You can watch it and see. :) I rented it on iTunes for a few bucks.
Here’s the thing with guilt, or any problem. The first step, like in AA, is to recognize there is a problem. Then the next step is to work through it, not to run away. And we all have problems, and ultimately they are the same.
The prisoners who spent 10 days in silent meditation were forced to face themselves, and then to go deeper, beyond the superficial self concept. And when we go beyond that, we find there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Ever. There is only all-encompassing peace, joy, love, and forgiveness. When we discover that, we discover that the same is in each of us. The rest is just surface noise.
However, if you think you’ve got it all figured out already, it makes it a lot harder to shift anything.
None of us can possibly know all of the factors required to judge another person or situation accurately. It would take an omnipotence and depth of understanding far beyond our capabilities. None of can truly know the consequences of any action either. And, until we can get our own selves sorted out, we will only be using our skewed filters to make others wrong, instead of looking inside first and dispelling our own darkness before attacking another's. (And, paradoxically, once we dispel our own illusion of darkness, then there’s no need to attack anymore.)
In this world we tend to believe everything would be okay if only someone else did something differently, or some external circumstance or event changed.
What if all it takes is changing our own perspective about ourselves and about the world?
Meditation is one tool that can help, though it’s certainly not the only way. I think a lot of people don’t meditate because they don’t know what to do... or are afraid of what they will find inside.
I have gone through phases of practicing meditation regularly. For me the best focus was to count my breaths and to ’try and not try’ to find the core of myself. I call this part the 'silent observer’... the self that has always been watching and calmly observing; that is there waiting patiently even at my worst moments, my most manic, my most low.
It’s the part of us that, no matter what happens, is always okay. The part that sends intuitions, that ‘knows' things, that is perfectly still yet always alert.
Though I did ‘practice' meditation, I didn’t really get the concept until I began A Course in Miracles. (I knew about the book for at least 20 years, and it took me that long to get to it.) It’s not an easy read by any means. Though there are a lot of books about A Course in Miracles that are easy to read and are probably the best way to discover it. Nowhere in A Course in Miracles is mediation directly recommended. Instead the entire course is a self-directed mind-training, a sort of living meditation, and the lessons can be used as a continual practice to bring ourselves back to what is true and real.
The Course talks a lot about the difference between content and form. Form is not ever what matters. Content is. The same is true of meditation. The form isn’t important, it’s what the intention is.
I no longer try to keep up a meditation practice. At least not the type that involves sitting in silence. I do however ‘meditate’ throughout the day as I go about my life. I take some quiet moments when I first wake up and before I fall asleep to clear and focus my mind, and, in some sense, to release this world.
I also try to maintain a clear and peaceful frame of mind, a sense of connection, and a feeling of kindness as I interact with others— which I find is more effective training than sitting quietly by myself anyway. It’s quite easy to feel ‘enlightened’ and peaceful when alone and quiet. It’s another thing entirely to carry that into interactions with others... or while watching the latest presidential debate.
Ram Dass nailed it when he said, “If you think you’re spiritually enlightened, go home for Thanksgiving.”
So, my daily ‘meditation' usually involves setting an intention or finding a feeling to hold (often using my daily 'Course in Miracles' lesson) as a focal point to come back to throughout the day. And, whether or not I like it, I get instant feedback. If the people around me aren’t feeling peaceful and guilt-free, then that shows me that I am not either.
And on that note, I’ll wind up with a favorite quote from A Course in Miracles that directly relates to the content of meditation:
“Let me be still and go home a moment.”
Once again I sat down to write my journal for this month thinking that I didn't have much to say. (Ha!)
As always, see below for the favorite easy recipes from the last month.
P.S. For fun, I got a kick out of this article about doppelgangers. (What a great word, too.)
I had a doppelganger in high school in Annapolis, MD. People would chase me down on the street yelling, ‘Casey, Casey!”. Or at a party people would talk to me as if I was Casey. Eventually she and I met and became good friends. Side by side we weren’t identical, but it was very clear why people confused us. (She also had been mistaken for Emily many times before we met.) I wish I had a photo of me and my teenage twin!
September 2015 Favorite Easy Meals
What To Do With Baby Artichokes
I love artichokes. But here in Argentina we don’t get beautiful, giant, globe artichokes. We only get little ones. Tough ones, that you can cook all day and will still make it very clear that you are, in fact, eating a thistle.
It’s artichoke season now and there have been baby artichokes at the market each week. I really wanted to buy them, but really didn’t want them to turn out like they had in the past using my usual methods of steaming, slow-baking, or even pan-frying them.
Thank goodness for Heidi Swanson over at 101 Cookbooks! She did a post just in time detailing how to prepare delicious artichoke hearts.
You might think it would be a lot of work to prepare them this way, but it’s really not. Tearing off all the leaves is quick and easy, and removing the ‘choke’ (the white thistle) is super fast with a tiny teaspoon. Just press it in at the base of the choke and it pops right out.
Check out her guide for all of the details.
Of course, I love to roast vegetables in the oven, so I directly roasted mine (no boiling or steaming) at 400F (200C) for about 25 minutes with salt, pepper and olive oil (tossing once halfway through).
I learned to cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil to avoid destroying the inside of my oven. Because the artichoke hearts are coming straight out of the lemon water, the water makes the oil splatter like crazy in the hot oven. The loose foil keeps the mess contained but doesn’t affect the browning of the hearts.
ready for the oven
I have made these once a week for the past month, and we both love them. They are vastly superior to any oil-soaked or water-packed artichoke heart I every had, and are also better than the hearts you get after simply steaming whole artichokes.
I find 8-10 baby artichoke hearts (cut into quarters) makes the perfect side for two people. Try them alongside something simple like veggie burgers.
They were really scrumptious on top of my chickpea flatbread ‘Faina’ pizza base.
If I was in the US I would be sorely tempted to get Heidi’s latest cookbook, Near & Far. Her recipes go great anywhere, even in Argentina. The only problem is she does sometime use rare ingredients that we can’t get here. Regardless, her photos and style are always beautiful and unique.
Greek Salad- Make it a Meal
I’m not one for making a dinner of salad, but this Greek salad dresses up so well that it turns into a satisfying and healthy meal. With the weather heating up here, we enjoyed this for dinner the other evening. It’s a nice way to throw together a vegetarian dinner. It only takes minutes once all of the ingredients are assembled.
Here I used quail’s eggs, which show up at the markets from time to time. They taste just like regular eggs, but are such cute little bites and they have at least as much yolk as white. I prepared them they way I prefer to make hard boiled eggs, by steaming them. I steamed these babies 7 minutes and they came out just right.
I also steamed up some fresh asparagus (we are also at the beginning of asparagus season here) to go along with the salad and make it even more of a meal. I rarely like to eat a totally cold meal, so the warm veggies with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper gave me the bit of warmth that made the meal feel extra satisfying.
I used all of the optional finishes this time around. Laying a bed of greens, then putting about a cup of leftover brown rice on mine, followed by the Greek salad mix (recipe below), and topped with avocado, quail eggs, and some cubed, firm locally-made goat cheese. My husband got toasts on the side.
If I’m going to eat dairy, I prefer to go with local goat’s cheese because I know it came from a local farm and is minimally processed, with no hormones added. Here in Argentina stinky ‘chevre’ goat cheese is rare. The goat cheese here is very mild. But chevre could go well here too. Feta, would also be a tasty and more traditional addition.
Oh, and a lot of greek salads have bell pepper in them. As much as I love raw red, yellow, and green peppers, I find the flavor overwhelms the other ingredients in this salad and gives it an edge that is solved simply by omitting them.
Of course, it’s easy to make this a vegan meal by skipping the eggs and cheese altogether.
Recipe for Greek Salad- As a Meal for Two
1 cucumber- diced
1/4 of a medium onion- very thinly sliced
10-15 or so good Greek black olives
1 cup tomato- diced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon salt (plus more to taste)
1/4 teaspoon honey
10+ grinds fresh black pepper
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Bed of greens- tender lettuce and/or baby arugula
Brown rice or quinoa and/or toasted fresh bread
Goat cheese- cubed (or feta)
Hard boiled eggs (I used 12 quail’s eggs here)
Fresh basil- thinly sliced
Make the hard boiled eggs ahead of time (even days before) and let chill in the fridge, if using. Cook the rice or quinoa, if using. (Again this can be done days ahead of time and kept in the fridge. I prefer to warm it on the stovetop before using.)
Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl from cucumber through lemon juice. Dress with olive oil until thoroughly moist (approximately 3-4 tablespoons or to taste). Cover the bowl and let marinade on the counter for at least 15 minutes. Toss again, taste, and add salt, pepper, and/or olive oil as desired.
In large serving bowls, start with a bed of fresh greens. Add a layer of cooked brown rice or quinoa, if you choose.
Top with the Greek salad mixture and add your toppings of choice.
In my opinion, avocado is a must and the rest is flexible depending on what you have on hand and your dietary preferences.
Still working on fixing the comments section. In the meantime, feel free to leave comments or ask me questions here.