Archive for the ‘Buddhism’ Category

Aside from living in extremes, there are subtle ways we throw ourselves out of balance.  One that comes up a lot is when things get increasingly uncertain, unclear or ambiguous. 

When stakes are high, sitting with ambiguity can feel especially unbearable and most of us will try to push it away.  It’s normal to feel a bit uncomfortable with a high level of uncertainty.  It’s also normal to do a bunch of stuff–like try to control everything and get all grumpy–as a way to combat the anxiety that comes with sitting with so much ambiguity.

When things aren’t moving as fast as we would like it can be tempting to start pushing.  Hard.  We may really come out of the bag with our Sthira-selves:  controlling, pushing, busying, holding-on and efforting ourselves into a frenzy.  We overburden ourselves with tasks, we do all the things we think might make us feel more certain and then think of more things. 

Some of us drink the workahol down, yum.  And then we start to break down.  Because our bodies, minds and spirits are tired from all the effort.  And look!  The highly uncertain thing we can’t-control-but-want-to is still there, unchanged!


There’s a saying, “you can’t push the river.”  Sometimes things are going to go the way they’re going to go, even if we pull out all the stops.  Sometimes trying to control forces that are bigger than ourselves is useless.


Letting go is about giving yourself permission to ease up.  It’s about seeing that it is actually better to let go than hold on.  Sometimes holding on is hurting you more than helping you.  I’m reminded of a post I wrote a few years ago about hoarding.  Hoarders hold on to so much stuff that it can get to the point where their holding-on is making them sick or threatening their housing.

We need to wake up when holding-on is hurting us. 

We need to cultivate curiosity about how we might be using something to hold onto in order to feel a sense of control in world that feels out of control.  When we allow ourselves to really see the reality that we are safe, that attachment is an illusion, that the present moment is all there is, we let go.  Or on faith, not knowing these things… we let go and learn.

Letting go is part of the course-correction system that can bring us back to life, back to balance.

current music faves:  the national, pixies

current show faves:  real time with bill maher, once upon a time

Visit me at www.erynsmithmoeller.com

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Now that we’ve explored Sukha (easing up, letting go) and Sthira (control, effort), let’s explore what being out of balance looks like and how to not live in extremes.

It is interesting to consider the imbalance created if one were to live life in full-on Sukha-mode. With only ease, relaxation and softening we may cease to accomplish much of value, atrophying while we sit on the couch, allowing Netflix to auto-play the next binge-watched episode into infinity.

In contrast, in full-on Sthira-mode: only effort, control, pushing and holding on, we may become tyrannical workaholics, dogged in our ambitions and achievement-orientedness. Relentless in pursuit of exact outcomes or expectations of self or others we stay busy but lose soul.  Exhaustion sets in but you don’t notice until you fall over because your body says “no” when you won’t.

Living in either extreme tends to become out-of-balance and feel unhealthy after a while. Eventually we notice and try to correct-course.  That being said, it isn’t easy to regain balance.

For example, someone seeking employment for months on end would understandably exercise Sthira a lot with efforts toward improving their station in life and generating income on which to live. Certainly a logical goal. Finding work does indeed require the effort of Sthira. But even in the context of job searching, one’s tireless efforts can become obsessive and cause suffering. Even the job seeker needs balance, I would argue, to be the most effective candidate. She or he needs to be well-rested, relaxed, pulling from her Sukha-side, yet confident and skilled and strengthened in their area of expertise, bringing her Sthira-best; balanced.

Another example might be someone doing online dating and hoping they will meet the partner of their dreams. They have put in the effort of creating a compelling profile, responding to inquiries over email, working on improving their appearance perhaps; putting forth effort to achieve the desired outcome (rocking the Sthira effort stuff). In this case, finding the partner of one’s dreams is not an especially controllable outcome (despite excellent efforts). Isn’t it funny how things happen when people stop looking? Maybe sometimes Sukha or letting go of control and expectation could be key to the goal itself in the end? Though, it is good to note that not putting a dating profile up at all would not necessarily help the goal (must have the Sthira effort along with the letting go of Sukha).

 Together, steady efforts of Sthira (in yoga or in life) along with the softening and allowing of Sukha creates balance.  Grace Duckworth beautifully states the need to balance both Sukha and Sthira:

In asana practice, when we push ourselves 100% we lose track of our breath because we can no longer control the pace – this is all sthira, only steadiness or effort. On the other end of the spectrum when we find something that is comfortable – like practicing the same posture the same way over and over without challenging a new approach – this is all ease or surrender. We have to find balance between the two. When something is challenging we cannot only push, we have to release somewhere; and when something is easy we search for a way to bring more to the posture or our practice.

“Just find balance” sounds cliche, I know.  But it’s kind of awesomely helpful putting it into practice.  Sukha/ Sthira offers a deeper way of looking at this truth, perhaps inviting it to take root more fully in your life. 

These new ideas can bring new awareness to when we might be pushing too hard or it may help you notice when you might not be pushing hard enough.  Balancing ourselves is hard but noticing when we’re out of balance and trying to do something about it is a great start.

For me, I struggle more with too much Sthira, too much doing and not enough easing up. I began to notice when I was overdoing it. I gave myself permission to ease up, let go, let myself not work so hard, and guess what?  I was okay! I didn’t even feel guilty, I felt an opening up of possibilities and confidence that things will be alright, even if I’m not putting forth effort all the time.  I learned that my working hard is great and all but there’s a limit at which it begins to backfire.  There’s a point at which ease, relaxation and letting go is MORE beneficial than working even harder.

By allowing ourselves to be more gentle, more relaxed, more open while putting forth effort and doing awesome stuff, that’s when true growth happens and we find balance.

current music faves:  brandi carlile, sia

current show faves:  extant, hollywood game night

Visit me at www.erynsmithmoeller.com

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Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring the theme of balance in a series I’m calling Hacking a Yoga Sutra:  Balance, When to Push Harder and When to Let Go.

We begin with defining balance and it’s components according to a yoga sutra.  Look for parts 2 and 3 (how not to live in extremes, regaining balance) in the coming weeks!

~Namaste!  Thanks for reading,




How do you know when you are out of balance?

Do you only notice when you start to snap at people, when you’re feeling sluggish at work, when you’re binging on ONE category of life (only working, only partying, only eating, only sleeping etc.)?  Or maybe when you find yourself compulsively trying to control things around you.

What is “balance”, anyway?

Balance is defined as the equilibrium of power between opposing forces or the point between two opposite forces that is desirable over purely one state or the other. Most of us try to return to a constant state of stability, to re-balance when thrown off (think homeostasis of a self-correcting system). Yet, how balance is created, regained or maintained over time is a bit more murky: often there’s a lot of new age talk about self-care and moderation in all things.

In whichever context, regaining balance is easier said (or cleverly placed in a meme) than actually done.  You know, lived out and achieved. Balance is the stuff of acrobats, yogi gurus and nutritionists.

How do everyday people find balance?

In a yoga class recently (where I have been learning physical balance on the mat), the instructor was talking about yoga sutras and the ideas therein about effort, ease and balancing the two.  Apparently, these sutras have long defined and suggested underpinnings of balance. It’s in the context of successful yoga poses, sure, but I detect usefulness on a universal level.



The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Chapter 2.46  contains the phrase “Sthira Sukham Asanam” which refers to a yoga posture “being firm yet happy, steady yet comfortable.”  T. K. V. Desikachar describes the state of satva (equilibrium or balance) as “attention without tension, loosening-up without slackness.”

Sukha is the ease and softness needed in a yoga pose while Sthira is the effort and steadiness required. Together they interplay to create a pleasantly balanced pose.  Sukha and Sthira are dialectical opposites, yet complimentary:

Sukha                                            Sthira
Ease                                         Steadiness
Relaxation                                  Alertness
Letting Go                               Holding On
Allowing                                Pushing Oneself
Release                                         Strength
Surrender                                       Effort
Softening                                      Firmness
Vulnerability                                In Control

The literal translation of Sukha is “having a good axle hole.”   Ha, ha, right, “if only my axle hole were better, I would feel more at ease.”  Seriously though, maybe my axle hole is kind of difficult at times…

Sukha is a unique way of envisioning being at ease, open, surrendering to what will come.  Many people resist “letting go”, assuming it may be followed by things falling apart!  We like to feel we are in control so, often, we cling to things in an effort to allay anxiety.  As Americans, our focus tends to be very do-do-achieve-think-make-it-happen Sthira-focused.  But what if letting go didn’t have to be synonymous with things falling apart? 

Perhaps letting go allows things to fall into place.


current music faves:  new tori amos, silversun pickups

current show faves:  breaking bad, revisiting the wonder years

breakfast today:  pineapple coconut greek yogurt with granola, everything bagel

Visit me at www.erynsmithmoeller.weebly.com

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I have written time and time again about the benefits of learning to sit with ambiguity and the healthiness of accepting the  impermanence inherent in life and in being human.  I do believe these are indeed worthwhile skills or attitudes to cultivate and discipline in oneself.  I have experienced many moments in my life in which challenging myself to sit with ambiguity or reminding myself of the impermanence of life has led to greater growth, greater happiness, or greater insights.

Recently my car was broken into.  My in-dash stereo was ripped out unceremoniously leaving an ugly, gaping hole and broken black plastic strewn all over the seats and floorboards.  No more music during my 30+ minute drives to and from work.  No more feeling of security being parked outside my own apartment.  No more feeling of being safe.  My horror at the destruction of the interior of my vehicle made me realize that, on some level, I am actually fighting against the fact that all things change and pass away.  In the moment of seeing the damage, I did NOT accept that, for example, something as simple and material as my car is subject to the laws of impermanence.  It bothered me to see my car in this “changed” state from fully operational to vandalized.  Maybe being bothered by this situation would be considered very normal by most people?  Probably.  But what I’ve been cultivating and focusing on–this idea of acceptance and impermanence– has not “sunk in” as deeply as I might have assumed.  My reaction to this break-in is evidence of that.  I can understand the concept of impermanence intellectually and agree with it, espouse it.  This situation teaches me that I am further from really knowing the truth of impermanence at my root, feeling that it is true in all situations, all times.  Part of me feels like if I had been able to see this situation through the lens of accepting impermanence that I would have suffered less.  Hmmm.

Here’s the rub for me:  how do I reconcile an appreciation for impermanence with my own safety?  I truly felt unsafe being at home after this violation.  It was a challenge to not think about this happening again in the future, or launching into planning how to control my car at all times, even when I am not present.  So this situation has also brought up in me my need to control things in my life.  It is hard for me to accept even just this idea that I cannot control what will happen to my car–even if I get the flashiest, most expensive car alarm–it could still get stolen or vandalized.  Period.  The idea that I can 100% control things in my environment is indeed an illusion.  But it is so tempting!  I WANT to feel as if I have some modicum of say in what happens to my possessions or how safe I feel.  I am interested in reducing the likelihood that my space will be violated even knowing it is never guaranteed no matter the steps that are taken.  This car break-in smacked me in the face with the fact that I am not invincible or untouchable and that the physical world is subject to natural (or forced) deterioration.  In some ways I feel I’ve failed the Car Break-In test.  And I have increased my suffering because of it.  If I were to fully accept the impermanence of the physical world, a car break-in would not be as shocking and perhaps I would not take this act so personally.

It gets me wondering how a Buddhist nun might respond to a car break-in?  And, is that really my goal:  to be like a Buddhist nun in all things?  

current music faves:  lady gaga (ha!), adele, metric

current show faves:  the killling, game of thrones, united states of tara, bones

breakfast today:  vanilla yogurt, sliced bananas with granola on top

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I stumbled upon the Buddhist tale of Kisa Gautami and I was inspired to share it here.  Maybe there is something pertinent to our study of learning to sit with ambiguity (or perhaps our desire to inject ambiguity where there sometimes is no room…?). 

Kisa Gautami or The Parable of the Mustard Seed – as shared by Unitarian Minister Joshua Snyder


There is an old story about a woman named Kisa Gautami who went to see the Buddha.  Her young child of only two had recently died, and the mother was understandably grief-stricken.  She was so overwhelmed by her emotions of pain and loss, that she would not let go of her dead child.  She would carry it around with her as if it were still alive.  In modern psychological terms, this is known as denial, and it actually a common and even necessary part of the grieving process.  However, this mother was stuck there.  She could not let go, could not say good bye, and carried her child’s corpse, and her own suffering with her where ever she went.

As I said, one day this woman went to visit the Buddha.  She laid the child at his feet and asked him to bring her child back to life.  The Buddha of course was not able to do this; that is the founder of a different religion.  But he was moved by her great suffering, and out of compassion decided that he needed to help this woman.  So he told her, “I will grant what you wish but first you must bring me a mustard seed from a village that has never experienced loss or grief from a loved one.”  Elated, the woman leapt up and scurried from village to village looking for the one place where no one had experienced the pain of loss.  This should be easy she thought.   So she would enter a village and talk to the people who lived there.  However, in every household someone had a tale to tell of their mother dying, or their brother, or their husband.  Story after story this woman heard, each one more tragic than the last.  It broke her heart to hear all of this pain and grief, and yet it also comforted her.  She knew and understood what they were experiencing.  She too was in the midst of her own grief, and yet having it reflected back at her proved to be a balm.  She returned to the Buddha, not with a mustard seed because she found no village or household which had not experienced loss.  Rather she returned transformed, ready to say good-bye to her dead child.  In fact, in some versions of the story, she joins the Buddhist order of nuns and attains enlightenment.

This story is about the concept of impermanence.  We must accept the reality of impermanence if we are to be fully alive and not tethered to something we cannot change.  Kisa Gautami did not want to accept death, she was looking for some ambiguity where there was none.  When she agrees to journey to find a mustard seed from a village that has never experienced loss or grief, I believe there is some sitting with ambiguity there as she becomes willing to search for this possibility.  In the end what she finally finds seems to bring her comfort.  If she had not been willing to venture out, if she were more black-and-white thinking… I think she may still be dragging the child’s corpse around at the end of the tale.

What struck you about the story?  What lessons are here for us to take in and sit with?


current music faves:  pj harvey rid of me

current show faves:  big love, infomania, bill maher

breakfast today:  reece’s peanut butter puffs (…sugary delish!), coffee with vanilla creamer

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 “And the day came when the pain of remaining tight in the bud was greater than the risk it took to open”. ~Anais Nin

I have been interested in understanding how human creativity “works” for years and I have put that interest into action by painting, writing, and being an all-around crafty gal, as of late.

I’ve also been working my way through Jeanne Carbonettie’s book, Making Pearls:  Living the Creative Life, for the better part of 2+ years (!).  I finally finished the book by, well, reaching the end, but also by completing my last art project associated with the book (which we will get into shortly).

The premise of Ms. Carbonetti’s book is that creativity is cyclical in nature and that it often helps to recognize where we are in the cycle at any given moment and… honor it.  She lays out the creative cycle as one mirroring the process of oysters making pearls:

  • Waiting – When instinct tells the oyster the time is right, it cements itself to something stationary and waits.  It waits for noursihment to come to it. 
  • Opening – Then the oyster decidedly opens, taking in water and all sorts of things as it filters out what it wants and doesn’t want.
  • Closing – When it is ready to “digest” its food, it closes its two shells.  It is now that some grain of sand lodges within the shells and the oyster works to integrate it by secreting its mother of pearl lining around it.
  • Holding – As the oyster holds this pearl-to-be, the object rolls around freely within the closed space, which is what allows it to take on its characteristic round-shape.
  • Releasing – Now comes the time of releasing the pearl from the shell.
  • Emptying – Releasing always leads to emptying, everything goes! 
  • Sitting – There is then nothing left to do but sit.  The cycle is complete; the pearl is beautiful.

Ms. Carbonetti notes that “we are always in the cycle of pearl-making, forming out of the stuff of our lives something beautiful and meaningful”.  She presents projects at the end of each chapter that prompt the reader to engage with the ideas inherent in each stage of the creative process by creating a 7″ square of watercolor paper  per phase (Waiting, Opening, etc.).  Each stage is uniquely associated with a color that is meant to symbolize the energy of that part of the process. 

Without further ado, here are my humble conceptualizations of what I resonated with when it came to each phase of the creative, pearl-making process:


As an artist, waiting is associated with the life-blood and root of creative ideas, contemplative thought, embracing uncertainty, groundedness in “just being”, the allure of possibility and anticipation of the unknown.

OPENING (Orange)

Opening, in the artistic sense, is considered the “womb of ideas” phase; associated with listening for and connecting with what you are feeling, noticing, intuiting… and going with the flow of what you find. 

CLOSING (Yellow)

The process of closing for an artist is associated with tapping into quiet power, having patience as the aha! moment of sand sneaks on into the oyster’s shell.  This is the part of the process that welcomes having a sacred space to incubate.  Commitment to the artistic idea completes this phase.


Holding is a phase associated with growth and nurturance.  Affirmation and acceptance are key here as new ideas come up and are welcomed, not judged and scared away.  There is a compassionate gaze eminating from the artist here.

Releasing is associated with expressing one’s truth, raising one’s voice, coming to terms with all that our creation is, and what it isn’t, and giving it to the world anyway.  It is what it is and we surrender it, facing the truth of the moment.


Emptying is associated with insight and wisdom.  This comes from finally stepping back from what has been created and seeing the bigger picture.  This is the phase in which energy is finally withdrawn, this is the final let-go; the artist stops fiddling with the painting and let’s it be a finished work.


Sitting is associated with having faith in what has been created and finding peace at the end of the process.  It is about trusting what has been created and just being now that the cycle is complete. 

Along the way, this proposed process of creativity touches on many of the ideas already espoused here at Soft Animal Wisdom.  I see the DBT-ness (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) inherent in the Waiting, Opening and Holding phases.  I see the importance of generally sitting with ambiguity in the Waiting and Opening phases.  There also seems to be an overall vibe throughout the book that values mindfulness, compassion and being in the present moment… all Buddhist ideals.  I would definitely argue that much of the creative process exists as a liminal space where one has not yet created something and yet is also on the cusp of having created something. 

I have enjoyed the process of creating the squares for each phase and, in turn, enjoyed making the latest pearl that is today’s post… now back to Waiting, I suppose!

current music faves:  tori a. (obsessed right now)

current show faves:  dexter (season 6), breaking bad (season 4)

breakfast today:  veggie crepe from chicago creperie crepes-a-latte, toasted marshmellow latte 

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So, I’ve been watching the TV show Hoarders for a while now.  I am in the mental health field, so perhaps this is not SO surprising… these people are like a puzzle my brain gets transfixed with figuring out!  What is striking is how far “not throwing things away” or “collecting” have often been allowed to go.

People who suffer from the mental illness of hoarding (often with roots in anxiety, depression and OCD) are drowning in material things, STUFF–even if worthless or dangerous– and that stuff tends to get to the point of ruining the lives of the hoarder and the lives of those around them.  Sometimes the stuff is making the hoarder and his or her family members sick, sometimes costing them relationships with spouses or children, and sometimes the hoard itself threatens to make the hoarder homeless altogether.  Hoarding appears to happen at great personal, emotional, psychological, relational and often monetary expense.

But why?  Why would a person choose all this STUFF over their relationships?  Over safety?  Why choose stuff over having a place to live (thereby having no place to even store the stuff… or sleep)?

One answer came to me during a meditation some months ago.  I was doing my whole “as I breathe in/ I breathe in/ as I breathe out/ I breathe out” thing.  This was a long meditation and about 25 minutes into it, I was surprised by tears welling up through closed eyes.  I was breathing in: freedom.  Breathing in: honesty with self.  Breathing in: recognition of the truth that things in life change, inevitably.  Change is natural (sunsets do not last all day, right?).  It is the way of the world for things to never stay the same, whether over the course of an hour, a day, or on the geologic time-scale of 500+ years.  …Breathing in:  the truth that the only “real” moment is the present moment…  Such clarity came to me about… hoarders…  that trying to hold on to the unhold-on-able is at the root of their suffering.


Tears came and… it clicked to me that hoarding is in some ways simply about over-attachment.  Hoarders are attached to the STUFF, yes, but it hit me that they are also defensively attached to the idea that things can somehow stay the same; hoarders attempt to make things remain the same in their homes.  Hoarders live out the illusion of permanence, much to their own peril.  The hoarder is attempting to live out the fantasy of nothing-ever-changing.  They say to themselves, “this is MY stuff, look at it, I control it and it won’t leave me”.  Hoarding is notorious for beginning after there is a major loss (death of a loved one, divorce, when sons or daughters leave home, etc.).  Hoarding seems to be one way of self-soothing or denying painful change by symbolically “holding on” to items in lieu of relationships that were lost or in lieu of other un-faceable pain.  The problem is that all the STUFF hoarders collect piles up– often turning into dusty, moldy, unsanitary, inviting places for pests and their excrement, becoming an obstacle to safe passage through a hallway, door or room.  The STUFF of a hoarder is a symbol for refusing to accept change in their lives as the stuff itself deteriorates with the passage of time.  The stuff itself seems to prove the point that nothing is permanent, everything changes, everything deteriorates eventually.

Buddhism teaches that impermanence, or change, is an essential characteristic of all that exists.

We cannot say of anything, animate or inanimate, organic or inorganic, “this is lasting”; for even while we are saying this, it would be undergoing change. All is fleeting; the beauty of flowers, the bird’s melody, the bee’s hum, and a sunset’s glory.  ~Nyanaponika Thera

To fail to accept the always-in-flux nature of things is to live in an illusion,  denying–or protecting from– the reality of the ever-changing world.  Buddhists would argue that it is suffering that arises when we cling to things.  It is suggested that a non-clinging mind is one way to make peace and find liberation within the world of non-permanence.

The hoarder struggles to accept the reality of impermanence in life by overcompensating, clinging to an arsenal of possessions; clinging to some-thing to control.

Awakening to the impermanence of things, people, even one’s own life— disengages us, even just a little, from suffering.  When we refuse to acknowledge the impermanence of reality it often ends up hurting us more, like when the hoarder’s piles block the paramedics from reaching a loved one or when the hoarder’s piles render the kitchen or bathroom unusable.

Hoarders seem to find some improvement when they are finally able to glimpse the light… that stuff cannot fill the hole of grief, obstructs relationships in the present, cannot stop the passage of time, cannot provide true or lasting comfort, and is not an effective outlet to deny pain… this is the beautiful, obvious truth about the nature of the hoarder that came to me in meditation.  I think there’s something in this truth helpful for those non-hoarders out there, too…

current music faves:  santigold, css, joanna newsom’s “have one on me” album

current show faves:   tabitha takes over, parenthood

breakfast today:  croissant with turkey sausage, cheddar and syrup, danactive, ice water

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