Evolution

Evolution

Yoga is a practice of liberation. It’s sometimes described as a discipline of freedom in which you learn more and more what it means to be trapped and what it means to be liberated. It is a Wisdom Tradition that draws your own wisdom from the core of your body out through all your limbs, your hands and feet, your eyes, your crown, and covers you with it. Your own goodness, your own wholeness, your own choice to be the way you want to be in the world.

When lying in savasana (resting in corpse pose), I’d hear my dear teacher talk about contentment, our true nature. I thought I knew what she meant. So I began striving for contentment. This is hysterical! I see myself as having chased contentment so much that I literally chased it away the way one keeps driving a puppy farther on by running after it. (You know, you have to get the puppy to wanna chase you, then you run home.)

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Hollowness, emptiness, obscurity, lack. That’s what’s left when contentment’s not around. But these non-feeling-feelings are vague and veiled, so sometimes they can seem like contentment. I’d say it to my own students, too, “Rest in contentment, your true nature.”

I had misgivings about this, about not being sure, exactly, what this true-nature-contentment thing was, so sometimes I wouldn’t say it. But I did know about the pause between breaths, that swirling spaciousness into which the exhale dissolves and from which the inhale arises. And so I’d invite my students to “Rest here, for as long as it lasts, and then enjoy the next breath whenever it comes along.”
This
felt
authentic.

20 years later

Authenticity
feels
full, warm, round.
Like a baby’s belly after just enough milk.

When my babes were growing into toddlers there was always a lot of talk about food. Meals, snacks, bites, feasts. Yoga is like this.

When my toddlers were growing into children, we talked about feeling full, stuffed, hungry, ravenous, and famished (never starving). I offered them “content” as a way of describing the sensation just shy of full. Did they feel (sense) they’d had enough to eat? What if we wait twenty minutes before having more? Did they feel content with what they had? Yoga is like this.

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Memorial Day weekend of 2020 I was on my first ever silent retreat. My first ever silent retreat was fully online. So, not the experience I had anticipated, but one that was rich and layered with new ways relating and new ways of knowing. It was on that Saturday after listening to poetry, feeling it in my body, and understanding the ways metaphor (which is language itself) translates to sensation (through the motor and somatosensory cortex) that I realized I had been selling myself short. Or (and?) selling contentment short.

I began to understand that I had interpreted contentment as a neutral sensation, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It seems I didn’t have a sense (a sensation) of contentment that resonated or vibrated in my body. Also, I had used the yogic practice of non-attachment as a way of trying to access contentment, and in so doing had separated it from sensation even further. In this way, contentment felt like nothing – no thing – there was no metaphorical/neural connection for me. When I thought or said the word contentment, neither my motor, nor my somatosensory cortex activated. My brain had nothing (no thing) to offer. There was not an embodied experience (a knowing) from which to draw meaning. No texture or temperature, no vision, aroma, flavor, or action. Basically, contentment was dead.

Enticing the Puppy

Have you ever felt a poem in your bones? Has your flesh ever vibrated with a knowing when your friend describes her experience to you? Has your body ever come alive as you describe your own experience to someone else? This happens because language touches the part of our brain that controls our senses and our movement. The only reason we know anything is because we have a body from which to draw meaning.

Through a series of contemplative inquiries, trauma-informed, resilience focused practices, and iRest yoga nidra meditation, I began to understand that contentment could hold really big things, like Ease, Security, and Safety. It was like a door had been opened, or the roof lifted off, and possibility entered in, lifting me like a cloud toward something even bigger – Joy.

I used to think, Joy? Who am I to feel joy? And then, Wait – why not joy? Why rest in contentment when I can rest in joy? Instead of coupling contentment with neutrality, non-attachment, non-touching, non-aliveness, I started connecting it with happiness, serenity, peace, tranquility, and even Bliss – full aliveness.

I began to turn away from striving, and instead began running home to my body. Contentment would follow me, like a puppy, and bring with her all the sensations of enlivenment like tingling, pulsating, vibrating, shimmering. This is Yoga.

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A touching. A coming together. A joining. A yoking. A completeness. A coming home. All of this inside me, coming to life.

The practice of contentment is one of non-grasping. It is deep below the surface where the waves do not disturb it. That’s how this all works. Have the experience of bliss and remain equanimous when bliss passes. Have the experience of spaciousness and remain at ease when spaciousness fades. Have the experience of peace and remain serene when peace dissipates. The depth of the ocean is content to remain in cold darkness, unmoved by the weather so far above.

The Evolution of Practice

Dear one, in the depth of your being be content to rest in joy, your true nature, unmoved by the circumstances of your life. Allow yourself to be breathed by the lifeforce of the universe. Feel the birth of the inhalation and the death of the exhalation. Allow yourself to rest in the spacious joyfulness between breaths where death dissolves and life begins.

Can you feel how big you are? Can you feel light radiating from you? Can you feel it in your blood? Your bones? Your skin? How you are touching Love and Love is touching you? How you are the ocean, how you are Love?

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Iri

Take small bites. (Three little breaths.)

Nibble. (Have a few cat/cows.)

Just have a snack. (One goooooood sun salute.)

Eat just enough. (Two and a half minutes?)

Sense when you are content. (Relaxation.)

Feel when you are full. (Om.)

Get used to the idea
of being
such an amazing thing
as Joy,
and feast
when it is feasting time.

Contentment is big enough

And so are you.

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A List for White People: Resources to work alongside Marginalized People & end systemic oppression

Hello, Friends! Hello, White Christians & White Yogis!

I’m spending time learning about how to work alongside Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color, because as Christians and as Yogis we are called to work toward union. We are called to live (out in the world) what we practice (on the mat and in the pew) – unity & love. I’m inviting you to learn alongside me.

A Place To Start

A place to start is Guide to Allyship, created by Amelie Lamot, where I found one of many helpful definitions of what it means to be an ally. From author Roxane Gay in her article for Marie Claire“On Making Black Lives Matter:” 

Black people do not need allies. We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without remove or distance.

We need people to do this even if they cannot fully understand what it’s like to be oppressed for their race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, class, religion, or other marker of identity.

We need people to use common sense to figure out how to participate in social justice.

Lamot recaps:

“Being an ally doesn’t necessarily mean you fully understand what it feels like to be oppressed. It means you’re taking on the struggle as your own.

A individual from an underinvested community cannot easily cast away the weight of their identity (or identities) shaped through oppression on a whim. They carry that weight every single day, for better or for worse. An ally understands that this is a weight that they, too, must be willing to carry and never put down.”

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Furthering Your Education & Taking Action

Below is a list of resources from NPR’s Code Switch. It’s a starting off point to help us begin to take ownership of our education.

There are at least a couple of ways to approach these titles:

1) begin with the topics and titles we’re drawn to, and then moving on from there.

2) Begin with titles and descriptions that make you uncomfortable or defensive.

This list is long but not comprehensive. There are so many more resources out there for us to learn from. If you happen to feel overwhelmed (like I sometimes do), remember that these works weren’t produced in a single day, and we don’t have to read, watch, or listen to everything this week or this month. In fact, if we are committed to working alongside our marginalized and oppressed brothers and sisters, this is the work of a lifetime. It is not a passing fad.

I’m encouraging us to take enough time to let the truths of these resources sink in. As much as I wish I would’ve been engaging with these texts for my last 20 years, I know that racial and social justice won’t be served by me simply skimming through, checking things off the list. The work will be better served if I honor the truths in these resources by integrating them into my experience: Sit with the stories and lessons. Let them sink in. Notice my reactions. Welcome the discomfort. Get familiar with how systems of oppression manifest in me. Let the discomfort teach me.

Then, after learning from each resource – and my reactions to it – ask myself:

“What is mine to do?”

And then take the actions.

I am inviting you to join me.

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The List

This information comes directly from the full article, which you can read here: This List Of Books, Films And Podcasts About Racism Is A Start, Not A Panacea.

Books

Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Raceby Beverly Daniel Tatum

This classic text on the psychology of racism was re-released with new content in 2017, 20 years after its original publication. By providing straight talk on self-segregation and inequality in schools, Tatum shows the importance — and possibility — of cross-racial dialogues starting young.

Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

A finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in History, Race for Profit chronicles how the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 failed to stop racist, exploitative mortgage lending practices. Since the policy was supposed to be a balm to the 1960s uprisings — much like the ones we’re seeing now — it serves as a reminder to remain vigilant when policymakers promise change.

A Terrible Thing To Waste: Environmental Racism And Its Assault On The American Mind by Harriet A. Washington

From lead poisoning to toxic waste, Americans of color are disproportionately harmed by environmental hazards. This is detrimental to physical health — air pollution is linked with higher COVID-19 death rates, according to Harvard researchers. But Washington also argues that environmental racism is causing cognitive decline in communities of color. A deconstruction of IQ and an indictment of EPA rollbacks, A Terrible Thing To Waste is a stirring read.

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton

The origins of mass incarceration — which disproportionately puts black people behind bars — are often pinned on Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. But Hinton argues the carceral state was erected “by a consensus of liberals and conservatives who privileged punitive responses to urban problems as a reaction to the civil rights movement.” The 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act, part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society plan, led to today’s police militarization. This account of history poses relevant questions for today’s land of the free.

Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poorby Virginia Eubanks

Algorithms are made by humans, so they are susceptible to human biases. From deciding which neighborhoods get policed to who gets welfare benefits, discrimination has gone digital. By scrutinizing statistical models and telling personal stories, Eubanks shows that machines do not correct racist systems — they only shift blame.

The End of Policingby Alex S. Vitale

In the wake of high-profile cases of police brutality, the same ideas for reform are trotted out — implicit bias training, body cameras, police-community dialogues. But Vitale argues that this fails to get to the root of the problem — policing itself. While calls to abolish the police are often met with skepticism, academics and activists have long-discussed alternatives to addressing homelessness, domestic disputes and substance abuse. A free ebook of The End of Policing is available now. (And you can read Code Switch editor extraordinaire Leah Donnella’s conversation with Vitale here.)

Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracyby Darryl Pinckney

As young Americans take to the streets to say black lives matter, they’re often told to vote. While voting is important, it’s also important to remember how black political representation has been chipped away by voter ID laws, gerrymandering and felon disenfranchisement. Blackballed addresses the struggle for voting rights and for racial equality more broadly, drawing on Pinckney’s own experiences and writings of civil rights leaders to create a complicated picture of black political identity.

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Classby Ian Haney López

“Entitlement mentality.” “Quotas.” “Welfare queens.” From Barry Goldwater to Bill Clinton to the Tea Party, politicians have relied on racially coded language to win over white voters and decimate social programs. Dog Whistle Politics makes the case that not only does this strategy endanger people of color, but it also hinders economic mobility for all Americans.

Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecologyby Deirdre Cooper Owens

The foundational knowledge of American gynecology relied on the exploitation of enslaved black women’s bodies. In Medical Bondage, Cooper Owens centers the stories of black women that have been overshadowed by the “discoveries” of white male doctors who experimented on them. Baseless theories about black inferiority and higher pain tolerance still permeate medical schools today.

Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discriminationby Alondra Nelson

The Black Panther Party is most remembered for its militant action, but health care was also a major pillar of its activism. The People’s Free Medical Clinics tested for hypertension and assisted with housing and employment. Its outreach also brought attention to rampant discrimination within mainstream medicine. Nelson writes that the Black Panther Party understood health as a human right, echoing today’s fight for universal health care. You can read Body and Soul online for free.

Films

13th

The U.S. imprisons more people than any other country in the world, and a third of U.S. prisoners are black. In this infuriating documentary, director Ava DuVernay argues that mass incarceration, Jim Crow and slavery are “the three major racialized systems of control adopted in the United States to date.”

I Am Not Your Negro

Narrated by the words of James Baldwin with the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro connects the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. Although Baldwin died nearly 30 years before the film’s release, his observations about racial conflict are as incisive today as they were when he made them.

Whose Streets?

The 2014 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo. was one of the deaths that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Frustrated by media coverage of unrest in Ferguson, co-directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis documented how locals felt about police in riot gear filling their neighborhoods with tear gas. As one resident says, “They don’t tell you the fact that the police showed up to a peaceful candlelight vigil…and boxed them in, and forced them onto a QuikTrip lot.”

LA 92

LA 92 is about the Los Angeles riots that occurred in response to the police beating of Rodney King. The film is entirely comprised of archival footage — no talking heads needed. It’s chilling to watch the unrest of nearly 30 years ago, as young people still take to the streets and shout, “No justice, no peace.”

Teach Us All

Over 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, American schools are still segregated. Teach Us All explains why that is — school choice, residential segregation, biased admissions processes — and talks to advocates working for change. Interspersing interviews from two Little Rock Nine members, the documentary asks how far we’ve really come.

Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise

In this two-part series, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. chronicles the last 50 years of black history through a personal lens. Released days after the 2016 election, some themes of the documentary took on a deeper meaning amid Donald Trump’s win. “Think of the civil rights movement to the present as a second Reconstruction — a 50-year Reconstruction — that ended last night,” Gates said in an interview with Salon.

Podcasts

Floodlinesfrom The Atlantic

An audio documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Floodlines is told from the perspective of four New Orleanians still living with the consequences of governmental neglect. As COVID-19 disproportionately infects and kills Americans of color, the story feels especially relevant. “As a person of color, you always have it in the back of your mind that the government really doesn’t care about you,” said self-described Katrina overcomer Alice Craft-Kerney.

1619from The New York Times

“In August of 1619, a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans arrived in the English colony of Virginia. America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began.” Hosted by recent Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 audio series chronicles how black people have been central to building American democracy, music, wealth and more.

Intersectionality Matters! from The African American Policy Forum

Hosted by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading critical race theorist who coined the term “intersectionality,” this podcast brings the academic term to life. Each episode brings together lively political organizers, journalists and writers. This recent episode on COVID-19 in prisons and other areas of confinement is a must-listen.

Throughline from NPR

Every week at Throughline, our palsRund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei “go back in time to understand the present.” To understand the history of systemic racism in America, we recommend “American Police,” “Mass Incarceration” and “Milliken v. Bradley.”

The Spaciousness of Love, Revisited

Dear Readers, 

I wrote the original version of this essay a few years ago and have decided to revisit it.  What you’ll find below is a slightly reworked version oriented toward finding ways to take right action in light of the most current tragic events in the U.S. and the revelations of social divides and social injustice made more evident by this pandemic.  I hope there is something within these words that resonates with you, and that it helps inspire you to reach deeply into your own heart; find new ways of loving and embracing yourself, so that you may find new ways of loving and embracing the people in your own community, and so on outward to your village, township, parish, county, city, state, country, continent, and world.  My invitation to you is to start with yourself, and only then move outward, because you are just as worthy of your own love as your neighbor is.  The Divine lives in all of us and is the center of all things.  God is the hub; we are the spokes; this life is the rim.  And the closer we get to each other, the closer we get to God.    

As I write these last words, the reality of quarantine and safe (or social) distance measures strikes me squarely in the face.  My heart longs to enter back into the world, and yet I feel trapped, without clear pathways, and also a little fearful.  The need to take action is strong within me and many of the people in my community.  I am reminded by my teachers that right action will look different for each and every one of us.  For some of us, our first right step might be to hold our children close and feel what it feels like to be safe.  For some of us, getting involved in our community’s social justice groups is the most pressing immediate action.  And others of us will be called to speak in loving kindness with family, friends, and neighbors, or write letters of trust and strength and hope.  Still others of us will find ways to connect with our spiritual communities and allow the passion and guidance of our spiritual leaders to bolster our hearts in faith and love.  

May we be drenched in Holy Spirit wisdom, and soaked in gratitude, faith, hope, and love.

The Spaciousness of Love

If love is kind,
it is not cruel.

If love is not jealous,
it is supportive.

If love is not pompous,
it is humble.

If love is not inflated,
it sees rightly.  

If love is not rude,
it is enlightened.  

If love is not self-seeking,
it is generous. 

If love is not quick-tempered,
it is tranquil.

If love does not brood over injury,
it is forgiving.

If love does not rejoice over wrongdoing,
it offers compassion.

If love bears all things,
it turns nothing away.

If love believes all things,
it does not deny. 

If love endures all things,
it does not cede. 

If love never fails,
it always triumphs.

In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a scholar of Jewish law asks Christ, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus says to him in reply, ““What is written in the law? How do you read it?”  The scholar responds with what we know as The Greatest Commandment:  “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus replies to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live” (Luke 10:25-8).

From this quick exchange it seems our purpose on earth is simple, our mission, obvious, and the answer to the question of inheriting eternal life, a short one: love.  That’s it.  Nothing more, nothing less.

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However, as simple as love appears to be, isn’t it simultaneously complex?  What, exactly, is love?

In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul articulates clearly and beautifully what love is and what it is not, what love does and what it does not do.  And he acknowledges that our actions can be either devoid of love or infused with it.  We can serve in bitterness and resentment or in humility and compassion.  Even our most helpful of actions can be empty of love, performed in a negative spirit that crushes our own and that of the recipient.   St. Paul even goes so far as to proclaim that love is the greatest of all virtues, greater than faith and greater than hope:  “Love will remain even when faith has yielded to sight and hope to possession” (USCCB Commentary).

Thankfully we can look to these guidelines and explanations of love to give us a starting point, a kind of pathway forward, but I know how much I stumble and wander about aimlessly, how often I fall and clamber in the dark of my ignorance, for even though I hear the encouragement, “love one another as you love yourself,” it is as if I do not have ears; I still find myself screaming, in my most wretched hour, “How?”

The Greatest Commandment, love one another as you love yourself, assumes that we already know how we are to love ourselves.  

Zen priest and founder of the Center for Transformative Change, Angel Kyodo Williams, describes love as space:  “[Love] is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are — that is love”  (OnBeing interview with Krista Tippett).

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If love is space, it is not a vacuum; it does not pull all things into itself but expands and allows people to be who they are.  Love makes room for the full expression of the human experience.  Unfortunately, there have been many times in which I’ve been loveless.  I’ve had a habit of pulling all things into myself, making myself the center of the multiverse, sucking the life out of life.  I have been selfish, judgmental, prideful, vain, and vacuous, full of disdain, contempt, and self-righteousness, as I suspect most of us have at one time or another.  It is a crushing cycle to find oneself in, as it damages others, as well as ourselves, on multiple levels.

I want to choose space.

Choosing space is hard.

It’s good to remember that love is not passive; it’s an action, whether or not it looks like action from the outside.  To love is an act of the will; it is to choose, and we can’t make choices without awareness.  To be aware is to choose to see rightly, to see ourselves as we really are, without quite so many labels, inherited or created, without stories in which we are always the protagonist; but instead, to choose to see ourselves simply as children of God worthy of love, worthy of forgiveness, by our sheer existence.  Awareness can help create this space to see, this space in which we can choose dignity, this space to act in love toward ourself and our neighbor.

All this takes practice.  When we work on our yoga mat to create space in the body for healing, we do so with awareness.  When we work on our meditation mat to create space in the mind for choice, we do so with awareness.  And when the mind is able to choose, we are able to work in our daily lives to create space in the spirit for loving ourselves.  The hope is that if for a moment we can focus on the tree trunk, instead of the ever changing leaves, perhaps we will be able to notice, for even an instant, our constant spirit, instead of our changeable thoughts and emotions. And from inside this space, this separation between ourselves and our thought-feelings, we will find compassion for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, and for each person we encounter.

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Creating space isn’t easy.  It requires openness of mind and heart.  This can be unnerving and can seem irrational.  As human beings we strive to protect ourselves from the possibility of physical, mental, and emotional harm and to fulfill our basic needs.  This is survival mode, and it causes us to lose touch with others and even with our truest selves.  As we frantically search and scan our surroundings, our circumstances, we become absorbed with negativity.   When this is our baseline functioning, we run the risk of closing in on ourselves, forgetting who we are, and who we are in relation to those around us.

But we can try, little by little we can try to find that necessary spaciousness.  What can we practice letting go of to make space for something else, something like welcoming, like embracing?  Making space for ourselves, and making space for one another are true acts of love.  Even paying close attention is loving, for where we place our attention, there also will our love be.  Bringing our awareness to the present moment, including the people and events within that moment, and allowing space for the moment to be what it is, is living in love.

Our practices of the limbs of yoga – the yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana, dharana – with the wisdom of Holy Spirit, will lead us to the answers.  We’ll figure out what needs letting go of through practice, so we can’t quit; we can’t give up; we can’t deny ourselves the practices even when we are overcome with grief and anger – we take the grief and the anger to the practice with us. Just like we take the joy and the delight to the practice with us.  We take everything to the practice. Practice is truly our own best teacher.  

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Yoga instructor Bryan Kest speaks of a yoga practice on the mat as being like a mini-day, or a mini-life in which we encounter obstacles and challenges, and we practice being with them with equanimity, so that when we go out into the world we function from this baseline of non-reaction, with gentleness and self-compassion as our default mode.  Not only do we practice navigating difficulty as yogis, but we also practice nurturing ourselves through deep restorative postures and energy work that have the capacity to restore and bolster our right action in the world.  And this is paramount – we must care for ourselves so that we can care for others.  Continued, sustained practice creates in us the capacity to grow in wisdom and expand in love.  It is when we deny what is present, when we hide from what is happening, when we close in on ourselves and shut everyone else out through fear that our chests tighten, our hearts constrict, and our capacity for love diminishes.  Kyodo Williams encourages us when she says, ” for people who are not monastics, the world is our field of practice.”

And so we practice. We get on our mat every day; we let go of reactivity, harsh self-criticisms, vanity and pride, greed and grasping; we start to cultivate space for responding, for healing, for choosing, and for seeing rightly. We fail. We try again.

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We welcome wisdom into our heart and begin to understand what it means to be wisely generous and wisely selfish, so as not to overextend or overwhelm ourselves, but so that we pace, renew and restore and keep going. We take that spaciousness off our yoga mat, through the doors of our worship space and out into the moments, the circumstances of our lives, and we practice some more, and we practice again, and unceasingly, like prayer.

Love is not cruel; it is supportive and humble.  Love sees rightly and is enlightened.  Love is generous, tranquil, forgiving, compassionate, courageous, honest, eternal, and triumphant.  Love is wise.

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Love bears all things because love is spacious.  When we understand this and put it into practice by giving ourselves the space to be who we are without judgment, we will be able to give this same non-judgemental space to others.  From this place we will hear the encouragement, “Love one another as you love yourself,” and we will know, because we live it, because we feel it in our bones.

Space is ever-expanding.  So is love.  Love never ends.