Taking Responsibility for Our Lives: a Spiritual Practice

Cherry tree blossoms and stems soaked in rain (c) Sarah Elizabeth Malinakor years an essential part of my spiritual practice was taking everything negative or bad that happened to me and getting real serious about taking responsibility for it. Whatever showed up in my life, I had created that. I was taught this in a psychospiritual school back in the late-1990′s, and back then it did transform my life. The goal of the work was to transform us students from identifying as victims to identifying as creators. Though empowering, it turned out to not be enough and, on some level, it wasn’t real.

I discovered two things on that journey. 1) It was easier to take responsibility for the negative. For one thing, getting real serious about taking all that responsibility sometimes meant wallowing in it a bit longer. And, well, sometimes wallowing just feels really good. It doesn’t satisfy, but it can feel really good! 2.) I never really practiced taking responsibility for the positive. The positive felt like such grace and such a gift that it seemed arrogant to declare, “Oh, I created that too!”

That school and what I learned there was part of my spiritual journey. It lead to the path I am currently on, the path that I believe is just beneath the surface of all the others I’ve walked. That path is the path of awakening. I imagine that enlightenment is somewhere along it, but whether or not I reach enlightenment will be all grace, all gift.

Hydrangea in shadow (c) Sarah Elizabeth MalinakTwice a month Joseph and I sit in satsang with our current teacher, Alaya. She has given me a new way to perceive and experience the shadow side of my life. When it shows up, whether in the moment or in memory or as a projection into the future, it is showing up to be healed. She says, “Grace leaves nothing untouched. Nothing! Be tender with all of it.”

Which means just be present to whatever shows up: don’t resist it – don’t celebrate it – don’t embrace it – don’t identify with it because all those things keep one locked in separate self. The shadow arrives, just be. If just being with it brings me to my knees in grief, so be it. If it creates a sense of equanimity, restfulness, and peace, so be it. If feelings around it fall flat, so be it. This, by far, is the most peaceful and healthiest response to the shadow I’ve ever been taught. It is the main reason I chose her as my teacher.

brown leaves in snow  (c) Sarah Elizabeth MalinakTo say a little more about the psychospiritual school and why I found their teaching of how to take responsibility for our lives to not be enough – to even be unreal. In that school, personalities and who was in good standing with the teachers mattered a lot. It mattered too much. There was a great deal of attachment to processing feelings. Those of us who could really dive in deep, pulling out all kinds of toxic emotions, were held in high esteem. It invariably resulted in students sometimes either faking it or manipulating themselves and acting out but, more importantly, it kept us all strongly attached to our egos and our ability to perform well. Nevertheless, it transformed my life to the degree that it was the first time I was given full permission to feel my feelings and to do that in a community where we all did love and support each other. I will always be grateful for the school and its place in my life.

These days, though, life is showing up differently for me. This awakening path is all about recognizing the illusion of separate self – the death of the ego, if you will. One of the ways Alaya puts it is when anything shows up as a choice for or distinction between “this or that” then we are in the illusion of separate self. So focusing my attention and energy on how I created everything that shows up in my life means I am attached to the illusion, to separate self. It’s an ego conversation to spend energy, brain power, and emotion trying to take responsibility for everything that shows up, invariably judging it as good or bad so that I can create less of the bad and more of the good! That practice seems superficial and it no longer satisfies.

Cherry tree blossoms dripping water (c) Sarah Elizabeth MalinakThe farther along this path I walk, the less interest I have in ego conversations or separate self. Taking responsibility for my life by acknowledging that I am not separate from any of it requires a courage that runs deep and wide. It means I’m free to dive really deep without manipulating myself or anyone else!

Joseph and I were already on the awakening journey when I met Alaya. I chose her because her teachings speak to my soul and support this awakening path in a way that contributes to easy, natural breathing and beingness. And, like a healthy teacher, she says when a student no longer needs her, the student stops attending her satsang. No codependency there! It’s all Grace.

Relationship as Sacrament

1-Ocean just ocean taken from shoreSometimes I think of relationships, especially romantic ones, as the “final frontier” on the spiritual landscape. Relationship is so vital to humanity’s understanding of God and who we are in relation to God that it is built into all the major religions, from the most ancient to the most recent.

Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have one or more relationships between God and specific individuals as the primary route of transmitting communication, expectations, love, and compassion between God and humanity. And where the concept of God is missing from Buddhism, the relationship between teacher and student is valued as the primary route of transmitting truth.

A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward spiritual and divine grace. When we approach one or more of our relationships as sacrament then we are expecting to meet God there, to meet God’s love there, to express God’s love there, to be reminded that we are the Beloved’s and the Beloved is ours. Sounds like a tall order, right? That’s a lot to put on a relationship…

I believe that if we, at least once in awhile, view our relationship with another as a mirror of our relationship with God, we can be encouraged, inspired, challenged, and motivated to put more loving intention into growing ourselves up to be mature, loving human beings who relate to one another in mature, loving ways.

Jason Gould album cover 2012

I ran across a beautiful song – a song that has lyrics and music that tug at the heart and the gut – that gets at this idea that one’s relationship with another mirrors one’s relationship with God. It is written by Jason Gould along with Marsha Malamet and Liz Vidal.

Sung by Jason, his interpretation of the song and the intimacy the lyrics express between former lovers is titillating. And if you read it or listen to it from the vantage point of spiritual seeker and God, the intimacy expressed becomes down right thrilling.


It’s called “Morning Prayer.”

Do you remember the sound of my name?

How it rolled from your tongue like a poem of hope and heartbreak?

Warm as the sun and soft as a prayer

When morning comes does the sound of it still fill the air?

I know that our love was a moment of grace

And with one touch I was forever changed

Closing my eyes I can still feel you near

We bathe in the light of a flame that has burned for 10,000 years 

I’ll wait

I’ll wait until time disappears

I’ll wait right here

Will you forgive me all my mistakes?

Will you come lie with me and sing my soul back awake?

I ache to see you walk through my open door

To fall in your arms and know I’m not alone anymore 

I’ll wait

I’ll wait until time disappears

I’ll wait right here 

I still remember the sound of your name

It rolls off my tongue like a poem of hope and heartbreak

Warm as the sun it fills the air

Oh, my love, you are my morning prayer 

Do you remember the sound of my name?

In an interview with David Munk at Stargayzing.com, Jason said he didn’t notice the interpretation of the song as that between a person and God until he recorded it. I didn’t notice it until I read the interview and listened to the song once again! And then fell more deeply in love with it.

You can hear Jason sing it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=torfwGPgyEg 

4 Stone Hearts a Better cropped photo


“When she loved her husband, she was loving God. Every real love story is a love story with God.”

~ Deepak Chopra


When we slow down and imagine lover and beloved and Beloved (you, your lover, and God) ~ looking in his or her eyes is looking into the eyes and heart of God ~ being seen and heard is both being seen and heard by God as well as seeing and hearing as God ~ relationship then becomes a sacred trinity. And every moment, good or bad, becomes an opportunity to be more present and to dive more deeply into love.

In my own life I find that if I refrain from looking at this in terms of right or wrong – if I don’t use succeeding at it or failing at it as an excuse to judge myself – if I just let myself melt into the juiciness of being present in those moments when my relationship is a living sacrament, then my love, my life, my spirituality, my relationship with God and my relationship with Joseph are all fed. And I come away feeling grateful and full.

Beliefs, Grief and Grace

Butterfly GirlIf what the Divine Feminine experts say about the 2000 millennium is true, that it carries great feminine energy because of the even number “2” and all those round zeros, then I have this idea that all the even years must carry more feminine energy than the odd years. Meaning the even numbered years are softer and more nurturing…

I haven’t yet studied my own life to see if it is at least anecdotally true for me but I can say that 2013 was a very hard year. I lost both parents in the last four months of 2013. In the process, I learned something about my belief system that startled me when it revealed itself.

To begin with, because I’ve frequently heard about how unnatural it is for a child to predecease his or her parents, I drew the conclusion that losing one’s parents in death was “natural.” Among the various orders of life, I reckon it is the natural order. But that doesn’t offer two cents worth of comfort when it comes to grieving their passing.

This leads me to that startling belief I uncovered…Apparently, I believed my parents would never die! Not ever. I can imagine a child having that belief, but I’m 53-years-old. Doesn’t that make it a cognitive distortion or something?

1-empty chairs in garden everything covered in pink cherry blossomsWell, I don’t really need to label it or me. The thing is it makes sense. My parents have been a part of my life since I took my first breath. That makes them god-like and God is ever present. Why shouldn’t they be too?

Fortunately, I found this surprising belief to be both bittersweet and humorous. Part of that comes from the nature of my family and our ability to laugh at ourselves without laughing at each other. Part of it comes from my willingness to trust my own grief process – this companion I’ve decided to invite along for the ride for as long as she wants to keep me company.

Another belief got my attention because of the confusion it has caused. It is the belief that people want to hear my story about my loss. That, being interested in me, they must be interested in my experience. This isn’t always true. Today a friend pointed me to Teryn O’Brien’s blog where Teryn listed fifteen things she wished she’d known about grief. Number 7 spoke to me loud and clear because it’s about this very issue.

ceramic swan dusted in snow on front porchShe says, “No one will respond perfectly to your grief. People – even people you love – will let you down. Friends you thought would be there won’t be there, and people you hardly know will reach out. Be prepared to give others grace. Be prepared to work through hurt and forgiveness at others’ reactions.”

It is true that every single person’s experience of the grief journey is unique. Sometimes a strange belief popping up can make one feel odd and different from the rest of humanity. Sometimes a friend or loved one responding casually or inappropriately to confidences shared can make one feel not only odd and different but also make one feel misunderstood and like a burden to others as well.

Grieving is messy but it is sacred and holy stuff. It is an excellent opportunity to daily (hourly or sometimes by the minute) remind oneself that self-love and self-nurture are absolutely necessary. And, as Teryn suggests, to be on the lookout for grace because when grace happens while you’re grieving, it is extra sweet and nourishing.

My friend who posted Teryn’s blog said that taking care of yourself while grieving is “constructive…cocooning you to new life.” Surrendering to the cocoon is a gift of grace a person can give themselves.

If you found this blog entry because you know grief as a companion, wrap yourself up warm and snug in your own love, in God’s love, in the memory of your loved ones’ love and love, love, love up on yourself no matter what thoughts or feelings pop up, bombard, or simmer. That’s what I’m aiming at these days.

Empty Rocking Chair up close


You were loved,

You are loved,

You have loved,

You still love.

You are love.


God bless us on this journey…

Memories and Remembrances

brown leaves in snow bokehAs a teenager, my parents’ divorce and remarriages reconstructed all the extended family dynamics. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents on both sides of the family lost a family member. We went from always sharing Thanksgiving with one particular set of cousins to sharing the day divided between two homes, sometimes with new family friends at the table. Blended families create new webs of extended family connection. For some that’s good news. For others it messes with that warm, fuzzy, dependable sense of home and homecoming.

For me all this extra family and the new way we spent holiday and vacation time meant less time spent with cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

But in that loss I was given a gift.


Mom's cameo

In a series of years when our beloved elders died, Mom had a habit of asking me to travel with her to attend the funerals and to be there far enough in advance and after to be of service and share in the intimacy of remembering and collecting remembrances. Because of those women who said, “Come and help yourselves to whatever you’d like to remember me by,” I have sacred memories of two and three generations of women going through clothes, trinkets, and knick-knacks, telling stories punctuated by, “Here, you should have this,” or, “Would you like that?” No competition, jealousy, or greed, just love shared through remembering and gathering remembrances.

Lately I’ve wondered if these end-of-life rituals Mom and I shared have assisted my grieving the physical loss of her.

When I wear one of her butterfly pins or a piece of clothing that was hers, or admire some of her art work that I took to hang on my walls, I sometimes ask if I have a right to these things. But then I remember the spirit with which we gently chose some of Big Mama’s, Dear’s, and BeBe’s things and I know I handle her things and my choice of them with the same care and love of the person who once owned them that she and I expressed forty years ago.

My cameoI have had the very good fortune of remembering her more and more as she was when she was younger and vital: her laughter, her sense of humor, her sense of style, her care and concern for others, and I am so very grateful.

Mom and I shared the intimacy of the death and loss of the women in our family who came before us. It is one of the threads that binds us even now.

Death changes a relationship. It doesn’t end it.

I love you, Mom! And I am and ever will be grateful that you are mine.

Autumn ~ a Time of Gratitude…and Existential Angst

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

(If you are viewing this in an email, it’s extra full of photographs…wanted you to know in case your email server makes you approve images…)

For as long as I can recall, the change of seasons rustles up anxiety for me. Even thought it happens four times a year, it always surprises me – especially in the warm seasons. Why wouldn’t the warm seasons give me a feeling of hope instead of anxiety?

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

The only sense I’ve made of it is that change I cannot control, which Mother Nature is excellent at putting in front of us, puts me in touch with existential angst – that fear of death of which humans are uniquely aware. 

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

This past summer the autumn angst came early. We had unseasonably cool weather the end of July through most of August and then summer came in full swing for most of September. Although I was grateful for a cooler summer, the flip-flop of seasonal temperatures seemed unfair. Even now autumn hardly seems to have arrived. The colors have changed so slowly this year. Most every time I lift my camera to take a picture I’m surprised by how much green is still on the leaves.

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

Here in Asheville autumn usually begins teasing us about the third week of August when the lengthening shadows along with the chill in the air promise her return. Even though that’s when the angst hits, I missed her teasing me this year. 

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

Existential angst notwithstanding, autumn is still my favorite time of year. I’ll always associate it with pencils and erasers, new school supplies and new possibilities, new shoes for school and autumn fashions that always seem the yummiest of the whole year. Each new school year brought back old friends and introduced new ones with all kinds of potential for drama and falling in love. The rusts, yellows, oranges, and fading greens are just my favorite colors of all.

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

And on walks, the first fires lit in neighbors’ fireplaces create the perfume that perfectly matches the chill in the air and the shudder in my bones, creating a holy trinity that puts me in touch with nature’s beauty and chaos. 

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

Maybe it’s just a result of school through the years, but there is a heightened sense of expectation and fresh potential in the fall that belies the falling leaves, trees baring all, and frost nipping our noses (and the toes of young women who wear sandals this time of year – even in the mountains!). Autumn may be the one season where we walk the fine line between accepting death and denying it – a facet of life that confronts us in the autumn of our lives as well…

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

I even most love my camera this time of year and, this year, I get to carry it to catch autumn color for at least two full extra weeks!

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

I love autumn. I’m grateful for her. And I am willing to deal with the existential stuff because all the rest fills me with enthusiasm for all the creative potential that can be met!

I reckon it’s a fair trade between Mother Nature and me. 

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.

copyright © 2013 Sarah Elizabeth Malinak, all rights reserved.