The seven deadly sins

I looked up the seven deadly sins the other day, and was saddened to discover that, over the centuries, emotions have made up a significant portion of the list.

Now, “deadly” sins are cardinal sins. You don’t just die if you commit these. Committing a deadly sin puts you in danger of eternal damnation, and each of the sins was traditionally paired with a specific punishment in hell. For being prideful, for example, you could expect to be broken on the wheel, for feeling envious, you could expect to be put in freezing water, and for feeling angry, you could expect to be dismembered alive.

Besides the emotions of pride, envy, and anger, the list has also included the emotion of despair. The fact that emotions made it onto the list at all explains a lot. I have often wondered how emotions came to be so suspect–how feeling, acting, and relying on them came to be taboo. But I can see now how being threatened with eternal damnation for feeling an emotion could motivate you to suppress it.

  1. Genetic Modification
  2. Experimenting on Humans
  3. Polluting the Environment
  4. Causing Social Injustice
  5. Causing Poverty
  6. Becoming Obscenely Wealthy
  7. Taking Drugs

Oh, hell

My 80-year-old mother and I got into a big argument about hell on Sunday. She’s absolutely certain that I’m going there, and I’m just as certain that I’m not.

Here’s my reasoning:

  1. One of the most important laws of physics is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only change forms.
  2. I believe that our essential selves–the core of who we are–are made up of energy.
  3. This was made clear to me at the funeral of my friend Jill, who died in a car accident at the age of 16. Seeing her body at the funeral was a shock. Though it looked like Jill, her essential “Jillness” was gone, and all that was left was a shell.
  4. Jill’s death caused my then-fundamentalist Christian faith to crumble. It took me 20 years to rebuild a belief system that made sense to me. But I never stopped believing that Jill’s consciousness had survived the accident.
  5. I concluded that, because a disembodied consciousness (or “soul”) does not have physical senses, you can’t hurt it by hitting, stabbing, or burning it.
  6. So, even if a physical hell did exist, how could it hurt something that is pure consciousness?

There are many other reasons why I don’t believe there’s a hell (more of my journey away from fundamentalist Christianity is described here). But as I said, Mom is just as sure that there is a hell, and that it’s my destiny. There’s a little girl inside me who has always yearned for my mother’s approval, and it hurts to know that the only way I will ever receive it is to become what I am not. I find it difficult to reconcile Mom’s professions of love for me on the one hand with her insistence that I am going to hell on the other.

A few years ago, Mom got not one, but two ulcers. She attributed them to my sister’s and my refusal to accept Jesus as our lord and savior. She was hospitalized, so I called the hospital’s gift shop and asked them to fill up two helium balloons, then write my name on one of them with a permanent marker, and my sister’s name on the other. I asked them to take the balloons up to Mom’s room, then called Mom and instructed her to go outside and let the balloons go. I wanted her to experience the release of that, but she didn’t do it. She asked my brother to go outside and do it for her, saying she’d watch from the window. I don’t know if he ever did. The whole meaning of the ritual was lost.

So here’s take two: A declaration of emancipation.

Declaration of Emancipation

Hear ye, hear ye!
Be it known to all that read this that

[my mother’s name]

is herewith absolved of any responsibility for
the eternal welfare of

Petra Elisabeth Martin

Petra joyfully takes complete responsibility for
her spiritual journey in this life
and for her life thereafter.

Declared on this 30th day of December 2009


Petra Elisabeth Martin

I don’t know if it’ll help Mom, but it helped me. When my son and I want to let things go, we find big rocks, write what we want to release on them in permanent marker, and throw them off a bridge into the water. It gives us a satisfying feeling of release.

Our New Year’s Eve tradition (in fact, we just did it today), is to conduct a burning bowl ceremony. We write on slips of tissue paper all the things that we want to release, take turns sharing them with each other, touch the paper to the flame of a candle, and then drop the burning paper into a metal bowl. One of the things I burned up today was “My mother’s expectations.”

Can a recession teach us anything about happiness?

Like many of us, I’ve been affected by the economy. Sometimes, when projecting my life out into the future, I have become deer-in-the-headlights scared, which has caused me to turn to the past and berate myself for choices that got me to where I am. No matter which direction I turned—forward or back—I felt awful. Eventually, I realized that I felt most comfortable in the present moment.

I realized that I would create the very future that I feared if I didn’t bring my thoughts home to the present. I also realized that no amount of second guessing could change the past, and pulled those thoughts into the present as well. (This is not something that stays done, by the way. It takes constant vigilance.)

For some reason, I believed that the circumstances I found myself in amounted to failure, and I feared that others would judge me as harshly as I judged myself. They didn’t. In fact, I received the most love and support from the people I least expected to receive it from.

Letting go of the past and the future and feeling the support of loved ones enabled me to relax into the moment and discover that I have absolutely everything I need—right now.

I achieved a somewhat fragile sense of inner peace when I heard a recorded interview with Marci Shimoff, author of Happy for No Reason, and checked her book out of the library. Since then, I’ve learned more about the field of Positive Psychology, and have a queue of books to read, including two by Positive Psychology founder Martin Seligman (Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism) and one by scholar Sonja Lyubomirsky, who wrote The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

In the Upanishads, it says, “Happiness for any reason is just another form of misery.” The idea that I could be happy for no reason was a new one for me.

Like most of us, I thought my circumstances determined my happiness. We think we’ll be happy when we get a better job, find our soul mate, earn a certain amount of money, acquire a desired object, lose weight, achieve better health, and so on. But when we realize those goals, we often find that they don’t make us happy after all–or do for only a while. So we set our sights on a new goal, get back on the hamster wheel, and try again. It’s a game that can’t be won.

Not so with happiness that we find within. Because unconditional happiness isn’t linked to what we have, what we do, or who we’re with, we can never lose it. The spiritual masters we revere most achieved this state. They had nothing in the way of possessions, yet radiated a sense of unshakable peace and happiness that draws us to them.

For years, I’ve claimed the saying, “My greatest gift to others is my own happiness.” I even had it printed on my checks. But I never really got it until the recession forced me to realize that happiness doesn’t come from anything outside me. It comes from within and to achieve it, that’s where my focus needs to be.

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life,
the whole aim and end of human existence.” Aristotle

The illustration, by Kris Wiltse, is from the “Happy” card, which is part of the Mixed Emotions card deck.

A major spiritual shift

I was speaking, in passing, with a friend, when someone who overheard our conversation stopped, waited for it to end, and then mentioned something she’d just learned about that might help me. Challenging to pronounce, and even more difficult to spell, I had trouble finding more information about it on the Internet, but ultimately succeeded. It’s called ho’oponopono, and as you may guess from its spelling, is Hawaiian in origin.

What is it? It is an ancient practice of reconciliation and forgiveness. “Ho’oponopono” basically means to set things right. It entails taking 100 percent responsibility for everything that enters your awareness, because there is no “out there.” Everything you perceive is interpreted within the confines of your physical body, where all kinds of filters and influences come into play—especially in the form of memories.

We are all One, and in ho’oponopono, we take responsibility for the situations in which we find ourselves, whether we “caused” them or not. Long before I knew about ho’oponopono, I forced myself to go to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. I did not play a role in the Holocaust. I was not responsible for it. But I knew that if humans could do that to each other, somewhere deep inside me, I must hold the potential to do it too. I had to face and confront that.

If I had known ho’oponopono then, my experience would have been different. Ho’oponopono is a simple four-step process that entails taking responsibility, apologizing, and asking for forgiveness. In Dachau, I might have said something like this:

  1. I am sorry for the suffering that people experienced here. I am sorry for the unspeakable cruelty that prisoners endured. But I am also sorry that Nazi soldiers were ordered to be cruel by their superiors.
  2. Please forgive me for the potential that lies within me to be so judgmental of and so cruel to my fellow human beings.
  3. Thank you for this opportunity to make amends.
  4. I love you.

This process is called “cleaning.”

Ho’oponopono in everyday life

Yesterday, a friend told me about a situation that has been incredibly challenging, in a twisted, convoluted, messed up sort of way. It was her experience, but once she told me about it, it became part of my experience, and something I needed to clean. You clean everything that comes into your experience that does not feel right or harmonious—which means you could be cleaning continuously. And when you are not cleaning, you can cut to the last step and say, “I love you” to things you’ve been taking for granted. Today, for example, I loved the trees in their autumn splendor and the road that brought me home.

Another example of using ho’oponopono is food, which I’ve thought a lot about. Are certain kinds of foods bad for us in and of themselves, or are they bad for us because we think they’re bad? A friend recently told the story of her Grandpa Norm, who had his own stick of butter at mealtimes (everyone else at the table had to share a second stick). He put butter on everything—including donuts—and lived to the age of 92. Clearly, grandpa was saying “I love you” to his butter. He welcomed it into his body and his body received it in harmony.

Although I’m committed to eating in a healthy way, I hate thinking of supermarkets or restaurants as mine fields, where danger lurks in the artificial sweeteners, trans fats, and genetically modified organisms that are hiding everywhere. So today, I tried ho’oponopono on the can of non-organic soup I had for lunch. I said, “I am sorry for the way I have judged you. Please forgive me for thinking that any part of you might be bad for my health. Thank you for nourishing me. I love you.” This will be our new way of saying grace.

The advantages of ho’oponopono

For me, the advantages of ho’oponopono are:

  1. It prevents me from judging. When I take responsibility for the circumstances I’m in, say I’m sorry, ask for forgiveness, and express gratitude and love, it becomes impossible to judge.
  2. It makes me feel peaceful.
  3. It makes me feel empowered, because acknowledging the role I play in everything means I can’t possibly be a victim.
  4. It addresses issues I’ve had with the law of attraction for a long time. The law of attraction is about intention (tell the Universe exactly what you want and you will get it). Ho’oponopono is about inspiration (clean up your mess and clear the way, so you can receive inspiration from the Divine). The law of attraction entails constant effort via affirmations, visioning, scripting, etc. Ho’oponopono entails clearing the channels between ourselves and the Divine, so we can receive (and act on) its inspiration and guidance. And that feels right to me.

I’ve fallen, and it takes a village to get me up

While Adrian and I were at an orchard party yesterday, I missed a step and took a header onto concrete. I lay there taking inventory, trying to figure out what body part hurt worst, and people rushed to my aid. I sat up and determined that my right foot had suffered the worst damage. A reflexologist immediately grabbed my ears and applied pressure in spots that help with pain. An emergency physician checked out my ankle, assured me that it wasn’t broken, and prevented a trip to the hospital. The host of the party brought an ace bandage and the physician’s wife, an emergency nurse, wrapped my foot in it. A neighbor brought arnica ointment and tablets, and I’m not exactly sure where the ibuprofen and a Ziploc bag full of ice came from. People helped me walk to a lawn-type recliner that they had placed in the sun for me (I was in shock and shaking), and they made me elevate my ankle and put ice on it.

As I lay on the recliner, I thought about the fact that we were completely out of hay, our goats had nothing to eat, and that I would be unable to go to the feed store after the party to get a couple bales of hay as I had planned. When I mentioned this, a woman I’d never met said that she needed to get a couple bales of hay for her goats, too, and offered to pick some up for me and bring them to our house. (Even here on rural Whidbey Island, it’s rare to be at a party with someone who also has goats, much less someone who has also run out of hay and was also headed to the feed store to get exactly the same thing you were planning to get after the party.)

My fall could’ve been an accident, carelessness, or dumb luck, but if this experience had a message in it, I wanted to hear it. I had literally missed a step. Might that be a metaphor for missing a step in real life? Had I overlooked something? Or maybe I just need to slow down.

Today, I thought of the friends, acquaintances, and strangers who had cared for me and how completely and instantaneously supported I felt. Tears came to my eyes, and I realized that that was the message: shit will happen, but you will get through it with the help of your community.

My foot hurts, but I can walk, and I have learned that I don’t always have to walk alone.

The psychic therapist

I once had a therapist who earned her living as a psychic before she switched careers and became a counselor. Her psychic skills were kind of handy when my ex-husband and I were going through marriage counseling, because identifying and articulating emotions was a real struggle for him. She could just “reach” in, dig around, and “pull out” some emotions for his consideration. When she narrowed down his options that way, he was able to identify how he felt.

Despite our efforts, my ex and I decided to end our marriage. Several years later, I was in a relationship with another man and went back to the same therapist. She insisted that he and I would end up together. But as time went on, it became clear that he was not right for me. Although I shared events, insights, and emotions that led me to believe that we were not meant for each other, she continued to insist that we were. So, I redoubled my efforts and kept trying.

In the end, my emotions and her psychic perspective on things were at such odds that I broke up with the guy and fired her. It taught me an important lesson. As tempting as it is, I don’t look outside myself for guidance anymore. That means no psychics, horoscopes, or other means of predicting the future. But it also means that I now heed my own inner guidance above that of experts, gurus, teachers, clergy, parents, and friends.

This is not always easy, and is something that I have to recommit myself to repeatedly–especially as I bump around in the dark trying to find my way. It is much easier to trust the sometimes loud and insistent guidance of others than it is to listen for that still, small voice inside myself. But I believe it’s what’s right for me. Fact is, I believe it’s right for us all.

Snakes, rocks, and hard places

When I look back on my life, I have often known when it was time to move on because I felt squeezed out of a particular situation. This is how I imagine a snake feels when it needs to shed. I imagine things start feeling constrictive, uncomfortable, irritating, and itchy. At that point, a snake will actually seek out a rock or a hard place and brush its body against it to tear its skin. Then it’ll work at the tear until it’s big enough, find something to catch the skin on, and wriggle out shiny and new.

Snakes shed so they can grow, and because they grow throughout their lives, they shed their skin until they die. I think we shed so that we can grow, too. Today, I realized that I have felt the constriction, discomfort, irritation, and itchiness of a situation that no longer fits. It is time to move on–to wriggle out of this situation so I can emerge into a new one.

If snakes were to look in mirrors (and I’m sure fashionable snakes do), they would see in their reflection everything they will eventually shed. What they shed is their outward appearance, their physical identity, the way they and others recognize themselves in the world. When I have faced sheddings in the past, I have found it impossible to imagine who I’d be without my old skin. Who would I be if I left corporate life to become a parent? Who would I be if I got divorced and raised my son on my own? Yet the skin no longer fit, and I knew it had to come off.

For me, the worst part of shedding is the sense of spiritual disconnection I feel. Before a snake sheds, it is virtually blind for a period of time, because the skin over its eyes becomes cloudy. This I understand, because I have felt blind in terms of my source of inner guidance lately.

A situation that was known and comfortable has become constrictive and irritating. I feel blind to my inner guidance, and am instinctively seeking out rocks and hard places that will help me tear open an escape hatch in this old skin. Seems like a bad thing, but is it? I feel confusion, grief, and a sense of loss around losing something that was known and comfortable. And this spot between the rock and the hard place is painful. But who am I becoming? Freed of my old skin, what possibilities and adventures await me?

An unexpected visitor

Most religions teach that we have spiritual companions–angels, guides, totems, the higher self–they have lots of names. I believe I have spiritual partners on my journey, but sometimes they feel like imaginary friends, and I just want one of them to sit at the foot of my bed and have a conversation with me like any two people would.

Sometimes, I can’t stand it anymore and beg for evidence–demanding something tangible to make me feel less alone. I have been doing more of that lately, while also asking for insight, guidance, and intervention without ceasing. Last night, I had the most amazing shift in perception, and this morning, I woke up and saw a pile of gray beside the shelter in the goat pen. On closer inspection, I saw that it was a great-horned owl.

I read up on how to rescue raptors on the Internet. Poke ventilation holes in a box, put a towel in the bottom, get another towel, and take the whole shebang out to the raptor. Then cover the raptor with a towel, wrap it up, and put it in the box. My 10-year-old son courageously took on the task, and soon the owl was in an undignified position on his back in the bottom of the box–defenseless against the affectionate petting of an enamored boy.

I took it to our local falconer, who immediately determined that it had a compound fracture in its left wing. He said he’d take it to the vet, nurse it back to health, and then determine whether it could survive on its own in the wild. If it couldn’t, he’d try to find a zoo or other institution that would take it in.

Great horned owl Great horned owl

There was something about having the owl only a few feet away and looking directly into its immense eyes that touched me to the depths of my soul. I feel blessed and less alone. The chances of this happening when and where it did are so slim that I feel I’ve been given the tangible gesture of spiritual solidarity that I craved. And tonight, I don’t feel quite as alone.

This has been a test of your inner guidance system

You know that story about the guy who is in a flood and winds up on the roof of his house to escape the rising waters? Some people in a boat come by and offer to rescue him, but he turns them down, saying, “God will save me.” Then some people in a helicopter come by and offer to help, but he waves them away and says. “God will save me.” Eventually, he perishes in the flood, and when he gets to heaven, he says to God, “Why didn’t you save me?” God says, “Well, I sent you a boat and a helicopter didn’t I?”

This is the position I am in right now financially—sitting on the roof of the house, watching the floodwaters rise, and wondering how I’m going to get out of this predicament.

One morning last week, I finally collapsed a whole page full of money-related goals down to one: “I easily and effortlessly draw $100,000 per year through activities that bring me great joy.” Later that day, I was walking into a store and heard someone calling my name. It was a friend who said that a few people were gathering at a coffee shop next door to talk about a business and asked if I was interested in joining them. I abandoned my trip to the store, told my son where to find me, and joined the discussion. Sitting around the table were five people for whom I have great respect and one person I hadn’t met yet. I figured that any kind of business opportunity involving these people could be interesting and listened as one of them addressed the possibility of easily earning $100,000 per year. And then I heard the words, “network marketing.”

“Shit,” I thought. “Anything but that.”

However, I remembered the story of the guy on the roof in a flood and wondered, “Is this God sending me a boat or a helicopter? Will I one day stand at the pearly gates wondering why God didn’t save me, only to be told, “Well I sent you that network marketing opportunity, didn’t I?”

So I did it. I paid the money and joined up. And then I became restless. My mind raced. I couldn’t sleep at night and when I did, I dreamed about network marketing. In an effort to better understand it, I created a web site to explain it to myself and others. I started telling my story to people and meeting with resistance that mirrored my own. How could I ask people to sign up for something I didn’t understand, believe in, or feel good about myself? The whole subject introduced static into every conversation because of the existence of a hidden agenda.

Finally, it occurred to me: are the negative emotions that I am experiencing a legitimate message from my inner guidance system? Or are they a response to a limiting belief around network marketing that needs to be addressed? I had been assuming the latter. If my negative emotions are a message from my inner guidance system, my only choice (based on years of experience) is to heed that message. If my emotions are a response to a limiting belief, continuing to hold on to it makes no sense, and I need to clear it.

This is the most subtle and sneaky test of my inner guidance system that I have experienced yet. I am sitting on the roof. A boat comes by. I get in. It feels wrong. Now what? How can something dressed as salvation feel wrong?

As little sense as it makes, I cannot stay in the boat any longer. I put full faith in my emotions, ask my would-be rescuers to pull the boat over and get out. They can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.

Yet, here I sit on the bank. And you know what? My mind has stopped racing. I can sleep at night. I can have conversations with friends that have no static in them. Regardless of what happens, I have been true to myself, and that is all that matters. I don’t know whether another boat or a helicopter will come, but I know I did the right thing for me.