As a yoga teacher I reference the mind/body connection a lot. Encouraging people to notice their breath and to make the connection between what’s happening in their mind and how their body may be responding is central to my teaching. It is impossible for us to be in a state of stress and anxiety and not manifest that in our bodies. The same is true with happiness, when we are at ease, our breath is deeper, our jaws relaxed, and our general overall posture improved. I talk about it all the time, but I didn’t really understand it until this fall.
In September, I went on a week long meditation retreat to Karme Choling in Barnet Vt. My in laws came in to replace me and help Colin with the driving. I left notes all over the house with instructions. The kitchen actually looked like a scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind. I set up outgoing messages on my email alerting people that I was removing myself from my life for a week.
The retreat itself was wonderful — not just the meditation sessions and the teachings — but Vermont in September is beautiful. For six whole days I did not cook, clean, put on anyone else’s shoes or wipe their buns. There were breaks in the middle of each day and I would go for long runs. In the morning I had at least an hour before breakfast to do yoga in my room with no dog to come in and lick my face or child to ask me to stop because one of their siblings was somehow ruining their life.
The last day I missed my family, and was ready to come home and see them. What amazed me was how easily I had spent the rest of the retreat as a solo act. How quickly I shed my skin of mother, wife, daughter teacher and friend. All of my responsibilities fell away and for almost a week I was really connected to the rhythm of myself. I felt great.
For the first few days at home, I continued to feel unusually present and aware. I smiled at strangers and they smiled back, I was not agitated at all and felt very much in sync with my life, not just inside my body and house but out in the world as well.
Then on Sunday afternoon, having been home for three days, I headed with Mae to the grocery store. We were doing a week’s worth of hunting and gathering but for some reason were not at our regular grocery store. I can’t remember why, but we went to one I rarely go to, and don’t have as clear a map of in my head. Either way, she was very well behaved the entire time, despite the fact it was taking longer than usual, as I wandered us up and down aisles in search of our weekly staples. By the time we got to the check out line she had had it. She started fussing a little, and a nice woman whose youngest had just left for college tried to distract her. I am not sure how her empty nest qualified her to engage my special needs six-year-old but she meant well. Mae was done however, and proceeded to launch into a tantrum that wasn’t epic by any means but was dramatic for sure. It is the banging on the side of her head that is horrifying and the inconsolable quality of her screams. I held her in one arm as she kicked and screamed, a perfect illustration of what we imagine an angry kid looks like. I used the other arm to unload the cart. I know people offered to help, but that isn’t so helpful. The checkout girl for my lane and the the one for the lane behind me both ceased to work. Their jaws actually hung open. Finally, I said to the checker in my aisle, “you know what would be very helpful, if you could continue to check out my groceries so I could get out of here, she will be fine in the car.” I remember thinking that my voice was very calm and in fact feeling very calm. Making a scene is not my favorite thing in the world but we have made way worse…on airplanes..
When we got back in the car I was relieved, and so was she. Immediately she was quiet and we headed home. I was about a mile from home, which meant we had been in the car for about ten minutes when I realized my jaw was clenched, my hands were gripping the wheel and my shoulders ached. Anger was bubbling at the base of my throat and behind my eyes. I was replaying the incident at the grocery store in technicolor in my head. Each time I re-lived it my body responded. I had left the store calm, and by the time I got home I was a mess. If I had not just come home from a retreat the effects would not have been so noticeable. Even now, months later I can connect with that extreme shift in my own state of mind. This drove the point home for me in a very tangible way. My body is very much at the mercy of my mind. When I revisit unpleasant experiences repeatedly my body responds each time with physical and emotional sensation.
My meditation practice had allowed me to see this connection really clearly. I have learned to watch my thoughts, to pay attention to the feelings that arise with them. I am working every day to let go of the ones that do not serve me. I cannot control how the world responds to me, or my children. What I can control is how many times I replay the hurts and slights, how many times I let them restrict my breath and sting my eyes. So for now, I will unclench my jaw and my knuckles, I will relax my shoulders, and take deep breaths, and maybe I will learn something.