Family, Marriage, Parenting, Yoga

A lot to learn….

Recently, we have had a few teachable moments with the boys.  We have been faced with situations where they have broken a rule or abused a privilege, but rather than punish them, we have given them the opportunity to repair the damage or remediate other consequences of their behavior.  In both instances, once their relief at not being in trouble subsided, they rose to the occasion and demonstrated maturity that impressed us and, more importantly, themselves.

The whole experience got me thinking about teachable moments.  The writer Annie Lamott describes how she had to retrain her inner voice from one that would order her to sit down and write, using phrases like “sit your lazy ass in this chair” to one more like a gentle maternal coaxing “just try and write one paragraph you clever girl.”  Clearly, one is more pleasant and arguably more effective.  When we manage ourselves and our relationships skillfully we are better able to identify teachable moments.

Even our bodies have teachable moments.  When someone is training for an Ironman or marathon, that is not the time to start an aggressive new yoga regime. We will not be teaching our body anything; we will just be stressing it even more.  When training for an event, most bodies need days of rest and long slow stretches, extended hip openers and chest openers with lots of support.  Learning to listen to the cues our body is giving us is one of the most important steps to lasting wellness.

Often teachable moments rise out of unpleasant experiences, but that isn’t always the case.  Remembering how much better we feel after enough sleep can mean that when we are tempted to stay up a little too late, we remind ourselves of that good feeling. A friend and I were joking recently after a huge dinner that our diets would start Monday.  Later when thinking about our conversation I realized that even that sort of habitual thinking isn’t healthy.  Even though we were both kidding around it is that “I will start tomorrow” mentality that prevents us from doing so many things.  Maybe the teachable moment there is just noticing the habit.  Every day there are opportunities to be accountable for our behavior, to wonder whether we could have handled interactions more skillfully, with more insight or compassion for ourselves or others.  I am so completely convinced that we learn more when the methods are loving and patient than swift and punitive.  I am going to start paying more attention to the teachable moments in my every day. I know they are there and there is an awful lot to learn.

Family, Marriage, Meditation, Parenting

Listen, this is important…

photo (11)As anyone who has been in a relationship for any length of time knows, there is a big difference between hearing and listening. In the early days of any relationship, romantic or otherwise, we listen very carefully to the other person when they speak.  As we become more familiar with people we may hear them but not with the same attention.  I can recall with incredible clarity what Colin and I talked about on our first date, despite the eagle-sized butterflies in my stomach. I was as present and aware of every detail of the day as I have ever been.  If you asked me the details of a conversation from this past weekend I would have a harder time.  It is not for lack of interest.  I still think that at any given moment Colin is the most interesting person in the room, it’s just that familiarity makes it easy to confuse hearing and listening.

 

Hearing is what happens when I ask my children to empty the dishwasher and they don’t move.  They have heard me…but they aren’t listening.  Listening is what happens when you calmly tell them several hours later that ignoring my requests makes me feel rotten, and emptying the dishwasher and making beds is just being a part of the team.  Listening makes change, but in our family for people to listen to each other, voices can’t be raised and eye contact is necessary.  Yelling, snipping, or coming from a place of exasperation pretty much assures that no one in my house will listen to you.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh, a well known contemporary Buddhist scholar, talks about “listening deeply” or “listening skillfully.”  These are practices that one develops through meditation.  By learning to listen to the rhythms of our own mind we are better able to listen to other people.  We learn how to listen by being quiet and practicing non-judgmental awareness of what comes up in our own minds.  It is the same when we are talking to a friend, a stranger, a family member, we have to see that person as they are, not as we wish they were, not rush them through to express our opinion, or in the case of loved ones, without the layers of history between us.


Skillful listening is something we can all develop.  At one time or another it has come naturally to us: a friend in crisis, a new love, a child’s first words, but then we relax back into hearing rather than listening.  These days I am working on really listening deeply, giving those around me my total attention.  When I listen with my whole heart I am a better wife, mother, or friend. Like any practice it starts by noticing when you aren’t doing it, and gently drawing yourself back into the present moment.  Eventually it becomes easier, replacing the old habit of hearing, with a new habit of listening.

Family, Marriage, Meditation, Parenting

A theme for the year?

Around the new year, there is always the discussion of resolutions and change. People set intentions and try, at least for a brief period of time, to be the best version of themselves possible.  I took a class recently with Nina Wise, a local meditation teacher, who said that she doesn’t bother with resolutions anymore because she felt like they had a built-in element of self loathing.  The idea that we need to change something doesn’t seem inherently like self loathing to me, but I understand how, for some people, making and breaking the same resolutions year after year might contribute to a lack of trust in themselves.

She suggested choosing a theme for the year, things like health, honesty, work or family.  Rather than setting goals that include specific elements, having a theme for the year just makes you more conscious of one aspect of your life.  For example, choosing family as a theme may mean that you are more inclined to arrange gatherings, are kinder to your relatives, or more mindful of the small gestures that matter like phone calls and notes to check in.  If your theme is health maybe it is more yoga and meditation, but also more time with friends who make you laugh, more massages and sleep.  Health doesn’t have to mean that you are in the gym three times a week for the month of January and never again.  Health as a theme means taking care of yourself as a whole person, and over a year that could be life changing.

She also spoke about honesty as a theme which I loved.  She suggested developing the habit of asking yourself whether or not your actions support your theme.  In the case of honesty, the questions look something like this:

Is this not true and not helpful? Don’t say it….

Is this not true but helpful? Don’t say it..

Is this true but not helpful? Don’t say it…

Is this true and helpful? Wait for the right time, and say it

The idea of being this mindful of speech is exciting to me. I know that I often speak out of habit, or boredom, or nervousness.  It is a discipline for me to hold a space in loving silence, a discipline that I have worked hard to develop.  My nature leans more toward giggly chattiness rather than thoughtful silence. I hope that this year I will learn how to wait for the right time to offer advice, or to collude with a friend.  I hope that my words will have more power if they are chosen with greater care. Mostly, I just hope that I am helpful.

Family, Marriage, Meditation, Parenting, Yoga

You can always change the station….

This weekend, after our new kitchen rose to the occasion in a huge way, churning out meals and snacks for our whole family, I felt so full (literally and figuratively) and happy.  Being all gathered together in our new house felt exactly as I had hoped it would.  The sweet spot that lies between abundance and excess. On Saturday after the festivities wound down, I headed to a daylong yoga and meditation retreat. The day itself was grey and rainy and it felt so good to know that I would spend it quietly on my mat with no greater task than to listen.

 

There is nothing I love more than gathering with family and friends but I have learned that to do it well, I need to build in some quiet time on the back end. I can be completely present to those I love if I can practice that silently on my own. Too much silence and I get a little wacky; not enough, and I get even wackier.  Like anything else, I need balance between external merriment and a quiet internal landscape.

 

The workshop was great, a duet between two smart teachers. They skillfully wove yoga, meditation and dharma talks in such a way that at the end of the day, I was ready to go home because I was satisfied, neither stuffed or restless. Like a well-made meal, a workshop should be a good blend of spices and portions; too much and it’s like drinking from a fire hose, too little and you are left feeling empty.

 

During one of the meditations, our teacher Wes Nisker suggested that we view self-criticism as a misguided form of self-care; the idea that the internal voice that releases a steady stream of worries, critique and doubts is actually trying to help you. I thought this was a brilliant shift in perspective on that particular characteristic we all share. My favorite writer, Annie Lamott, calls the self criticism station in her head “k-fucked” radio. It’s the voice that makes it hard to try new things, or is convinced that at any moment everyone is going to find out you are a fraud and it’s curtains. We all have it, and for some people it’s louder than others. Learning to see it as a form of self care seems to make it easier to reconcile it. Rather than resent it, or try and control it, I love the idea of seeing it as a misguided form of self preservation. By thinking of it this way, it seems easier to shake it off. When some familiar worry or self doubt pops up it seems easier to smile and ignore it rather than feel like, “seriously, you again? Get lost..” Instead it becomes a worried, well meaning friend who can’t help themselves. You smile at their efforts and don’t listen to their advice.


We do ourselves no favors worrying about what could go wrong. Instead, we should be focusing our energies and attention on what is actually happening. Like so many things, it’s way harder than it sounds. But, maybe learning to see “k-fucked radio” as just one of our many channels, we will see that we can always change the station.

Family, Marriage, Meditation, Parenting, Special Needs, Yoga

Love is not a limited resource…..

One of my earliest memories is of  standing in the grocery store with my mother and looking at a total stranger, keeping my eyes on them until I felt like I loved them as much as my parents.  I remember playing this game in stores, restaurants, and on the highway, staring at strangers until I felt the sensations that I associated with love.  A feeling of warmth in my chest, a kind of tingling in my arms and hands, a sense of connection even though the person wasn’t someone I knew at all.  I guess from a very early age I was interested in how my mind could influence or create sensation in my body.

 

What I didn’t realize was that I was practicing my own form of a Loving Kindness meditation. Love is a virtually unlimited resource, it is what gets us up in the morning; it is what sustains us through our darkest hours and lifts us to our greatest joys.  In my own life I define love as a sense of connection and a generosity of spirit that makes me feel safe and expansive at the same time.  Sometimes when life is busy, or we are feeling run down, that sense of connection to others can feel out of reach.  Practicing a Loving Kindness meditation for just a few minutes a day can shift our whole sense of what interdependence feels like.  The formal practice of this meditation requires you to find a quiet place, and sit with eyes open or closed.  Start by visualizing someone who you love unconditionally.  Focus on the image of that person in your mind’s eye until you can feel the sensation in the body that you associate with love.  Often you will find that you are smiling.  You will send that person the message:

May you be happy

May you be healthy

May you be safe

May you be at ease

Repeat these phrases in your head a few times as you hold that image of your beloved person in your mind. Then the practice dictates replacing the image of that person with an image of yourself and sending yourself these very same messages.  From yourself you move to an acquaintance and eventually to someone with whom you have conflict.  Each time you repeat the same phrases, sending these messages of love and generosity out into the world.  The very last part of the practice is sending these messages universally in the hopes that they reach all who need them.

The formal practice of Loving Kindness meditation is intensely powerful, and I encourage everyone to explore it. Recently, I have found myself returning to my own made-up version of it from childhood. Practicing not in a quiet room away from the world but instead in the hardware store, or the library, focusing my attention on someone (usually their back, so it isn’t weird) until I can feel a sense of loving them.  There is something about this practice that makes me happy, that makes me feel like I have tapped into an amazing source of good feeling that exists all the time.  Whether it is practiced formally or informally, working to spread love and kindness in today’s busy, intensely complicated world seems like an awfully good use of one’s time

Family, Marriage, Meditation

On any given day……..

mae every dayI have a very dear friend who lost both her father and beloved uncle in a very short period of time.  For years afterwards, when she was talking about any situation that was disappointing or inspired any feelings of sadness, she would start the sentence by saying, “I know no one is dead but…”  It was as if after the immense pain and trauma of the initial loss she felt she was never entitled to feel sad again.  I understand this; in the years since Mae’s diagnosis, the tsunami of disappointment and sadness that we wrestled with made any daily disappointments seem trivial.  For a long time I would fail to even register irritation of any kind, even when I started to return to myself.  I would dismiss annoyances by reminding myself that I had a child with Autism, and therefore this broken car mirror, or internet that won’t work, or any number of other minor bothers weren’t worth my time.

In some ways, though, this is problematic. After my wedding, a very joyful day, I didn’t imagine that I would never feel equal happiness again.  Nor did I compare everyday moments of contentment to the major rush of happiness that accompanied our wedding.  Imagine if after a long, delightful day at the beach with our family I turned to Colin and said, “Well that was fun. I am happy —  I mean not like wedding happy — but happy.” I am not sure he would feel like it was a positive assessment.

We don’t wear our happy experiences like armor to protect us from future happiness, so why do we feel that our painful experiences should protect us from future discomfort?  There is no amount of perspective that will make you immune to the ups and downs of an ordinary life.  Every day is filled with opportunities to feel virtually every emotion available.  In any given hour, I can have my feelings hurt, I can laugh, I can be embarassed, I can be in love.  That can go on all the time every day. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

I think that perspective is only valuable if it doesn’t prevent you from really feeling everything, both good and bad.  It is okay to be annoyed even if it is just because your pedicure was smudged.  I can also be inordinately happy when Mae’s very expensive almond milk yogurts are on sale.  Yesterday, I was practically giddy because while I was walking the dog she expertly pooped in a mouse hole of some sort, which meant I did not have to bag it and carry it home.  It was thrilling.  I decided the dog was a genius, and my days of picking up poop were over. By the time I got home I had forgotten about it completely because I noticed that the molding under the door was loose and I was immediately absorbed in how to fix it.

It is unfortunate that we can never be inoculated against sadness, embarrassment or irritation. There is no quota on disappointment in life, some have more, some have less.  By the same token we have endless opportunities for joy; there is no limit on what can bring a smile to your face even in the darkest of moments.  I am grateful for the perspective that being a special needs parent has given me, I am empowered by it.  I never wonder what I am made of and that is a very good feeling.  At the same time, I have to remember that just because I have perspective doesn’t mean I should deny or ignore the ordinary bumps that come up in a day.  Some days are great: you get married, you have babies, you see old friends. Some moments are great: you laugh hard, your daughter speaks, your children are swimming together, your dog poops in a hole.  Some days are awful: your daughter is sick, you have crazy medical bills, your car won’t start, you have hurt the feelings of someone you love…Sometimes it can all happen in the same day, because life is like that. Just the way we would never say that a balanced meal is made up entirely of desserts a balanced life is filled with every emotion.  The important thing is to allow yourself to really feel, to really connect to the life that you are having, because up or down, it is the one you have.

 

Family, Marriage, Parenting

I owe an apology…

photo (16)I owe an apology to every friend I have who has undertaken a house renovation.  I now understand that it really is all-consuming.  When you would talk to me about counter tops or which kind of door you should put on your bathroom, I was as bored as I appeared.  In my head I would be thinking that you should be grateful for the house you have and wish that you would stop talking about faucets.

I am sorry, I get it.  As we undertake the never ending project of this house I find myself compulsively reading magazines with titles like “Best of Kitchen and Bath” or losing myself for hours on www.remodalista.com I am on Pinterest so much that Colin was teasing me that I needed a pintervention.

It is of course a totally escapist pursuit.  We can’t help but imagine that the right flooring will lead to total familial bliss; the right arrangement of cabinetry and furniture and lifelong happiness will ensue.

Being able to organize or reorganize one’s space is a sense of control that in our chaotic always almost-slightly-out-of-control life I rarely experience.  Intellectually I know that there is not a renovation under the sun that will cause my child to speak, or make any one of us better or happier people.  We will just have a nicer more functional kitchen.  That knowledge, however, doesn’t make the planning less consuming.

The next time a friend asks me to admire her counters, or wants to discuss faucets I will do it with enthusiasm.  I will make every effort not to be impossibly bored but instead will recognize that the kitchen, living room or bathroom in question represents more than its four walls.  Right or wrong, it feels like an opportunity to shape your family’s experience of their day.  It is a luxury beyond measure to even dream of these things. It can feel ridiculous when many people in the world don’t have access to clean water to realize that you are falling asleep wondering if brushed nickel was the right choice for your faucet.  It’s important not to lose sight of that.

Like anything it is about keeping it in perspective. It is about remembering that your fixtures are probably not a subject of universal interest, while at the same time enjoying the process of creating a space for your family. I will not miss the tangerine walls of our current family room, or the crumbling cabinetry, but when it’s over and I have created what feels like the perfect space, I know I will miss the dreaming about it.  I will miss the possibility for improvement that these ugly rooms represent.  They are problems with solutions.  When I have solved them I may be forced to address the more complicated, less straightforward problems in our life.  I will miss the conversations about oak vs. pine when I am hiring a behaviorist to potty train my 6 year-old or I am sitting through tension-filled school meetings. But every time I put my hand down on my counters I will know that there is one problem I was able to solve; every time I see my family gathered in our kitchen I will smile and know that in some small way we have won that round.