Meditation, Parenting, Special Needs, Uncategorized, Yoga

It doesn’t just happen….

Buddha courtesy of www.lotussculpture.com
Buddha courtesy of http://www.lotussculpture.com

In her book A Heart as Wide as the World Sharon Salzberg describes “effort” as the “unconstrained willingness to persevere through difficulty.” She goes on to say, “Effort is the willingness to open where we have been closed, to come close to what we have avoided, to be patient with ourselves, to let go of preconceptions.”

I love the phrase “unconstrained willingness to persevere.”  I think for many of us in our lives we are many things to so many people and we have taken on many different kinds of tasks.  Sometimes a kind of automatic pilot can kick in.   We understand how to make our lives work and so we move forward, effortlessly. There is nothing wrong with being good at what you do, or having an established work or parenting pattern.  But when something is effortless, are you connected to it? In yoga when we teach the very first pose, Tadasana, people will almost always say “you mean I just stand here?”  The answer is “sort of.”  If you are really thinking, however, about your balance and engaging the muscles of your legs and the position of your spine and shoulders you will find that it takes effort.  You will even start to build some heat in your body, it is important to figure out the alignment in that first standing pose because it will be relevant to every other pose you do, including even the fanciest of arm balances.

The same is true in our lives.  If we construct our lives in such a way that they require very little focused effort, we start to feel disconnected from ourselves and the people and things we care about most. One of the reasons I believe that having a special needs child has been an incredible gift is that her unpredictability and the effort it takes to be her parent mean that I can never really slide towards autopilot.  She is the ultimate reminder to wake up and pay attention because life is happening, and of course if you take your eyes off her for a minute she is hanging from the rafters…..So that is motivation to stay present.

The word “unconstrained” is perfect to describe the effort we should put into our lives and relationships.  It implies that unlimited potential is possible if we let ourselves live fully.  We all have lists of things in our heads that we would like to do. They don’t have to be lofty. They can be as mundane as cleaning the kitchen or as vast as enlightenment for all beings.  They both take effort, attention and mindfulness. It is tempting when we meet people we admire, such as great teachers, writers or artists, to imagine that they were born with skills we were not.  It is true that someone who is destined to be seven feet tall because of their genetics is more likely to play professional basketball than someone who never makes it to six feet.  However, there is enormous effort, and concentration that goes into being an athlete even if one is born with some of the cards stacked in your favor.  When I have met great meditation and yoga teachers, I am always amazed and maybe a little envious of what they know and how easily they seem to convey their knowledge.  What it is important to remember is that this wisdom took effort and discipline. It took focus and perseverance. Wishing for knowledge or clarity but not undertaking the learning is like wishing to be in the NBA and never picking up a basketball.

Right Effort is part of the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path.  It is the fundamental belief that it takes effort to wake up to the full awareness available to us all.  In my mind it is the difference between being able to drive a car so spaced out that I don’t even notice that I have been listening to commercials, and driving a car with full attention to what I hear, what I see and what I am doing.  From the outside both experiences are identical, but inside they are completely different  Yoga and meditation are two ways we can practice mindfulness and attention, but any activity can become a mindfulness exercise.  It just takes effort and perseverance and the unconstrained willingness to believe that every moment is an opportunity to practice being awake.  It is this practice, this effort of returning our attention repeatedly to where we are and what we are doing, that will help us realize that we have everything we need for real sustainable, wakeful joy.

Meditation, Parenting, Special Needs

Wrestling the Fearosaurus

Anxiety is an extremely unpleasant sensation.  It is the place where fear of the unknown meets fear of the future, and they throw a huge fear carnival that can affect your whole system.  There very specific physical responses we have to anxiety, a sense of elevated heart rate, a dry mouth, an inability to be still or think clearly.

These are real physiological responses to what your body perceives as a threat.  Even if that threat is manufactured in some internal fear factory that is busily creating scary scenarios, your body cannot tell the difference.  It responds to anxiety that is generated internally with the same enthusiasm as if it were an external attack.  The problem is that our sympathetic nervous systems were designed to quicken our heart rates and slow down all our functions so we could escape from animals that were going to eat us.  It was a system that was designed for short bursts of lifesaving action.  Instead, for many people they have found themselves living in a state where this system is always on.

There is no question that we live in stressful times.  Reading the headlines right now is enough to make anyone feel vulnerable and scared.  When you add into it the day to day headlines of our own lives, filled with the regular victories and tragedies that befall us all, it can be hard not to feel overwhelmed.  Our incredibly, amazingly well designed bodies, however, come equipped with a second system to counteract the effects of the sympathetic nervous system.  It is the parasympathetic nervous system.  It signals to our body that we are safe, that we are at ease, that we can digest our food and our heart can beat normally.

The thing to remember is that both these systems are triggered and controlled by our perception of danger. If I am sleeping peacefully and am attacked by a dinosaur before I ever saw it, then I never had the chance to perceive it and become afraid. My sympathetic nervous system never went to battle stations, accelerating my heart rate and making me strangely alert and focused on getting away from the attacker as my only goal.  The reverse is also true.  If I lie in bed thinking of terrible scenarios that I perceive to be real then my body will respond as if they are.

The key is to look honestly at what messages we are sending to our body.  Are we running around all the time, claiming we are incredibly busy and extremely stressed and then wondering why our body is in a strange nervous overdrive?  Perceiving that there is never enough time, or that everything is going to fall apart at any moment is a habit.  It is a habit of mind with serious ramifications in the body.

The only way to break the habit is to look at our thoughts, honestly, gently and with compassion for ourselves.  Can you identify thought patterns that don’t serve you? Do you have habits that feed your anxious state? If you find yourself in an endless cycle of stress then try introducing new habits as a way to break it.  Instead of waking up every day and immediately checking email and the news, maybe go for a walk or sit for meditation.  Stress is a habit we reinforce without meaning to.  Sometimes the most effective remedy is just to change our routines a little; maybe then we can see more clearly what is triggering our anxiety.


Seeing clearly can come from setting aside a quiet time every day, seated in meditation, going for a walk, riding the subway, when all we do is watch our own mind. I have come to think of my meditation practice as a kind of internal eavesdropping, listening to the conversation that goes on in my head all the time, even when I am unaware of it.  What are the topics I am returning to?  Are they serving me, or are they keeping me stuck?  I cannot learn to let go of them until I identify them.  

If you are feeling like you are in overdrive spend some time just listening to your thoughts.  Are you spending your days in a cycle of what ifs? If you find that you are trapped in a cycle of repetitive and anxiety-producing thoughts you need to work to break the cycle.  The first strategy is to notice the signs, the accelerated heart rate and quickening of breath.  Go for a walk, take 10 deep breaths, call a friend.  The key is to recognize that you are safe, that this feeling you are experiencing is a product of your own perception.  It is a thought that seems more real because it has a physical presentation, and fairies and unicorns don’t.

Listen to your own mind.  Listen carefully and without judgment.  Pay attention to your habits and start to see if you can change the ones that don’t serve you.  There is no magic to mindfulness. It just means learning to listen to our thoughts and know the difference between the real dinosaurs and the ones we breathe life into ourselves.

Family, Parenting, Special Needs

A small act of real kindness goes a long way….

mae every dayThe last few weeks have been jam packed with errands. Boring ones like the grocery store, hardware store, bank. Before the kids started school they tagged along. For the most part they are fairly well behaved and they always hold out hope that there will be lollipops at the bank.

Mae has a shorter fuse than her brothers and at least once during these days of vaguely tedious drudgery she will completely lose it. Before I met Mae, I used to believe that when children fell apart it was because they were hungry or tired or there was some other situation a parent could have influenced or predicted. Public tantrums were some indication to me that a parent was asleep at the wheel.

Sometimes Mae’s tantrums are that, but most of the time they are like flash storms. They start up out of nowhere, rip through the peace of the day and leave us both spent and a little shell shocked. The older and bigger she gets the harder they are to defuse, especially in public. As she hurls her body around, screaming and crying, biting her finger or banging her head it’s all I can do to keep her from hurting herself.

Inevitably, as soon as one of these colossal expressions of displeasure begins, a “helpful stranger” appears. They are typically older than I am and female. Usually they spend a few minutes assessing the situation and then they offer advice or commentary like: “she needs more sleep,” or “maybe she is hungry?” Or a personal favorite: “my children never behaved that way.”

The “helpful stranger” has been on every airplane with us, in every grocery store, bank, even at the play- ground. She is masking her displeasure at my child’s behavior in the form of some sort of parenting tip, as if I were enjoying the sight of my red-faced screaming child and restraining her was some sort of hot new arm workout.

I have never been nasty to the helpful stranger. It wouldn’t solve anything, and I am usually too focused on Mae to do anything else. Occasionally, I will make eye contact and say loudly enough for the other people around to hear, “she is autistic.”  Just the statement of the fact hangs in the air and is mortifying enough to shut the helpful stranger up without me doing or saying anything that I would regret.

Last week, we were in Safeway and my cart was a mountain of groceries. I could barely push it. As we reached the checkout line Mae’s goodwill came to an end and a tantrum ensued. It was a doozy; arms and legs were flying everywhere. The helpful stranger was right in front of us in line. I could feel her watching us. I could feel her getting ready to offer me some parenting tips. I could also feel myself fragile and exhausted, getting ready to take my frustrations out on her. If Mae was having an external meltdown I was as close as I get to an internal one, and the helpful stranger was going to bear the brunt of it if she opened her mouth.

When she had finished paying she turned to look at us, me with one hand emptying the cart, the other arm holding Mae on my hip and trying to prevent her from throwing herself to the floor. She said “my grandson is autistic, I am so sorry it looks like she is having a hard day. I hope tomorrow is better.” That was it, then she walked away. It took a minute for me to register her kindness. I was so prepared for the false concern of the helpful stranger. Real kindness is without judgment, it is simply an acknowledgement that you see someone. It is the difference between eye contact with a stranger behind a counter or looking away. Real kindness is about connection.

I know that sometimes I can be the helpful stranger, jumping in to tell the woman with the screaming newborn to try the football hold or maybe bounce up and down a little… I won’t do that anymore, it doesn’t help.  It’s about me and not about her. I will remember what real kindness feels like, and just hope for her that tomorrow is a better day.