Buddhism, Family, Marriage, Meditation, Mindfulness, Parenting, Yoga

By Any Means Necessary

As school vacation ended this past week, I was desperate for my children to go back to school.  When we have all been in the house for a little too long there is an itchy, restless feeling around the edges of everything they do.  In my body it manifests as massive fatigue. When they were all home it felt like a huge effort to do anything, the second they left I found myself energized and able to address my to-do list.  

I don’t like that itchy, cranky feeling, it feels like a lack of gratitude.  Sitting in my warm safe house with my three kids and my loving husband and feeling unsatisfied seems fundamentally wrong.  I know I only feel this way because I am desperate for us to return to the routine that comes with school and work.  Even knowing that, I search for an antidote, I remind myself how lucky I am, I sit for meditation, or go for a run.  Truly there is only one thing that really helps, and for me it is reflecting on the alternative.

Last New Year’s, Colin wasn’t feeling well.  He was tired, stressed and his back hurt.  In fairness, we are both tired and have been since Ben appeared in 2004, so when he complained of exhaustion, I ignored it.  When he talked about his back hurting I told him to stretch, put your legs up the wall and breathe deeply.  When he said he was going to see a doctor, I shrugged.  The doctor ran a million tests and they were all inconclusive. Colin’s face  was slowly turning gray but I couldn’t see it.  I was too busy thinking about the details of our life.  The kids’ schools, our leaky roof, our muddy driveway, my own aches, pains and frustrations.  I was so engaged in our day-to-day that I wasn’t able to see that my husband was fading away.  Or maybe I didn’t want to see it.

In February he had an angiogram, and they found and cleared a significant blockage, one they call the “widow-maker.” At the time I just focused on how lucky we were. I heaped praise on Colin for seeking out a second opinion. I talked about the miracles of medicine and joked that he had eaten his last cheeseburger.  We have a habit in our family of turning difficult realities into punchlines and this was no different.  He would joke that with his new “gear” as we referred to the stent that he was like a newborn; he could throw himself into bad habits with gusto.  I would feign horror, knowing that we would find some easy middle ground.

It wasn’t until the end of this year that I really thought about how differently the story could have ended.  There are many skilled practitioners of Buddhism who can find gratitude without thinking of what could have gone wrong.  I am not one of them.  As 2015 ended, I found myself thinking more and more about what could have happened, about my life without Colin.  Not just the practical financial aspects, which would be grim at best, but also the impossible loneliness I would feel in his absence.  When I find myself irritated by the hundreds of water glasses he manages to use and leave behind in a day, or the peanut butter with a knife sticking out left on the counter after lunch, or the fact he never quite remembers to close the fridge….  When I see those things and start to think to myself “what the ????” I think about the other ending we could have had to 2015, the ending where my husband got so gray that he disappeared altogether.  When I think about that I don’t even see the water glasses or the peanut butter.

One of my favorite phrases in Buddhism is “skillful means.”  It is used to describe the many different methods available to people as they search for truth.  The longer you practice, the more clear and efficient your means become.  It isn’t especially skillful to appreciate the life you have by imagining the worst case scenario.  But for now it’s what i am working with.  I cannot seem to learn the lesson enough times that the real treasures are hidden in the most ordinary days.

Buddhism, Family, Meditation, Mindfulness, Parenting, Yoga

It’s not really a superpower

Last weekend, I was talking to a friend about yoga and meditation and she told me she didn’t feel like she was good at either because she could never “clear her mind.”  It is a fact that we all believe that we are the proud owner of the world’s busiest mind.  Every one of us is convinced that no one’s head or life is as busy as our own.  However, “clearing one’s mind” is a common, but impossible directive.

In a yoga practice, one’s attention should be primarily with the breath, and then, with where one’s body is in space.  When you look down at your feet and see that you desperately need a pedicure, note it.  But, you can’t do anything about it in the middle of a yoga class so go back to your breath. It is not about “clearing one’s mind” at all, it is about returning your attention to where your body is, neither in the future or the past but right there on your mat.

The same is true with meditation.  There is no better way to bring your “to-do” list front and center than to try and not to think about it.  In meditation, we try to just watch our thoughts. Knowing that we are safely seated somewhere, we can just observe our chaotic mind, as if we were at the top of a tall building looking down on a busy street.  If you find yourself so swept up in a thought or fantasy that you are no longer in the present moment, you are either in an imaginary future or a completed past.  

When we meditate we are actively watching our thoughts and when they move away from the present moment we notice it by labeling it “thinking” and then return our attention to the present moment.  It may be that the labeling “thinking” has made students believe that they should not be thinking, that they are chasing a state of thoughtless bliss.  This is not the case at all.  Thinking in and of itself is not a bad thing.  Meditation is an opportunity to sit quietly and pay attention to the direction your mind is going.  Can you gently steer your mind and attention back to the present? When you notice your mind has wandered, label it “thinking” and return your attention to your breath, or the sound of your feet as you walk, or your body in the water as you swim.  We are practicing paying attention, which doesn’t involve having no thoughts. It means investing all our attention in what we are doing.

Just as we can place our feet on our mats, or sit on a cushion, we can also learn to place our attention where our body is, and try and develop some clarity about where our mind is going.  If your habit is to put your body somewhere and let your mind race anxiously into the future or lope around in the past, then ask yourself if that is really serving you. Isn’t it better to try and keep our attention in the one place where we can actually effect change, which is the present moment?

Whether you are practicing yoga, going for a walk, or eating a meal, see if you can’t try to keep your attention on what you are doing, or at least notice when it has shifted and bring it back.  It’s valuable to have clarity about where our thoughts go, but clarity is not developed by pushing our thoughts into some sort of corner where we pretend to ignore them in search of a “clear mind.” Clarity comes from watching our thoughts with a generous and loving attitude towards ourselves and making every effort to let go of anything that doesn’t serve us.  

It’s easier said than done, but like anything, it’s a habit we can develop, not a superpower that’s out of our reach.

Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Parenting, Yoga

Nothing interesting happens…

I have this battered green spiral notebook that I have used for all my teacher trainings and meditation retreats. It is in many ways my spiritual brain. It sits on the bookshelf next to my desk and I pull it out periodically when I am feeling stuck. Every yoga sequence I have ever really loved is scrawled into it, as well as bits of wisdom from all the teachers I have worked with. At one point, Peter got his hands on it and covered a few pages with some construction vehicle stickers and elaborate drawings of rocks. He must have been about three when that happened.

Today while leafing through it a phrase that I had scrawled in the margin caught my eye. In my barely legible script it read “nothing interesting happens in your comfort zone.” I have been turning the phrase over in mind ever since.

I wondered about the context of the phrase. I bet it was in the spirit of encouraging yoga students to push themselves a bit. To try something new and surprise themselves. Or was it part of a meditation training, a nudge to connect with our students in a more meaningful way. Did someone else say it, or had it occurred to me? The rest of the page is blank, so I don’t know how that phrase ended up in the margin, a footnote on a blank page. It made me think of Ben off to middle school and pushed out of his comfort zone whether he likes it or not.

All of childhood seems to have built into it this concept of constant change. Even my children’s bodies are forever stretching and growing, their comfort zone as challenged as their pants to keep up with the endless transformation of their limbs and identities.

I feel a little envious of how, within my children’s lives,there is the built-in expectation that they will grow and change, the idea that a comfort zone is more of a launchpad and less of a trap. I would like to think of my own comfort zone that way, a safe starting point for unlimited potential. As adults our lives and habits can easily become fortresses Old relationships and safe places keep us from building new connections and stretching ourselves. We retreat to the familiar, the safe, the stable. These things are not inherently bad; we all need a strong foundation. Ideally, it should be one that supports us enough that we can safely test the edges of where we are comfortable.

You don’t have to jump out of airplanes, or start middle school to challenge your comfort zone. It can be as simple as smiling at a stranger, picking up a new book, letting go of an old resentment. We hold on to all sorts of ideas, places and things because we think we need them to feel safe. When we hold on to them too tightly they become walls that keep new ideas and new information out. It is only when we are open to peeking around the edges of our life that we will turn our comfort zone into a launchpad rather than a stop sign.

Buddhism, Family, Marriage, Parenting, Yoga

It’s all relative

photo (11)When a house is filled with young children it vibrates with movement.  Even when they are absent their clothes swirl in the dryer, their dog snores on the couch, their toys wait patiently on every available surface.  I have found that it is easy to get caught up in the movement, particularly if both parents are working.  There is always something to do:  a meeting to attend, a room that needs picking up, an appointment that needs scheduling, cupcakes that need to be made…..The days seem to gain speed until all of a sudden they are years.  I remember holding Benny once when he was small, it was two in the morning and he was on an elaborate sleep strike.  It felt personal, as if his 8 or 9 week old self was deeply committed to disrupting my sleep, potentially forever.  I was giving an internal finger to all those well meaning people who had looked at my newborn and said “enjoy it, it goes so fast…” Not at 2 in the morning it doesn’t…..

Of course, now I look at his long arms and legs, his eleven-year-old self, and it does seem to have gone by in a flash.  Those two a.m. meetings of ours feel like yesterday, and another life all at the same time.  A very wise friend said to me once after we had finished talking about how exhausted we were by our toddlers, “But this is the good stuff, when we put our children in bed at least we know where they are…” I hear that phrase so often in my head, “this is the good stuff.” she was right, this busy-ness, this intensity, this constant change, this is what a life is.  The catch is, that we have learn to pay attention to it, we have to learn to slow down within the movement and the busy-ness to be able to really appreciate it.

In Buddhism it is an accepted principle that there are two realities or two truths.  There is relative truth, which is what we think we see, the whirlwind of the every day, and there is absolute truth which is what exists underneath all of that.   it is the reality that we and everyone we love are just temporary, existing for a short time in the same place.  For me parenting was the first time I really thought about absolute truth.  My own mortality and that of my children weighed on me.  The thought of something bad happening to them makes me close my eyes and hold up my hands, just the thought of it inspires deep physical reactions.  As the mother of a child who will probably never be able to live independently, my own mortality became even more of an obstacle.  On more than one occasion I have thought to myself, I have to figure out how to live as long as she does so I can take care of her, she is 8 and I am 40….it’s unlikely I will live to 120.

The relative truth of parenting, the small successes and failures, “he sleeps through the night, and eats green vegetables,” give way to “he reads, and has friends.”  He complains mercilessly about homework, doesn’t make a team, has his heart broken, each moment feels enormous and real, and defining while it’s happening. They should.  This is the good stuff.  The absolute truth as I experience it is within the relative truth: it is allowing each of those moments to really sink in. It is not trying either to hold on to them or to ignore them, but to be fully present with them.  The absolute truth of my life exists in all of the relative details, in the way I make my bed, or the dinners we eat.   The amount of attention and care that we bring to the ordinary is what makes it come alive. 

Family, Meditation, Parenting, Yoga

Making peace with quiet……

When I first started teaching Yoga, I would drown my classes in detail.  I had learned so much and I wanted to share it. I was also using mountains of words to hide my insecurities about being a new teacher.  The more comfortable I became holding the space for my students the less  instruction I gave.  It took time to get comfortable with leaving gaps, moments of quiet to allow  people to create their own experience. I had to learn to trust the silence.
It’s the same in relationships.  When we meet new people it is harder to leave open space in conversation. At least for me, I fill the space with tsunamis of words and questions.  There is no greater compliment that I can give someone than to allow for silence and space.  I have tried as I get older to lean into that quiet space in relationships more.  It is a funny twist of personality to  think I always need to take center stage…I don’t.
We have so many ways to fill silence, often in my house music is playing while I read emails and carry on a conversation.  That is the opposite of silence and of leaving space.  I am trying to make a practice out of not filling the space.  Applying the lessons I learned teaching to other aspects of my life, will I be able to leave space in conversation?
I notice that when I leave more space for quiet in my life, I am also less busy.  I don’t feel the urge to be moving constantly, I actually am able to do less. It seems that when my mind and
mouth are moving quickly my body follows, I busily move from task to task with little awareness. When my mind and mouth are a little more quiet and spacious my body feels more at ease.  As with almost everything it is about balance.  Sometimes I need to be fiery and animated and busy, and sometimes I don’t. For me my natural state is one of action, it simply takes a little loving awareness to know when to just be still…..and quiet.
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, Meditation, Parenting, Yoga

Start somewhere……

The conventional wisdom is that it takes 21 days to change or create a habit, although new research suggests that it can take much longer.  I have always been really interested in the relationship between routines and habits.  Routines are based on habitual behaviors while habits themselves can exist outside of routine.  For example, I have a habit of biting my lip. I do this regardless of the time of day or whether or not I am driving or watching tv; it’s just something I do. It is a habit that is not influenced by the rhythm of my day.

One of the things about moving to a new house and a new place is that so many of our routines were changed.  I have written extensively over the last few months about how moving or transition can be an opportunity to integrate new habits or cut out things that don’t serve you.  Lately, I have been thinking about reward systems for new habits.  An example of this would be a meditation practice. Students always want to know how they will be able to tell that this habit of meditation is “working.”  In any workshop or class this is always a tricky question. How do we encourage a habit or create a routine when there is no clear timeline or obvious payoff?

I used to tell students that the reward would be that they would be more available to the present moment, more awake to the nuances and habits of their own minds.  I still believe that this is true, but it is the kind of answer that implies that without a formal meditation practice you are sleepwalking through life. This is not at all true.  Meditation, yoga or a routine quiet activity or period of reflection is an important habit to introduce into every day simply because time moves extremely fast.  I find that my days are a blur of activity, much of it shaped by routine.  Every morning our house bustles until the last door has slammed and then it is completely quiet.  Then every afternoon it again swells with movement and noise until everyone has eaten, fulfilled their last commitments of the day, brushed their teeth and then fallen asleep — only to do it all again the next day.

If we don’t build time into every day to reflect or slow down we are simply riding a wave of routine, which will happily carry us day after day, week after week.  By taking time each day to stop moving, or to walk, run, swim, with total attention to the present moment, we are actually stepping outside of the rhythm of routine for just a moment.  Taking that time is the closest thing that I have ever found to a reset button, taking a chance to step back and make sure that we are really experiencing things rather than just orchestrating them.  A routine is an orchestrated set of habits that keeps your life running smoothly, but if you don’t examine it you can very easily lose touch with the fulfilling and exciting parts of an ordinary day.

I encourage everyone to add in something new for 21 days, some new challenge that shakes things up a little.  It can be a meditation practice, or a change to your exercise routine. It can be learning a new skill that requires concentration, just something out of the ordinary.  Twenty one days may not be the magic number but it is certainly a start. If our routines are running the show, it’s only because we let them.  Introducing new habits, challenging ourselves to shake things up a little bit will bring a freshness and a vitality to everything we do.