Family, Food, Meditation, Parenting, running, Yoga

What if we all tried hibernation?

It is almost the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.  More and more I find I have to make deals with myself to get out of bed in the morning, to get out the door to exercise. I’m feeling tremendously lazy, and am unusually interested in carbs.

Thinking of my summer self bounding up into the hills and coming home for a farmers market salad is like listening to a story of someone I knew in grade school.  I can hardly remember who the girl was who had run, and meditated and done yoga all before 10 am.

My first instinct as the days have become shorter and darker, after the farmers market closed for the season, was to ignore those changes and continue on with my routines.  Getting out of bed in the pitch dark, sitting for meditation and a short yoga practice when every ounce of me longed for bed.  Forcing myself out the door and up the hill for a run, despite the grey sky and my heavy legs.  I have been buying expensive out of season produce; I will never forget how scandalized my mother was the first time she saw tangerines and cherries next to each other at the grocery store.  The literal definition of too much of a good thing.  After a few weeks of denying both the clear messages my body was sending and those outside I had a radical idea: what if I slowed down a bit? What if I actually stayed in bed? What if I did everything less…

For the last few weeks I have been doing less, much less.  I have been running barely at all, my yoga practice has been very slow and quiet.  I have extended my meditation practice because sitting feels good right now.  I am eating all the starchy foods that appear this time of year, the squashes, potatoes, and apples.  When it first dawned on me that my body was really telling me it wanted a bit of a break, I thought back on the last few winters when I have not adjusted my program at all.  I have gone at 110% regardless of what the weather suggested or my internal clock required.  Both this spring and last, I started the season nursing injuries of overuse…..It’s stunning to think I needed to learn this lesson twice. Actually more like 39 times.

None of the things that I fear about letting up on my routines have happened.  My jeans all fit. My sleep is just as deep if not deeper.  I am calmer.  I have focused my yoga practice on forward bends and hip-openers. No jumping, nothing fancy. It is more a practice of hibernation than acceleration.  I am hoping that when spring comes that I will feel refreshed and renewed by this period of slowing down.  By actually paying attention to what my body wants, by curling up with a book in front of the fire, and sleeping in, I feel like I am taking care of myself. It’s easy to get confused, to think that going full speed all the time is actually what we need.  It isn’t. It is what we become used to, but that doesn’t mean it’s what we always need. Sometimes we need to pull back, to go inward and slow down. The world will continue to turn.  In fact we may find it turns with fewer creaks and compaints right into spring……

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, Meditation, Parenting, Yoga

Breaking up with FOMO

Yesterday I realized that Anne Lamott, who is one of my favorite authors, lives near our new house and regularly gives workshops in the area.  My first thought was that we would be best friends.  Then almost immediately I started worrying that now that I was moving there, she would never give a workshop again and I would have missed the opportunity to actually learn from her.  There is nothing about her schedule that suggests that this is true.  In fact, she seems to speak and work fairly regularly with no intention of stopping, but for a moment I was overcome by fear of missing out.

I had never really thought about “fear of missing out,” or FOMO as it is often referred to, as a condition.  The first time I heard someone refer to it, I laughed, recognizing an all-too-familiar trait of mine.  My mother says that even as a child I hated naps because I was afraid I was going to miss something.  I still find myself resisting bed time because there is always more to do, even if it is just hitting the refresh button one more time.

Whenever I think I might be missing out I respond by ignoring my intuition and speeding towards an emotion or decision I probably don’t need.  Fear of missing out is what sends people deeper into yoga poses than they should go. It’s what makes you say yes to a dinner invitation when you know you would rather be at home. It’s even what makes you buy pants that don’t fit just because it’s a sample sale.  Fear of missing out comes from the idea that we think that everyone is having more fun than we are, or more interesting conversations…  They aren’t.

The Buddhists call it “poverty mind,” the idea that you are always missing something.  In our current age when we have instant access to a world of goods and information this idea of poverty mind can be easily reinforced.  It is true, we are always missing something, every minute of every day, all around us are stories that we are not a part of.  We develop a habit of putting our body somewhere and then letting our mind go a million different places.  We reinforce this habit throughout our days.  However, the only place where you can make real change and have real experiences is where your body is.  We limit our ability to enjoy our present moment if we are worried about what we may be missing out on. We create a sense that there is never enough, by not noticing or appreciating what we already have.

We have to train ourselves to stay present, that doesn’t mean we only do one thing at a time or we never daydream.  Staying present means noticing that we are daydreaming, or procrastinating, or multi-tasking, or worrying that we may be missing out on something amazing happening somewhere else.  If we start to become familiar with our own patterns we start to realize that we aren’t really missing anything, it’s all right in front of us.  We just have to learn how to look at our own complicated, messy lives with generosity not judgment.  We have to take time every day to be quiet, to sit, to go for a walk, or any activity that roots you in some way.  It is only then that we can start to recognize that we aren’t missing anything.

I am working to let go of FOMO.  The next time I catch myself wondering if I should sign my kids up for two activities because we might be missing something, or I say yes to a dinner in Midtown on a Tuesday when I don’t have a babysitter, I am going to stop myself and ask myself whether I am doing this because I want to or because I am afraid of missing out.  If it’s the latter I will stay home, and enjoy the peace and quiet that comes from knowing you aren’t missing a thing.

Family, Meditation, Parenting

Flowers and Bullet Holes

Genuine Heart of Sadness
Genuine Heart of Sadness

Flowers were wedged into bullet holes in the deli window.  This sentence is from a CNN description of the deli where Elliot Rodger shot Christopher Michael-Martinez because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It was that random.  It was that final.

If you drive along the highway in Wyoming or Montana, every few miles there are makeshift altars.  Places where people were killed and their families have paid tribute at the point of departure.  I have always thought that this custom of wedging flowers into bullet holes or tying them to a tree by the highway was incredibly beautiful.  We turn the actual point of departure into a sacred space. We create a shrine to help us remember and honor the life of someone who disappeared in an instant.

All weekend I have been reading the stories of what unfolded in Isla Vista. The sad lonely life of Elliot Rodger, the signs that in hindsight look like a road map of madness.  I think of the police officers who went to his home at his mother’s request and saw nothing but a strange and disenfranchised young man.  In our society, disconnection is not a crime.  I think of how those officers feel as they watch their children play, as they wonder if they could have prevented his carnage.  I think about the parents of the kids whose lives were ended or are forever changed through physical or emotional trauma.

I think about how after Newtown we all swore never again, and yet here we are.  More flowers wedged into bullet holes, more grieving parents, more makeshift altars, more promises that this is it, we will not stand for it anymore.

We live in a country where it is easier to buy a gun than to access appropriate mental healthcare. Where young people move far away from their families and can spiral out of control well beyond the reach of support. Until they commit a crime, their families are almost powerless to have them hospitalized. Just ask James Holmes’ parents, whose son dressed like the Joker and slaughtered people in a movie theater.

Our lives are as fragile as the window of the deli.  They are held in place by the structures we create, but in the blink of an eye it can all be shattered.  Let your heart hurt over what happened at UCSB.  Don’t second guess the parents or the authorities; we always do this as if to assure ourselves that if we were in the same situation we would have done something differently.  Just spend a few minutes today really sitting with what it means to have to wedge flowers in bullet holes.

I hope that this is the last time. I hope that we are finished with altars outside schools and along our city streets and highways. It is time to be horrified and not become distracted.  It is time to make changes in the way we treat each other, especially our most vulnerable. Rather than arming teachers, let’s train them to properly identify and support kids on the outskirts.  We come together in times of tragedy, every day there are images of students leaning on each other for support.  What if we could be that open and loving towards each other without having to have our hearts broken first.

In Shambhala Buddhism there is a teaching, Genuine Heart of Sadness. It describes the experience of being awake enough to feel deeply and compassionately for all beings.  That is what we need right now.

Meditation, Yoga

I can’t find my zen in this mess…

I can't find my zen
I can’t find my zen

This morning I lost something.  It has been pinned to the wall in my office for at least two years.  I have never needed it until this morning, when I actually did.  I could picture it, a CD in a pale blue envelope with some writing on it.  It is the record of my daughter Mae’s 24 hour EEG, and I needed to Fedex it, to a doctor in New York.  I waited until 7 in the morning to look for it, because really the optimum time to look for something important is while you are also trying to get your kids out the door for school.

The corkboard in my office where I swear that thing has been pinned, is also home to the kids’ school calendars, my bib numbers from races, important notes and cards from friends, a giant skeleton poster of the muscles and bones, and one of the central nervous system, 6 bumper stickers, a flyer for the first yoga workshop I ever taught, two pictures of me with my parents when I was little, a man made out of a popsicle stick, a tiger made out of a paper plate, and this very important piece of Mae’s medical history that I absolutely needed this morning.

The entire corkboard situation is actually hard to get to because my office chair is in front of it. You can’t actually see the chair because it is camouflaged by remaining christmas cards, snowsuits that everyone has outgrown, a gallon size ziploc bag of lego directions, a copy of the yoga sutras and two old copies of the New  Yorker.  When I moved the chair, all of that stuff slid off it and onto the vacuum cleaner which was perched just behind it.  This caused the vacuum to tip forward, sealing my body between it and the desk.  At this point, my blood pressure was through the roof.

Losing something, especially something which you could swear you see every day is annoying.  Being trapped in your own messy, disorganized office, wasting valuable minutes when you need to be getting your family and yourself out the door, is a recipe for disaster.  I desperately wanted to yell at someone, or something.  Luckily, my family had scattered, either some animal sense for self-preservation had kicked in, or they actually saw me entering the war zone with a take no prisoners look on my face.

There is nothing zen about my office, in fact certain sections of it would land me on the show Hoarders.  Most of the time, the mess doesn’t bother me, until I need something and then it makes me crazy.

This is the same relationship many of us have with our own minds. We are fine being busy, and multi tasking.  We are fine just stacking thoughts and feelings in random piles to be addressed later. That is, until for some reason it all starts to move so fast that we feel like we can’t slow down, we can’t find anything. The corkboard in my office with it’s layers of unrelated papers and other snippets of my life is probably a fairly accurate representation of my thought process.

Just as cleaning and organizing a wildly messy living space gives us a sense of possibility and maybe even ease, so does taking some time to sit and bring a little space into our minds.

Take some time today to sit down and look at the space where you spend the most time: your head.  Just take 10 minutes, find a quiet place to sit. Organize your body in a comfortable, alert but relaxed position, listen for the sound of your breath.  When your attention wanders from  your breath, just bring it back.  It will wander a lot.  That is OK.  You don’t want to clear your mind of thought the same way you don’t clean your office by emptying all the shelves.  You just want enough space in your mind that you can actually see your thoughts clearly, and weed out the ones not related to where your body is and what it’s doing.

If you go months and months without cleaning your office, things will start to build up. Important papers will get mixed up, and you won’t be able to find things when you need them.  The same is true in your mind, it is easier to do a little bit every day than to wait until the day when you really feel yourself stressed and disconnected trying to center yourself on ever shifting ground.

Family, Marriage, Meditation

Every day, choose joy…some days it works

ImageOn any given day, I am a chef, a maid, a chauffeur, a doctor, an engineer and very often a UN peacekeeping force, and that can be before breakfast.  I am exhausted and empowered by the number of problems I solve every day.  Having three kids, one with special needs can mean that I have to remember both the pythagorean theorem to help B with his homework and try and figure out why M is banging her head…..concurrently.

I really believe that we have the power to shape how we feel about things.  There are certain facts of my life.  I have a child with really significant special needs, I have a curve in my spine that were it straight, I would be two inches taller, which would make me skinny.  I curse a lot.  Sugar is the one wagon I can’t stay on. Despite my best efforts, I still want to be cool.  My hair is getting gray really fast. I was not grossed out yesterday when I said to one of my children “please don’t pick your nose at the table and eat it.”  I am who I am, I admire women who are elegant and glamorous.  Instead I am the kind of woman who often accidentally spits while speaking.

One thing that has always been true about me is that I am an optimist.  In the days and weeks after my daughter was diagnosed with autism I found myself profoundly sad, it rested in my bones.  I worried that I would never feel like myself again, I missed myself.  I was serious all the time.  I went to bed reading medical textbooks, and spent my days in doctors’ offices.  I longed for fart jokes, or for some sense of lightheartedness to return to our lives.  I thought it never would.

I was wrong, it did.  One morning, I woke up and felt a little bit like my old self, and gradually the rest of me came pouring back.  I now know that while an obstacle itself may not be a choice, my response to it can be.  I never expected to have a child with whom I couldn’t speak, but I cannot let it break my heart.  I wake up and know that I will be faced with lots of opportunities for perspective.  Sometimes I succeed and make a difficult moment into an easy one by taking a couple of deep breaths and just moving forward.  Other times I unleash a string of profanity and feel sorry for myself.  Each moment is a chance to be honest about who I am and show up for the people who need me.  Life does not always lend itself to joy.  Joy is a choice and we can make it every day, and on the days we don’t, we can forgive ourselves and move on.


Do this today, your life is waiting…

buddha peteIf you knew there was something that would make you a better partner, parent, friend, and human, wouldn’t you do it every day? The greatest gift we can give anyone is our complete attention. This is true of ourselves as well. The most effective way of practicing paying attention, is meditation.

  • Find yourself a place to sit, it can be the floor or a chair.
  • Sit up straight enough that you can feel your breath move in your body, but not so straight that it feels punitive.
  • Let your hands rest palms down on your knees.
  • Keep your eyes open and on the floor about 6-8 feet in front of you.
  • Find the rhythm of your breath and let your attention rest there. You will still be aware of sounds and sensations around you, but don’t let the siren outside or the smell of french fries from a nearby restaurant become fascinating distractions, just notice them.

When your mind wanders (and it will….a lot) label that “thinking” and return to your breath.  You may find yourself saying “thinking” every two seconds, that is normal.

Chogyam Trungpa called that constant internal monologue “subconscious gossip”.  Just as regular gossip serves almost no purpose, our internal monologue is usually just a deluge of material rarely related to where we are and what we are doing.  When we stop and actually watch our own minds we realize how busy and crowded they are. By taking time to stop, to sit, to practice being awake to who we are and the nature of our minds, we learn to pay attention.

Eyes open is something that many students struggle with, it gets easier over time.  The gaze is soft, you blink normally, you are not trying to bore holes through the floor. We practice with our eyes open because, as my teacher David Nichtern says, we are not interested in becoming the worlds best mediators, we are interested in becoming better humans.

Try it for 10 minutes every day, start with a week, set a timer, and sit. If you can sit longer, sit longer, stick with it, it’s hard.  Eventually, something will shift. You will notice, when a friend is talking to you, that you are not really paying attention, and you will be able to change that. You will notice, that you are eating something delicious, but thinking about how you have to go to the bank, and you will be able to change that.  You will notice, you are experiencing your life differently, and so will the people around you.

Start today. This is your life, this is what you are working with, this is it.

Family, Meditation

Why my next meditation retreat will be at Disney World….

ImageLast year around this time we went on a family vacation to Walt Disney World. My husband and I made a decision before we went that we would embrace the experience completely. That we would not allow knee jerk cynicism or sarcasm to be our fall back position which it very often can be. That doesn’t mean that we walked around wearing mouse ears, nor could we bring ourselves to eat those giant turkey legs that seemed to be readily available at all times of day. However, on that first evening when the sun started to set and the sky turned a specific shade of orange that triggered the castle in the magic kingdom to be lit up in the perfect complementary shade of lavender, I allowed my heart to swell. I did not entertain the little voice in my head that was insisting that I was a sucker for being manipulated. It felt awesome to believe, and it is outrageously beautiful when the sky is orange and the castle is purple and your family is happy.

There were many rides that the boys wanted to go on that Mae was too small for, and given that riding in the back seat of a car makes me sick I was happy to pass on the roller coasters. So, for some portion of every day, Mae and I would find a shady spot and watch the people go by. The thing about Disney that no one tells you is, it is the best place to practice Loving Kindness meditation. Everyone comes to Disney to have fun, to be the best version of themselves, to revel in a curated experience of togetherness, and most importantly everyone is working to stay present. There is every kind of variety in the crowds, every color, every age and size, there is an enormous tolerance for special needs of any kind. The tickets to the parks are expensive but there is every variety of residence option, and food plan, and day rate or special. Disney is inclusive, and consuming, it is almost impossible for your mind to wander from the experience because you are making every effort to stay present.

When I was a kid I used to play a game in my head, I would look at strangers and try and imagine I loved them as much as I loved my mom and dad. I would really focus on their faces, or hands, and wait until I felt that feeling in my chest that I associated with love; and I would aim it at them, imagining I loved them as much as I loved the people who defined my whole universe. The first time I heard about Loving Kindness meditation, I recognized it as a formal version of this childhood game. Disney, is the perfect place to practice this. It is a world of strangers, but they are all walking around with their hearts open. Every day as the boys sped up and down man made mountains, I would watch the people go by and try and imagine that I loved them. That I felt the same generosity of spirit towards the English couple with the matching face tattoos, as I did to the family with the adopted Ethiopian twins, and the man with the oxygen tank on the motorized cart, and the legions of families in between. I would watch them being their best most awake selves, and my heart would fill with incredible love and affection for what we can be.

I have been on several meditation retreats in the last few years. They have all been at beautiful, peaceful centers in the woods. The food has been amazing in its simplicity, and the staff has been young, eager and pierced. I have loved these experiences. However, it was that trip to Disney that reminded me what it really means to be open and connected. To watch perfect strangers go by and to connect with their experience and know that it was mine as well, was incredibly powerful. I still play the game in my head, looking at someone until I can feel myself love them. When I was a kid as soon as I felt that intense love, I would look down or look away, overwhelmed by it. Now, I am hoping people feel it. The world would be a very different place if we approached each other with our Disney face on, wanting to be present, connected and loved.

Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg is an amazing resource to learn more about the formal practice of a loving kindness meditation. It is one of my favorites.