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, 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.

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.