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.

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, 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……

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.