Family, Marriage, Meditation, Yoga

I might be getting in my own way…

sit500As both the wife of an adopted person and an adoptive parent I think about identity a lot.  When we adopted Mae there were many families at the embassy that day taking an oath that their child would be protected and safe.  It is a hugely emotional moment, one that most families in the room had waited many years for.  As I looked around the room I saw young Chinese children in the arms of Amish families, Asians, Italians, single parent, families of all shapes and sizes.  Each one of these children would go to a home to its own culture and lessons.  Those lessons would in part shape how that child identified themselves.  I am Amish, or Christian, oldest or youngest, but ultimately it is all just who brought you home.

The same is true for those of us who weren’t adopted.  It is just less obvious.  Over time, we identify as a mother or daughter, lawyer, liberal; we assign labels and qualities to ourselves.  I am flexible, I am a runner, I am terrible at languages, or I am a musician.  Each one of these declaratives serves us somehow. By declaring ourselves  something we relieve ourselves of the burden of the unknown.

Quite frequently someone will say to me “I can’t meditate.”  They are completely convinced that they are incapable of being still, and of course I don’t think that’s true. But as long as they believe it, it is true.  Writing a twitter bio or the bio for this blog felt silly to me because it is a series of declarative statements about who I am and what I believe.  But given the constantly changing nature of who we are, the bio feels misleading as soon as it is out of my mouth.  It is true that I am a mother, and a daughter, and a friend, and a buddhist, but to the teller at the bank this morning not a single one of those details mattered.  I was just the first person in her line on a Thursday.  We smiled at each other, exchanged pleasantries and went about our business.

I once happened to be on the beach when a prominent surgeon drowned in Lake Michigan.  At the moment of his death it didn’t matter that he was a father, a husband, a gifted doctor.  He was dead, and in that moment that became the defining feature of the man.

Our identity is constantly shifting and changing.  My parents tease me that every year they would go to my parent conference at school and every year the teacher would address me by the differing version of my name, selected by me for the year: Katie, Kate or Katherine.  One year I even tried on “Kitty.”  I admire the bravery of children who try out different versions of themselves.  Every year they grow, change and look different so why not shift their identity as well?

I am working these days on loosening my grip on my definite ideas of what I am and what I am not.  I was chatting with a friend recently about how she felt that being a mother was preventing her from taking her career to the next level.  That may be true, or it may be fear of the unknown or fear of failure and motherhood is a convenient excuse that no one can argue with.  I am hoping that by letting go of my very fixed ideas about who and what I am and returning more to that childish notion that my identity can shift and change that I will remove obstacles that I have placed in my own way. I will try to imagine that I am not limited by anything, and see how that feels for a while.  I will let you know.

Family, Marriage, Meditation, Yoga

Push, Balance, Steer

Push, Balance, Steer
Push, Balance, Steer

When my children were learning to ride bikes this is the mantra we would repeat for them.  In the videos of their first successful two wheeler rides you can hear them whispering to themselves, “push, balance, steer, push, balance, steer.” It became the magic words that propelled them onto two wheels.

I hear it in my own head when I feel like I am on shaky ground.  It has become my own mantra, my own magic formula for reminding myself what I really need.

Push: We need to apply effort in our lives.  Some days the effort can be just getting out of bed.  It requires effort to sit down and meditate every day, or go to a yoga class or exercise.  Even being polite especially to those we love most can be an effort.  Sometimes, it is the effort of not listening to our own defeating chatter, or doing something that scares us.  If you push too fast or far, you will fall, but if you don’t push at all you won’t ever move forward.

Balance: We all use the word, I am not sure we know what it means.  To me balance means mostly follow the rules, but maybe break them a little every day.  Balance means sleeping when I am tired, and eating when I am hungry, snuggling when an opportunity presents itself, and taking every chance I get to make sure I am plugging in to my life.  Balance means showing up to the people who care about me, including myself. The road underneath me is always changing, balance means not thinking it will all be smooth and flat.

Steer:  Being in the moment does not mean that there is no plan for tomorrow.  We need to steer ourselves along a path.  We don’t meditate to become awesome meditators.  We meditate to become better human beings.  We shouldn’t do yoga so that we can be at the front of the class in tight pants balancing on our noses.  We should do it so that we are connected to our breath and body.  We shouldn’t just fill our lives and hearts with people to avoid loneliness.  We should fill our lives with relationships that uplift and encourage us.  When we are steering ourselves in the right direction anything is possible.  When we aren’t we end up on our asses by the side of the road.

Push, balance, steer, push, balance, steer, push, balance, steer….When you feel yourself wobbling, say it a few times, and you will be back on the road in no time…

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, Meditation, Yoga

I am my goal weight and still get parking tickets

ImageI am my goal weight and still get parking tickets
*Being your goal anything does not prevent you from getting parking tickets or anything else

You will never have more time after you “just get through this week”
*I have gone months when I say this every week

You aren’t going to yoga class because you don’t have time
*You have time, you are using it for other things

Those expensive pants you bought on sale, will still be too small next year
*No matter how discounted something is, if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit.  If you don’t wear them they cost too much no matter what

Gluten-free, organic, soy-free or dairy-free are not synonyms for good for you
*A bag of potato chips can be all these things, but if you eat the whole bag, you will probably regret it

There is no reason you cannot meditate
*It is OK not to want to, but don’t pretend you can’t

That person’s life is easier than mine because.
*This is never true, every single one of us experiences challenges, you just don’t know about theirs

Every day, I hear myself and the people around me hinging happiness on the future or creating a reason to not engage the present. If you want to develop a meditation practice, then sit down. If you want to have yoga in your life, then go to class.  If you want to be happy, you have to understand what that means when you say it.

Fundamentally happiness is being loving and realistic about what you need and how you spend your time.  You have to look at your habits and patterns with generosity, kindness and most importantly honesty.

There is no future happiness, it is a choice for right now, and you are the only one who can make that choice.

 

 

Family, Meditation, Uncategorized, Yoga

Practice what you preach

As a yoga teacher I reference the mind/body connection a lot. Encouraging people to notice their breath and to make the connection between what’s happening in their mind and how their body may be responding is central to my teaching. It is impossible for us to be in a state of stress and anxiety and not manifest that in our bodies. The same is true with happiness, when we are at ease, our breath is deeper, our jaws relaxed, and our general overall posture improved. I talk about it all the time, but I didn’t really understand it until this fall.

In September, I went on a week long meditation retreat to Karme Choling in Barnet Vt. My in laws came in to replace me and help Colin with the driving. I left notes all over the house with instructions. The kitchen actually looked like a scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind.  I set up outgoing messages on my email alerting people that I was removing myself from my life for a week.

The retreat itself was wonderful —  not just the meditation sessions and the teachings —  but Vermont in September is beautiful. For six whole days I did not cook, clean, put on anyone else’s shoes or wipe their buns. There were breaks in the middle of each day and I would go for long runs.  In the morning I had at least an hour before breakfast to do yoga in my room with no dog to come in and lick my face or child to ask me to stop because one of their siblings was somehow ruining their life.

The last day I missed my family, and was ready to come home and see them. What amazed me was how easily I had spent the rest of the retreat as a solo act. How quickly I shed my skin of mother, wife, daughter teacher and friend.  All of my  responsibilities fell away and for almost a week I was really connected to the rhythm of myself. I felt great.

For the first few days at home, I continued to feel unusually present and aware. I smiled at strangers and they smiled back, I was not agitated at all and felt very much in sync with my life, not just inside my body and house but out in the world as well.

Then on Sunday afternoon, having been home for three days, I headed with Mae to the grocery store. We were doing a week’s worth of hunting and gathering but for some reason were not at our regular grocery store. I can’t remember why, but we went to one I rarely go to, and don’t have as clear a map of in my head. Either way, she was very well behaved the entire time, despite the fact it was taking longer than usual, as I wandered us up and down aisles in search of our weekly staples. By the time we got to the check out line she had had it. She started fussing a little, and a nice woman whose youngest had just left for college tried to distract her. I am not sure how her empty nest qualified her to engage my special needs six-year-old but she meant well. Mae was done however, and proceeded to launch into a tantrum that wasn’t epic by any means but was dramatic for sure. It is the banging on the side of her head that is horrifying and the inconsolable quality of her screams. I held her in one arm as she kicked and screamed, a perfect illustration of what we imagine an angry kid looks like. I used the other arm to unload the cart.  I know people offered to help, but that isn’t so helpful. The checkout girl for my lane and the the one for the lane behind me both ceased to work. Their jaws actually hung open. Finally, I said to the checker in my aisle, “you know what would be very helpful, if you could continue to check out my groceries so I could get out of here, she will be fine in the car.” I remember thinking that my voice was very calm and in fact feeling very calm. Making a scene is not my favorite thing in the world but we have made way worse…on airplanes..

When we got back in the car I was relieved, and so was she.  Immediately she was quiet and we headed home.  I was about a mile from home, which meant we had been in the car for about ten minutes when I realized my jaw was clenched, my hands were gripping the wheel and my shoulders ached.  Anger was bubbling at the base of my throat and behind my eyes.  I was replaying the incident at the grocery store in technicolor in my head.  Each time I re-lived it my body responded.  I had left the store calm, and by the time I got home I was a mess.  If I had not just come home from a retreat the effects would not have been so noticeable.  Even now, months later I can connect with that extreme shift in my own state of mind.  This drove the point home for me in a very tangible way. My body is very much at the mercy of my mind.  When I revisit unpleasant experiences repeatedly my body responds each time with physical and emotional sensation.

My meditation practice had allowed me to see this connection really clearly.  I have learned to watch my thoughts, to pay attention to the feelings that arise with them.  I am working every day to let go of the ones that do not serve me.  I cannot control how the world responds to me, or my children.  What I can control is how many times I replay the hurts and slights, how many times I let them restrict my breath and sting my eyes.  So for now, I will unclench my jaw and my knuckles, I will relax my shoulders, and take deep breaths, and maybe I will learn something.

 

 

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.

Meditation

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.