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

By Any Means Necessary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buddhism, Family, Meditation, Mindfulness, Parenting, Yoga

It’s not really a superpower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Parenting, Yoga

Nothing interesting happens…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family, Marriage, Meditation, Parenting, Yoga

You can always change the station….

This weekend, after our new kitchen rose to the occasion in a huge way, churning out meals and snacks for our whole family, I felt so full (literally and figuratively) and happy.  Being all gathered together in our new house felt exactly as I had hoped it would.  The sweet spot that lies between abundance and excess. On Saturday after the festivities wound down, I headed to a daylong yoga and meditation retreat. The day itself was grey and rainy and it felt so good to know that I would spend it quietly on my mat with no greater task than to listen.

 

There is nothing I love more than gathering with family and friends but I have learned that to do it well, I need to build in some quiet time on the back end. I can be completely present to those I love if I can practice that silently on my own. Too much silence and I get a little wacky; not enough, and I get even wackier.  Like anything else, I need balance between external merriment and a quiet internal landscape.

 

The workshop was great, a duet between two smart teachers. They skillfully wove yoga, meditation and dharma talks in such a way that at the end of the day, I was ready to go home because I was satisfied, neither stuffed or restless. Like a well-made meal, a workshop should be a good blend of spices and portions; too much and it’s like drinking from a fire hose, too little and you are left feeling empty.

 

During one of the meditations, our teacher Wes Nisker suggested that we view self-criticism as a misguided form of self-care; the idea that the internal voice that releases a steady stream of worries, critique and doubts is actually trying to help you. I thought this was a brilliant shift in perspective on that particular characteristic we all share. My favorite writer, Annie Lamott, calls the self criticism station in her head “k-fucked” radio. It’s the voice that makes it hard to try new things, or is convinced that at any moment everyone is going to find out you are a fraud and it’s curtains. We all have it, and for some people it’s louder than others. Learning to see it as a form of self care seems to make it easier to reconcile it. Rather than resent it, or try and control it, I love the idea of seeing it as a misguided form of self preservation. By thinking of it this way, it seems easier to shake it off. When some familiar worry or self doubt pops up it seems easier to smile and ignore it rather than feel like, “seriously, you again? Get lost..” Instead it becomes a worried, well meaning friend who can’t help themselves. You smile at their efforts and don’t listen to their advice.


We do ourselves no favors worrying about what could go wrong. Instead, we should be focusing our energies and attention on what is actually happening. Like so many things, it’s way harder than it sounds. But, maybe learning to see “k-fucked radio” as just one of our many channels, we will see that we can always change the station.

Meditation, running, Special Needs

Synchronicity as a practice….

“Sanity comes from a sense of being synchronized within ourselves.”

Irini Rockwell

 

I came across this sentence and felt like it really captured everything that I have come to believe about finding balance in life.  I think everyone has had the experience of being out of sync with ourselves.  Sometimes it is as simple as agreeing to lunch with someone when you don’t really want to, or endorsing an idea you have misgivings about.  Other times it is more complicated: it can be time to change jobs, or end a relationship but inertia keeps you stuck in place.

 

There are millions of suggestions and avenues for creating synchronicity between our internal and external lives.  For me it is a combination of yoga, meditation, and running that provide the space to make sure I am not moving too far from the center.  For someone else, it may be swimming, walking their dog or writing.  We all need something, some sort of barometer of our own wellness.  Without a quiet center built into our lives we can find ourselves distracted by every shiny object or tragedy that life has to offer.

 

When I look at my daughter I am so aware that so many of her issues arise from the fact that it is almost impossible for her to be in sync with the world around her.  This morning she woke up and came running out to the kitchen table where I was sitting quietly, lights dimmed, listening to classical music and having coffee, she let out a growl of delight at the sight of me and jumped up on the bench where I was sitting and started clapping and laughing….it was 6 am. Mae is clinically not aware of the cues around her; being quiet in a library, joyous on her birthday, or patient in a long line, are all possible only if she is in the mood.  What the world wants, is not her concern, but for her that’s normal.  It also doesn’t bother her especially if she has bounded into my quiet morning like a freight train.  She doesn’t do guilt.  She is autistic.

 

For most of us though, we are aware when we are out of sync with ourselves or our world but not always sure how to fix it.  We can acknowledge it; we can say “I am working too much” or “I am working too little,” or “I am tired, sad or depressed.”  Being aware of it is an important step.  The next step is to  define what feeling in sync is for yourself.  We must be clear on what we think balance is, before we can head in that direction.  No matter what avenue you take this requires honest, and loving self reflection. I say honest because sometimes we get confused by what we think sanity looks like, and what it really looks like for each of us.  That serene woman in front of me in a yoga class may be sane, but I can’t be her, so I have to think about what serenity would look like in my life not my fantasy version of hers.


I am always interested in how to make things a practice, so I made a list of the areas in my life where I feel out of sync.  Some are big; am I professionally fulfilled and does it matter? And some are small: it bothers me that there is a cord hanging out of the family room ceiling.  Obviously, one of these things has an easy answer and the other doesn’t.  The point is not to have all the answers.  It is more to identify the questions, and then create some sort of framework to bring things back into alignment with each other.  The first part of the practice is creating the questions and the second part is moving to address them in practical ways.  Just engaging in the thinking process about balance seems to make me more balanced.  Almost always it is the effort not the outcome that has value.

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.

Meditation, Yoga

If I let you off the hook, where does that leave me?

photo (1)A few months ago I was in Colorado and took a yoga class with a teacher who had enormous fake boobs.  I have nothing against breast implants, and genuinely believe that everyone has the right to feel great about their body. Making people feel good about their bodies is part of my life’s work.

The teacher was thin and attractive and had the toned physique that comes from a blend of constant dedicated movement and genetics.  But the breasts were huge; cartoonish in fact.  I found myself spending much of this very hot, sweaty class wondering about her and her boobs.  Not wondering actually. Judging.  I was sneering internally and wondering, “Can she do chatuaranga? Can she ride a bike? Don’t her shoulders hurt? Why would she do that to herself?”  Eventually, I realized that I was spending an entire class obsessing about this woman’s body, so I stopped myself, and almost immediately started judging my own body. “Why  are my hips so damn tight? Is that a roll of fat at the top of my pants? Why do my hands look so old?”….Clearly, it was her or me and one of us was going down.

Almost always when we rush to judgment about someone it’s because it’s easier than facing a fear or reality of our own.  Some days, I have that itchy, judge-y nasty energy that I can’t shake.  Intellectually I understand that this feeling of judgment doesn’t serve me in any way, whether I aim my criticisms at myself or silently at a yoga teacher in the Rockies. She, mercifully, couldn’t hear me and I was hardly present in the class at all.  The steady stream of subconscious gossip was drowning out any chance I had of actually enjoying the experience.

Judging and criticism are often so habitual that we don’t even notice they are happening.  We constantly move through our days cataloging everything we see and putting them in three categories.  We either like them, don’t like them or don’t care.  One of the reasons to develop a meditation practice is to become familiar with this habit of mind which rarely serves us. If you categorize something or someone on sight, you actually don’t see them at all.  That is why I can have an experience like taking a yoga class and remember nothing about the class itself but my own internal monologue.

We judge each other’s choices all the time.  How often have you leaned in to a friend when she started a sentence, “She’s a nice girl but….”  The thing about these kinds of judgments is that they are like junk food.  It feels good in the beginning but always leaves you feeling unsatisfied and kind of icky when it’s over.  I hope that teacher in Colorado is happy with her boobs.  I hope that she looks at herself in the mirror and thinks she looks awesome.  I hope that the next time I get caught up in judging another woman’s body or lifestyle choices I remember that I am only doing it so I don’t do it to myself.  And then maybe I can let us both off the hook.