I just posted an article to the Chicago Center for Integration and Healing online magazine with this topic. Check it out…
Let’s face it, New Year’s resolutions can be shame-inducing suckers. So much optimism so quickly shattered on the cliffs of Life’s reality. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe approaching the resolution with some knowledge of how we humans actually work could lead to greater success in the long run.
Very often the culprit is too much too soon. We jump into our resolutions with no buildup, lots of enthusiasm, and unrealistic expectations. “I’m going to go to the gym every day!” says the couch potato. And maybe it starts out that way, but somehow it doesn’t last.
The reality is that humans change in degrees – a little bit at a time (kinda like how my grey hair grew in!) and we need to know why we are doing what we do. What’s the end goal? And also what’s the immediate reward? Torturing myself now for some reward later only works for a select few. For the rest of us, there’s got to be some immediate reward in order to keep going. What can you reasonably and realistically expect from yourself?
During my yoga teacher training, Goswami Kriyananda lectured the class about how to start meditating. He said to get everything set up and then sit and enjoy for one minute. Then get up and go on your way. Why? Because the mind can enjoy a minute. And then it might not resist going back for more. But if you tell yourself you have to sit for 40 minutes, the mind is likely to rebel.
A minute is manageable and pleasant (the immediate reward). The mind says “Uh, that’s so easy, I can do that!” So the next day you might find that you sit for longer without the mind complaining. Or you can choose in a week to increase the length of time to 2 minutes. Before long you’re doing 10 minutes (or more if that’s your desire) without the mind getting in the way.
I used the same strategy with my elliptical. I started with 2 minutes and it was easy. In a week I was up to 12 minutes with no resistance from my mind. I’m motivated to get on it to see how much more I can do today. Each day brings more time or distance with enjoyable effort but without a mental or physical struggle.
The reality is that we are drawn to what we enjoy. And having unreasonable expectations leads to a lack of enjoyment. Start small and build up. Enjoy your progress.
Do not kill the instinct of the body for the glory of the pose. Do not look at your body like a stranger but adopt a friendly approach towards it. Watch it, listen to it, observe its needs, its requests, and even have fun. To be sensitive is to be alive…
To twist, stretch, and move around, is pleasant and enjoyable, a body holiday.
There is an unexpected delight in meeting earth and sky at the same moment!
-Vanda Scaravelli in Awakening the Spine
My last post described yoga as a feeling practice. When I read this quote by Vanda Scaravelli many years ago it resonated deeply, and I began to explore the idea of the practice being “an unexpected delight.” The result is that my yoga mat has become a really fun place to be. A place to be tired and energized; a place to be terrified and gleeful; a place to struggle and a place to find ease; a place to laugh.
Peter Levine, who developed Somatic Experiencing, says you can’t be curious and traumatized at the same time. And what is that if not the yogic principle of self-study (svadhyaya) combined with santosha (being with what is)? So for me, engaging curiosity on the mat has meant noticing what feels freeing and what feels constricting. The magic unfolds on my mat as I get curious about what feels right versus what is an imposed should – an external idea of how my body should be. Where is the prana (life energy) moving freely, where is it not, and how can I allow it to be free?
Every summer, in Chicago, I teach yoga to girls from West Africa who are in the US as part of Expanding Lives, an amazing leadership and empowerment program for young women. The girls have a blast on their yoga mats. They groan and exclaim when a pose is hard, they sigh and smile when it feels good, they bliss out when we’re “just breathing.” They have no sense that they should be serious and self-contained, so they just experience the practice.
When I started letting go of the shoulds on my mat, I began to also experience my practice as fun! Instead of struggling to make a difficult pose “right,” I decided to get curious and relax, and often the pose would feel better and a smile would spontaneously emerge. Eventually I chose to smile rather than struggle, and before I knew it I was laughing from the sheer joy of moving my body in space (or even just holding still).
Sometimes I laugh because it’s hard! It’s exhilarating to be able to hold a pose until my muscles shake and my heart beats fast – listening for when my body says “Ok my dear, that’s quite enough.” My heart delights at the lyricism of a slow vinyasa. It’s fun to fall out of a balance pose, giggling like I did as a kid. It’s exquisite sensory bliss to lay in savasana (the rest pose at the end of class) with yoni mudra (a hand position) over my navel and feel prana move.
The body is a sensory instrument. How much we miss when we don’t befriend it.
I do have to admit it’s a bit of a challenge in group classes – I have to giggle softly to myself or risk disturbing the class. I’m told I have a particular way of laughing, so busting out in class the way I do sometimes on my mat at home might not be appreciated. I’m not suggesting we turn group classes into a free-for-all, but this holiday season, I wish for you that your practice can be a “body holiday.”
Do you laugh on your yoga mat?
Many years ago I met a yoga teacher who said that “yoga is a feeling practice.” That resonated with me, and at the time I realized that I was only feeling my practice some of the time. The rest of the time I was so involved with my thoughts that I was barely present with what my body was experiencing until my muscles started to protest.
On Thanksgiving this year I had the rare opportunity to spend the day alone and in silence. No talking. And the first thing I noticed was how much time and energy I spend thinking. So many words! Planning, contemplating, analyzing, theorizing, prognosticating about what other people might be thinking… On a silent retreat I wanted silence, but my mind had other ideas.
The endless rambling of the mind is easy to get caught up in, and for a lot of people, this constant spinning of the mind is what causes the bulk of their anxiety. Don’t get me wrong – we want the mind to be able to do the work it needs to do, but when it is just spinning in circles and causing anxiety, that is not effective.
The same thing can happen in our yoga practice. We may be moving our bodies, but our minds may be miles away in space or in time – or we may be judging ourselves. We end up doing the practice for its residual effects, missing out on the experience each pose can generate. Or, we move our bodies around with little regard for what the body is telling us it needs – we aren’t actually listening or collaborating with our bodies.
In any given moment, thinking is accompanied by our sensory experience. The physical body is a sensory instrument. Sights, sounds, smells, sensations on our skin, all this is happening at this very moment – even as you’re reading these words. Can you feel your fingers touching whatever they are now touching? What are you hearing at this moment? What are you smelling? What do you see with your actual eyes (versus your internal landscape)? What emotions arise as you pay attention to your senses?
On the yoga mat, while in a pose or even while resting, what do you experience with your sense of touch? What do you hear, see, smell, sense, feel? What is the immediate experience of now? How does it feel to be present here and now? Very often, when we come back to the present moment, we actually feel more relaxed, more “here.” When we quiet the endless rambling of the mind, we have a chance to experience what is actually ok in the present moment.
If the mind really wants to get involved, you might occupy it with the question: “Is this pleasant or unpleasant?” or “What feels good about this pose?” Let the mind be in service to the experience rather than spiraling out with judgments, shoulds, associations, plans or other elements that aren’t directly related to the experience you’re having now. Of course that spiraling might still happen, and you have the choice to follow, or to do something different. Instead of jumping on the “thought train,” you could acknowledge the mind, give thanks that it can do what it does, and then gently direct your attention back to the sensory experience of the moment.
Who knows? You may begin to notice that your yoga practice actually feels good. Before you know it, you might find yourself smiling or even laughing on your mat. (Yes, that’s allowed!)
The holidays are fast approaching and one of the challenges for lots of folks is how to handle all the gatherings of different sorts that may seem more like obligations than fun.
I’m lucky that I actually like my family and colleagues, but in case you happen to fall into the “obligations” category, Susan Auman (my friend and business partner at CBW), and I have come up with 10 tips for a Holiday SOS Toolkit. Here goes…
(1) Remember it’s temporary. One of my unfortunate college summer jobs was selling educational books door-to-door in California. One of the phrases I learned was Og Mandino’s “This too shall pass.” Pretty much all social events are time limited, or you can set your own time limit by deciding how long you’re going to stay.
(2) Orient to safe others. When arriving at your destination, look around for familiar and/or friendly faces. If there’s someone you know you prefer over the others, spend time talking with that person. Make a new friend, or bring someone along you know you enjoy being with. Continue to check for people who seem friendly or inviting. Sometimes those safe “others” might be 4-legged or leaf covered!
(3) Choose to notice what’s pleasant. In any holiday gathering there’s likely something that qualifies as pleasant – or at any rate less unpleasant than the rest. Maybe the food smells and tastes good? Is there a real live Christmas tree that smells like an evergreen forest? Maybe the holiday music is cheerful? Or maybe there are pleasing pictures on the wall or friendly pets to play with? Even small things can shift a generally unpleasant experience, but you have to look for them or they might pass you by.
(4) Notice body tension and let it go. Difficult situations can make the body tense. Anxiety and stress generally show up as muscle tension in the body. Knowing the places you generally get tense can be helpful. If not, check for tension in your brow, jaw, shoulders, abdomen, pelvic floor or arms. You can choose to let go of tension in these areas. If your body’s not keen on letting go of tension you might have to consciously tense a little more (I know that sounds contrary), then stop your conscious tensing. Usually the muscles will let go – at least more than they did before.A little tip: your tongue can be an indicator of how tense you are. Tongue pressed fiercely up against the roof of your mouth? You’re probably revved up. Relax/soften your tongue and notice what happens in the rest of you…
(5) Move around! Bodies actually become more tense when forced to sit still. Moving around can ease some of the tension (freeze) in the body and help you to relax. Sometimes just stretching in place or moving at the joints can help. For example, rolling the shoulders, wrists and ankles or gently stretching the sides of your neck might not appear too strange and can relieve some tension in those areas. Less tension means the brain thinks you’re more relaxed!
(6) Take breaks. If you’re like me, your inner introvert gets a bit overwhelmed by all those nervous systems in one place. Or maybe you just get overstimulated by lots of activity, color & noise? Removing yourself may be as easy as taking a trip to the loo! (That’s the restroom btw). While you’re there, check on your muscle tension, do some breathing with nice long exhales to relax the body and maybe even check for something pleasant – magazines? nice soap? interesting wall art? :-)Depending on where you are, going outside “for some fresh air” might also be and ok way to escape for a while.
(7) Pre-plan for contact with the sane world. If you know you’re going to be in the midst of a chaotic or highly unpleasant crowd, plan with a friend you can text or call (on those trips to the loo or when you’re breathing fresh air). Sometimes you need someone else to remind you to breathe.
(8) Get helpful. I’ve found that purposeful activity can be very rewarding. Probably due to all that dopamine that gets created when you feel productive? Hosts are often happy for help and it’s sometimes also a way you can meet other people who are also helping.
(9) Plan an activity for the group. Directing the group in an activity can be a fun way of interacting, and also setting the tone of the gathering. Susan suggested the post-it note game. To play, you draw different characters on post-it notes and without the person knowing who the character is, each person gets a post-it on their back. Other people give people clues and each person has to try to figure out what their character is.
(10) Bring or wear something soothing. If all else fails, this is a back-up plan. Maybe you have a smooth stone that soothes you that you can keep in your pocket? Maybe there’s a lotion you like the smell of? Maybe a scarf with a texture you enjoy? Maybe your favorite colored shirt or tie or comfy shoes? Maybe your favorite tea? Maybe you can check in with your favorite meme or funny YouTube video on one of those trips to the loo.
Whichever activity you choose, make sure you’re mindful and focused on that. Leave any aggravation, frustration or stress behind and stay as much in the present moment as you can. Much of what we experience comes from what we choose to focus on. Whatever you celebrate, wishing you a wonderful, mindful, pleasurable Thanksgiving and very Happy Holidays.
I recently had the honor of being on a panel of body-centered therapists following the reading of a play by Dayle Ann Hunt titled The Trauma Brain Project.
This play is powerful, moving, intense. It is the story of a woman’s journey to heal from the repressed memories of early childhood sexual abuse. Dayle takes us on this journey of her own life experience as someone who was diagnosed with Epilepsy as a child, who was also experiencing paralyzing migraines, unexplained nausea, psoriasis, sinus growths and a string of inexplicable conditions that followed her throughout her life; all of which led her (in her 50s) to shadowed memories of what had happened and to eventual healing with somatic therapy.
The cast is amazing. The direction is expert. We the audience were riveted for the duration of the piece.
This play is a must-see for anyone who works with diagnosing illness. Dayle Ann is passionate about medical professionals, therapists, and trauma survivors knowing that their symptoms may be trauma-related. The body and mind do actually influence each other.
If you’re interested in this topic and have any ideas on how this play can be more widely disseminated, please contact D
ayle Ann at www.thetraumabrainproject.com
After the play I led the audience through a few basic exercises to help with regulation since watching anything traumatic can have an impact on our bodies. And it struck home to me again tonight that we are being inundated daily with news of traumatic events. This doesn’t mean we are all traumatized by this, but we are more than likely affected. So I thought I’d quickly share one of the techniques that I shared with the audience in the hopes that you might be able to use it in your day-to-day. It’s called 3-2-1
- Look around and notice and briefly describe (e.g. “orange mouse pad”) three (3) things you see
- Now listen and name two (2) sounds you hear
- And now notice one (1) thing you’re feeling with your sense of touch.
How are you feeling now? You can repeat that sequence one more time if you’re feeling a little more focused or settled than you were before you started.
Please find me at my new blog: http://sourceisyou.blogspot.com
A journey of a thousand miles can be altered by a single step. Most often, we don’t choose the steps that alter our trajectory – a chance meeting, a phrase absently spoken by a stranger, a quote remembered, something interesting that your partner stops to watch on TV. Sometimes you end up in a place where so many steps have converged that you can’t even remember where it started, or which one was the defining step. My wonderful teacher Billie Topa Tate says in her Loving Kindness Meditation: “All that I have done. All that has been done to me… has brought me to this sacred space in time.” And so it is!
Just before Christmas my husband got to a TV program he thought I’d enjoy. It was a comedienne who had become an atheist talking about the journey that had led her there. This I would enjoy? It turns out she was funny and I could relate to a lot of her issues with the Bible, the established Church, and even the New Age movement. What was most disturbing to me, though, was that in her conclusion she mentioned how free she felt after giving up the notion of “God.” I was so envious of her. I could feeling a small sense of her relief, and it was at the same time intriguing and frightening. You mean I’d have to give up God to be “free!?”
The yoga sutras talk about kaivalya – which is translated as liberation or freedom. I used to think that the key to my liberation (enlightenment if you will) was hidden in all that ancient knowledge. Somehow, if I knew more, studied more, practiced more, I would find the cure to this longing that, it seems, had always been here. Years ago I got angry at my husband because he said that all those books weren’t going to tell me what I needed to know. He said all the answers I needed were inside me. This week, and I guess through a series of steps over a lifetime, it has become clear to me that knowing more, learning more, or doing more will not get the answers I’ve been seeking.
As much as I hate to admit it (and I hope he never reads this entry!) my husband’s assessment was pretty accurate. It’s not that the knowledge in all these books I’ve read has not been helpful – a lot of it has been very helpful to me and to my clients and students. What I found, though, is that the more I read and the more classes I took, the more I realized I didn’t know and the more inadequate I felt. If gaining knowledge was the source of my salvation, then salvation was a long way away. Maybe I was broken beyond repair. Maybe there wasn’t enough time in this lifetime to get all the information I really needed. There was definitely no way I could read all those books on the shelf and the entire Sounds True and Hay House catalogs and all the books of esoteric knowledge yet to be purchased on Amazon.com. I realized that this collecting of knowledge had become a different kind of consumerism and that the void wasn’t being filled, it was only getting bigger. Maybe it was time to stop. That was the beginning of peace.
Everything can change in a minute. And then you realize that its been changing all along without you realizing – and that nothing changed at all. Thanks to a series of fascinating events I finally allowed myself this week to risk accepting the notion that I was never broken in the first place. I met my Self seemingly for the first time, and found she was delightful. There was nothing to look for, no more seeking necessary. This very place, this very me, is wonderful. How did I not realize this before when other people kept telling me? Because despite teaching about living in the present, I had been living in the future, constantly longing for a time when I would be fixed, perfect, realized. As long as I thought of myself as needing to be more, I always perceived myself as not enough. It was a subtle realization, prompted by the wise & loving words of others spoken at just the right time so that I could actually hear, and the refrain of my “higher self” repeating over and over Zora Neale Hurston’s famous quote “I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am feeling mean and impressive.” It’s a small shift and a big shift, and it has changed my world – but the me that was me is still the same me. It’s just now that’s okay.
I’ve been reading a lot about “Enlightenment” lately to the point where I may be actually getting tired of the word itself, if not the halo that seems to exist around those who discuss it, or claim to have it. Until recently I thought that this phenomenon was only something that existed in the East and that to “get” it you had to go “over there.” Even if I went there, I wondered, how would I ever know if someone was “enlightened?” A friend from the East (isn’t the “East,” actually West of us here in the U.S.?) told me that if someone was truly enlightened they wouldn’t be announcing it to everyone. Turns out that there is actually a whole menu of enlightened individuals here in the non-Eastern world for us to choose from. No need to travel overseas for enlightenment anymore. Our local Awakened Ones hold satsang and spend a lot of time talking and teaching that which apparently cannot be taught or described.
Preface the rest of this rant with the recognition that in recent years I’ve come to realize that “enlightenment/oneness/realization/awakening” is something that I’ve always wanted but wasn’t sure I could have in this lifetime. So much of this is the venting of my frustration that though we are all supposedly enlightened, I have yet to experience this awakening in the way it is written about and spoken about. View the rest of this therefore as the somewhat modulated temper tantrum of my wanna-be-realized inner child…
So, if you’ve never heard of enlightenment before, I’ll give a brief synopsis of what I’ve heard/read so far. Remember, I’m ticked off that I don’t have the real juice yet, I’m still a mere mortal, immersed in the illusion and using my mind, so if you want the full Monty from the horse’s mouth, you should probably get it from the Fully Realized ones at www.advaita.org or www.chicagosatsang.org or www.nevernothere.com or one of those enlightened places). First, nothing exists. At least, nothing that we seem to perceive as real (including ourselves) is real at all – it is all an illusion. If you can get past that you may be already reading A Course In Miracles, or a big fan of The Matrix. For most people, that’s the point where they go – “whatever!” and sign off. In real life their eyes glaze over and they start thinking of a reason to get away.
If you’re still here, then the essence of the teaching (depending on who you ask, and as my mind understands it) is that we all are just awareness. The notion of an individual “I” is based on a misperception. A yoga manual I read recently from Integrative Yoga Therapy describes an individual wave that arises from the ocean. If this wave had perception it might look around and see other waves, but without seeing the ocean imagine itself to be separate from the other waves. The waves in fact were never separate from each other or from the ocean. This is the essence of non-duality – no separate “other.” In the world of duality opposites exist. In the non-dual reality, everything is the ocean. Our “ocean” is described as “awareness” for want of a better word, because, according to those who perceive it, it is really hard to describe. Everything you see, all people and things, are part of this awareness (which my mind keeps referring to as “primordial ooze.” This is probably why I’m apparently enlightenment-challenged. Who would want to be one with “primordial ooze?”).
Apparently, the reason why everyone isn’t floating around aware of this ocean of apparently never-ending and awe-inspiring peace is the ego/mind – which I understand to be what the yogis describe as “asmita.” This creates a sense of “I” and automatically then a sense of “you” as well. It seems to be a side-effect of this earthly existence that we think of ourselves as separate from everyone and everything. Our minds are apparently designed for non-dual thinking. We are the ocean, but our minds think we are the waves. Some describe it as sleeping and dreaming the dream of duality. For this reason, enlightenment, or the realization of the one-ness of all being is also sometimes described as awakening.
Now, in the midst of my frustration, let me not give the impression that I think this is all nonsense. It actually makes sense in some deep part of me that may be not be my mind at all. It is like catching glimpses of something you think you see but then when you look closely it isn’t there. Another reason I don’t think its total BS is that in the presence of someone who says they really get it – not as a concept but as a fact of existence – there is a different energy, something palpable and difficult to describe. This is the purpose of satsang. When you attend a satsang – a meeting with an enlightened/awakened one – you experience what our “Eastern” friends describe as shaktipat – the transfer of that essence/energy, whatever it is. It is as if they are a doorway that you can begin to see through. Somehow their awakening creates a disruption/rift/shift in the illusion so that others can also experience a glimpse of the “truth.” For some this is enough to trigger their own awakening. Others begin to awaken but then on returning to everyday life. As one of my favorite teachers of non-duality Mooji says: “Stay awake. Don’t go back to sleep. Don’t stay asleep.”
So, to recap: we are everything but we think we are separate from everything. We can’t not be the ocean, but we don’t know that we are the ocean. It is alternately encouraging and maddeningly frustrating that those who claim to be awake also say that we are all enlightened, or that there is no-one who needs to be “enlightened” because all that exists is existence itself – awareness if you will – the ocean. Even more frustrating is that those who claim to have it also say that there is nothing you can do to get it, because there is nothing to get. There is no way to be more a part of the ocean than you already are. Add to that the frequently stated facts that the mind, by its nature, can only perceive duality; and that non-duality/oneness/enlightenment can’t really be described in words by those who have had the experience of it; and I personally am left completely confused. So why would nondual Awareness manifest itself into beings who are only able to perceive duality? When I asked that question (via my mind since I’m still using that until something better takes its place) the answer was: “Awareness becoming aware of itself.” For heaven’s sake (yes, heaven is part of the ocean too, and doesn’t exist) – did all this drama really need to happen just for awareness to realize its non-dual self? Couldn’t it just have pinched itself? Whoops! It would need a body for that I guess. Maybe all this was a side-effect of an experiment gone wrong. A pinch of DNA, a little bit of consciousness, some hormones… aw shoot! They’re beautiful, but they forgot who they are. No matter, budget cuts – let’s just use them as they are…
And so, this is the frustration of my mind/ego trying to perceive that which it apparently cannot possibly perceive, and I am left perplexed and somewhat aghast at the notion that I may never find the thing with which to perceive the imperceptible in this lifetime. Additionally, my mind ponders, if there is no individual self, then there probably isn’t an individual soul (a little thought I acquired while washing dishes) and so the notion of rebirth is thrown on its head. So this might be the only chance I get! How upsetting to think that I may experience an entire lifetime of being enlightened without ever knowing it. And then, I remind myself, as Suzanne Foxton said multiple times on NeverNotHere today – even that is just a thought.
More Peaceful or Less Stressed? You choose.
Our holiday intentions of peace, light and goodwill to all can quickly be upturned by the hustle and bustle of family visits, event planning, shopping, and all the other activities that seem to burn up the last 2 months of the year. Yet, from a spiritual perspective, this could be a time to turn inward, giving ourselves time to review the year and take note of the lessons we have learned. Even the notion of having time to do this type of introspection might cause a moment of panic: “There’s no time for all that!! I’ll do it next year when things settle down and I’m less stressed.” How much of our time is spent thinking about that magical time when we’ll be “less stressed?” Maybe it is just an issue of how we structure our perspective – we tend to focus on becoming less stressed, when what we really want is to be more peaceful.
I wrote a blog entry last winter about Becoming Peace in which I mentioned that when we say “I want to be less stressed” we actually focus on the stress and indeed perpetuate the notion of our stressfulness. On the contrary when we say “I want to be more peaceful” the mind hears “peaceful” and there is a subtle quieting that takes place within the body without any additional effort. In this way, through simple focus of attention, we begin to change our perspective and our actions often follow. We focus our intention on creating a space of peace and the time opens up for meditation or relaxation.
The yogis say that peace is actually our essence. Unconscious fluctuations of mind are what keep us from experiencing ourselves as Peace. This is all well and good in theory, but finding that peaceful essence is what seems to elude most of us. A speaker I heard recently mentioned that we put more effort into doing than we do into being still, and so that which you practice the most becomes what you are good at. You might say: “I can’t be still – it’s too hard. My mind races because I have so much to do and my body becomes restless.” My new favorite teacher Mooji encourages us to watch all these fluctuations as temporary. As you watch all those crazy thoughts and to-do lists and judgments and fears go by ask yourself the question “Who is watching all of this?.” We identify with our thoughts but our thoughts are not who we are. The thoughts arise in the mind, change, or fade away. The mind creates problems by taking advantage of our unconscious vulnerabilities. Brought into the light of consciousness, we find that many of our fears and compulsions are based on shaky logic. We find that we are running away from the very peace that we seek through our actions and choices. Though our thoughts often seem very real, they are temporary fluctuations of the mind – smoke and mirrors.
The awareness, the essence that we are is inherently peaceful and unchanging. Underneath the smoke and mirrors of our habitual thoughts and emotionality lies a still and steady awareness that is not vulnerable to harm. We have glimpses of this peace at times – for me it is usually on a warm beach with my eyes closed hearing the sound of the waves as they ebb and flow… or in meditation. If we can allow ourselves to focus on this peace, we can allow it to expand in our lives. But if we only focus on all we have to do and the far-off future when we will someday be less stressed, then we’re likely to get more of what we’re training for.