Warning: This post contains discussions of “girl stuff.” You’ve been warned!
Hello again! Long time no post. There have been lots of changes happening for me recently, and for many people this is a time of change and transition. Just since this summer 4 people I know have moved out of Chicago with their families. A quick glance at the news will reveal that this is indeed a transformative time for humanity as a whole.
Change can be exciting and it can be challenging. In fact any process of transformation can involve both of those states – and sometimes both at once!
As humans we are often surprised when change happens, and when it is difficult. There is a mistaken notion that if we shouldn’t have to feel pain or discomfort supported by advertising and the media. Yet by virtue of being human, pain (in all its varying degrees) is an inevitable part of our experience. Sometimes the pain is emotional and sometimes it is physical. Either type becomes suffering through our reaction to it. When we resist, deny or reject difficult experiences, they tend to magnify – the pain insists on being felt.
One of the biggest sources of pain, I think, is this idea that what we are experiencing “should not be.” We use a lot of energy resisting what is already here. So, what is the solution? One of my favorite yoga teachers, Roger Eischens used to say “It is what it is.” I heard this phrase from him when he was dealing with the brain cancer that eventually caused his death. That simple phrase has saved me a lot of emotional wrangling. When I feel myself getting caught up in the debate of “this shouldn’t be happening to me” I hear Roger’s voice “It is what it is” and I surrender to the fact of the matter. Marsha Linnehan, who developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy while working with severely suicidal patients describes the concept of “Radical Acceptance” – essentially a letting go of resistance to the truth of what is here.
A great deal of anxiety and stress can be released through this process of accepting what is. This doesn’t imply approval or complacency, but a simple act of acknowledging and letting go of resistance to the moment. I sense this as a physical shift – a visceral “letting go” of inner tension that I usually didn’t even realize I was holding. A spontaneous full breath usually follows. Sometimes I have to remind myself to do this multiple times as the tension creeps up again. And sometimes what is here really hurts and I get to feel the hurt without all the added tension created by the thought that the hurt shouldn’t be here. This process can take a long time, depending on the situation, and in those times, I try to notice the degrees of pain – acknowledging moments of relief – or moments of “less than” the pain or difficulty that was here before. By being willing to be with what is, I get back into the flow of life and inevitably, the hurt moves through and I come out on the other side.
I just completed a wonderful 4-week meditation workshop, and in their feedback the participants mentioned how good it was to be able to share the journey into meditation with others who were understanding, kind and supportive. Even in such a short time, (an hour and a half once per week for four weeks), there was a sense of community and shared intention that provided support for all those who were in it. Meditation in many ways is a seeking into oneself, and yet this inner seeking is easier to do with the support of others.
All the world religions teach that we should care for our fellow human. Yet watching the political news over the last few years, it has become so evident that we don’t, as a culture, live by that maxim. In fact, our culture seems to be becoming more and more polarized into “us” and “them” and all based on ideas, thoughts and opinions, and the fear of these being somehow threatened and destroyed. We identify with these opinions and beliefs and therefore when they are threatened, it is perceived as a threat to our very identity.
From a yogic perspective, we are not separate – we are manifestations of the same stuff – awareness, life force, whatever you choose to call it – we are manifestations of the substance of life which is One and yet each of us is a unique expression of that One. Goswami Kriyandanda describes each person as a microcosm of the whole. Just imagine – you are a hologram of the whole Universe!
I was watching the snow falling last week and was struck by its silence and gentleness. I remembered having the same impression watching a snow storm in New York in 1996 that practically shut the city down. Last week I was struck again by how this gently falling snow, so silent and light, could have such huge effects and how force is often not necessary to make a big change. In fact, as humans we often use much more force than is necessary, since we’ve come to believe that strenuous effort, even struggle, is necessary to get results.
As I watched the snow last week, I also recognized the effect of the falling snow on my body and my psyche. There is a spacious, expansive quality to falling snow – the snowflakes suspended in the air as they gently float to the ground. There is freedom in their surrender, and as I watched I could feel expansiveness, silence, and a sense of surrender. Something inside me settled and I felt lighter and more at ease.
Nature reflects the qualities that also exist in us – since we are Nature as well. As Nature hibernates and moves into low gear, might we also be encouraged to find time for stillness and quiet? Like the quality of the falling snow, perhaps we might take time to check in and acknowledge the spaciousness, expansiveness, silence and surrender that live within our own minds and bodies.
I’ve been listening to some wonderful guided meditations by Jeddah Mali. In one of these she invites us to notice the lightness that is here now. Thinking of the snow automatically (for me) brings that sense of lightness. Noticing the movement of my breath also helps me feel that lightness & expansiveness as physical sensation.
Sometimes when you’re struggling with day-to-day living, it is hard to imagine that there could be any relief because you’re focused on the struggle. But right here in your breath and in your body is the possibility of relief. It only takes a momentary shift of focus.
Notice how you feel now, notice body, breath and mind. What image brings a sense of lightness, expansiveness or ease for you? Perhaps something from Nature? Pick any image that resonates with you and notice how your body and breath might change as you hold that image in your mind. As you go about your day-to-day activities, you might want to check in with this feeling again and again.
May you experience lightness and ease of wellbeing this holiday season.
So the holidays are here and maybe the stress is starting to settle in a little deeper. For me there is the hustle and bustle of the gift-buying and preparations and the general collective stress that sets in, there is the excitement and anticipation of the kids hoping for wonderful presents, the holiday lights and the darkness of winter and Nature’s stillness that underlies all of this activity. All this is available right now in this minute – all at the same time. So, since I get to choose where I place my focus, I choose to place it on the peace – the stillness and silence – and sometimes I’ll chose to focus on the excitement and anticipation.
Even though I’ve had a sense of this underlying peacefulness, to focus on it is a big departure for me this year. Usually I just get stressed worrying about travel plans, what to get for whom, whether the receivers of gifts would like their gifts, and on and on. This year, everybody gets tie-dye (my kids’ idea) and the kids and I are excited to get started on this make-at-home project. They’re already picking out which designs for whom and which colors. It’s fun. Hopefully people will appreciate their gifts, and the love with which they were made and offered. But none of us can control what others think or feel. All we can really control is that we do our best to love, we place our focus on what nurtures us and those around us, and we give ourselves a break, every so often, to check in with the peace that is always here.
Not sure how to check in? Try this: Notice that you have a body, and that your body is breathing. Begin to follow the flow of your breath. Notice that each time you inhale and exhale, the breath comes from stillness and goes back to stillness. You may also feel that it arises from silence and goes back to silence. Just notice the rising and falling of the breath, from stillness and back to stillness, from silence and back to silence. Now instead of focusing on the breath, focus on the stillness, or the silence. You might begin to feel that it is always there, and that your body begins to feel more peaceful as you focus your attention on the stillness or the silence – the peace that is always here. Doesn’t take long to check in, but it feels pretty good, and you can even do it in line at the mall!
What would you do if a friend confessed to you that she felt really badly about something she had recently done, or really didn’t like something about herself? You would probably feel some compassion for your friend and try to think of something to say to help her feel better, right? And yet what do you do to yourself when you feel badly about something you’ve done? What thoughts come about when you think of the things about yourself that you don’t like? For most of us those thoughts aren’t about being compassionate!
It’s not a secret that we tend to treat others better than we treat ourselves, often to the point where we can offer compassion to others, but have difficulty offering it to ourselves, or even receiving it from others. How much we are able to love ourselves, I think, is directly related to how much we can allow others to love us. If we beat up on ourselves, on some level we begin to think of ourselves as inherently flawed and unlovable. This breeds suspicion and disbelief when others see us differently. We might even back away from people or relationships because we aren’t used to allowing the light of love and compassion into our hearts. To be loved or lovable is unfamiliar.
A few months ago I told someone that I felt I had made friends with my mind. The person responded first with surprise and then with disappointment. “I wish I could do that,” she said. In our culture we tend to think it unlikely that this could ever be possible. Instead we believe that we need to control, cover up, pretend, medicate and distract. And yet, it is possible. In Buddhism, this acceptance of self is called ‘maitri.’ Pema Chodron, a wonderful Buddhist teacher describes maitri on this youtube video as “unconditional friendliness toward oneself.” She describes maitri as “the basis of compassion.”
Think of it, what if you were able to just think of yourself as being okay? What would your life be like if you were able to cut yourself some slack and just love yourself as you are without trying to be more perfect, more knowledgeable, more attractive… How much stress do we put on ourselves trying to be more or ‘better’ because we are so dissatisfied, so averse to what we are now? And yet, have we even looked to see what is actually here or is it just an assumption that what we are couldn’t possibly be enough?
So, how to go about cultivating this self-compassion? I think the first step is really to welcome the possibility that you could be unconditionally friendly towards yourself, that you could be worthy of loving. From there, I’ve found that the universe is only too happy to lead you into more and more lessons and revelations. Sometimes the lessons are easy and sometimes not. It is not that life suddenly becomes a bed of roses, but that you begin to see the difficulties as more ways of deepening in relationship with yourself and with others. Any relationship takes effort and most relationships work better if the focus is on the other person’s positive qualities vs. judging their flaws.
In my experience, a simple way to begin to cultivate self-compassion is to spend some time acknowledging the aspects of yourself that you actually do appreciate. Since we have such a tendency to judge things as good or bad, let me be clear that the other aspects aren’t bad per se. It is just easier at first to love ourselves based on those things we perceive as ‘positive’ qualities. It might take some time (it took me days the first time I tried to come up with one thing), but just finding one thing you appreciate about yourself is like clearing a little hole on the grimy window of our past perception so that the light can begin to shine through.
Make a phrase with your one ‘positive’ quality (or more if you have more than one). For me it was “I am compassionate.” Notice how your body feels when you say this phrase. And when you find your mind going into the place of self-judgment or self-criticism, let this phrase be your ray of light. Once that tiny ray of light is experienced, the shadows become less dense and the darkness begins to give way. Repeat your phrase whenever you think of it. Eventually you might find it pops up on its own!
In the next few blog entries I’ll be offering more tools that have helped me to bring light into my shadows. If you have other tips, comments or experiences to offer, please feel free to share those as well by clicking on the Comments link below.
Until next time, may you live with ease ☺
After the last blog entry I had a question from someone I love dearly that touched me deeply. To paraphrase her question: What if when you start to bring your fears to the surface it seems that there is nothing but more and more fear, and you realize that you’re living your entire life from a place of fear?
I wish I had a quick and easy answer to that question, but fear is such a huge issue. One thought that kept coming up for me was the judgment of fear as being pathological. I was reminded of this by a comment to my last post. Rather than being a black hole of despair, the recognition of fear can be an opening into a place of seemingly deep mystery – your own mind, heart and soul. It can be opportunity to see the ways we have taken on other people’s ideals and judgments and made them our own without questioning their validity. Recognition of fear gives the opportunity to question the fears themselves and chose whether to continue to live with them, or just let them be. It gives us the opportunity to love & be compassionate toward ourselves because we are fearful, not in spite of it. At the same time we are able to cultivate compassion for all those in the world who also feel overwhelmed by fear. And rather than becoming caught in our fear, we can recognize it as part of the tapestry of life that also includes success, joy, courage, compassion, love and expansiveness.
Of course frightening things do happen and fear arises as a natural response. Many people – maybe even a neighbor or a friend – live with a real threat of physical harm, sometimes from the very people who are supposed to care for them. For them, vigilance is necessary until a safer environment is possible. Recognizing our own fear and feeling compassion for the fear of others we might see opportunities to help those who suffer from the constant threat of physical harm. From the yogic perspective, the body is not the totality of who we are, and its destruction does not mean our annihilation. But even from this perspective, death or harm of the physical body is one of the last & most difficult fears to be released – and for the sake of human survival, I’d say thankfully so.
For many of us who have the blessing of living in physically safe circumstances, however, this fear of harm still exists – though perhaps on an unconscious level. Often, regardless of contradictory evidence, there is the fear that we are unable to handle life’s challenges as they arise. At a deep level there is the fear that the threat will lead to death of some kind: “Oh my God, if that happened, I’d just die!” or “It would kill me to not get everything done.” Though we might express it casually in words, this is often not a conscious fear, and yogis would say that what is actually threatened is the “I” or the “ego” – our own perception of who we are, or how we think other people see us: If I don’t succeed, other people will think I’m a failure – or even worse, I might think that of myself; if I loose this job, maybe I’m not good enough to get another one; if I let go of blaming someone else for my fears, I’ll have to take responsibility for my life…
Years ago I got really tired of being afraid all the time. I was tired of always feeling powerless in the face of life’s challenges. Though fear or itself isn’t “bad,” I doubt anyone would claim it as their favorite emotion! Living from a place of fear can feel like being in prison, knowing you have the key, but still unable to leave. So I sat down and made a list of all my fears and prioritized the list based on level of difficulty. Just the act of naming the fears and making the choice to do something about them diffused some of their power over me. Putting them on paper gave me a chance to question their validity. Deciding to be rid of them offered the possibility that they could be temporary.
Yoga and meditation continue to help with this effort. Strengthening my body, working with the chakras, noticing the ways that I hold fear in my body and learning tools to work with this held energy have also been very helpful. Meditation helped me recognize the difference between presence and avoidance and acknowledge the fleeting nature of emotions. It has also helped to cultivate a witness consciousness – the willingness to view the rise and fall of emotions from a place of stillness and choose whether to stay “caught up” in them or let them go.
I believe that once you decide to go on an adventure like this, the Universe (God, Source, Higher Self, whatever words you use) supports your intention and the help comes in ways you might not have expected – a chance word, an article in the paper, a book suggestion from a friend or an ad that jumps off the page. Of course it takes courage to acknowledge your fears, and sometimes your hands will shake and your heart will pound as you decide to “just do it.” Fear arises, but since we’re here (on the planet in these bodies), why not explore the possibility that just as a smile passes, fears could pass too – if we let them?
May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you live with ease.
I love yoga! I really do. How wonderful to be able to move body, mind, and energy in this sometimes synchronous, sometimes challenging, but always fascinating dance of Life. And how wonderful that ancient yogis thousands of years ago shared wisdom that is still relevant in our crazy and mesmerizing modern world! Getting on my mat is like coming home to myself – a visit with a good friend who has never left me even when I was neglectful. Yoga has helped me to befriend myself.
I mentioned in class this morning that it is truly amazing that any of us are here. If you think about all the planets in the Universe and all the different factors that have had to happen for you to be sitting in front of your computer at this moment reading these words, it is mind-blowing. Just the wonder of the body itself, heart beating, lungs breathing, liver cleansing, stomach churning, blood flowing, eyes seeing, nerves firing, brain processing – water, fire, air and earth united in this amazingly complex symphony that is a human body. Wow.
These past few weeks I’ve been gifted with an awareness of how much my view of the world has changed since committing to yoga teacher training in 2003. When I started that training I didn’t think of myself as a strong person or of my body as a strong body. There were poses that felt torturous and I was pretty commited to my story. Never athletic as a child, I danced semi-professionally for a few years after college but it was always with a sense that I wasn’t quite up to the standards of all the other bodies in the studio or on the stage – not strong enough, balanced enough, grounded enough. committed enough, trained enough… That was the gist of my story – “not good enough.”
The consistent application of the principles and practices of yoga, as well as other wonderful practices & teachers that have crossed my path has helped me to see that story for what it is. Just a story. A body that once was seen as weak now feels strong and grounded. A mind that was stuck in the groove of a limiting story is open to new possibilities. Beyond even that though, is the sense that none of that even matters, because what is here now is enough. If I never do a handstand without the support of the wall, this body, this breath, this life, will be no less amazing – and it won’t be any better if I do (though that would be really fun!).
For me, the story of “not enough” is still sometimes present, but I can sooner see it as a story – the mind’s way of (as my Akashic Records said) “concerning itself with matters beyond its jurisdiction.” Instead of the story being in control, I can let the story be, or let it go. It is also interesting to notice the other stories rising to the surface of awareness.
The journey becomes even more amazing when you realize there’s nowhere to go. This body, this breath, this moment is what we have to work with. If we keep waiting for some time in the future when it will be better, when we will become more wonderful due to all our efforts, or due to chance, we will miss the magic that is happening now. I’m not sure we can become more present, but I think we can be more aware – more mindful.
Just now. Just this. Fascinating.
I’m working on trying to be brief and use less words – let’s see how I do…
Last October I asked my Akashic Records how I could live from a place of deeper clarity. The answer was surprising: “Be willing to be wrong – about everything.” What?! I had to ask for clarification. The reply: “Being willing to be wrong doesn’t mean you are wrong. It means you give up the need to be right, which is holding you back. It means shaky ground… Release the need to be right.” All my life I’d seen knowledge as a reinforcer of my worth. Being wrong was to be avoided at all cost. But what the heck, I was intrigued. Besides, I could always go back to being right if it didn’t work out. What I got was a big surprise. As I let go of the need to be right, something shifted inside. It was like when you’ve eaten too much and then you loosen the button on your pants – relief! I understood it later as being freed from the constant effort to protect and reinforce my “I.”
Sutra II of the Yoga Sutras describe the five klesas as the sources of our discontent, the obstacles to freedom. The klesas are: avidya, or not knowing our true nature as beingness or oneness; asmita – identification as “I,” “me” or “my”; raga – desire for pleausre; dvesa – aversion or avoidance of pain; and abhinevesa – fear of death. When I first read this sutra and the notion of the identified “I” as being problematic, I thought that was ridiculous (those crazy cave-dwelling yogis – what would they know about real life?!). After all, who would I be without a sense of my own individuality? If I let go of that I’d be left with nothing – I wouldn’t exist! At the very least it seemed to me a prescription for mental instability. I didn’t realize that even that resistance was the manifestation of this “I.”
Dzigar Kongtrul in his book It’s Up to You suggests: “This mind that we identify as the self, which we could call ego-mind, controls everything we do. Yet it can’t actually be found – which is somewhat spooky, as if a ghost were managing our home.” Michael Stone in The Inner Tradition of Yoga describes asmita as a storyteller, and the stories as a rubber band ball, wrapped around and around with more and expanding preconceptions about ourselves. Even when these stories cause us suffering and separation, we still hold on because we identify them as who we are. A Course In Miracles Lesson 69 begins: “My grievances hide the light of the world in me. My grievances show me what is not there, and hide from me what I would see. Recognizing this, what do I want my grievances for? They keep me in darkness and hide the light…”
So last month when I decided it was okay to be me, I found she was very elusive – like mercury, hard to pin down. At the same time I found the klesas. Ah the humor of it all. It’s been fascinating – sometimes funny, and sometimes really unpleasant – to recognize the storyteller arising, especially when I’m wanting to be right, or in control. I often recognize my “I” when it is acting up as a shadow that when noticed and acknowledged, shifts slightly to the left to reveal a sliver of light behind. A long exhale follows, a tightness releases in my chest, and in that moment, I can allow.