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Mindfulness

melting expectations sjm xmas stocking 1967“Expectations are resentments under construction.”
~ Anne Lamott

‘Tis the season of expectation. I mean, honestly, it’s practically what December in the U.S. is about. What with the Christian season of advent (complete with an expecting mother and expectation of salvation), children everywhere writing lists of expected gifts, and all of us expecting the light and warmth to return to our side of the planet, expectation is woven into everything.

Desire and intention are one thing … but expectation has teeth. Expectation has an edge. There are inevitable consequences if expectations aren’t met. An expectation means that somebody is attached to an outcome and as a Buddhist teacher once pointed out, “Attachment to outcome: BEEEG problem.”

Especially at this time of year, it seems we have expectations for everything. We have expectations for meals and decorations and celebrations. For the way our friends and families should behave. For the way our children should respond. For way this time of year should feel. And Lord knows we have expectations of ourselves: to give a certain kind of gift, to look a certain way, and to be calm or cheerful or reverent or jolly.

Expectations are tricky and sticky. Trained as we are to gain approval and love from outside sources, most of us are programmed to do whatever we can to live up to expectations. But striving to get love for meeting someone’s expectations (including our own) is the prelude to resentment.

“The genius Taoists constantly give their full presence to scanning their whole body, locating any blocked or hard-to-describe discomforts, whereupon they say ‘Ice to Water, Water to Steam’ and literally use their imagination to SEE that place dissolve and the steam leave their body”. ~ Jamie Catto (see his full post here)

Expectations are the way we think things should be and that feels tight. There is next to no wiggle room in an expectation. Expectations are breath-holding brittleness and they are such a part of our lives that we often don’t realize they are there.

Expectations create tension in our activities, our meals, our parties, in our bodies. Expectations constrict. Something that started out as “I like to do it this way” (or “our family/religion/country likes to do it this way”) can morph into “I always do it this way” and then can mutate into “I have to do it this way.”

Stop reading for a second and notice anywhere where you feel tension in your body. Tension is where energy is stuck. Whether it is in your hamstrings or your heart, your thighs or your throat, tension is the body’s way of signaling to release and let flow. Release tension and more energy is available.

Especially at this time of year, our bodies and our minds can feel tight and dry. Mindful movement is a way of melting the dry tightness and introduces more liquid warmth to our experience. Whether mental, physical, or emotional tension, movement can allow the bristly edges of expectation soften.

Physicality affects the mind and emotions. Even just getting up from your desk to stretch and clear your mind can break up and melt the brittle hardness.

Our thoughts and imaginations affect the physical body. Imagining breathing space around you or light and love in and out of you can relax tension wherever it is lodged.

Sweat and tears and imagination all lend themselves to melting the hard edges of expectation and by extension, reducing the inevitable resentment that follows.

Let your intention be the hot skillet to icy expectation…Ice to water, water to steam.

eyebrow yoga cobra guy“He was thinking that in nearly every person there was some special physical part kept always guarded. With the mute his hands. The kid Mick picked at the front of her blouse to keep the cloth from rubbing the new, tender nipples beginning to come out on her breast. With Alice it was her hair; she used never to let him sleep with her when he rubbed oil in his scalp. And with himself?”

~ Carson McCullers, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

1. Notice

I take my right shoe off before my left.
When I step forward, my little toe comes down before my big toe.
When coasting on my bike, I usually have my right foot in front.
When he’s absorbed in reading, he clicks his fingernail against his tooth.
She almost always wears navy blue.
There is a picture of purple and yellow flowers above the Martha Jefferson MRI machine.

2. Notice What You Notice

Sometimes all I see are the flowers. Sometimes, I only see the weeds.

Sometimes I put all my attention on what is working well. Teaching the same focus during the week with different routines for each class. Making meals like tacos and salads and sandwiches that everyone can customize for themselves. Following the 13 Moon Calendar and wearing the color of the day. Feeling the ease in my feet and neck.

Other times my focus is on what’s not working. My cueing is too late. I’m procrastinating around writing. I’m not sleeping well. My right shoulder aches.

I have good reasons for noticing both. And for noticing what I’m noticing.

3. Notice What You Don’t Notice

A dear, wise friend gave me a book, The Pen and The Bell by Brenda Miller and Holly J. Hughes. I love it.  It’s like Nia for writing!  The chapter I read last night suggests:

Each day, try to look closely at something you think you already know well….Observe it for longer than a few seconds. Can you pick up on any forgotten or unexpected details?

I love this idea but I don’t have time for that these days.

Later, stroking the hair I’ve stroked for 16 years I notice that it’s grayer than I realized near his temples, almost completely dark brown at the back. He hasn’t gotten it cut since he’s been hurt, so now it curls around his ears and along his neck.

* * *

As I lift up into Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana), Sara says, “Look up with your eyes, not your eyebrows.” Oh my gosh.  I realize I’m straining so hard with my eyebrows, they’re practically up under my hair. I’d never noticed that before.  And then in every pose, I realize I’m almost always lifting my eyebrows. And when I’m brushing my teeth and trolling through the grocery store and talking and watching soccer…

* * *

“Swing your arms, sweetie!” says Frank as we’re hiking through a pine forest. I am often unaware that I’m walking with only my lower body and I’m not letting my arms swing free. Hmm. I wonder if that’s why my shoulder hurts?

rushin refugee report vegetarian-foodJune is Savoring Month (as designated by my very own self) and every Wednesday this month, I’ll be checking in on how I’m doing as a recovering Rushin’ Refugee.

Sometimes I’ll be talking to a friend and they are telling me about a screenplay they are writing or a stained-glass mural they are grouting and they say, “I was so into what I was doing, I forgot to eat.”

At which point I get to giggling which kind of gums up the whole conversation. But truly. I ask you. I have been alive for almost 50 years and I have never, never ever once, not for one meal have I ever forgotten to eat.

As I watch myself, though, I’m wondering if is really true. While I can say for sure I’ve put food in the ol’ pie hole at every meal every single day, I can also say for sure that I wasn’t really paying that much attention for many of those feedings.

I’ve never forgotten to eat, but now I am remembering to eat.

At the front end of a meal, I’m usually awake and aware. As I sit down to eat, I stop and take a breath. I look at my plate and offer gratitude to all the miracles and all the hands that made the meal possible. When I eat with my family, we say a grace. I take a sip of water (or wine). I pick up my fork and…

…everything goes kaflooey.

My first bite is like the push-off down a ski jump. It doesn’t take long for me to gather momentum until I’m just rocketing along pushing food in without tasting it. The reasons for the speeded up disconnect are many: I might be talking to my dinner mates or distracted or over-hungry or emotional or on auto-pilot. A few minutes later, I look up from my plate with quinoa kernels in my eyebrows and avocado on my chin. First to finish again.

Where the habit of scarfing started I don’t know but I’m doing my best to shift it. In the past weeks, when I notice the meal time ski jump launch happening, I stop and put down my fork and take a breath. Reset. Restart. Re-thank. Take a bite and notice. Remarkably, one day last week, I made myself a salad that was very lovely. I sat down to eat it, took a bite, and realized I didn’t want it. I put it away for later. Amazing.

Just like the drinking habit, this one is not going away soon or completely. But it feels better, and frankly, more nourishing to take time to remember to eat.

rushing refugee calendar screen shotMy life is full. Full of things to do. Activities I’m passionate about, writing that brings me joy, work that is fun and purposeful, people I want to know better and spend time with, chores and errands and work to create the home I want to live in. It’s full, my life.

My calendar is color-coded with mostly no white spaces. I’m busy. Often, I’m rushing.

My husband marvels at this. He wonders why, since I am in charge of much of my own time (the gift and the curse of the self-employed), I manage to be running around so much.

I toss my hair at this: I’m passionate! I’m joyful! I’m fun, dammit. So hush up about it.

Sometimes, after I’ve stopped stomping around about how guldang passionate and fun I am, he reminds me about what he’s learned about happiness. People find happiness, he tells me, in lots of different ways but all happy people share three traits:
1. Happy people are grateful.
2. Happy people are generous and help others.
And (here he pauses to be sure I’m listening)
3. Happy people savor.

I’m poised over this like a little Happiness Scorecard, holding tight to one of those little half pencils from mini golf.

1. Grateful? Check.
2. Help others? Do my best to. Check.
3. Savor? Um. Well. Sometimes. I do … a little … savoring.

Here I drop my little pencil and put my head on the table since he knows as well as I do that I don’t savor. I don’t let chocolate meditatively melt in my mouth, I chew it. I don’t sip tea, I gobble it. And mostly I ride my bike to yoga because it’s faster than driving.

It’s true. I rarely choose to savor. There are just so many cool things that I want to DO and I don’t want to miss out on DOING any of them so I rush from one to the next.

But here’s the rub: by rushing, I’m actually missing out on those cool things.

My addiction to the rush of rushing, to the feeling that I’m important, and that I have a passionate, purposeful life is getting in the way of me actually feeling my passionate and purposeful life.

It is a habit for me to hurry, to over schedule, to squeeze as much as I can into a day. Even if I’m meditating regularly. It doesn’t matter that I’m mindful whilst I zip about. Even if I’m paying attention and aware, rushing often squashes the life out of my time. I know why I’m addicted to rushing and I feels like a good idea to make a different choice. I stand before you — a rushin’ refugee.

Savoring is worth doing. As I wrote about last year, mindful savoring makes memories. The more we are deeply attentive to what is happening, the more likely it is that we will remember our experiences, that we will remember our life.

So I’m pledging to savor: to put my fork down between bites, to listen to music without doing something else at the same time, to let the chocolate melt on my tongue. I expect this may be a challenge for me, but rushing is a habit I want to break, so I’m doing what every over-scheduling over-achiever would do: I’m naming June 2014 Savoring Month.

On Wednesdays in June, I will report in a comment on this post and on the Focus Pocus Facebook page about how I’m doing with savoring. In particular, I will focus on eating (fork down, chew, swallow breathe, relax), drinking (sip and breathe, sip and breathe, even after yoga), and driving (leave extra time to get there without the adrenaline rush).

I’ll let you know how it’s going. And if you’re a rushin’ refugee and you’d like to come along for the (leisurely) ride, I’d love to hear how it’s going for you.

Reade with carrots from Wig Hill Road garden“I asked my body and my body wants dessert.” ~ my step daughter, Reade, at age 10

Your brain is in your whole body, not just your noggin. Listening to your body taps you into a wisdom beyond your intellect.

But it’s not always so straightforward.

Take that cookie, for example. Or that bag of chips. There are times when I would swear my body really really wants them. Actually, that’s my mind telling me that I will get comfort, pleasure and love from that flour-sugar-chocolate morsel (or crunchy-potato-salt crisp).

Body & Mind: practice helps us distinguish between the two.

* * * *
Full-Grown-People-logo-FINAL1
WOW! I’m honored (and a little stunned) to announce that today one of my pieces was published on an excellent site of literary essays called Full Grown People. You can find it here. EnJOY!

body teacher lizzie“I’m Lizzie and I’ll be leading you through class this morning. I may offer corrections or suggest adjustments, but your body is your teacher. Always listen to your body first.” ~ Lizzie, my yoga teacher who I adore

Let’s say it’s Monday morning at 10:45am. Wise creature that you are, you’ve stepped into the studio where I am setting up for Nia class. When you walk into the room, you see me plugging in my iPod, checking the volume, then standing in front wearing the microphone. I lead some super cool choreography, reminding you to sense your body. Also, I tell hilarious stories. Seeing all this, you might say I was the teacher.

When you come to my class, I am your guide.
I am your witness.
I am your fellow practitioner.
But your body is your teacher.

Our bodies are incredible systems of sensation that are constantly communicating with us about what is happening and what it needs. Despite this wealth of information we rarely listen or trust our own sense of ourselves. Often we ask other people about our own health and well-being. We hire doctors and psychologists, nutritionists and trainers, physical therapists and chiropractors. They all have potentially helpful and insightful information to share based on their training and education. They certainly can offer guidance in making choices about your body and your health.

The first teacher to turn to, though, is your body.

Right now, check into your body. Take a second to stop reading and just sense what is so in your body right now. When I do this, I sense that my feet are cold, I need to use the bathroom and I’m thirsty. But here I sit, writing this post, with my mind overriding the needs of my body. (Hold on. I’ll be right back after I get some socks and tea and have a pee.)

We’re trained to do this. Our culture glorifies those who forget to eat, work long hours, hardly sleep. A lifetime of mind-overriding-body can leave us at a loss as to what’s actually happening inside our own skins, our own minds, our own hearts.

A friend was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer. The doctors told her to have a lumpectomy and to do it immediately. She didn’t. She took a month to make the decision. She did research, she talked to lots of people (some medical folk and some not), she listened to her intuition, and she listened to her body. At the end of the month she decided to have a double mastectomy. The doctors strongly disagreed but she held to her choice. When she went in for her operation, the surgeons saw that the lump was not as well-defined as they had believed. They would have had to go in for a second surgery if she had followed their suggestion. The best choice was exactly the one she made.

Go to experts. Do. Listen to what they have to say. But also listen to your body.

The mind can be a guiding, caring force or it can tangle us up. A focused mind is alert to an urge that distracts us from what is happening. A scared or impatient mind can criticize and judge what we are or are not doing. An anxious mind can convince us we have to push harder or do more. A defeated mind can persuade us that we can’t do what we are attempting. A peaceful mind can soothe and calm us.

Mindfulness yokes the body and mind; gets them pulling in the same direction.

We call them mindfulness practices (whether it’s yoga or meditation or golf or gardening or whatever works for you) because it’s practice. Practice away from the cultural pull to deny the body and worship the expert. Practice so that when life throws us a curve ball or a train wreck or a heartbreakingly beautiful sunset, we can be there for it. Practice allows us to have a direct experience of what is happening right now and connects us to the deep wisdom and intelligence that resides not just in our brains but in our very cells.

All this body wisdom stuff doesn’t have to be heavy or woo-woo. It’s accessible to everybody and it can be fun. I have a great time in my yoga classes even though I’m focused and concentrating. Sometimes it’s challenging, of course, sometimes I’d rather be digging a ditch than doing my practice. But I’m never sorry I spent time listening to my body. However you connect to your body, your greatest teacher, listen to what it has to tell you. If you happen to have a guide who tells hilarious stories, that’s just a bonus.

phoenix in the washer“Suffering usually relates to wanting things to be different from the way they are.” ~ Allan Lokos

Our cat, Phoenix, is a purring ball of black silky fur. We love her to distraction and are lenient cat parents, particularly when it comes to her getting on the kitchen table. She is an indoor cat who loves lap sitting and sun sleeping occasionally interspersed with running really really fast through the house and launching onto a window sill.

Recently, though, she’s been getting herself into some strange spots. In the past couple of weeks I’ve found her
• stuck in a box full of extension cords on a closet shelf,
• in the washing machine on top of the dirty clothes (see photo),
• on the stove,
• locked in my closet getting litter box paw prints on my dance clothes,
• under the bushes in the front yard eating a weed that she later barfed on the rug.
The saying goes that curiosity killed the cat. While I’m not saying she was ever in any actual mortal danger, Phoenix is absolutely pushing her luck.

My mind is a funny thing. Especially when I am in pain or fear, it leaps like lightening to criticism and disaster scenarios. The inside of my knee feels tight and painful and instantly I’m thinking I’ve been careless in my movement and now I’ve got a torn ligament. When I brace to tell Frank how much my speeding ticket was, I think I’m a reckless driver and I’m sure he’s really angry with me. Tight jeans? I’m fat and a mindless eater. It is going on all the time: something is happening and, quick like Phoenix onto the windowsill, I’m critically thinking it should be happening differently.

In a life practice of mindfulness, curiosity is a powerful good thing. Especially when I feel a reaction of fear or criticism or judgment, an approach of curiosity expands my thinking and my experience. Get curious and expectations, stories, assumptions, judgments and criticisms all scatter like a clowder of cats in a rainstorm. Curiosity can take me from wanting things to be different than they are to a direct experience of how they actually are.

Instead, when I feel pain in my knee, I can pause and notice the details: get curious about if it hurts only when I put weight on it or when I bend it. When I tell Frank unwelcome news, I can breathe and ask him about how he feels or what he thinks the best course of action is rather than assuming he’s angry with me and not the speed trap.

Curiosity can transform what’s scary into just what is. Curiosity is a cure for the suffering that happens when we want things to be different than they are. By approaching situations with a curious mind, I’m much more likely to pause, ask questions, wonder, and explore instead of clamping down, making up a story about what’s happening and working out how to make things the way I think they should be.

I’d rather Phoenix stayed off the back burner of the stove and out of the extension cords, but I’m doing my best to encourage curiosity in myself and others. I guess I better just double check before throwing in the laundry soap and starting the spin cycle.