Archive

Awareness

I have to take a breath and pause. Stop talking. Sometimes even stop moving. When I do that, I can feel it. Usually.

It can be around something big like Do We Buy This House? Or something small like Do I Put Elephant (Dub) In My Playlist AGAIN? It’s often around, What’s The Best Next Thing For Me To Do Right Now?

If I stop and listen and pay attention, I can feel the sensation of Yes and I can feel the sensation of No. We all can. We’ve all had the sense that something is right – a Yes – or that something is off – a No. For those of us with busy minds, this “gut feeling” can take practice to feel and listen to.

You can do it right now. Think of something that you’re wondering about: maybe what to make for dinner or what to work on next week or what to plant in the garden. Think of one of the options, imagine it happening (imagine that you actually made the eggplant parmesan or planted the pieris japonica) and feel what you feel. Notice particularly what you feel in your belly and heart. It might be subtle and it might take practice but your body knows and will tell you if you listen.

Yes and No are the language of the Body. As I practice, though, I notice another answer that I get a lot. Sometimes, I take a breath and pause and what I feel isn’t Yes or No… it’s GAH.

I get GAH when I think about doing my books, or doing push ups, or emptying the dishwasher. I don’t want to do it even though I know I’ll be glad if I do. I get GAH when I think about squeezing another meeting into the afternoon, or joining another art class, or eating another piece of chocolate. I want to do it but I know that I’ll be sorry if I do.

GAH is what I feel when I want to do something but I know it’s not a real Yes or when I don’t want to do something but it’s not a real No.

Yes and No are the language of the Body. GAH is the language of the mind. The body never lies. The mind, on the other hand, is sometimes a sneaky, no-goodnik, huckster selling a seductive illusion of better-ness.

My mind is always sidling up to me and saying things like, “It’s fine. You don’t have to do all that annoying accounting. You can do it later.” Or, “You’re not THAT tired. You should do more. Do more. Make another call, write another post and take another meeting.” OR, “Dark chocolate has antioxidants in it, you know. And even though you’ve already had two pieces, you should have another.” Sneaky, tricky, no-goodnik stuff like that.

Luckily, the body is still there speaking its Yes and No language while the mind is doing its GAH thing. So when you feel the GAH, relax. Know your mind is just playing around to see what it can get you to do or not do. Relax and feel the Yes and No in your bones, your gut, your heart.

This week, I’m taking a couple of days away from teaching and my regular life. This choice is both part of my practice and a result of my practice. In fact, times like these are why I practice.

A cancelled vacation in January and the addition of new activities and responsibilities have drained my battery. What I need is a couple of days in Nature with my best friend being astonished by spring.

One part of the way that I know I need a break is mindfulness practice. The daily practice of listening to my body and mind gives me clues when something is out of balance. Which is not to say that I always listen with complete purity to said clues. In fact, I often ignore them.

And that leads to the second part of the way I know that I need a break: my friend suggested it.

Based on her observations, she thought I needed some time away. “Do you feel at all like you did before you went on Sabbatical?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say surprisingly, even alarmingly, quickly. “Yes, that’s how I feel.”

At which point she offers to teach for me and that was that.

Both of these things happen in my formal practices: on my cushion, on my mat, on the dance floor. I practice paying attention. I do my best to listen to subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) signals and sensations and respond to them. And when I either don’t notice something or when I ignore what I’m noticing, I am lucky enough to have teachers to help shine light on what I can’t see.

Why do I practice?
It’s not to get better at meditation.
It’s not to get better and doing yoga postures.
It’s not even to get better at dancing.
I practice to get better at life.


So, Anne will be teaching for me on Monday at 10:45am at acac Albemarle Square and Mary Linn on Tuesday at 8:40am at acac Downtown. I’ll be back on Wednesday at the Square and Thursday Downtown.

If you’re interested in this topic, you might enjoy reading these fanglorious posts:

Voluntary Discomfort from November 11, 2013

and

Why I Meditate, Part 2 from February 27, 2015

Every once in a while, I’ll be all balled up and struggling with something and a friend will say, “A wise friend of mine once said…” And then they proceed to tell ME something I told THEM when THEY were struggling. I love/hate it when that happens. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been feeling tired and I thought about writing a post about stopping…until I remembered that I’d written this one in 2015. Since I am in the midst of a writing class at Writer House in Charlottesville and I’m working like crazy on pieces for that, I thought it would be a good time to revisit.

go stop 101715

(Originally published on October 18, 2o15)

How bout no longer being masochistic
How bout remembering your divinity
How bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out
How bout not equating death with stopping
~ Alanis Morissette, Thank you

It’s crazy. For 15 years I’ve been teaching and practicing movement and mindfulness but sometimes, I just don’t pay attention.

Last week, I taught some extra classes. Then I taught my regular classes and a (super fun) day-long retreat. I took a day “off” but worked on follow up and class preparation and did yoga and played catch up at my desk. Then I taught my regular classes again. By Wednesday, my battery felt not just drained but like someone had ripped it out and stomped on it.


On a Monday morning, I overhear two colleagues chatting in an office at the gym where I teach:
— Oh man, I am so tired. Are you tired?
— Me? I’m always tired.


About three-quarters through a 90-minute yoga class, I’m on my belly, doing my best to slow down my breathing. I can feel the sweat dripping off me and I can see a drop of it quivering at the tip of my nose. Take a deep breath, says Kelly. Let yourself really rest.

As she says this, I realize that the muscles in my hands and belly and feet are tense. I know class isn’t even close to being over. I’m bracing for what is coming.

Much of the time, she says, we don’t give it our all when we’re working and we don’t really stop and rest when we’re stopping. That’s why we’re tired all the time. Work when you’re working. Stop when you’re stopping.


At a Nia training years ago, my trainer asked us to choose a simple piece of choreography for a self-observation exercise. I chose something in which the base movements were only Closed Stance and A-Stance. The idea was to observe how we did the moves and to clean up our form, and here I’d gone and picked the simplest thing ever.

And yet.

When I paid attention to what I was doing, I realized I was wiggling my toes and adjusting my feet and not ever landing and stopping in my stances at all. My stances never rested.


The most common complaint of new Nia students is that they develop blisters on the soles of their feet (it happened to me when I started). Blisters usually appear when movers repeatedly slide, shuffle, or twist on their feet. When they are stepping, they aren’t really stepping but “dragging their feet.”


When I’m wrestling with an essay or a tricky post for my blog and I hit a lull in inspiration, I will often stop and check email or troll Facebook or send a text. When I work, I’m not really working.

After a full day, I feel exhausted, but when finally roll into bed, I find myself rolling through what I accomplished and planning what to do tomorrow. When I stop, I’m not really stopping.


Last week I had a dream about a student. He’s been coming to my classes for a decade and I don’t think he’s ever been in the room for the first song. He always comes once we’re moving and jumps right in. At the end of class when I invite everybody into stillness, he usually does some sit ups or leg lifts and often he leaves early. In my dream, he was in class doing his thing and a voice asked, When does he stop?

For some reason (overriding the creepiness of “I had a dream about you” intro), I awkwardly mention this to him after class. He laughs uncomfortably and then says, Huh, that’s funny. I’m 75 and I’m still working. I can’t seem to figure out when to retire.


Go when you go. Stop when you stop.

This week, I started an 8-week writing class. It’s the first time I’ve taken an in-person, honest-to-goodness writing class so I’ve been intently working on my pieces for that. Today, I thought I had one ready to submit to my instructor and classmates…until my Chief Reading Officer (my husband) and I realized there was a huge disconnect in the middle of it. So I’m beginning again.

Which seems like an excellent opportunity to return to this post on practicing that from last year.
Big breath. Begin again.

Originally posted on March 15, 2o16.

awareness begin again 031416

Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

There is something you want to do. Or something you don’t want to do anymore. You have a habit you want to break or one you want to start. You want to create something or go somewhere or build something up or clear something out.

That’s awesome.

Here’s the thing, though. You will mess up. Or something will go wrong. Or you’ll forget. Or you’ll put it off. I wish I could tell you that it will all go swimmingly just exactly as you’d like with nary a bump in the road.

And yeah, NOPE that’s not the way it’s going to go.

Which you could see as a bad thing or you could see as a way to practice beginning again. Let’s go with the latter. Here are 3 ways (plus a bonus) to practice beginning again.

1. At the Start ~ Plan to Begin Again

When setting an intention for something, think about what you want to do (or not do), when you’ll do it, with whom, and all the details of how you are planning on doing it. AND, include in those plans what you will do when you get off track. What will you do when you notice that you are doing what you didn’t want to do or vice versa. Expect to get off track and plan to begin again.

2. In the Midst ~ See the Magic Moment

While you’re in the process of your new habit or plan, be on the lookout for thoughts calcifying around the practice when it goes awry. Notice if you think things like, “See? I can’t do this.” Or, “I keep forgetting, I might as well give up.” Or, “This is just not something I can stop doing. It would be easier to just keep doing it.”

Instead, see the moment that you realize you’ve lost connection with your intention as a magic moment. Use it as an opportunity to begin again. The magic isn’t in being perfect. The magic is in noticing when you’ve gotten off course and choosing to begin again.

3. At the End ~ Be an Awesome Rebounder

In basketball, the best rebounders are the ones that count on the ball NOT going in the net. The best rebounders can’t wait to make something great out of a misfired shot.

Once a project is launched or the words have been said or the soufflé has been baked, there is no taking it back. If the reviews are terrible or if feelings are hurt or if you have a lump of egg baked in the pan, what can you do now? How can you start again or repurpose what’s happened? Begin again by reworking or rethinking the project, apologizing and saying what you meant to say, or calling it a quiche.

Be an awesome rebounder and begin again from a missed shot.

BONUS: Close your Heart to No One

Pay attention if your heart closes to anyone, especially yourself. Remind yourself that everyone ~ EVERYone (even that one person you just thought of) ~ is doing their best. If you feel that tight clenching around someone, take a breath and let your heart soften. More skillful decisions come from an unclenched heart. (It’s important to note that keeping your heart open to someone does not mean to stay in a hurtful or abusive situation. My heart can stay open as I say, No, you may not do that to me or say that to me or treat me that way.)

And if you forget, and you close your heart to someone, that’s great! It’s a magic moment when you realize it and a chance to begin again.

love-hate-etc-030417

I know how she felt. I’ve been in plenty of classes when I was hating on something. The room is too hot or someone throws open the window to winter winds. The music is too loud or I can’t hear it or it’s that annoying screechy electronic or repetitive Native American stuff. The teacher isn’t cueing enough or he’s talking too much.

And those are just my grumbles in Nia classes.

The list of things I’ve hated in life is laughably wide-ranging. It includes (but is certainly not limited to) pants without pockets, any nuts or fruit in stuffing, missed free throws, television in the morning, smoking, climate change protesters who drive Suburbans, and okra in anything.

Oh yes. I hate all kinds of things. So I know exactly where she is coming from when she approaches me after class and says, “What do I do if I hate it?”

She is quick to point out that she usually enjoys my classes but the freedance song I played that day, she really, really hated. So what should she do?

We all have preferences. Everybody likes some things and dislikes others. That’s just the way people roll. The problem isn’t preferences. The problem is what we do with them.

My freedance-hating friend wondered if she should leave the room when I play a song she doesn’t like. Or if she should ask me not to use that song/artist/genre in my classes. Or she could hum another song to herself to block out the song she hates.

The options are endless and I’ve heard them all.

“Don’t do freedance.”
“Do all freedance.”
“That music is objectively awful.”
“Those movements are too difficult.”
“Don’t make us get on the floor.”
“Do a whole class on the floor.”

And those are just things I’ve said (usually to myself but not always).

In Buddhism, avoiding that which we don’t like and clinging to that which we do is called shenpa. Traditionally, shenpa is translated as “attachment” but I prefer (ha!) Pema Chodron’s definition “being hooked.” She says,

It’s an everyday experience. … At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us. … Someone looks at us in a certain way, or we hear a certain song, we smell a certain smell, we walk into a certain room and boom. The feeling has nothing to do with the present, and nevertheless, there it is.  (see Pema’s post on shenpa here.)

When I began teaching, I knew not everyone would love my classes and I pretended that was fine. Bull hockey. I wanted everybody to love my classes all the time. If they didn’t like something, I would change it so they would. You can imagine how well that went.

Instead, the most skillful choice when we are hating something is to lean into it, to feel the direct experience of it without pushing it away, without running, without ignoring it. As Pema says,

The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face. When we feel resentment because the room is too hot, we could meet the heat and feel its fieriness and its heaviness. When we feel resentment because the room is too cold, we could meet the cold and feel its iciness and its bite. When we want to complain about the rain, we could feel its wetness instead. When we worry because the wind is shaking our windows, we could meet the wind and hear its sound. Cutting our expectations for a cure is a gift we can give ourselves. There is no cure for hot and cold. They will go on forever. (from When Things Fall Apart)

So when she asks, “What do I do if I hate it?” I answer, “Feel that feeling. Where is it in your body? Is it tight or hot or jangling? Work with that. Dance that feeling. Are you angry or annoyed or irritated? Use what is actually happening in the moment and go with that.” The ability to meet whatever it is – whether we love it or hate it – is skillful action — and it’s a skill I wish I’d learned a long time ago.

Perhaps paradoxically, by neither clinging nor pushing away, we can taste the uniqueness of the moment and actually be in our lives without wanting to be somewhere else. When you hate it, love on the hate.

focus-in-to-broaden-out-020417
A bunch of times last week, I lost my mind.

Once I was attempting (yet again) to do Crow Pose (Bakasana). I planted my hands on the floor, bent my elbows, put my shins on my upper arm bones, sucked my belly in annnnnd… nope, my feet simply would not come up off the floor. My face got flushed, my heart pounding. I felt frustrated and annoyed that my teacher called this damn pose that stumps me every time.

Another time, I was on Facebook and a friend I haven’t seen since high school made a nasty, personal comment annnnnd… my face flushes, my heart pounds. I fire with fury and dash off a tart retort in which I wonder if maybe he’s donated his heart to science since I’ve seen him.

In these situations (and more!), I lost my mind. More precisely, I lost my prefrontal cortex.

When I get upset and impulsive with my thoughts or actions, it’s a sure sign that I’m at the mercy of the less-evolved parts of my brain. The brain stem and the limbic areas of our brains evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. This lower brain keeps heart beating and breath breathing and when under stress it puts us into the fight / flight / freeze / collapse mode. The limbic area is emotion and memory center and is the home of the survivalist (and oft alarmist) amygdala.

I don’t behave well when my brain stem and limbic area are in charge.

The frontal cortex on the other hand (the outside “bark of the brain”), allows me to think, reflect, manage emotion, regulate information flow, and communicate. These are handy skills when I’m struggling with a difficult posture, a snarky email, or an upsetting conversation. And right in the middle of the frontal cortex, behind your forehead, the prefrontal cortex connects it all. This latest-to-evolve part of the brain takes in what’s going on around you, what’s going in your body, in your brain stem, in your limbic area, in your cortex and integrates it all. Note that it doesn’t turn off the lower brain, the prefrontal cortex integrates it.

An integrated brain is a healthy brain. And it’s one that’s less likely to dash off a surly email or curse a yoga teacher even when under stress.

The question, then, is how do I function from the integration and skillfulness of my prefrontal cortex instead of from my reactive lower brain?

My yoga teacher, Kelly Stine says, “directed, precise awareness in this moment gives access to a broader perspective.” In other words, mindfulness turns on the wisdom, regulation and integration of the prefrontal cortex. By paying attention to the details of what is arising right now – my heart is pounding, my jaw feels tight, my face is hot — I am able to manage my responses and choose more wisely. From a brain development point of view, when I reflect on my inner experience, identify emotions, and pay attention, I literally stimulate the integrative fibers of the brain.

How do I function from the healthy integration of my prefrontal cortex instead of my impulsive lower brain? The answer lies at the intersection of ancient meditation practices and modern neuroscience.

This from Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist

When you breathe in, you bring all yourself together, body and mind; you become one. And equipped with that energy of mindfulness and concentration, you may take a step. You have the insight that this is your true home—you are alive, you are fully present, you are touching life as a reality.

Breathe deep. Pay attention. Get integrated.

– – – – – –

Watch More about the connections between mindfulness and brain science with Dr. Dan Seigel whose work inspired this post.

Mindfulness. Brain Hand Model. Dan Siegel. Empathy and Cognition.

Mindfulness and Neural Integration: Daniel Siegel, MD at TEDxStudioCityED

– – – – –

If you enjoyed this post, great! Please share it!
And you might also like this one from April 2013: Integration is Health, Part 1

ice-to-water-to-steam-012217
With a new administration taking over in the US this week, I thought it would be a good time to revisit this post about expectations from December 2014. “From Ice to Water, from Water to Steam.” – SJM

Melting Expectations (originally posted December 7, 2014)

“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.

%d bloggers like this: