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Awareness

A NOTE about the Focus Pocus art: I am in the middle of a book project called Octabusy: How To Let Go in a Sea of Doing. I’m excited about it and want to focus my art-making energy on it. So instead of making complex art pieces for the Focus Pocus blog, I make cartoons like this one that feature characters from the book. This week, the Sea Star (an expert in small steps and choices) goes where she wants to go one tiny choice at a time.

Three years ago this month, my husband Frank and I put an offer on the land on which our house now stands. We made the big choice to build a house three years ago but what got the house built was thousands and thousands of small choices every day. Each night when he came back from working on the project, I’d ask how it went that day. Each night, he’d tell me what they’d done and say, “Little by little, sweetie. Little by little.” Three years later, we’re living in the result of that series of choices.

From September to June, I was part of the coaching team for my friend, teacher, and nutritionist Cecily Armstrong’s transformational healing program called Love Your Body Love Your Life. I loved being part of this experience and witnessing the changes that this group of courageous woman made over the time we spent together. Near the end of the program, a participant shared a story about saying no to toxic food at an office gathering. In response, Cecily said something that keeps coming back to me:

“Small Choices Matter. You Matter.”

How many times? How many times do I intend to do something (or not do something), but when I’m tired or stressed or hungry I don’t. And how many times when this happens, I hear myself say, “Gah, it doesn’t matter.” What Cecily points out is that saying this is really saying “I don’t matter.”

In her program A Year to Clear, Stephanie Bennet Vogt invites this journaling prompt:

• Telling myself that “I matter” makes me feel______ (psst, notice any weather (emotional waves) that arises as you contemplate this statement and breathe into that)

When presented with this prompt, I sometimes bump into feelings of insecurity or old stories of self-importance come up. And it’s worth investigating what is at the root of the stories. Then I can find ways of reinforcing self-worth and the impact of incremental choices on my broader vision.

When Cecily and I were talking about the “small choices” approach and she shared this genius essay by Alexandrea Franzen called Ice. Imagine being in a frozen room and raising the temperature one degree a day. For a long time, it would seem like nothing was happening but keep at it, one degree a day, the cumulative effect of those small choices would transform everything.

Whatever we do over and over, day in and day out – whether conscious or not – is the most powerful force there is. As C.S. Lewis said,

“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different…”

Chart the course with big choices — know where you want to go — but know that the way to get there is with the small choices you make every moment.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

For more information on Cecily Armstrong’s work including her 9-month Love Your Body Love Your Life transformational healing program, you can go to her website and sign up for her FREE online workshops
Cecily Armstrong Web siteWeb siteWeb site
Cecily’s Decoding Your Body’s Wisdom ~ 3 mini-workshops
Cecily’s Decoding Your Body’s Wisdom ~ 1-hour workshop

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This week’s post and art are from a couple of years ago. I found the approach to be helpful to revisit. I hope you do, too.

~~ Originally posted October 11, 2015 ~~
The first time I hear the phrase it pops me awake in a 615am yoga class at Kripalu . I’ve been on the road for a week. I haven’t slept well for days. It is, as I mentioned, just after 6am. I am fuzzy foggy at best but as soon as the instructor says it, I snap to attention:

How you do anything is how you do everything.

She says it and I think, Wait a minute, no, wait. That’s not right. Is it? We have only just started the class. I am only in Child’s Pose. How is it possible that I am doing Child’s Pose in the same way I do Wheel pose or teach my classes or hug my husband or write my blog?

For an hour, it ricochets around in my head: my argument about it couldn’t be true that how I do anything is how I do everything.

A few years later, I hear it again in another yoga class with an added phrase that also wakes me up:

How you do anything is how you do everything. Let your practice be a metaphor for your life.

The intervening time — that has included a sabbatical from and then a reinvigorated return to teaching and an equally reinvigorated yoga practice — has me more receptive to the idea. I begin to get it that the qualities, the intentions, the habits I bring along with me onto the mat are the same ones I bring everywhere else.

But not just that: Let your practice be a metaphor for your life. I have a choice about how I do everything I do.

The whole concept is intriguing enough that I want to investigate. It seems that the laboratory of the yoga studio is a good place to start. My first step is a down-to-the-bones honest observation. When I think about my yoga practice in the abstract when I’m off the mat, I go quickly to the distortions of I-suck-beat-myself-up or well-hey-I’m-pretty-darn-good-at-that – which is neither accurate nor helpful. Instead, I honestly observe myself as I’m doing my practice and ask myself How do I do this?

This is what I find:
1. I put in a good deal of effort – sometimes more than necessary.
2. I am dedicated to the point of obsession.
3. I am easily distracted until I get in the groove and then I’m focused.
4. I love learning but can get frustrated at the beginning when things are awkward.
5. I compare myself to others (especially in the distracted stage of #3).
6. I am strong and open in some ways, weak and resistant in others.
7. I tend to rush through and want to get to the next part.
8. For better or for worse, I easily fall into habit.
9. Interruptions (especially once I’m in the groove of #3) and the unexpected can upset me.

I’m sure there are other things that are also observable and true about my practice but Yes. That is how I do yoga. But is it how I do everything? Really?

I take my How I Do Yoga list and start running through my life: Writing, teaching, meditation, relationships, art, cooking. Gosh, would you look at that? Spot on. Every one. Every. Single. One.

Dang.

This is somehow simultaneously humbling and comforting. There I am. On the yoga mat, on the dance floor, at my desk, in my kitchen, in my life.

So the question is, what do I do with this metaphor for my life? I look at how I do yoga and ask, Is this how I want to do yoga? Is that how I want to teach? And write? And draw? And make dinner? And love people?

Some of it yes and some of it not so much. The truth is I can take the current metaphor and I can edit it. Just like I rework sentences and paragraphs in my posts so they are in closer alignment with what I want to say, I can choose to adjust my practice to be in closer alignment to how I’d like to live. And those edits on the mat will expand into everything I do.

Aritostle, widely remembered as an extremely clever guy, said [2019 NOTE: Turns out that not Aristotle, but Will Durant said this. More on that here.]

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

I have a choice about the habits I cultivate on the mat and in my classes and in my writing and everywhere. As I make even small changes to doing anything, how I do everything will change, too.

It’s like an essay that I am reworking or a routine I’ve taught many times: Observe. Edit. Repeat.

So. (And you knew this was coming, didn’t you?)

How do you practice? How do you do the chores? How do you drive? How do you talk to people? What are your habits? Are they what you want them to be? Observe. Edit. Repeat.

How you do anything is how you do everything.

A NOTE about the Focus Pocus art: I am in the middle of a book project called Octabusy: How To Let Go in a Sea of Doing. I’m excited about it and want to focus my art-making energy on it in the next couple of months. So instead of making more complex art pieces for the Focus Pocus blog, I make little cartoons like this one that features characters from the book. This week, Octabusy is counseled by the sea turtle and hatchet fish to remember to BOTH mix it up and keep it stable.

How does the wisdom of an ancient Greek philosopher (as interpreted by a 20th Century writer) and a Belgian psychotherapist intersect? What does that wisdom have to do with movement and living in the human body?

Last week, we focused on Mixing It Up and how variety — whether it is in our diets, our movement or our relationships — brings health and aliveness to any system. As we practiced together, I noticed that variety was not the only thing at play. There was something at the root of the experimentation and exploration.

Aristotle wrote, “as it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy….these virtues are formed in man by his doing the right actions.” You might be more familiar with Will Durant’s explanation of Aristotle (words which are often misattributed to Aristotle himself):

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Will Durant (Not Aristotle)

Accumulation of repeated actions that give a result. What we do over and over builds our lives. Mindfully choosing what we do over and over, then determines the kind of life we live.

As much as I teach and practice changing things up and breaking habit, I also know the deep importance of intentional, value-driven, positive habit formation. As human beings, our brains respond to repetition and predictability. We are wired to expend a large amount of mental energy on learning something. Our brains then quickly shift to making it a habit.

Think about a time when you learned something new — whether it was a movement pattern or a foreign language or a new app. What did that feel like? I sometimes call the feeling of leaning “egg beater brain” — as if my neuropathways are scrambling to reconfigure themselves. Once we’ve learned something, our brains then do their very best to make it routine. This is when we are *practicing* something that we’ve learned. This is an utterly different sensation, right? This is the difference between roughly bushwhacking a trail through the forest, and walking it every day, clearing the way and making it easier and easier to walk that same path. After a while, taking that path becomes familiar, easy, peaceful. Walking that path might allow you to be so relaxed that it’s transportive and expansive.

Athletes and artists often call this the flow state. And we need this, we need the stability of familiarity and the groundedness of the known in order to open to creativity and possibility.

Relationship therapist Esther Perel’s amazing podcast Where Should We Begin? looks squarely at the intricacies of intimacy and reveals that human beings fundamentally need both stability and excitement. She writes:

“Love is a vessel that contains both security and adventure, and commitment offers one of the great luxuries of life: time. Marriage is not the end of romance, it is the beginning.” ― Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic

Without stability, we have nothing to launch off from. Security allows us to relax. Without adventure and change, parts of ourselves wither and die. Whether you are in a long-term relationship with another person or not, we all have one relationship that we all have had since day one: our relationship with our body.

How can you create this balance of security and adventure, of practicing and learning, of stability and mobility in your body, your movement, your life?

In December, my father-in-law died. He was both an accomplished and warm-hearted man who loved babies and hated sour things. He was deeply loved by his big family and his small town. He is sorely missed.

He had been declining for some time and on Thanksgiving Day we drove to Minnesota to say goodbye. Less than three weeks later, we drove back for the funeral. It was a sad, exhausting time. And yet, when I think back, all I can remember is the kindness.

My husband’s enormous family is the biggest bundle of gracious welcome and care that I’ve ever been part of. The whole town of Roseau, Minnesota offered a flood of generosity in the form of food and hugs and cards and words and presence. When I returned home, feeling bruised and foggy, my people – friends, colleagues, students, everybody – were easy with me, gave me space, cut me slack, and were just so kind to me. I was and am grateful beyond words.

A month or so later, I came across this wonderful essay by John Pavlovitz, “Everyone Around You is Grieving. Go Easy.” He describes what I experienced better than I ever could. I hope you’ll read it. It reminded me how held I felt by my family, my community and even by strangers and what a difference it made.

As the months slide by, it hits me every once in a while. I’m in line at CVS and I wonder what weighs on the young person with the tattoos and piercings behind the register. In traffic, I wonder what the bearded trucker is worried about. I see hospital helicopter fly over the house and wonder about the person inside. I remember sometimes that everyone around me is grieving, but not as often as I wish I did.

Not long ago, I came across this extraordinary video about empathy made by the Cleveland Clinic. I have watched it over and over and I sniffle my way through it every. single. time. And it inspires me to remember. Please please be brave (if you need to, grab a tissue) and watch it.

This is Memorial Day. Unless you come from a military family or you’re a politician who needs a photo opp laying a wreathe on a soldier’s grave, most of us see this as a day off, a day for picnics, and the unofficial start of summer. This year, my invitation is to see this as a day to remember that everyone is carrying something, everyone has lost something, everyone is grieving. Go easy. Go gentle. With everyone you meet. And with your own sweet self.

Have a Happy – and Gentle – Memorial Day.

Yesterday, I went to a three-hour yoga workshop. We held poses for minutes at a time. We lay on tennis balls and let them soften up tight tissues. I had sensations of release, mild discomfort, and “holy moly.”

Last week, I could barely read the news. Among the usual bombshells, the UN released a report saying that extinctions of a huge range of species is happening at alarming rates. I cannot stop thinking about this and have sensations in my belly of fear and anger and despair.

There is another school shooting. This time a friends’ children were in the school where it happened. It is dumbfounding to talk to her. Incomprehensible. My mind reels with thoughts and feelings that all reverberate in my body.

I sit by the river in the warm May breeze and watch the birds. My heart aches at the beauty and how soothed I am.

There is no lack of sensation. It’s up to us to surf it. It’s up to us to be both the surfer and the wave.

Before you get up.
Before you eat.
Before you go to the next thing.
Before you hit SEND.
Before you speak.
Before…pause.

Even in the middle of everything.
A nourishing, intentional, sacred pause can make all the difference.

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  • Dancing Water ~ 2370 Old Lynchburg Road, Charlottesville VA 22903 (detailed directions can be found in the SHOP section under Additional Information).

I told myself not to say it. I think I actually bit my tongue. But suddenly, I heard the unkind, impatient thing fly right out of my mouth. I saw the words, sludgy and dripping, hang in the air between us and immediately, I regretted them.

I saw his face and shoulders fall. He responded with his feelings and I did my best, I really did, to feel my feet and my breath, to reflect back what he’d said, to be present.

Instead, I was swamped with pain and regret and a mind-flood of talk about what a bitchy jerk I am and how I always do this and how the people I admire would never say such a thing. In a heart beat, in a breath, the discomfort was so strong that I unplugged and split from my body.

Embodied presence – connecting mind and body, being in the present moment – sounds simple and easy enough. We’re living in these bodies all the time, after all, so how tough can it be to be in there? The truth is that it’s a huge challenge for most of us even when we’re sitting quietly on a cushion with sunlight in our hair and flower petals falling around us. When we are upset, angry, tired, hungry, in pain, afraid, or uncomfortable in any way, the practice of keeping body and mind in the same place at the same time can feel utterly impossible.

In her two dharma talks about Embodied Presence (which you can find here and here), Tara Brach invites us to explore the unpredictable wilderness of the body. The mind does what it can to control the uncontrollable and tuck in all the loose edges but that neatness is a false refuge. The body in all its messiness is the only place to connect to empathy, love, freedom and unfolding of life itself. The only place. She suggests that whenever we leave the body, when we vacate the premises, it comes down to one thing: there is something we are unwilling to feel. We find ourselves disconnected and separated from direct experience because there is something that feels scary or dangerous or uncomfortable and on some level we think we can’t handle it. So we run.

Last week, we focused on Embodied Presence and the practice of getting body and mind in the same place at the same time. This week, we continue this exploration by looking at the ways we take ourselves out of the body and how to get back in.

It’s such a common state, to be up in the control tower of our heads that we might not even realize we’re doing it. Tara Brach offers four signs of being in trance and out of the body:

  1. obsessive thoughts on a loop often as a way to prepare to avoid something bad,
  2. negative judgment about myself or others (see above example of me thinkingthinkingthinking about being an impatient jerky pants),
  3. distraction of any kind especially on screens or online (like habitually reaching to check my phone when I feel nervous, for example),
  4. speeding around and rushing, as if getting more done will keep the difficult feelings at bay

When you see this list, do any of these feel familiar? Perhaps you’re like me and they ALL feel familiar. When we are in this auto-pilot, sleepwalking state, we are intentionally (although often subconsciously) avoiding feeling something edgy or uncomfortable. Mindfulness – in movement, in meditation, or in the moment – invites us back into the lush wilderness of the body.

Brach teaches that the intensity of any of these states is in direct proportion to our unwillingness to feel what’s in our bodies. In order to come into embodied presence, we have to make the courageous and intentional choice to wake up. She teaches that first, we must notice what’s happening (ah, I have hurt someone’s feelings and that feels wretched), then name it (pain in my heart and heaviness in my stomach), and breathe (amazingly difficult when I’m suffering) and interrupt the pattern – even briefly – by allowing ourselves to feel whatever it is.

This practice leads to what is sometimes called The Lion’s Roar which is the ability to be with, to roll with anything, ANYTHING that happens. The Lion’s Roar is the fearless proclamation that everything that happens is workable and that I have the ability to handle and feel anything. Imagine the freedom of trusting in our capacity to be with whatever life delivers.

Notice that this state of presence is not called “The Roaring Lion” which feels startling, fierce, and threatening. Instead, the Lion’s Roar is the energy of confidence. It is the knowledge that this power is available no matter what arrives. When we practice, The Lion’s Roar is a strength that infuses life like an aura, a light that allows me to face anything.

Few of us will be able to claim the Lion’s Roar as our way of being all the time, but the practice of noticing, naming, breathing and interrupting the well-worn sleepwalking pattern offers glimpses into the possibility of freedom.

The next time you find yourself caught in one of the signs of being out of the body, ask yourself, “What am I unwilling to feel?” This question alone is the first step toward finding your Roar.

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