calm mind

When I’m looking to make changes in the way I do things, I need to know what’s actually happening first. Otherwise, I’m working from faulty information.

Recently, I’ve been playing with going deep into what I’m actually feeling.
Not what I’m thinking about what I’m feeling
or what I’m afraid of feeling
or what I plan to do about what I’m feeling
but what I’m actually feeling.

A freaking revelation.

Here’s my habit. I feel a little something and quick-like-a-bunny, I wrap an idea around it.

Instead, what happens if I look at what’s under the blanket?

When I do this, I can respond and take care of what’s actually happening instead of the blanket idea I’ve wrapped around it.

This happens a LOT with hunger.

In an effort to avoid the feeling and the fear around getting hungry, I quick wrap it up and go eat something. Or a bunch of somethings.

Instead, I can determine if that’s really what’s happening. Or if I need to support myself in another way. (Often, I need water.)

This “blanketing” habit happens with lots of feelings.

Distraction is sneaky and can draw me away from something I want to avoid. If I find myself doing something mindlessly like a zombie, then it’s a pretty sure sign that I’m wrapped up in the blanket.

Again, looking under the blanket tells me more about what’s actually happening and what I really need. (As in, “Ah, I don’t want to do my taxes. If I just get it done, then I will free up time and energy to do what I want to do and not mindlessly scroll through Instagram.” OR at the very least, I know why I’m doing what I’m doing so I have a choice to keep doing it or not.)

The best place to start is in the body. If you feel the blanket descending, take a moment to feel whatever physical sensations are arising (including numbness or “no feeling”).

When I drop the blanket, I can make real choices for change that get to the heart of what’s really happening.


This week’s post is about intensity. More specifically, it’s about the benefits of mindfully choosing intensity. Even so, the topic can be a little, well, intense. So I offer the post in illustrations and color with a black cat on the side…

I know I find myself doing this. Avoid riding my bike because it’s easier to drive. Avoid doing another back bend because GAH! Do you do this, too? If so…Click here on the link to the research. It’s kind of amazing.

You can do that right now. Take a moment to take a deep breath before you keep reading. Okay, two more reasons to mindfully choose intensity.

To be clear, mindfully choosing intensity does NOT mean to beat yourself up, push yourself to exhaustion or anything like that. This is about feeling the urgency of intensity and allowing yourself to find the place where you are challenging yourself and able to keep breathing, stay balanced and present. Mindful intensity is an opportunity to offer kindness and strength to yourself. SO…

Meow, y’all.

P.S. Let me know what you think about the illustrated post!

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.


One of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had was on the streets of Boston’s North End. I wasn’t mugged and no mafia bosses wanted me to sleep with the fishes, but it scared the life out of me just the same.

On a Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I were double-parked in front of our apartment so we could unload our car. As much as Bostonians love hockey, football, and baseball, their two favorite sports are double parking and yelling at each other for double parking. So it was no surprise that a man in a Jeep pulled into our street and yelled about how stupid we were for parking like that. What was surprising was when my boyfriend, John, said something back to him, the guy jumped out of his car, flew across the sidewalk and smacked John in the face.

As scary and upsetting as this was, it was only then that the truly terrifying thing happened: I. Lost. My. Mind.

In a flash of white hot rage, I ran up to the man, got inches from his face, and screamed at him about his cowardice and lack of intellectual acuity (not my actual words). I bumped his chest with mine. I told him what a craven loser I thought he was. I dared him to hit me. He didn’t. Instead, he spit some hot words and drove away.

What terrified me wasn’t the angry Boston driver. It was me. I had no idea I had a lunatic living just under my skin. No idea about the fire in me that could be released so fast. It wasn’t the fight with a stranger but my own explosive fury that scared the bejeezus out of me.

Compare my story with one of my favorites from “Flip the Script,” an episode in the latest season of the Invisibilia podcast*: two families gather on a summer night on a backyard terrace for dinner and celebration. In the midst of their happy evening, a man walks into their midst with a gun. He points it at one of the women and tells them that if they don’t give him all their money, he will shoot her. But the group was outside, having a meal. No one had any money. None. The gunman didn’t believe them and ramped up his threats.

Then a woman at the table spoke up. “Will you have a glass of wine with us?”

Her question disarmed him in every sense. He put down his gun, had a glass of wine, ate a little cheese and asked for a hug. He thanked them and quietly left, gently setting his empty glass on the steps as he walked away.

Psychologists call the woman’s offer of wine noncomplementarity or doing the opposite of what the other is doing. The most natural response in any interaction is complementary behavior: to treat the other person as they treat you. If they are kind, it’s most natural to be kind back. If they are aggressive to you, well, remember me and the Boston guy?

But sometimes, the most powerful thing to do is noncomplementary: to get out of sync with the other.

Noncomplemenarity isn’t easy. It requires us to override our natural instinct and intuition. And as the Invisibilia story (ans any nonviolent protest from Gandhi to civil rights) points out, making that unnatural choice can completely turn situations around.

Buddhists call it tonglen: a practice which Pema Chödrön describes as “…a method for connecting with suffering—ours and that which is all around us…. a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart.”
(read a helpful article about tonglen by Ani Pema here.)

Simply stated, tonglen is the practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out ease for that suffering. (Do a short tonglen practice with her here.)

My favorite description of tonglen and the one I return to over and over comes from the book How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach**. In it, we imagine suffering as inky black tar around the heart of another. As we breathe in, we draw the sticky black suffering out of their heart and pull it into the flame of our own heart which explodes the blackness into white light.

We can practice tonglen or noncomplementarity whenever we encounter suffering: in our own bodies or minds, in relationships with our nearest or with strangers, in our communities and organizations, and in animals and the environment, in countries and the world. Instead of meeting suffering with suffering, instead of turning away, meet suffering with the heat and light of the heart.

The fire that exploded in me on that Boston street was instinct and reflex. I regret it as it felt terrible and did nothing to put more love into the world. Although I haven’t witnessed that kind of attack since then, I see and am aware suffering every single day. I do my best to practice and breathe and use my flame as best I can.

It doesn’t always work. I can still get lit up with all kinds of complementarity especially when I see someone inflicting suffering on someone else. But I practice now with the intention of using my fire more skillfully to burn away suffering’s black toxic tar wherever it is happening.

* Did you click on the link to the Invisibilia show? The whole episode is great but at the very least, listen to the actual participants tell the story. Click here.

** I’ve included the complete passage from How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach here as it is visceral and powerful. May it be of benefit.

“’Inside your heart is a tiny red flame, like the flame at the top of a candle. This flame is the power of our selfishness – the habit we have of taking care of ourselves first, and neglecting what others need or want….Look into the Sergeant’s heart. Right there in the middle is a dark, rotten little pool of blackness. It is his sadness, it is his pain; it is the reason why he drinks, and it is his drinking….You want to take this pain away from him, forever. It’s the compassion we spoke about before; it is the real reason why you are doing yoga. And you decide that you want to take his black pain away so badly that you would even take it into yourself, if it meant you could save him from it….And so you begin to take say seven long, slow breaths. The first time you breathe in, that little evil pool of darkness in the center of the Sergeant’s heart stirs and moves; it starts to rise up out of his body, like an ugly cloud of blackness. And as you take more breaths it is sucked up out of his chest, up his throat, and then out of his nostrils. And knowing you would take it on yourself to save him from it, you take all his drunken misery in that little cloud of darkness and you keep breathing it in, and in again, drawing it towards your own face. And then hold it there, just outside your own nostrils….And now something will happen; it will happen a little quickly and so you have to concentrate well upon this part. In one breath you will suck the blackness in through your own nose; you will take it upon yourself. The blackness will come down your throat, into your chest and then slowly – very slowly – it will approach the little red flame of your selfishness: the part of you that would never even imagine taking away someone else’s pain, if it meant having it yourself instead. And the blackness floats slowly towards the edge of the flame, and then suddenly the black makes contact with the red, and there is a burst of beautiful golden light, like a bolt of lightning shining in the purest gold. And in that moment, because you are willing, in that moment, to swallow all the Sergeant’s pain into yourself, the crimson fire of your own selfishness is extinguished, forever. It is gone. And in this explosion too the blackness of the Sergeant’s pain is destroyed: destroyed for him, destroyed for you, destroyed forever. For this is the power, the power of the grace of selfless compassion for others.” (How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach pp 93-95)

go to water 070216

Our Provider who has given all
from the appearing way – East,
from the cold way – North.
from the disappearing way – West,
from the warm way – South
You Have Spoken

Medicine that you have gotten ready
You have given us
Air, water, fire, soil of the world
Come cleanse us
Our bodies, our mind, our hearts, our accumulative wisdom
Shall be washed thoroughly

~ translation of Cherokee Going to Water ritual

Jane was totally lost. We met her at a trail intersection in Grayson Highlands State Park in southwest Virginia. She’d lost the trail and had been wandering around alone for an hour and a half. We compared maps, realized we were hiking back to the same parking lot and offered to walk the rest of the way with her.

Jane, it turns out, is a High Pointer. It is her goal to reach the highest point in each state (or 41 of them, anyway, since nine exceed her technical abilities). She’s done about 30 and she’d just checked Virginia’s highest point off her list by hiking to Mount Rogers. She was in pretty good spirits given the way her day was going but I think she found the Virginia endeavor unsatisfying, what with no view at the summit and then the whole 90-minutes lost debacle.

We had also climbed up Mount Rogers that day on the recommendation of a friend. We loved the dark boreal forest at the peak (unusual so far south). The sweet-smelling spruce trees, moss-covered boulders and deep green quiet was so surprising, we half expected a wood nymph to lead us to the summit. No view, it’s true, but potential fairies!

Jane’s goal motivates her to keep hiking and I appreciate that, but I will never be a High Pointer. I love a view as much as anybody, but while a sweeping vista can be breath-taking and perspective-offering, climbing to a peak will never be my first choice for a hike. I’ll always choose water over a summit.

If given the choice, I hike along rivers, streams and creeks. I have walked for hours to see a single waterfall and on one glorious trail in Pennsylvania saw 21 strung together along a single glen (read that story and see the pictures here). There is something restorative about walking near water; something grounding that connects me to the music and movement of life. Hiking along a river offers a flowing stream of sound and images to admire along the way rather than the single goal of reaching a single high point. A moving river reminds me of life’s illusion of permanence. The river may seem to be the same, but it is always moving and changing. No man can ever, as Heraclitus reminds us, step in the same river twice.

People in the Cherokee tribe practiced the ritual of “going to water” most days. They stood waist deep in the water and prayed to be washed clean of whatever bad feelings distanced them from God, their friends and family. This is a practice that makes total sense to me.

After a hike or bike ride, there is nothing I love more than to spend time in moving water. It washes away the sweat, but much more than that. Even when not near a stream or river, I use water to literally and symbolically clear away any accumulated gunk in my system. A shower, a splash on wrists and face, a tall glass drunk deep: water approached with intention is my own version of the Cherokee ritual.

While I admire the fitness and determination it takes to reach a high point and the view a summit (sometimes) offers, I will always choose to go to water.

home 004
“Make the pose feel like home.” ~ Liz Reynolds, yoga teacher

In a few days, Frank and I leave a house we love and step out into the next part of our life together. There are countless things in this house that I love: all the light and the windows and the arched openings, the view to the woods behind us, the front door that I refinished and the knocker we bought in Guatemala. And the kitchen. It has been just the most lovely kitchen to be in.

As good as these things feel, they aren’t what make it home. When Liz suggested making my yoga pose feel like home, it got me thinking. What is home really anyway?

“Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling.” ~ Cecelia Ahern

I’ve felt at home in houses that were not my own and in many natural places with no walls and recently in a very small camper pulled by a big red truck. And there have been times in my life when my own house hasn’t felt like home to me. Ultimately, it is the feeling, the ease and peace and connection that I feel there that make a home. Circumstances and other people may contribute to those feelings, but the one who has the greatest impact on the hominess of any situation is me. It’s up to me to make myself at home.

“Just keep coming home to yourself. You are the one you have been waiting for.” ~ Byron Katie

I have laughed a lot in this house. I’ve cried, too. I’ve felt calm and relaxed and I’ve felt rattled to my very bones. In the five years that we’ve lived here, I’ve deepened my practices, my marriage has gotten stronger, and made better friends with myself. One of the main reasons I get on the cushion, on the mat, in the studio, at the computer is to cultivate more ease and friendliness with my body, my mind and my emotions. Whenever my (multiple and easily accessible) buttons get pushed, I ask myself, how can I be easy and peaceful with whatever is happening in or around me?

“Be grateful for the home you have, knowing that at this moment, all you have is all you need.” ~ Sarah Ban Breathnach

The coming weeks will be a slow motion transplanting, with our roots hovering in the air for a while until our next house is ready. As we’ve prepared for a summer of peripatetic adventures, we’ve talked a good deal about the difference between “need” and “want.”

When I’ve felt most upset by the uncertainty, that’s when I’ve been most attached to what I “need.” I get tight and make lists: my favorite sundresses, my yoga mat, blue tea cup, my computer, my four-color pens. I need my pillows, my hiking boots, my decaffeinated green tea and all my earrings.

The more I can relax and be present, the more I can trust that everything will work out, and that I have the power to change what I need to, the less attached I am to what I “need.” The less I need, the freer, the more peaceful, the more content I am. And the more at home I feel.

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” ~ Maya Angelou

This is my intention for the summer and beyond. May it be so for you. Make yourself at home wherever you are and however you are.

809 last days 007

P.S. For more on this topic, read Rick Hanson’s post Be Home from Just One Thing

spring loaded plants growing
Yesterday, I waxed celebratorial about the spaciousness of spring and creating that same feeling in the body and joints in particular. Space and support are the keys to healthy, easy-feeling joints and movement. But how to expant those practices and to other aspects of life.


Not surprisingly, what works for the body also works for the head. Stressful, over-busy lives can leave us feeling compressed and contracted. Just as physical energy can get stuck around compressed joints, mental energy can be stuck (or drained away) under the compression of stress.

To infuse the breath of spring into a harried mind, create space and support. Find even a few minutes to meditate or to sit quietly. Support your mind by beginning each day identifying at least one thing that you will feel great about having done at the end of the day ~ and do it first. My scramble brain is supported with an online calendar that gives me reminders that let me relax around remembering every detail. Ask yourself, how can you give your mind space? How can you give your mind support?


Emotions are often equated with the element of water ~ moving and changing form all the time. And yet we often think of them as solid and permanent. When the emotional flow goes in an uncomfortable direction, we tend to freeze up around them.

When strong or difficult emotions show up, give them some spring energy: give them space and support. See if you can let go of the story and simply feel whatever you’re feeling. As tempting as it is to assign blame or dig into the justification (and the even distribution) of negative feelings, experiment with noticing the physical sensation associated and how it flows and shifts.

Getting support around emotional issues is a bamfoozler for me. When I’m up to my eyebrows in it, the last thing I want to do is ask for help. For that reason, I have a list of things that I keep in my wallet that I can do for myself when sticky emotions arise. The list ranges from “take 5 deep breaths” and “look at the sky” to “have a cup of tea” and “stretch and/or shake ~ even just your hands.” Once I’ve done something for myself and felt that internal support, it’s much easier for me to ask for help, even if it’s just for someone to listen when I’m scared or worried or angry.

Body, mind, emotions, the whole package: space and support is what infuses everything with spring loaded energy.

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