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Choice

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.

On January 17, 2019, Mary Oliver died.

She was one of my favorite poets and her writing has changed me and my work. The first time I heard her words was at a Unitarian Universalist church in the late 1990s. I’m not sure if it was Wild Geese or In Blackwater Woods or what it was, but it took my breath away. How could someone so clearly and succinctly say what I didn’t even know I wanted to say? She taught me things that I thought I knew, but didn’t until I heard her poem. Since then, I’m reminded over and over that she saw and expressed what really matters in this world. Mary Oliver got to the essence of things.

Two of her poems, Three Things to Remember and Instructions for Living a Life, have particularly impacted my creative work and teaching. Three Things is in the piece of art above. I love it not only for its mention of dancing but for its reminder that rules are often self-imposed. As a first born, I can get attached to following them and getting others to follow them, too. More and more though, I know that “there are fewer rules than you think” (as my friend and teacher, Mary Linn Bergstrom says).

What is your relationship to rules? Are you a follower? Does “doing it right” matter to you? Or does “doing it right” get you stuck? Or both? Are you a rebel? Are you someone who wants to know what the rules are just so you know what you are not going to do? When do you want to follow rules and when do you think they get in the way?

This is her poem, Instructions for Living a Life:

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

And this is the piece of art I made based on her poem.

I made this piece at one of my own workshops on creativity called Living Life As An Artist. Ironically, it is the first piece of art I ever sold. Think of that: Mary Oliver made me a professional artist.

What do you think of her instructions? Do you follow them? Do you follow them in only some situations? Is there one you do more than the others?

Since her death, I’ve reconnected to Mary Oliver’s work and how it’s impacted me. I’ve also been introduced to poems I either had forgotten or didn’t know. If you have a favorite Mary Oliver poem, will you please share it? I may work them into class somehow or share them in some way or make art with them or … something.

Poetry gives us a new look at things we might not have noticed before — including parts of ourselves. I’d love to hear how poetry, Mary Oliver’s and others’, has changed how you see things, how you see yourself, or how you live. Please leave a comment below to share your favorite poem and your experience of poetry power.

Here’s to following instructions and breaking rules.

Five years ago, my husband and I bought a small camper (Le Que!) to pull behind our truck. We were excited to explore, to discover state parks around the country and to spend more time in nature. I loved the idea of cooking for ourselves (vegetarians can struggle in the Midwest), of making a home on wheels. I loved the thought of hiking and riding in beautiful new places, of going to sleep seeing the stars and waking up in the forest.

The very idea of driving this rig, however, terrified me. Driving just the truck pushed my edges and I did that as little as possible. The idea of driving both the truck AND the campe scared the bejeebies out of me.

So I got really good at riding in the passenger seat. I provided water and snacks and hand massages. I downloaded interesting podcasts. I programmed the GPS and read the maps. I was an excellent passenger.

Frank assured me that he liked driving and didn’t mind being the only one behind the wheel. The camper is actually smaller than his work trailer, so for him, it wasn’t difficult — even to back into tiny campsites and navigate city traffic.

But in the back of my mind, I knew it wasn’t a great idea for me not to be able to drive the rig. What if Frank got ill or injured? What if he was tired and we needed to cover more miles than he could go? What if he just wanted a break?

On our trip this summer, I thought about it a lot. I had long conversations about it in my head but was afraid to say anything out loud. Half way through the trip I mentioned it casually. We were leaving Itasca State Park in Minnesota, and I said that maybe-sometime-maybe-on-this-trip-maybe-next-summer I should try driving. Frank said, “How about right now?”

I immediately regretted saying anything. It was one thing to think of doing it sometime in the misty future. Another thing entirely to think about doing it now. But that’s what happened. Frank pulled over, gave me a couple of (incredibly helpful) things to think about, and I hoisted myself into the driver’s seat.

We were in rural Northern Minnesota so there was no traffic. There were hardly any towns. Hell, there were hardly any curves in the road. But I did it. For nearly two hours, I drove the rig.

At first I was tight as a wire, with eyes darting and hands gripping. But as I drove some every day, I got more relaxed, more aware, more confident. I can’t back the thing up to save my life. That’s something for another summer. But for now, I can drive the rig. As scary as it was at first, it’s one of the most empowering things I’ve done in a long time.

Who is driving your days?

Are you letting your spouse, your child, your work, your expectations, your parents, the news, your fear to drive your choices?

It can be great to sometimes be in the passenger seat, navigating, distributing snacks, providing entertainment and navigation.

And if that’s the only place you sit, if you are afraid to drive, if you are bullied out of driving, if you have a story that you can’t drive or don’t deserve to drive, it’s time to swing yourself up into the rig.

It’s time to sit in the driver’s seat.


“Oh. Your jaw.”
I’d been dancing with enthusiasm and energy when my wise friend caught sight of me. She gently touched her own jaw with her fingertips.
“Your jaw.”
As soon as she said it, I could feel it: my jaw was stiff and locked. I felt the tension in my face, neck and shoulders. It’s a long-held habit that somewhere in my awareness is connected with not saying what I want to say.
I shook my head a little, opened my mouth and stretched it wide.
Then my dance really took off.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Walking up the path behind my husband, I see his familiar walk, the way he holds his head, the stride of his long legs. And his hands. I see his hands curved into the shape of the hammers and drills and circular saws that he’s used for years. Holding tools that he’d put down long ago.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Where do you hold tension? Do you know? For many of us, the patterns are so old that we don’t even notice them. Is it in your eyes? Your shoulders? Your feet? Your belly?

Chronically held tension in the body isn’t a bad thing. It is a teacher, an instruction of where we are stuck and where needs attention. Chronically held tension is a direct link to our growing edges.

Notice where tension gathers in you. Get curious about it. Instead of immediately shaking it out, inquire into what it has to tell you. What is it doing for you? How is it attempting to help you? What does it need? And what would happen if you released it?

On a sunny Friday morning, I rode my bike to the gym for a yoga class and a workout. Yoga was on the deck in the balmy summer air with a teacher I love. I was looking forward to a swim and then a leisurely ride home.

As I walked to the locker room, the sky suddenly went dark and rain roared on the roof. I threw my gear in a bag, ran out to my bike, and was soaked through before I had the lock off. I bumped my bike through the puddles in the parking lot but pedal as I might I couldn’t make it through the first traffic light before it turned red.

As the rain poured through my helmet and dripped down my nose, I stared angrily at the red light. I imagined riding home miserably, uncomfortably, grimly.

I’d missed my swim, but realized I was still getting wet on a summer morning. I took a breath and felt the rain on my skin. It felt tingly and alive. I wondered what would happen if I rode the rest of the way home happily. Or gratefully. Or joyfully. What if I changed the adverb to adventurously or curiously?

I felt the muscles in my face and shoulders soften. The light turned green and I turned onto the next street gleefully.

What happens when you choose your adverb with intention? How does that change the sensation? How does the adverb transform the experience?


I’m teaching extra classes and will be diving into the Adverb Dance with three classic Nia routines:
TranceVision ~ Monday 1045am acac square, Tuesday 840am acac downtown
Moodfood ~ Wednesday 11am acac square, Thursday 840am acac downtown
Fantasia ~ Friday, 6pm acac downtown (101 at 545pm), Saturday, 1245pm acac square (101 at 1230pm)
Inspired by the teaching of Brad Stoller as well as the Nia Blue Belt, we’ll explore how intention and focus changes movement, sensation and experience! Please join me.



My first book! Coming Soon!

I’ve finalized the pages and the cover mechanical is done (doesn’t that sound official and cool? I have no real idea what it means). Please join me in the adventure of the publication of my first book. Go to http://www.susanmcculley.com and sign up to be a Buddha Cat Backer! You’ll get updates, insights, goodies and discounts! Can’t wait to do this together.

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