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Choice

My first therapist never rolled her eyes at me or sighed dramatically but I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had.

In my early 30s, recently divorced, then quickly into first one then another messy relationship, eating and exercise disorders, financial straights: I had it all. And I had not a single clue about the monkey mind mayhem that I was constantly brewing. Not one clue.

I think of that poor therapist often and cringe my apologies.

One conversation I remember with her went something like this:

ME: So I’ve been pretty stressed since my boyfriend moved in with me last week.

POOR BELEAGUERED THERAPIST: He doesn’t have a job, right? And he’s depressed and dependent on you both financially and socially?

ME: Well, yes. But he asked if he could move in with me.

POOR BELEAGUERED THERAPIST: And you thought that was a good idea?

ME: Well, no, but what else could I say when he asked?

POOR BELEAGUERED THERAPIST: Um. How about “No.”?

Saying “no” wasn’t even anywhere near my radar. I didn’t think I had a choice in the situation. I thought I had to take him in. I’ve spent many of my years afraid of saying the wrong thing or being unkind or making a “stink” (as my mom used to say). It’s taken me a long time to begin to find my voice and to recognize that no matter what is happening, I actually do have a choice.

I have a choice to say yes to eating a vegetarian diet. I have a choice to say no to having guns in my workplace. I have a choice to not say a single thing or lovingly state my complaint when a certain someone walks through the house with muddy boots. I have choices. Listening to a dharma talk by spiritual teacher Adyashanti recently, I was reminded that I even have a choice about whether or not I am overtaken by my emotions.

In Nia we call it making choices for personal power. That’s what choice gives us: power.

When a high school friend posts some absurdly misinformed statement on Facebook, I ask myself, “Do I have the personal power to respond mindfully?”

When presented with a bowl of salt & vinegar potato chips, I ask myself, “Do I have the personal power to have one handful?”

When I am sitting in meditation and I feel antsy, I ask myself, “Do I have the personal power to not peek at the timer?”

Sometimes the answer is yes and I patiently wait for the chime to ring. Sometimes the answer is no and I write a snotty response to my misinformed high school friend. I have yet to find the power over the salt & vinegar potato chip.

Whatever I choose, though, this framing reminds me that I am choosing it. I’m not a leaf being whipped around by the winds of life. I am making a choice. Some choices take more energy than others to make. Sometimes I have that energy and sometimes I don’t. But they are all still choices.

If I was to go back to that first therapist’s office, it might have been interesting if the conversation had gone something like this:

ME: So I’ve been pretty stressed since my boyfriend moved in with me last week.

THERAPIST: He doesn’t have a job, right? And he’s depressed and dependent on you both financially and socially?

ME: Well, yes. But he asked if he could move in and even though I didn’t think it was a good idea, I didn’t have the personal power to say No.

THERAPIST: Ah, so you chose to say Yes. Let’s talk about ways that you can increase your personal power in those situations….


Thank you for reading!

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And you may also like this one: Push. Pull. Put it Down.

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The Chester Fair was a late-summer highlight of my rural Connecticut childhood. And why not? It offered the intoxicating combination of junk food (I was known to go a whole weekend eating nothing but fried dough), unusual activities (Tilt-A-Whirl! Steer pulling! Chickens with strange feather arrangements!) and a tantalizing amount of parental freedom.

Smack dab in the middle of the Chester Fair Grounds was old beat-up the Ferris wheel (are they ever new?). Even before my first stop at the fried dough stand, I would get in line for the wheel. I loved it for the high-up view both in the hazy summer sun and at carnival-lit at night. I loved it for the air and the speed and the swinging cars, and the odd cocktail of intimacy and exposure as I swung in the car above the fair.

There was also the utter randomness of riding the Ferris wheel. The slightly dodgy, mildly creepy, never-smiling men who worked the wheel had some kind of incomprehensible algorithm for which cars were loaded and unloaded and in what order and when they would throw the switch for a grand whizzing ride around. When I rode on the wheel, I was at its mercy.

Sometimes my mind is like that: a big, crazy, slightly rickety, unpredictable Ferris wheel of thought and experience. I’m on the ride and flying around. Or I’m trapped at the top. Or I’m in the car with my sister who insists on swinging like a maniac. There are lots of things going on and I don’t have control over any of them.


At the same time that I was going to the Chester Fair, our family had one old color TV in our house. We had two channels to choose from and an actual dial on the actual TV was used to make the selection. (This actually isn’t a bad “back in my day” skit) When I sat on our burnt orange love seat to watch Fantasy Island or Love American Style, I would stand up, walk across the room, and turn the dial to either 3 or 8. Like the captain of a ship uses the wheel to navigate his craft, I would chose what I wanted to see by turning the dial.

Years ago, I came across psychiatrist, researcher and author, Dan Siegel’s metaphor of a wheel to describe awareness.

drdansiegel_wheelofawarenessHe writes:

The hub [of The Wheel of Awareness] represents the experience of awareness itself — knowing — while the rim contains all the points of anything we can become aware of, that which is known to us. We can send a spoke out to the rim to focus our attention on one point or another on the rim. In this way, the wheel of awareness becomes a visual metaphor for the integration of consciousness as we differentiate rim-elements and hub-awareness from each other and link them with our focus of attention.

Dr. Siegel describes the TV dial, the steering wheel of awareness. I’m never actually in the spinning Ferris wheel, I only think I am. I have a choice of where to point my attention. There are times when focusing on what is difficult or not working makes sense. There are other times when shifting my focus to what is working and what feels good is essential. Practicing this choice in low-stake environments – on my cushion, on my mat, on a walk – make it easier to make those choices when the creepy guy flicks the switch and I start to spin.

The practice is to know that I actually always have the steering wheel in my hands. It’s just a matter of choosing where to turn it.


For more information on Dr. Dan Siegel and The Wheel of Awareness, go here.

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“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times

When I was a teenager, I took every art class that my little rural Connecticut high school offered. I painted and drew and made silk screens and prints. I took weaving and mixed media and pottery.

I even learned how to throw pots on a wheel.

I was terrible at it. I never made anything bigger or more interesting than a thick, squat, jar-ish thing. And while I wanted to make thin, light tea cups and tall, elegant vases, what I really loved was the feeling of working at the wheel. There was something satisfying about thumping a clump of clay onto the middle of the wheel, getting it slick slippery wet then bracing my elbow against my leg and centering the bumpy clump into a smooth-spinning column of clay.

Then, pressing into the spinning center with thumb and fingers, I would experiment with pulling up sides on the bowl/jar/cup. What I found (over and over) was that I’d be gently pulling up the little wall of clay and it would seem to be going fine. Then something somewhere would come slightly out of center and — whump-whump-schlump — it would fly apart into a bowl/jar/cup tangle. Hunks and chunks of my piece flung in all directions.

I’ve returned to Pema Chodron’s quote about coming together and flying apart many times in the past week. Every time I read it, I see myself hunched over the wheel, gathering the clay together into a cohesive mass, beginning to create something when it suddenly flies to pieces. Then I see my young, perfectionist self, frustrated, shaking my head at my lack of skill, picking up the stray clay hunks and pressing them together to start again.

“Things come together and fly apart. It’s just like that.”

If I’d known about Ani Pema’s teachings then, I would have been cranky and petulant about it. Who am I kidding? I’m still cranky and petulant that my life and the world doesn’t spin into the shape I want it to. I have a vision for how I want it to turn out and how sweet it will be to sip from the cup of my perfect design, but the wheel has other plans. There are irrefutable forces at work that I simply have to work with.

Like it or not, it is the way. Nature is constantly cycling in this way. Waves gather and organize themselves only to scatter on the beach. Plants collapse in and then expand out. Our bodies do it, too. Our blood collects in at the heart and then flies to every cell from fingertip to toe. Breath pulls in and then flies out. Every relationship you have is in some stage of pulling together and separating apart. The entire Universe is constantly expanding and contracting on all scales from incomprehensibly small to unfathomably big.

The cycle is everywhere, happening all the time in everything and yet I resist it. I resist it the most in myself. This week, I’ve fought back tears for fear that once I started crying, I wouldn’t stop. I feel waves (tsunamis sometimes) of anger that I feel like they will consume me. But of course, that isn’t what happens. The tears subside, the anger cools…and then it comes back again. And as Ani Pema teaches, The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

It’s silly to fight it. And yet I do. Even 35 years out from high school and my pot-throwing days, I’m still frustrated by the cycle. I want things solid and stable and as I like them. I’m afraid of the flying apart. Ani Pema’s words remind me to keep coming back and keep making room for all of it.

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What is my relationship with the present moment? –Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

Some days, I think this election might just kill me.
Or at least make me even crazier than I am already.

Over and over in the past few weeks I hear something on the news or see something on my Facebook feed or, heaven help me, see a lawn sign or a sticker on someone’s sweater that either makes might heart leap a little with excitement or clench with fear. My mind careens into the future either to a hopeful vision or a smoking catastrophic distaster.

Either way, it has been a rough few months in my mind space.

When my sense of ease and well-being is determined by the latest polls and headlines, I know I’m in trouble. I am looking outside myself for the peace and calm that intellectually at least, I know I can only find within.

In the moment, though, it happens so fast. I can feel my mind get spin and get hooked into
like or dislike,
hope or fear,
anger or – GAH! — more anger.
It happens so fast that it feels like there is no space for another choice.

In his book, A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle frames this struggle in a clear and practical way. He writes:

A vital question to ask yourself frequently is: What is my relationship with the present moment? Then become alert to find out the answer. Am I treating the Now as no more than a means to an end? Do I see it as an obstacle? Am I making it into an enemy? Since the present moment is all you ever have, since Life is inseparable from the Now, what the question really means is: What is my relationship with Life? (A New Earth, p. 203)

When I get twisted up and frightened or furious, I ask myself,
What is my relationship with the present moment?

In Nia, we understand relationship as a three-part deal. Any relationship (between two people, between two groups, between a person and an activity, or an object or anything) is actually three things: Self, Other, and the Relationship. We can look at it like this:

self-and-other-110416

The nature of the relationship is made up entirely of what Self and Other bring to it.

Take my relationship with my cat, Phoenix, for example. I bring consistent care and feeding (including fish oil on her kibbles and wet food at 4pm), affection, amusement and annoyance (when she pickpickpicks at the comforter or gets so close to me at night that her whiskers go up my nose). Phoenix brings affection, a relaxed friendly presence (except when she has to run down the hall really really fast), and unassailable cuteness.

susan-and-phoenix-110416

If I want to improve the quality of my relationship with Phoenix, I might choose to bring more attention to her even when I’m busy or I might put a sheet over the comforter so her clawing annoys me less. I cannot change what she brings to the relationship (she’s a cat, after all), I can only change what I bring.

I can look at any relationship in this way: what am I bringing to it? If I want to change the nature of the relationship the only thing I can do is change what I put into it. Which brings me back to Eckhart Tolle’s question: What is my relationship with the present moment?

When I get wound up in fear or anger or frustration or even hope, that’s what I bring to my relationship with the present moment. As Tolle suggests, I am treating the Now as a means to an end, as a way of getting somewhere else. Or I am seeing Now as an obstacle, stopping me from feeling how I want to feel. Or I am making Now into an enemy by fighting against what Now offers – when I have no control over that whatsoever.

From the point of view of my training, the present moment is bringing whatever is happening, whatever is so. I’m bringing tension, expectation, and assumptions to the relationship. I’m bringing hope or fear or anger. If my relationship with Now doesn’t feel good, I can’t change what Now is, but I can change what I bring. I can choose to bring discernment about where I put my time and attention. I can bring breath and awareness to keep me present and relaxed. I can bring a choice to do what I can and leave the rest.

As often as I can these days (and especially when I’m freaking out or living in the smoking wreckage of the future), I keep asking the question, What is my relationship with the present moment? What is my relationship to Life? I keep reminding myself that the only thing I can control in any relationship is what I bring to it. It amazes me how often I’m back in my habit of fighting against what is.

Lucky for me, with only a few days to the election, I have lots of opportunities to practice bringing something different.

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“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” — Joseph Campbell

Evidently, I was born without a biological clock.*

I got most all the basic parts as I rolled down the conveyor belt of gestation: brain, check; heart and lungs, check check; sturdy bones, check; fly-away hair, blue-green eyes, and a love of physical comedy, check check and check. But while other baby girls had a time piece tucked snugly between their heart and their gut that began nudging them ever more urgently toward motherhood, I don’t have that particular tick-tock myself.

At 33, I’d said No to a marriage that sucked the spirit out of me, I’d said No to the post-divorce relationship that sucked the air out of the room, I’d said No to a job that just sucked. At last, I’d taken my plane off auto-pilot and I was actively choosing my life rather than passively accepting whatever happened to plop in front of me.

In addition to saying No to some things, I said Yes to other things. I knew I wanted a job that felt more expansive and inspiring, I knew I wanted a relationship with someone who whistled in the mornings and wanted to hike and laugh with me. I said Yes to optimism and enthusiasm, I said Yes to nature and spirituality, and I said Yes to not having children.

After years of beating myself up about being neutral to negative about the whole child-rearing thing, I decided that being childless by choice was fine. After thinking something was wrong with me for a long time, I found myself in a peaceful place about not having kids.

Then I met Frank.

Morning-whistling, easy-laughing, optimistic, nature-loving hiker, Frank….who had two small children.

I’d finally taken hold of my life. I’d pushed some things away. I’d pulled some things in. But now, I realized, I had to let go and live the life that was waiting for me. I had to put down my plan.

My favorite scene from the 1987 movie, Moonstruck**, isn’t the “Snap out of it!” scene, and it’s not the “You’ve got a love bite on your neck” scene. It’s not even the “Someone tell a joke” scene.

Nope. My favorite scene is the snow scene: Loretta and Johnny are walking back from the opera and he wants her to stay with him even though she’s engaged to his brother.

Loretta protests, “A person can see where they messed up in their life and they can change the way they do things. … I can take hold of myself and I can say yes to some things and no to other things that are going to ruin everything. I can do that.”

But Johnny reminds her that life and love isn’t neat and safe and it doesn’t always follow the plan. “We’re here to break our hearts,” he says. He’s asking Loretta to stop the pushing and pulling, to put it down and surrender to the life that is waiting for her.

I think they are both right. There is a time for standing up and getting clear on my Yes and my No. There is a time for shaping my choices with my will and heart and mind. There is a time for push and pull … and there is a time for surrendering to now. There is a time for putting down the plan, the belief, the role, the story.

There is a time to put it all down to see what falls into your hands after you drop the reigns.

 


* You know the scene I’m talking about! Did you click it? You haven’t seen it since 1992. Oh do click it if for nothing else, her outfit.

** In the mid-late 80s, there was a string of movies that I call the Can’t-Help-Who-You-Love Movies. My favorites: The Sure Thing (1985), Moonstruck (1987), Crossing Delancey (1988) and the Mother of Can’t-Help-Who-You-Love Movies, When Harry Met Sally (1989).

*** The snow scene! Please tell me you clicked it. No? Here it is…

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Literally and figuratively, my belly has been my soft spot since adolescence. It’s the place I cover up and suck in and tuck around. I work out, crunch myself silly, eat whole foods but a flat tummy is not mine to be had. My belly is where my self-consciousness and body issues converge.

Not so surprising, then, when I started practicing yoga regularly a few years ago, I cringed a little every time my teachers said, “Pull in your belly.”

For the love of Pete, people, it’s what I’ve been attempting to do my whole life. Don’t you think if I could, I would?

But then my teacher, Lizzie said something that changed my perspective, “Pull in your inner belly. The outer belly is going to do what it’s going to do. It’s your inner belly that we’re working with.”

Of course. My outer belly is going to do what it’s going to do. Just like my eyes are a mish-mash of blue and gray. Just like my hair curls in some weather and frizzes in others. Just like I’m 5’ 7” and not 5’ 2” and not 5’ 11”. And suddenly, I felt less ashamed of my soft, round pooch and got more connected to what was happening on a deeper level.

The more I practice, the more I notice the radiating effects of a strong inner core. The stronger my core:

• The better balance I have
• The more graceful and easeful my movement is
• The better my back feels
• The better my posture is
The better my feet feel 
• The more agile and mobile I am
• The faster I can pedal and the higher I can hike
• The better I feel in my body overall

That’s a lot of benefit from strengthening a part of the body and it points (yet again) to the amazing interconnectedness of the human form.

My self-consciousness about my belly didn’t come from nowhere. Our cultural focus tends to be on the outer belly instead of the inner belly. I see lots of headlines in fitness magazines about getting a six-pack or flat abs, but not so much on strengthening the inner obliques. Which is too bad since focusing on the deep core muscles gives the greatest benefits…as will focusing on my deep core values and priorities.

Ho boy. This post is teetering precariously on the cliché edge of “beauty is only skin deep” and O how superficial we all are.

But there is some truth in all words, even cliché. It is worth considering where I put my focus and energy. Am I placing my attention where the most good will be done? Or am I doing something that only looks good? Am I going to the core of the issue or am I fiddling with the superficial?

And as I’m bobbling and hobbling through my practice, Lizzie drops another pearl of wisdom that I know (IknowIknowIknow) in my mind, but need to be reminded of over and over. She reminds us that how deep we can go into a posture or what it looks like means nothing about what kind of yogi or what kind of person we are. Says Lizzie:

It doesn’t matter what the pose looks like. It matters how you approach the pose. Come from the inside out.

I am grateful for my physical practices for bringing awareness to my body in a deeper way. But just as my deep core muscles connect to my feet, my physical practice radiates far beyond my soft tummy to the core of how I move through the world.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Explore this focus of Going Below The Surface in a special workshop that I’ll be teaching with Yin Yoga Instructor, Amy Kidd on Saturday, November 12 from 1-4pm at acac Albemarle Square. Stay tuned for registration information coming soon!

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“You are imperfect. You are wired for struggle. You are worthy of love and belonging.” ~ Brene Brown

“Gah! This is so easy for you!”

I look up with exasperation at my long-legged husband standing high on a pile of boulders which is actually the trail we’re hiking. He’s only a yard or two ahead of me but the trail is so steep that his feet are in line with my head. In three big easy steps, he has climbed effortlessly up the huge chunks of rock. Now I have to figure out how to hoist myself up there.

He is my best friend and the love of my life but for a moment in the midst of my struggle, I hate him.

Okay, I don’t really hate him. But in small-minded moments, I get all kinds of cranky watching someone do painlessly what I am staggering to accomplish.

On the trail that day, there were two different struggles going on: my body was struggling with the physical difficulty of clambering up the rocky path and my mind was struggling because that’s not the way I wanted it to be. The first is simply a truth about human life. The second is suffering and it’s a choice.

Suffering is the desire for things to be different than they are. I can grapple with something without getting myself twisted up about how the grappling is going. Struggling without suffering is possible, but me wanting a stride as strong and long as Frank’s is suffering.

Struggle less. ~ My yoga teacher, Mia on Tuesday afternoon
Struggle more. ~ My yoga teacher, Julia on Wednesday afternoon

Two instructions from my two teachers might seem contradictory, but they actually speak to the difference between what it means to struggle and what it means to suffer. Mia invites us to relax our minds about how we think our practice should look or feel while we do the postures. Julia invites us to work past the habits and patterns of our practice and dig in to find our fullest expression of even difficult poses. They both could have said, “Struggle without suffering.”

My mind is so intent on avoiding discomfort that when I’m struggling, it is quick to want it to be easier (like it is for THAT FRANK). In that way, my mind almost always lumps struggle and suffering together. As the Zen guys say, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Our minds might want to make them the same but it’s up to us whether or not they are.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” —Viktor Frankl

What would happen if I don’t choose to make struggle and suffering the same thing? What would happen if I allow myself to labor with something (physical, mental or emotional) and see that as part of the human experience rather than something to be avoided? Imagine what we could accomplish, build, create if we were willing to struggle without suffering.

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