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Courage

“When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Has anyone ever told you that you’re too sensitive?
That you’re touchy? Or overreacting?
Or that you shouldn’t feel as much as you do?
Whenever I’ve heard this, it was never a compliment.
It was a judgment. A criticism.

Too sensitive?
I say there is no such thing.

 In a world that moves fast, rewards hardness and runs roughshod, the willingness, the choice, the ability to be soft and tender is extraordinarily courageous.

The softer we can stay in the face of everything that life gives us, the stronger we are.
It’s a paradox of living that most people never even consider, let alone practice.

Many of us were told to toughen up when we were kids. We were taught that the world was a mean place and you’ve got to grow thick skin so you can take it. But what if the opposite is actually true? What if, in a mean world, the way to make it through is to stay tender and open and willing to feel? What if bullying and lashing out is the ultimate weakness? What if sensitivity is the ultimate strength?

In the body, we can start with the skin. Experiment with feeling details and nuance with every cell of your skin. Feel not just with your palms and fingers but with the backs of your hands, the spaces between your fingers. Feel with your wrists and the backs of your knees. Feel with your cheeks and your shoulders. Feel all of it with all of your sensitive skin.

Practice sensitivity with your imagination: let your dreaming mind explore and create something. Draw or write or sing or dance or just think up something you’ve never thought up before. It’s a tender place, the imagining place. Spend some time there, it’s a seriously brave move.

In every day, there are opportunities for softening your heart. Talk to a friend who’s struggling. Watch the aching ebb and flow of Nature. Read a headline or two. Whatever you choose, stay open and soft and take it in. Without trying to fix it or change it or look away or pretend it’s not happening, stay open and soft.

It’s challenging stuff, sensitivity. Most people armor up and build a hard protective coating around them in an attempt to avoid the discomfort of staying tender. The paradox is that only softening strengthens us to live deeply and fully.

“When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times

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* NOTE: I have many many more allies than these few powerhouses…they were all I could manage to fit in my illustration!

Your human body is designed to be supported and powered from below and behind.
Almost all of the largest muscles are on the back body.
We can think of this design as something we can both relax into and be propelled forward by.
I’ve written about this before and you can find more on this here and here.

In addition to our back-supported-and-powered physical bodies, ask yourself, “Who has my back?”
It’s always great to have people who stand with us through difficult times and circumstances but we can’t always have them there. In any situation, you can choose to bring along an ally of your choosing. It could be a person from your past: a beloved family member, a treasured teacher, or a writer or artist who touched your life. Whenever you are stepping into a situation in which you feel you need support, choose an ally to have your back. Two years ago would have been my grandfather’s 100th year and 25th birthday, he is an ally I take with me always.

Feel the physical support of your own amazing, beautifully-designed body.
Feel the mental, emotional and spiritual support of the allies you choose to bring with you.
They all have your back.

At the heart of the practice of Nia is the principle of awareness. We pay close attention, we invest ourselves in witnessing how we do what we do so we can make conscious choices rather than be carried along by habit.

It is a powerful practice that has served me well for nearly two decades.

I have always thought of awareness and the witness as being objective, non-judging, almost clinical. This is important for seeing things as they are.

But last weekend, at a Mindful Self Compassion workshop with Laura DeVault and Sharon Beckman Brinley, they introduced the idea of Affectionate Awareness. What if I observe myself with both objectivity and kindness? What if I see what is so with tenderness? As if I was observing a close friend or a child? 

Take a moment and think of a time that a friend came to you with a difficulty and they were suffering in some way. Think about how you spoke to them, what tone you used, what your posture was. Then think of a time that you were struggling or that you messed up or failed in some way. How did you speak to yourself?

Imagine for a moment, saying what you say to yourself to your friend. The thought of that took my breath away.

The practice of Mindful Self Compassion is based on the work and research of Kristin Neff and it is full of eye-opening and heart-opening practices. And if you, like me, thought that it all sounds like unicorns and rainbows and that there is really important work that needs doing and other people are suffering more than you are and you don’t deserve this kind of work, think again. MSC is a courageous choice to feel your suffering and others’. It can shift not only your relationship with yourself and those around you, but can shift the discord in our communities and the world.

Learn more about Dr. Neff’s work and the practices that can support you whenever you need them in this Google Talk and her TEDx Talk. Her book on Mindful Self Compassion is here.

Breathe deep and offer yourself some Affectionate Awareness.

I may spend a lot of time dancing but at the heart of things, I’m a spaz. I trip a lot, bump into things, fart in public, and not rarely, I find myself wearing something inside out.

Which, you know, is fine. But what I really want is to think, create, speak, move, dance, live inside out.

We are all surrounded by things, experiences, people, events that we respond to. It’s easy to make choices about what we think, say, do, make based on what other people are doing or on how we will look or on what we think other people think we should be doing.

Dang. That gets tiring. But it can feel safe.

Instead, make the brave choice. Respond in the way only you can. The invitation is to respond to outside-ness from inside, authentically. Put more you into the world.

be-your-own-superhero-102716
Superheroes were never my big thing. Oh sure, I watched Super Friends on Saturday mornings in the 70s, but it was just what I did while I waited for my real love, Kimba (not Simba, the Disney one, Kimba the Japanese one) to come on.

Despite not being a huge superhero fan, I do love the question about what superpower I’d choose – to fly or to be invisible — and what it reveals. (Are you kidding me? No question whatsoever: I want to fly.)

When Mary Linn and I talked about doing a Halloween class together, I didn’t feel too inspired to come up with a costume and dance to Thriller again. But then we wondered, what would we be if we became our own super hero?

Improbably, this idea grew from the conversation we’d been having about Nia, the practice of mindful movement we both teach. After a talking a moth-path all morning, we determined that the ultimate goal of the practice is for the teacher to make herself obsolete. We agreed that what we really wanted for our students (and for ourselves) was to cultivate inner resources. Our dream is for everybody to be their own superhero.

Everybody needs teachers to turn their light onto the path and to encourage us to keep going. Our teachers are external resources that provide insights, reminders, challenges, and love. I am deeply grateful to my many teachers, past and present. All kinds of teachers – family, friends, writers, thinkers, movers, guides, animals and nature, too, – all have offered invaluable help to me when I’ve needed it. But as much as I love and appreciate them, they aren’t always so portable. Ultimately, what helps me the most is when I can actually be their teaching.

My experience with teachers goes in three ever-circling and intertwining stages:
(1) Introduction
(2) Immersion (aka Superhero costume)
(3) Embodiment

Introduction

First, I am introduced – sometimes intentionally, sometimes serendipitously – to a teacher. They might be an actual teacher by profession or they might be an artist or a thinker or an inspiring new friend. Something about them sparks my attention and makes my heart beat faster. Like the lady in the deli scene in When Harry Met Sally, something in me says, “I want what she’s having.”

Immersion (aka Superhero costume)

Then I dive into their work or world view and try it on. At first, I often forget the teachings almost as soon as I hear them or I take them on in a superficial way. It’s as if I’m wearing a Dalai Lama kindness shield under my shirt, or Pema Chödrön bracelets of basic goodness hidden under my sleeves, or a invisible Maya Angelou cape of courage. I’ve got them on me, but they aren’t really mine. But this is an essential step in making these qualities my own.

Embodiment

Finally, comes embodiment. Harvard Business School social psychologist, Amy Cuddy describes it as “Fake it until you become it.” After practice and study and time spent with a teacher, trying on their superhero garb, I find that I’m walking and talking the practice in my own way. Even if I haven’t consciously summoned up my teacher and the bracelets of basic goodness, I simply find myself living what they’ve taught me.

And then I forget. And get twisted up. And fall on my face with my foot in my mouth. Which is also part of the process. I just go back to the teachings, back to the closet of superhero outfits, back to the external resources, while I bolster my inner ones.

As Mary Linn and I thought about our Halloween Superhero class, I realized that I don’t want to fly or be invisible or be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. What I want is to be a

Enthusiastic heARTful Creativity Ninja

Looks like I’m going to need a pretty long cape.

expanded-vision-092216

They started tearing down the forest behind our house this morning.

The screaming sound of grinding trees started before 7:30am and I felt sick like I’d both eaten a bad egg and hit my head on a rock. We knew it would happen eventually. The land behind us is part of a big tract that has been slated for development for years.

But the sound of it. The sight of it. It was almost more than I could bear.

I rode my bike fast away from the arboreal carnage, swimming in bad news and bad feelings: another unarmed black man has been shot, and now another, another bomb, and the election, this election that flirts with hatred, chaos, violence and fascism is only 43 days away.

Then a conversation we had with our 25-year-old daughter, Reade, floated back to me. On the morning radio show she listens to (Elvis Duran’s syndicated show) they suggested that when something bad or difficult happens, to expand your view of the situation. Rather than zeroing in on this upsetting thing, open up and see what else is going on.

So while my heart felt tight and my gut felt stony, I opened my eyes and also saw the pink early morning clouds and felt the cool September breeze and the excitement of teaching bubbling in my chest.

I still find it devastating that they are destroying all those beautiful trees. And that the world is on fire. But it’s not the only thing that’s happening.

Eckhart Tolle speaks to this in a recent interview. He was asked if he thought that the state of the world is particularly bad at the moment or if it only seems that way since we are bombarded by instantaneous news from all directions. He responded (in part):

The news is a manifestation or reflection of the collective mind which operates like the individual mind. The individual mind (and people may be able to verify from their own experience) tends to dwell on things that are more negative than positive. If someone offends me today my mind can dwell on that for hours on end or for several days. But if I watch a beautiful sunset, it’s less likely that the mind will dwell on that for hours or days. … Through the media we get a considerably distorted impression. Yes, these dreadful things are happening but there are also many other things happening that are actually good that are not considered newsworthy. (Eckhart Tolle, Awakening to Higher Consciousness Interview with Deepak Chopra)

Spend 10 seconds with the headlines and I expect you’ll see the truth of this. There are constant reports of horrendous things happening everywhere…but that is not all there is. The double whammy of the news’ skewed emphasis on the terrible and my mind’s tendency to dwell on the negative can leave me feeling hopelessly hopeless. And with a throbbing head and a sick stomach.

When I drop into my body to really feel how an expanded view works. Right now, when I sense my body, the first thing that I’m aware of is tension in my lower back and my feet are cold. Right away, my attention goes to what is unpleasant or challenging. But then if I expand my view, I can feel that my breath is moving fully and my hair feels good on my shoulders and there is a pleasant soreness in my legs and core from class this morning. And then, if I expand it even further, I notice what I’m not noticing: the backs of my knees, my ears, my forehead. Suddenly, there is a lot more going on than a squinchy back.

Taking an expanded view doesn’t mean that I ignore the difficult bits. An expanded view gives me perspective. Everything is not a mess. There are all kinds of things going on. Spinning on the negative only offers me a distorted view of the situation and leaves me paralyzed. From an expanded view, I can make choices: stretch, take a ride downtown, have hibiscus tea with a friend, plant some trees, reach out to an African American friend, make a campaign contribution.

An expanded view helps me from collapsing into hopelessness and gives me the space to do what I can to make a shift.

from brave to home 050116

On the wall of the studio where I taught my first Nia classes hung a small print that read:

Come home to yourself.

Home: a place where you are accepted and loved for who you are. A place where you can relax. I’m sure that was the artist’s intent.

But every time I looked at it, I thought, what if home isn’t a relaxed place where you can be yourself? What if there is tension at home? Struggle? What if there is anger, resentment, criticism, bullying or even violence at home? What then? Then where do you go?


In a scene from Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade, a circle of women move (are they dancing or writhing?). They wear white dresses with long sleeves that extend far past their hands. Their sleeves are tied together.

Poetry is tied to the music and images:
“I tried to change, closed my mouth more.
Tried to be soft, prettier, less …awake.”


Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live. — Jim Rohn

If your body is your house, it’s a rental.
A rental that you didn’t choose.
And you can’t move. It’s the only rental you’ll ever have.

There is no landlord to fix things up if you go on a rampage and break the windows and tear down the walls. There is no cleaning crew that will come in if you neglect the place for decades and fill it with hoarded up bacon and chocolate bars.

It’s up to you to do your best and take care of this place you’ve landed but even that can go too far. You can obsess about how clean it is or what kind of paint you put on it. You can decorate it with expensive boots and dangly bangles but that doesn’t make it a healthier happier place to live.

Some people will judge you by the house you live in. And while it may be an important place, it isn’t who you are.
As Nutritionist Michelle Allison says,

…your body is the space within which you exist. It’s the material assertion that you have the right to exist in this world, that you have a place in it. It’s the concept of ‘home’ — not a house, a thing to be remodeled at whim, bought and sold — but a cherished, adored, childhood home comprising memories both sad and sweet.

The physical structure needs care, of course, but it is the feeling of home that matters the most.


Two years ago, I created the routine Brave, focusing on body love and gratitude. Your body. As it is. Right now. Loving and valuing everything it allows you to do. As I said at the time (you can read my original post about it here), I’ve been working on this routine since I was 14.

And my work on it is evolving. While I appreciate what I’ve done so far on the Brave routine, already I want to change the name… and the approach.

The word Brave feels girded and armored. Brave feels tight, like an inhale with no exhale. Brave feels tough and defiant.

If I were to name it again, I’d call it Home ~ a place where you feel at ease, relaxed and secure.

We are given these “houses” to live our days in and my invitation as we return to this routine is to create a home in your own bones. Imagine yourself as an 8-year-old getting off the school bus to go home. Is she walking into a place of kindness or criticism? Can he relax there or is he not allowed to eat a cookie while sitting on the couch? Is it a place where she feels loved and important or ignored and annoying?

Take care of the structure, absolutely. Care for your body-house in a way that honors all that it allows you do to and feel and be. But more than that, create a feeling of welcome and ease in that place. Create a home. Pay (at least) as much attention to the thoughts and foods and activities and relationships you allow into your body-home as you would choosing the art or dishes or carpeting for your house.

Consciously create the home that you want inside yourself, the kind of environment you want to live in. You can’t choose the structure, but you can choose what it feels like within that structure.

Make the space inside your skin a home that you love to be in. Make it yours. Make it a place that you would run into from the bus.

If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious. ~ Beyoncé, Lemonade

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