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

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.

art in action decoding details 020216Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

What with full schedules and busy-ness abounding, it’s no wonder that we find ourselves skimming and glancing and rushing through our days. And yet, there is magic in paying attention to the details, decoding what’s happening below the surface. Whether it’s investigating that ache in your knee more carefully, or listening to your friend’s story about her boss more deeply, or seeing that a teeny weeny crocus came up when the snow melted, deepening connection by paying attention to details enriches our hours.

Here are 15 ways to use your senses to decode the details and deepen your connection to yourself, others, and the world.

Look longer

1. Instead of just glancing at yourself in the mirror, take a moment to breathe in your own image. After you brush teeth and manipulate hair and wash what needs washing, look in the mirror and send yourself off with some kindness. See yourself for the wonder you are.

2. When having a conversation with someone, whether it’s your partner or a police officer or your postal carrier, really look at them. See below the surface to a person with a life full of joy and struggle, who wants to be happy (just like you).

3. Between your door and your car (or your bike) notice the details of your most familiar surroundings. Open your eyes to the room you spend the most time in: what’s something you haven’t looked at in a while? Soak it in.

Breathe and smell the moment

4. Smell is a sensation that we often overlook but it’s a powerful connector to emotion and memory. Take some deep breaths and notice even subtle smells around you.

5. This may sound strange, but take a big sniff of someone you love. A little nutty, perhaps, but have you ever been separated from someone and smelled their favorite clothes or pillow and felt connected to them? Everyone you know has their own unique fragrance. Breathe it in and feel the connection.

6. Seek out the smells around you: coffee brewing or bread baking or soil warming or fire burning. Notice what you notice about how you feel when you smell different smells.

Savor the flavor

7. Swallow and taste the moment. Take a sip of water and notice the taste of it.

8. Kiss someone you love…like you mean it.

9. Seek out unusual or unexpected or exciting flavors. Have grapefruit for breakfast or curry for lunch or fennel with dinner. Get curious about the tastes you can taste. (Research shows that the tastier your food is, the less you’ll eat.)

Feel with the Skin You’re In

10. Your skin offers a huge amount of information about your environment, so right now, really feel whatever you’re touching. Notice your socks (or shoes or whatever your sweet feet are touching), the feel of your clothes and jewelry, the screen on your phone. Notice temperature, texture and weight as you receive it through your skin.

11. When you shake hands with a colleague or hug your child or pet a cat, feel the physical connection and the details of the touch. Are their hands cold or callused? Is your kid antsy or calm? Has your pet been snoozing in the sun or romping in the cold?

12. Pay closer attention to the things you touch the most: your steering wheel, your coffee cup, your silverware or your computer. Notice the details of what they feel like in your hands.

Listen with Curiosity

13. Listen to your own voice. Call your own number, listen to your voicemail and hear the voice you share with the world.

14. When you’re having a conversation, listen deeply to the quality of the other’s voice. Do they speak quickly or slowly, to they enunciate or blend their words, do they have an accent?

15. Listen to music you don’t usually listen to. Ask a friend or your teenager what music they like and listen with curiosity.


BONUS: Do you have a voice in your head that tells you not to do anything creative or different or risky? Of course you do, we all do. Here’s an essay I wrote (and illustrated) in Street Light Magazine about making friends with mine.

decoding the details 3 013016

If you’d asked me a couple of months ago, I would have told you that Jazz just wasn’t my cup of tea (or shot of bourbon or whatever the Jazz-appropriate beverage is). I would have said it was discordant and random and long and frankly, irritating.

Lately, though, Frank’s been turning on a Jazz station in the evenings. And I like it. Well, I like some of it. A lot of it. Sometimes, I slam my teeth together and a painful noise but mostly, I like the feel of the sound.

Years ago when Green Day released their first album, I had a friend who was a huge fan. When he played their music it sounded crazy and loud and indecipherable to me. He said, It’s just unfamiliar. Once you listen for a while, you’ll get it. He was right.

With that in mind, Frank and I signed up for an online Jazz Appreciation course. We’re learning about different genres, the history, the classic songs, and we’re learning (slowly) how to understand forms of jazz.

It’s like we are breaking the code of the music. We’re listening and counting and counting and listening and confused and then, Ooh, yeah! There’s the change! It’s like understanding a different language or being in on a joke. Oh yeah, I get it.

have this feeling when I count music using the 8BC system in Nia. It’s a genius system, developed by Nia co-founder Carlos Rosas, and it creates a map for any song with a beat. With the 8BCs, I can decode the rhythm and speed, the sections, and the details within a song.

But it took me a while to figure it out.

I struggled mightily (and avoided the 8BCs) for years and it wasn’t until my friend and mentor, Helen Terry, showed me the joy and play of decoding music that I started to love the system. We call in “doing the bars” and Helen got me hooked on it.

Once Helen taught a song in class – Big Lie Small World by Sting – with the most unusual choreography. The movements made sense in my body but didn’t follow any pattern I’d ever danced before. I asked her was the Sam Hill was up with it, and she said, Do the bars.

I popped that Sting CD into my car stereo and I listened dozens and dozens of times. I’d listen and get lost and get lost and listen and count and get nowhere. But then one day (and I can tell you exactly where I was when it happened), I heard it. I broke the code. I felt like an 8BC super hero.

What the jazz course and the 8BC system is to music, meditation is to the mind and emotions. If I’m feeling a whole bunch of everything and my head is a mad house and my heart is pounding, getting still, pausing to sit can help me decode what’s happening.

Meditation allows me the space to feel physical sensation, label emotions that are moving through, notice when and what I’m thinking. Sometimes I just stay confused and upset, only calmer. Other times, I break the code: Oh, right. I’m embarrassed. I’m angry. I’m afraid. That’s what’s happening.

Whether I’m decoding music or my mind, the practice is noticing the details, becoming more familiar, more intimate with what’s happening. Sometimes (like in bebop or when I unexpectedly do something ridiculous), I’m still confused. But sometimes, sometimes, I break the code.

BONUS: Some Nia routines have codes built into them: recurring patterns or movements. Kelle Rae Oien’s Pulse routine has a code that shows up in almost every song. Here’s a hint.

DOUBLE BONUS: Tomorrow is the start of the 28-Day Meditation Challenge sponsored by one of my favorite teachers, Sharon Salzberg. Whether you are brand new to meditation or you are renewing your existing practice, this is a great way to get some support and community. I’m also blogging about my experience every day (ish) with a mandala that I’ll post on my A Thousand Beautiful Things blog (and on the 28-Day blogging site, too). Join me there!

why art paying attention“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”
― Mary Oliver

I am a movement teacher. I teach about the body’s structure and design and about listening to sensation, the language of the body. I care deeply about helping people create heathier, happier lives.

So why am I leading a retreat about art? What does living life as an artist have to do with health, wellness and body~mind movement?

It’s a good question. Something about the combination of the Nia principle of Life As Art, and Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception has captured my imagination and is inspiring me to live and teach with a broader perspective. To experiment with living life as an artist.

Think of any work of art that you appreciate. It might be a book or a film, a piece of music, a play, a photograph or a sculpture. Whatever it is, think about why you love it.

What I love about art – say, the movie American Beauty or Ian McEwan’s book Saturday — is that the artist notices something special or interesting or beautiful or insane and shows it to me. Sometimes it is something that I know (or suspect I know) and they make it clear, easy to spot. Other times artists show me something that I never saw before and I am astounded.

In my early twenties, I spent many summers in a small town near Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts. One weekend, we invited a photographer friend to visit. He and I walked the same paths, drove on the same roads, went to the same beaches I’d been going to for years, but wherever we went, he saw something I’d never noticed. “Look how that ivy is growing like a blanket under that tree,” he’d say. Or “Check out the contrast of white barnacles and the blue muscles all growing together on the rocks.” This place I would have said I knew well, was suddenly new and even more beautiful than I’d thought. My photographer friend helped me be astonished.

Art encourages me to notice details, to pay attention more keenly. Art is an awareness and awareness is an art. To participate in that art helps me be more present, embodies, more alive.

These bodies, these lives we’ve been given are like being put in the middle of the greatest art museum ever. It’s full of all kinds of extraordinary things to see and experience but only if we open our eyes and minds. If we’re busy texting and fussing with our backpacks, we won’t notice what’s around us and how it affects us. Mindful movement is the art of learning to pay attention, step by step, noticing what is happening. Knowing that sometimes we’ll get distracted, of course we will, it’s a busy, crazy place, the Louvre of our Lives. But the practice is coming back as soon as we can to pay attention again.

I am a movement teacher. I teach about health and wellness… and art. Rebecca George and I will lead a Life As An Artist retreat on March 28-30, 2014 in Madison, Virginia.* In the six months leading up to the retreat, Rebecca and I will be playing with different ways of living life as an artist. We’ll be sharing our experiences, inviting you to join us and share what you discover. Stay tuned for more on a variety of ways that you can be part of the experiment.

As Mary Oliver reminds us, it’s not enough just to notice the world and be amazed by it. We have to tell about it, too. So please tell us: in the comments below, or on the Focus Pocus Facebook page, tell us any work of art that inspires you.

I do so hope you’ll join us. The world needs more people who are paying attention.  The world needs more artists.

* Click here for the details and remember, the Supah Early Bird rate ends October 10!

When I was in 7th grade I had two albums (yes, those big 12” black plastic things):  Fleetwood Mac Rumors and Boston’s debut album (with the flying saucers on the cover that were actually guitars).  I listened to those two albums over and over and over.  I actually remember listening intently to Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain (a song that I still love).  At one point in the song, all the instruments drop out except the bass with the snare drum slowly building until the whole band kicks in again.  Oh my word, I loved it so.  When I knew every detail of the song, I felt like I was right there with them when the music took off.

As a Nia teacher, I think of that time often:  lying on the floor in my parents’ living room running back and forth to the stereo to turn the records over and over.  Part of what I do now when I teach is get that intimate with the music:  to know all the details and changes and variations in the sound.  Then, with that connection to the music, I can use the movement to bring the music to life – so we can SEE and FEEL the music in our bodies.

David Byrne, the genius musician and artist behind Talking Heads, did a short interview recently in which he talks about this ability of movement to bring attention to sounds which might have otherwise been overlooked.  Check out the 5-minute interview here – the part to which I refer is just the first minute or so .

He talks about how the dancers’ movements in his show can highlight the music for the audience.  I think that when we’re actually MOVING movements that highlight the music, it allows us to see the sound and listen with the whole body — even more than if we’re just watching a performance.  In Nia, we are DANCING the music.

It is one of my favorite sensations, to connect not just my ears, but my whole self to music.  And I feel a connection with the artist, too.  It’s as if my movement says, “Oh yeah, I hear what you’re doing there! I’m right there with you.”  And my body~mind feels integrated when I’m moving in this way.  The music isn’t just background.  It’s not just the beat to keep us moving.  Music in Nia is integral to the experience.

Nia Blue Belt Principle 11, Music, Movement and Magic (MMM), is really all about this connection between music and movement and how it can transform an experience from moving TO music to actually being moved BY music.  MMM invites us to really see every song as a work of art that offers topography on which to play.  Occasionally, I’ll play with intentionally moving against the music but mostly, I find that the magic is being integrated with the sound.  So when Stairway to Heaven really takes off, so do we!

This week, I invite you to pay particular attention to all the music around you:  the music in class, the music on the radio, the music of traffic, the music of kids playing outside.  Notice the details, the nuances, of every sound.  Then, make magic by connecting your body to the sounds that you hear:  your breath, opening and closing your hands, even conducting (if you don’t know what I mean, please please watch this – or at the very least, from 3:20 to the end )!  See what it feels like to integrate your body to the sound.  Make magic:  see the music!

What’s a miracle?  An extraordinary event that is ascribed to a supernatural or divine cause?  I think the human body is an amazing miracle, but it is far from extraordinary ~ billions of them are walking around everywhere.  Something impossible or at the very least, highly unlikely?  Flying an airplane into a building seems to me to be damn close to impossible, but when it happened, no one I knew thought it was a miracle.

In her book, Here If You Need Me, Kate Braestrup posits that the difference between any old random event and a miracle is gratitude.  The doctor who arrives at the accident just at the right moment:  I’m grateful, and it’s a miracle.  The seeds that I planted last month that are now sprouting greens and garlic:  I’m thankful (and amazed by them), so it’s a miracle.  The good fortune to be able to do something much desired and needed (say, like taking a sabbatical):  my gratitude makes it miraculous.

This week, I taught my last class before my summer sabbatical, was given a lovely send-off by team mates and Nia practioners, and I’ve started playing with creating the form and freedom of the next few months.  This week, I’ve been inundated with miracles — the people I get to dance and work and play with, the garden I get to experiment in, the music and words and colors I hear and read and see – for all of it, I’m deeply grateful and I am aware of the miraculousness of it all.

In March, when I was leading the Nourishment Retreat*, I kept finding myself knee-deep in miracle.  We did a simple taste meditation one morning and I was struck by how that one cashew nut connected me with not just hundreds of people (from farmers, field hands and truck drivers, to wholesalers and the Whole Foods guy who stocks the bulk containers), but with Nature (the sun and rain and soil that made that one nut possible) and the mystery of life (I mean, how DOES a plant grow and how does that nut become part of me when I eat it?).  Sitting in that meditation, I felt filled up with amazement and wonder and gratitude for that durn cashew nut, because no matter how mundane it might be, in my book, it’s still a miracle.

This first week of sabbatical, it’s been easy for me to remember how grateful I am and how miraculous my life and the world is.  That can be far more challenging when life feels busy and overwhelming or I’m feeling bruised and battered in body, mind or emotion.  My invitation today is to connect with something that you are grateful for and notice that by that very act, you are making a miracle.

Even if it’s the miracle of a cashew nut, I find that the shift in perspective makes a world of difference.

As I launch into my summer sabbatical, I leave you with a poem of blessing that I read at the end of my last class.  May you be safe and well, happy and content, healthy and strong, peaceful and at ease.

Beannacht — A Blessing — by John O’Donohue

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The gray window
And the ghost of loss
Gets in to you,
May a flock of colors,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the curach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
And may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

* If you missed the Nourishment Retreat in March or if you went and loved it and would like to experience the “summer version,” please join Rebecca George and Heather Wetzel and me for A Day of Nourishment on July 28!  Click here for all the details and register before May 15 for the best price!

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