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Eyes

This is the sign that hangs by our front door.

peace-sign-on-wall-122516It says:

Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.

As I walk out into my days, I appreciate the reminder that skillful thought and action does not come from a state of panic. Relaxing my eyes, mind, and heart does not mean acquiescence, surrender or blind obedience, but rather finding the true power of calm and peace.

This week’s post revisits one I wrote on November 1, 2015. In these days of darkness, it’s helpful for me to reconnect with how I’m using my eyes and my vision — both literally and figuratively. As we look toward a new year, I’m practicing staying peaceful even in the face of discomfort, fear, and anger. Since it is only from peace that peace will happen.


It’s my favorite yoga class of the week: Sunday noon, 90 minutes of Power with Kelly. But I walk in all jumbly and rattly. As I pull out a block and unroll my thick blue mat, even as friends walk in, I feel jagged around the edges. I can feel my eyes strain as they dart around the room. Who’s that? Ooh, that’s a cute top. I wonder what the story is behind that tattoo?

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Oh girl, I think. If you keep up with the darty eyes, there will be no peace for you today.

I see it in my students sometimes, too. They walk in and look around to figure out if they belong or not. Did I wear the right thing? Am I the right age? Is this a thing for hippies and weirdies?

Oh friend, I think to the nervous newbie, relax your eyes or there will be no peace for you today.

In yoga, it’s called the drishti, the gaze, where we set the eyes and align the head, but more than that, how we direct our energy and attention. Every posture has a particular place to focus the eyes: Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), between the big toes; Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), front middle finger; Triangle (Utthita Trikonasana), up at the thumb. We practice steadying the drishti on something unmoving. By letting the eyes rest on one spot, the body and mind can focus letting our alarmed busy-ness drop like fall leaves.

Yogis know that when the eyes dart around, so does the mind. By settling the gaze on a steady point, we have a deeper access to our internal experience. When in the midst of an uncomfortable situation, whether it’s a long hold in Side Plank, (Vasisthasana) venturing into a new class, or driving in a downpour, my darting eyes only rattle me, stir up my mind, disperse my attention. Settling and relaxing my eyes invites patience with what’s actually happening instead of the distractions around me and in my own little head.

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One of my favorite online yoga teachers, Philip Urso, says that yoga helps us practice “going from panic to patience and from patience to peace.”

We are such visual creatures – from the moment we awaken, we are taking in the visual scene around us. We use our eyes so much that we are rarely even conscious of them (until we get something under our contact or we can’t read the print on the menu). Intentionally using the eyes instantly offers a way to connect the body and mind, and break the pattern of unconscious looking.

A soft eye relaxes both ocular muscles and active brain to allow the literal and figurative peripheral vision to expand. Suddenly, I can see that I’m really okay, that any intensity is temporary, and that I am part of a larger experience. An intentional gaze allows us to be fascinated with what is happening without becoming bewitched.

Like in yoga, in Nia we use the eyes to integrate body and mind as well as to stimulate healthful alignment and safe head movement. Perhaps more essentially, intentional use of the eyes trains us to go beyond superficial looking to seeing deeper, to what is so. Intentionally seeing the space, the other movers, and ourselves in the mirror allows us to shift from the panicky small mind through the patience of presence to the peace that really is available in every moment.

No matter what your practice – whether it is yoga or cycling or gardening or parenting – you can use the physical eyes to relax the brain and shift toward peace. Look with intention, to both relax the physical and mental bodies.

And in a bigger way, when we vision our lives and our world, we can also set our gaze on something unmoving, something steady. By setting our drishti on that which matters to us most, we can find a steadiness that moves from panic to patience, and from patience to peace.

eyes peace 102915

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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.

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Art 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.

When I came across this quote from Rachel Carson, its truth took my breath away:

One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?

Nothing in the world is solid or unchanging so of course, so everything is always new. And part of that ever-flowing river of change is that endings are unclear. We rarely know when our last time will be so this one, right here, might be it.

The practice of putting Carson’s words into action is simple. The challenge is to remember. The challenge is to wake ourselves up and open our eyes. It can be done at any time, of course, particularly when you feel bored, tuned out, stuck, or disillusioned. But the best time to open your eyes is now.

Never Before

1. Curiosity of a Child ~

Imagine you are looking at the world like a 5-year-old or that you are showing the world to a child. How does that change the speed of and the intention behind your looking? Be willing to learn even about things you think you know well.

2. Inquiry of an Alien ~

Imagine you have landed on Earth in a human body from another planet. What would the world and everything in it look like from that perspective? I practiced this today when feeling water on my skin, listening to the crinkle of a plastic bag, and tasting the bitterness of coffee. What I kept thinking was, “Whoa.”

Never Again

3. Poignancy of Terminally Ill ~

Imagine you’ve been given a prognosis of only a day more to live. What would it feel like to be doing things, seeing people, feeling things for the last time? This can be emotional so be gentle with yourself if it feels intense. Start small with less personal things like feeling gratitude for a favorite tea cup or a comfortable chair: take in their beauty and gifts and what they’ve generously offered you. As you’re ready, you can expand to activities that are important to you, communities and individuals who you care about, and even your own body.

4. Tenderness of Old Age ~

Spend time with an elderly person or imagine yourself decades older than you are now. What wisdom or insight can that elder offer around gratitude and attachment? I recall the last words of Mary Oliver’s poem In Blackwater Woods :

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes
to let it go,
to let it go.

 

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“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” ― Rachel Carson

I open my eyes, all I see is trees. Overlays of green leaves, columns of gray bark and lemon light. When we travel in our camper, we sleep windows-open-shades-up so when we wake, we see trees –and each others’ sleepy faces.

While traveling, I often think of Rachel Carson’s profound words. Since I’m going to new places, ones to which I am unlikely to return, both things are true: I am often seeing things for the first…and last time.

When we’re in a new place and I know this is the first and last time, I look with more than my eyes: I breathe in the smells, feel the sensations, listen deeply, taste the essence, and with my eyes, I look for all the details I can find.

Look out a window. Imagine this was the first time you’d ever taken in this view or that it was the last. How would that change the way you saw it?

Look at someone you care about, imagine this was the first time you’d ever seen their face or that it was the last. How would that change the way you look at them?

Look at your own hand. Imagine this was the first time you’d ever seen your hand or that you were leaving your body and this was the last. How would that change how you saw your hand, your body?

Never before. Never again. This is a courageous, whole-hearted way of looking at the world that requires the curious, open eyes of the very young and the tender, wise eyes of the very old.

Rachel Carson’s quote is related to the Zen concept of Beginner’s Mind (a previous Focus Pocus post is here and the original lecture from which the concept of Beginner’s Mind comes here). Writer James Clear wrote a nice piece about the concept last week in relationship to learning and mastering something. In it, he warns that expertise and experience can be hindrance that lulls the mind into a trance of “knowing.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen that, I’ve done that, I already know that.”

But have you really?

Clear writes:

The problem is that when you are an expert you actually need to pay more attention, not less. Why? Because when you are already familiar with 98 percent of the information on a topic, you need to listen very carefully to pick up on the remaining 2 percent.

The same is true for familiarity. When you’ve been somewhere often or done something a lot or lived with someone for decades, you actually need to pay more attention, not less.

So it turns out that going to new places and seeing new things is the easy part. In those situations, it’s natural to open up and really let them in. The real practice begins when we are in the familiar, where we must pay more attention to the things that make up our lives.

For while it may be obvious when you see something for the first time, we rarely know when we are seeing it for the last.

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Creativity is everywhere and in everything. Every book, movie, painting, dance, poem, song, play, sculpture is the result of someone’s creative act. Cool, but no big shock since we think of art as creativity. Beyond the expected works of art, everything that’s ever been made — buildings, cars, furniture, city designs, gardens, relationships, people!, everything!! — is a result of someone’s creativity. Wherever you are right now, look around. You are sitting in a sea of creativity.

I’m fascinated by what inspires us, what comes through us, how art of all kinds comes into being. I read about it, teach about it, listen to what all sorts of people have to say about it.* I observe my own creative process as I teach, dance, write, draw, cook, and live.

Even so, creativity is an utter mystery to me.

It’s no coincidence that in English the word inspiration means both to receive breath and to receive an idea. No coincidence either that there are direct etymological connections between the words inspiration and spirit, the breath of the divine. Creativity is the very essence of life.

When we breathe in, we are taking something that is not us, the atmosphere, which allows us to live on Earth. When we receive inspiration, it, too, comes from outside of us to animate our time on the planet. But where does it come from?

One philosophy is that inspiration comes from each other. Kirby Ferguson, the creator of the brilliant short films, Everything’s a Remix, and Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like An Artist, agree that creativity is a process of copying what is already in the world, combining what exists in new ways and then transforming it into something new.

True enough: it’s all been done before. But really, this just begs the question of where the idea to copy this thing, to combine these things in this way come from? Where do we get the vision to transform something into something new? Where does that come from?

Stephen Cope, author of The Great Work of Your Life, teaches that creative outcomes are not our business. All we can do, he says, is to show up to plant the seed. In a 2012 workshop at Kripalu, he said,

Your job is to show up in great shape. Give it your very best. Show up well-nourished and well-rested. Give yourself recovery time. Prepare the soil then let it flow.

Well, thank goodness. Thank goodness I don’t have to sit down at my computer, or my drawing table, or the dance studio and think, Okay, Susan. Create. Go. To be inspired is to be touched by something other than us when we create something. My job is do my best, show up, be open, present, and willing to receive the mysterious gift of whatever comes through.

Elizabeth Gilbert, talks brilliantly about the mysterious entity of creativity in her 2009 TED Talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius. She tells the story of being completely stuck and in despair while writing her book, Eat Pray Love. She says,

I lifted my face up from the manuscript and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room and I said aloud, “Listen, you, thing. You and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant that it isn’t entirely my fault. Right? Because you can see I am putting everything I have into this. I don’t have any more than this. So if you want it to be better, you have to show up and do your part of the deal, okay? But if you don’t do that, you know what, the hell with it, I’m going to keep writing anyway because that’s my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.”

When I create a routine or an essay or a drawing, I usually start with a vision or little spark of an idea and steer it, think it, follow it through. For my latest routine, Inspired, it went a little differently. My friend asked me to teach a class at her church. One night, without thinking about it, I sat down and drew an image and wrote a description for the class, Breathing in Spirit. Huh. Okay.

102315 breathing in spirit

As I put together the class, I kept stumbling across music that inspired me or was about breath or inspiration. Halfway through teaching the class, I had the feeling that a routine wanted to come from what I’d begun. So I kept following inspiration: a song my yoga teacher played in class that made me cry, another suggested by a friend, another I’ve wanted to use in a routine but never have. I didn’t even really feel like I was doing it so much as I was letting it be done.

This is the invitation of Inspired and the invitation whether you’re dancing with us or not. The invitation is to show up, do your best, and see what comes through. Pay attention to the times and places and people and circumstances that inspire you. Spend time there.

Prepare the soil and let it flow. Be inspired.


* Want to explore deeper? In addition to the books and talk mentioned above, here are some of my favorite sources of inspiration about our sources of inspiration:

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, 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.

We use our eyes from the moment we wake to the moment we sleep, so it’s easy to forget about them (until they stop working!). By intentionally using our gaze, we have clearer access to our internal experience — undoubtedly helpful in all circumstances but is a big reason for using a gazing point or drishti in yoga. Even beyond this, though, are many big benefits — for body, mind, emotions and relationships — in bringing awareness to how we use our eyes.

1. Balanced Body – Resting the gaze is particularly helpful when looking for physical balance. Experiment with standing on one foot and look around the room. Then stand on one foot and gaze at an unmoving object. BONUS: Give your balance extra challenge by standing on one foot with one eye closed or both eyes closed!

2. Brain Challenge – Play with breaking brain habits by moving your eyes. For example, turn your head left but slide your eyes right and vice versa. Tilt your head up but look down and then the other way. In yoga, challenge yourself to use a different gaze or drishti, just to see what happens. In Nia, instead of following your hand with your eyes, look away from your hand. If it feels awkward and messes you up…perfect! BONUS: The Feldenkrais Method engages the eyes in most exercises with the philosophy that the whole system needs to be included to change movement patterns. You can read more and play with some exercises here.

3. Settled Mind – The eyes can help bring balance to the mind. In unfamiliar or uncomfortable circumstances, the eyes will often dart and flit around in a counter-productive effort to gather information. If you’re feeling rattled, let your eyes soften on something that is unmoving and let them relax. BONUS: Sit in meditation and experiment with eyes closed and eyes softly resting on an unmoving object. See what feels best to you given your energy levels (for example, if you’re sleepy, see if eyes open and softly gazing works better; stressed out? See if closed eyes feel better.).

4. Stay alert – Ever notice yourself walking with narrow attention and your eyes on the ground? Experiment with walking with your eyes broadening your view – noticing the details of what and who is around you. You can also do this in the car if you find your attention narrowing down, by looking through the whole wind shield and using all your mirrors (even the side mirror on the passenger side!).

5. Conversational Support – Play with how you use your eyes in a conversation. We all have habits about where we look when we’re talking to someone, so start by noticing what you do. (I notice that my eyes often start on the person and then lift up and look away.) Then use your eyes with intention in conversation. Different people have different tolerances for connection. For some people, the best way to connect is having a conversation when we are not looking at each other (in the car, cooking together, doing a puzzle or a project) and for others, the best connection happens when we are looking directly into each other’s eyes. Notice what you do and what offers the best communication (and that might NOT be what feels easiest).

6. Connected Heart – Eye gazing is a deep way of connecting to yourself and to another. Simply relaxing and gazing into either your own eyes in a mirror or another’s eyes (I find it works well to gaze at one of my partner’s eyes to avoid the back and forth flitting) can be a transformative practice. Gazing softly for 5-10 minutes can allow us to see beyond the surface of roles and images and expectations. You can find out more about eye gazing here.

And remember that even if all you do this week is appreciate your eyes and all they allow you to do, that’s a powerful practice!

It’s my favorite yoga class of the week: Sunday noon, 90 minutes of Power with Kelly. But I walk in all jumbly and rattly. As I pull out a block and unroll my thick blue mat, even as friends walk in, I feel jagged around the edges. I can feel my eyes strain as they dart around the room. Who’s that? Ooh, that’s a cute top. I wonder what the story is behind that tattoo?

eyes panic 102915

Oh girl, I think. If you keep up with the darty eyes, there will be no peace for you today.

I see it in my students sometimes, too. They walk in and look around to figure out if they belong or not. Did I wear the right thing? Am I the right age? Is this a thing for hippies and weirdies?

Oh friend, I think to the nervous newbie, relax your eyes or there will be no peace for you today.

In yoga, it’s called the drishti, the gaze, where we set the eyes and align the head, but more than that, how we direct our energy and attention. Every posture has a particular place to focus the eyes: Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), between the big toes; Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), front middle finger; Triangle (Utthita Trikonasana), up at the thumb. We practice steadying the drishti on something unmoving. By letting the eyes rest on one spot, the body and mind can focus letting our alarmed busy-ness drop like fall leaves.

Yogis know that when the eyes dart around, so does the mind. By settling the gaze on a steady point, we have a deeper access to our internal experience. When in the midst of an uncomfortable situation, whether it’s a long hold in Side Plank, (Vasisthasana) venturing into a new class, or driving in a downpour, my darting eyes only rattle me, stir up my mind, disperse my attention. Settling and relaxing my eyes invites patience with what’s actually happening instead of the distractions around me and in my own little head.

eyes patience 102915

One of my favorite online yoga teachers, Philip Urso, says that yoga helps us practice “going from panic to patience and from patience to peace.”

We are such visual creatures – from the moment we awaken, we are taking in the visual scene around us. We use our eyes so much that we are rarely even conscious of them (until we get something under our contact or we can’t read the print on the menu). Intentionally using the eyes instantly offers a way to connect the body and mind, and break the pattern of unconscious looking.

A soft eye relaxes both ocular muscles and active brain to allow the literal and figurative peripheral vision to expand. Suddenly, I can see that I’m really okay, that any intensity is temporary, and that I am part of a larger experience. An intentional gaze allows us to be fascinated with what is happening without becoming bewitched.

Like in yoga, in Nia we use the eyes to integrate body and mind as well as to stimulate healthful alignment and safe head movement. Perhaps more essentially, intentional use of the eyes trains us to go beyond superficial looking to seeing deeper, to what is so. Intentionally seeing the space, the other movers, and ourselves in the mirror allows us to shift from the panicky small mind through the patience of presence to the peace that really is available in every moment.

No matter what your practice – whether it is yoga or cycling or gardening or parenting – you can use the physical eyes to relax the brain and shift toward peace. Look with intention, to both relax the physical and mental bodies.

And in a bigger way, when we vision our lives and our world, we can also set our gaze on something unmoving, something steady. By setting our drishti on that which matters to us most, we can find a steadiness that moves from panic to patience, and from patience to peace.

eyes peace 102915

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