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Imperfection

If you’ve taken a class from me in the past few years, you might notice that at the end, we offer this dedication of merit:

May the merit of this practice serve to nourish the seeds and roots of happiness. May the merit of this practice serve to dissolve the seeds and roots of suffering.

I’ve been practicing mindful movement for 20 years, but I don’t practice to get better at moving. I practice to get better at living. I don’t practice to be a better dancer or to be able to do Bird of Paradise pose. I practice to get better at being human. I practice in class and on my mat and on my cushion so I can go out into the world and live more skillfully. Dedicating merit is an acknowledgment of this deeper intention behind the physical movement and form.

The idea of dedicating merit is that by practicing, we are doing something beneficial, something wholesome, and that we can then choose to take that benefit and offer it into the world. While my personal practices definitely offer me personal benefit, dedicating the merit expands my view of it. Rather than making my practice all about me and the good things it does for me, I can choose to send it out to where it’s needed. This broadens my view not just of my practice but of my place in the complex web of the world. (Lama Palden Drolma wrote a wonderful piece on dedicating merit that articulates the desire to expand the goodness beyond the self. I hope you’ll read it. You can find it here.)

May the merit of this practice serve to nourish the seeds and roots of happiness. May the merit of this practice serve to dissolve the seeds and roots of suffering.

They are interesting questions, aren’t they? What are the seeds and roots of happiness? What are the seeds and roots of suffering? I might say swimming in the ocean or dancing with my friends or a square (or three) of dark chocolate make me happy. I might say that an achy low back or witnessing the abuse of power or losing someone I love cause me suffering. But those are just specifics. What are the seeds and roots?

Buddhists have been thinking about these questions for thousands of years and they identify greed, hatred and ignorance, or The Three Poisons, as the root causes of suffering. (I love this down-to-earth post by Kaitlyn Hatch about this.)

While it can be intellectually interesting and enlightening to explore Buddhist philosophy on these questions, I am a simple woman who can easily get lost in the weeds of thought. Here’s how I think about it: suffering is simply wanting things to be different than they are. When I want things to be different than they are, I either want more of something or less of something. The seeds and roots of suffering are grasping (wanting more) and aversion (wanting less). The seeds and roots of happiness are letting go of wanting more or less and being with whatever is happening just as it is.

May the merit of this practice serve to nourish the seeds and roots of happiness. May the merit of this practice serve to dissolve the seeds and roots of suffering.

Dedicating the merit is dedicating ourselves not just to our own betterment, to our own well-being but to the betterment and well-being of all. All people, all creatures, all beings everywhere. Given the state of the world, this is insanity, of course. Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, recognizes the enormity of the undertaking and calls it making the warrior commitment. Pema writes

It’s said that when we make this commitment, it sows a seed deep in our unconscious, deep in our mind and heart, that never goes away. This seed is a catalyst that jump-starts our inherent capacity for love and compassion, for empathy, for seeing the sameness of us all. So we make the commitment, we sow the seed, then do our best never to harden our heart or close our mind to anyone.

We’ll fail, of course. We’ll get caught in wanting more of this and less of that and being greedy and hateful and ignorant. Oh heck yeah, we’ll fail over and over. That’s why we practice over and over. And why, at the end of our practice we dedicate whatever merit we might have gained toward nourishing happiness and dissolving all suffering.

What does dedicating the merit mean to you? What do you experience as the seeds and roots of happiness and suffering? It would be a gift to share your thoughts in the comments below.


At various times in the past week, my art room spilled from my office into the living room and occasionally onto the kitchen table. I’ve had watercolors drying on one table with pens and pencils scattered around on the floor and paper, notes, and quotes interspersed in all of it. At any given time, there were at least two pairs of glasses in the mix, a couple of rulers, scissors, and some glue.

After art-ing for a while, I take some time to go through what I’ve made and decide which pieces I might use and how. But then I pop up from my art bubble, survey the mess with uneasiness. Even if I know I’m going to make art again in the not-too-distant future, I’ll clean it all up and put everything away.

It’s the process of creating — whether it’s in an art studio, a kitchen, on a construction site, or in a relationship. We messy things up, get out all the tools, the paint, the ladders and then we chop, draw, sauté, talk. Then, we pause and evaluate where we are and clear things up before creating some more.

I know builders who leave the site a jumble of scraps and tools and sawdust throughout a project. I know artists whose studios are in a constant state of disarray. I’ve had times in my life when relationships resided permanently in tangle of unresolved conversations and issues. I’ve heard it said that it’s all a work in progress so why put everything away if you’re just going to get it out again tomorrow?

But when I do that, I can’t find what I’m looking for, I forget what I’m doing, and I get easily distracted from what’s important. Art gets damaged or lost. Time and energy and food gets wasted. People don’t feel heard or seen.

I know people with woodworking shops that are so meticulously organized that they rarely use them. I’ve seen gleaming kitchens of granite and steel that never have sauce on the counter or a pile of pots in the sink. I’ve known relationships that stay neat and tidy and polite and don’t get much below the surface.

When I over-focus on the tidy, creativity and exploration rarely happen. I stay in safer waters, where growth and possibility (and awkward feelings) don’t come into play.

For me, the best is a mix of the messy and the clean. In order to be more centered, clear, creative and adventurous, I have to messy it up, then clean it up, then do it again. Play around. Experiment. Muck about. Then clean it up. From there I can figure out where all my tools are, what the next step might be, and what I needfor the next round of creating.

It’s a cycle of chaos and order, over and over again that moves us forward and keeps us growing. It’s the back and forth from mess to clean that keeps us from getting mired in the clutter or hamstrung by the neatness.

Whatever you’re doing, messy it up, then clean it up, then do it again.

For me, Martin Luther King Day is January’s bright spot.

The past couple of years, especially.

Every year, I hghlight an MLK quote and create a focus around it.

This year, I bring three.

Only the first isn’t actually an MLK quote.

Last January, I listened almost obsessively to Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem. It struck me as the most beautiful and hopeful of songs in the middle of hopelessness. I think it speaks to our illusion of perfection. Our sense that we have to have it all together before we can really do anything.

One of the downsides of having a hero like MLK, is that we think we have to be as great as he was in order to make any positive change in the world.

Which is snorgle hockey, of course. But we forget. Cohen’s song reminds us that we just have to bring what we have.

It’s okay to be a mess. Everything’s a mess.

Thank you to Laura DeVault for reminding me about Cohen’s genius song but for pointing me to this wonderful Dharma talk by Sharon Beckman-Brindley from a couple of weeks ago that uses the song as a jumping off point. Check it out here. It is well worth the listen.

As is the song. Even if you’ve heard it before. Listen again. 

And from the man himself:

I love the idea of a “disciplined nonconformist.” Not someone who is bucking the system just to do it, but someone who is discerning, acting from their own sense of value and not afraid to go a different way than the crowd. Nia movers know all about this: our practice is all about sensing first, then acting rather than following for the sake of it.

Be a disciplined nonconformist and ring the bells.

I thought I was going to make a third piece of art around a third quote. But nope. It didn’t happen. Lots of other things happened this week, but not that. I guess I can forget my perfect offering.

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.

This week, I started an 8-week writing class. It’s the first time I’ve taken an in-person, honest-to-goodness writing class so I’ve been intently working on my pieces for that. Today, I thought I had one ready to submit to my instructor and classmates…until my Chief Reading Officer (my husband) and I realized there was a huge disconnect in the middle of it. So I’m beginning again.

Which seems like an excellent opportunity to return to this post on practicing that from last year.
Big breath. Begin again.

Originally posted on March 15, 2o16.

awareness begin again 031416

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.

There is something you want to do. Or something you don’t want to do anymore. You have a habit you want to break or one you want to start. You want to create something or go somewhere or build something up or clear something out.

That’s awesome.

Here’s the thing, though. You will mess up. Or something will go wrong. Or you’ll forget. Or you’ll put it off. I wish I could tell you that it will all go swimmingly just exactly as you’d like with nary a bump in the road.

And yeah, NOPE that’s not the way it’s going to go.

Which you could see as a bad thing or you could see as a way to practice beginning again. Let’s go with the latter. Here are 3 ways (plus a bonus) to practice beginning again.

1. At the Start ~ Plan to Begin Again

When setting an intention for something, think about what you want to do (or not do), when you’ll do it, with whom, and all the details of how you are planning on doing it. AND, include in those plans what you will do when you get off track. What will you do when you notice that you are doing what you didn’t want to do or vice versa. Expect to get off track and plan to begin again.

2. In the Midst ~ See the Magic Moment

While you’re in the process of your new habit or plan, be on the lookout for thoughts calcifying around the practice when it goes awry. Notice if you think things like, “See? I can’t do this.” Or, “I keep forgetting, I might as well give up.” Or, “This is just not something I can stop doing. It would be easier to just keep doing it.”

Instead, see the moment that you realize you’ve lost connection with your intention as a magic moment. Use it as an opportunity to begin again. The magic isn’t in being perfect. The magic is in noticing when you’ve gotten off course and choosing to begin again.

3. At the End ~ Be an Awesome Rebounder

In basketball, the best rebounders are the ones that count on the ball NOT going in the net. The best rebounders can’t wait to make something great out of a misfired shot.

Once a project is launched or the words have been said or the soufflé has been baked, there is no taking it back. If the reviews are terrible or if feelings are hurt or if you have a lump of egg baked in the pan, what can you do now? How can you start again or repurpose what’s happened? Begin again by reworking or rethinking the project, apologizing and saying what you meant to say, or calling it a quiche.

Be an awesome rebounder and begin again from a missed shot.

BONUS: Close your Heart to No One

Pay attention if your heart closes to anyone, especially yourself. Remind yourself that everyone ~ EVERYone (even that one person you just thought of) ~ is doing their best. If you feel that tight clenching around someone, take a breath and let your heart soften. More skillful decisions come from an unclenched heart. (It’s important to note that keeping your heart open to someone does not mean to stay in a hurtful or abusive situation. My heart can stay open as I say, No, you may not do that to me or say that to me or treat me that way.)

And if you forget, and you close your heart to someone, that’s great! It’s a magic moment when you realize it and a chance to begin again.

hillel-keep-dancing“I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.” – Daniel Hillel

She texts: “Happy New Year! I am so in need of a Nia class and was hoping to come to your class tomorrow…”
I text back: “Oooh! Yes, please!”

My friend Susan has moved back to town. She was one of my first Nia teachers until she moved to Seattle years ago. In 2006, we did our Black Belt training together. Even though she’s been far away, I have stayed fond of and lightly connected to her.

Now she’s coming to class.

I know myself. I’ve been in this situation before. I know how I get when I want things to go a certain way. I want things to go perfectly. I want to welcome Susan to our community and I want to teach well in her presence. I’m also working on a new routine which can sometimes be a bumpy ride.

So I do what usually do: I over prepare. This time, though, I see that I’m doing it. I tweak and tweak the playlist. I practice my choreography. I plan what I want to say. I see what I’m doing but I do it anyway.

When I get to class, she’s there and beautiful and radiant like she is. I’m relaxed since I TOTALLY know what I’m doing and how it’s going to go (perfectly, right?). I set up the room, choose some upbeat welcome music and clip on the mic. I stand in front of the class and I welcome Susan to Charlottesville.

So smooth, am I.

I glide to the stereo to start my perfectly perfect playlist and … it’s not there. I’ve somehow synced the wrong music. I have a playlist but it’s not the one I’d planned. The class waits quietly.

“Okay, Universe / The Gods / Nia,” I laugh to myself. “Thanks for the reminder. This is not going to be perfect. That’s cool. Let’s see what happens.”

I take a breath. We start dancing.

Then the mic cuts out. And comes back. And then cuts out again. We keep dancing while I change the batteries.

A few songs later and I realize that this playlist is 10 minutes too short for this class. I need to add more music somehow. While we’re free dancing to Brown Eyed Girl, I find a song to insert. I make a joke about “a little iPod burp” as I fumble with the plugging and unplugging and we keep dancing. Near the end and I’m still short so we dance into a meditation to a sweet, contemplative David Wilcox song.

And then class is over. It wasn’t perfect…it was alive.

In her classic book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Pema Chödrön, writes:

We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that’s death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience.

The class didn’t go as I’d planned, thank goodness. It was alive not in spite of the snafus and missteps but because of them. There was space for laughter and breath and singing to Van Morrison. It had fresh air.

Perfect is an illusion. Perfect is dead.

Part of me does know this. I know that life is stepping into the river and letting go of the shore. I know this, I do. But evidently, I need reminders.

christmas letter cover up card“We turn up … every day pretending
We’re not neurotic and obsessed and insatiable and full of doubt.
And we waste so much energy keeping up
This mutual pretense for each other because we think if people saw
The truth,
If people really knew appetites and self-loathing, then we’d get rejected.
But in fact, the opposite is true.”
~ from Manifesto by Jamie Catto

Ah, yes. It’s that time of year again. Thanksgiving is over and soon they will start arriving in my mailbox: holly-jolly holiday letters. Usually neatly tucked into a card with photos of my friends’ smiling, red-and-green-clad children, these chipper chronicles of accomplishment launch me into a state of unbecoming peevishness.

The reason for my ill temper in regards to these tales of unrelenting success and fulfillment is, of course, that they are happy hooey.

That sounds grouchy and grumpy and Grinchy, I grant you. I really am a proponent of positivity and an advocate of non-complaining, but every once in a while, I’ve just got to call a thing into question.

I expect that these narratives of all that’s  bright and beautiful in the writer’s life are meant to connect, to include, and draw them closer to the recipients. My issue with holiday letters is that they accomplish the exact opposite of what they purport to do.

Even when couched in terms of gratitude and wonder, by sharing the awe-inspiring vacations, jaw-dropping job promotions, stellar academic achievements, and Herculean athletic feats with their friends and relations, they actually create more separation than connection.

Instead of drawing people together, one of two things happens:

(1) The reader either knows full-well that these happy successes are only half (or less) of the story and that plenty of other messy, difficult, crazy things also happened leaving the reader wondering how the writer and family really are,

OR

(2) The reader forgets that life is full of everything and they think that the writer’s life is way WAY better than theirs leaving the reader feeling defeated or ashamed of their own messy, difficult, crazy life.

Either way, more peace on earth, more goodwill…not.

This reality cover-up happens not just with holiday letters, of course, but in cocktail conversation, on Facebook and Instagram, and even in good, old-fashioned email. Everybody puts on a show of happy, easeful success even though everybody knows that that is simply not the way human life rolls.

So how can I stay both positive and real when everything is not sugar plums and figgy pudding?

What if we took a more balanced approach? What if when asked about my holiday, I told more of the truth:
• I had a lovely time with the people who I was with AND I was missing someone terribly.
• I loved visiting with my family AND my feelings were hurt.
• I enjoyed preparing the meal AND it felt rushed and stressful.

Some people will get squirmy and uncomfortable. We aren’t trained to handle the whole story. Taking off the mask and shining the light in the shadows bucks the cultural system. But some people will be relieved.  Some people will relax and say what’s true for them, too.  Either way, it’s the only way I can think of to really connect to each other. It’s the only way to save ourselves from what my poet friend calls the “lonely mass hysteria” of isolation behind the mask of Everything’s-Great.

I don’t have to tell all. I don’t have to over-share. But I can make a step toward sharing both the light and the dark. Share your successes, yes please do, but also share your struggles. Tell about the joy, but also share the sadness.

Join me bucking the system. Tell the truth. Or more of the truth. Stay positive, but be real.  If you write holiday letters, make it a real one and it will actually be a gift of comfort and joy.

In this of all seasons, pretending that the darkness isn’t there is just silly.

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