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,


(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.

whole hearted brene brownWhat’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done? It may be something physical like jumping out of a plane or running a marathon or speaking in front of a crowd. It might be something more intimate like telling the truth in a tender situation or telling the doctor that’s not the treatment you want or saying gently but firmly that enough is enough.

Whatever it is, think of the bravest thing you’ve ever done and recall the sensation. What did it feel like in your body? What emotions did you feel? What thoughts ran through your head?

Brave feels both scary and exciting. There is often push/pull sensation of “Yes, I really want to do this” and “Holy Crap, what if I do?” Making the brave choice by its very nature means that you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

Brené Brown’s ground-breaking TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability (2010) explains that connection is essential to the human experience. Connection is why we’re here and it is what gives our lives purpose and meaning. Her research demonstrates that in order to truly connect with others, we be vulnerable. Vulnerability is absolutely not weakness (a common misconception) but means that we allow ourselves to be seen, to love without guarantee, to risk failure, and to believe we are enough.

For most of my life, vulnerability scared the bejeezus out of me. Sometimes it still does.

In her talk, Dr. Brown also identifies shame – an epidemic in our culture – as the fear of disconnection. Shame is the fear that if someone sees this about me or knows this about me, I will not be worthy of connection, love, and belonging. Shame is the belief that something is intrinsically wrong with me. Shame is different than guilt. Guilt is “I’ve made a mistake.” Shame is “I am a mistake.”

Shame, I get. Since adolescence, I have been ashamed of my body. I thought it wasn’t thin or beautiful enough for me to be worthy of love and connection. My body felt like a character flaw and I was sure something was seriously wrong with me.

I’ve done a number of brave things in my life: marrying a man with two young children, teaching Nia, taking a sabbatical from teaching Nia, sharing my writing, walking all the way to the top of a fire tower. But when it comes to my relationship with my body, the bravest thing I’ve done is to relax.

At the height of my disordered body relationship, I was doing whatever I could to tighten up. Aerobic exercise, weight lifting, obsessive food monitoring — all of my energy was poured into having nothing soft or flabby or pooching out or sagging. I was always, ALWAYS walking around sucking in my stomach. I believed that if I was thin enough and lean enough and tight enough that I would be confident, safe from criticism, that I would be loved, that I would be happy and whole.

I thought that if I looked just right, no one (including me) would judge me. I would be invulnerable.

I wanted to be thin so I wouldn’t be vulnerable … so I wouldn’t have to be brave.

Of course, this totally didn’t work. Having my internal experience (feeling love and belonging) be dependent on an external circumstance (my physical appearance) will never work. I kept thinking that the reason I didn’t feel confident and relaxed in myself was because I wasn’t perfect enough and that if I just worked a little harder, I would be. On a good day, this circular logic makes me laugh; on a bad day, it can have me twisted up and tripping over myself.

Even when I lost weight, got leaner, and sucked in my tummy all the time, I didn’t feel any more worthy or connected or loved. I thought perfection was the way to those feelings but it’s actually the path away from them. Real love and connection requires that we be seen with all our imperfect softness showing.

Brené Brown calls it whole-heartedness. I am living whole-heartedly when I am willing to be vulnerable and when I believe I am worthy of love and belonging. Whole-heartedness means taking emotional risks, telling the truth with no guarantees. It means not sucking in my stomach and relaxing into being my brilliant, messy, beautiful, spazzy self.

What’s the bravest thing you’ve done today? How about making the courageous choice to be imperfect? Be kind to yourself first, then to others. Let go of who you think you should be so you can be who you are.

Take a breath, relax your belly. Brave feels both exciting and scary. When you feel it, you’re on the right track.

opposite of good PoserThe opposite of good is bad. Duh. As a people-pleasing, first-born child, I’ve known for absolute sure that bad is — not to get too fancy or anything – really, really bad. Doing it right and fulfilling others’ expectations has always been high on my list. I’ve always been sure that the best way to get love is to be good. But recently, all my certainty about good and bad has been turned on its head.

A friend recently loaned me Claire Dederer’s, Poser: My Life in 26 Yoga Poses. I opened it with some caution as some yoga books wander in radiant wonder for so long that they annoy me. Deeply.  All that transcendence and inner peace…pulease.

I approached warily. Any regular practice – be it yoga, or parenting, or simply getting up every morning – are day-in-day-out affairs that encompass a whole lot of everything. Any descriptions of these practices that include constant angel choirs and perpetual, patient peacefulness leave me with eyebrows up and arms crossed.

Turns out, Dederer’s book doesn’t have any angel choirs. She writes with humor, honesty, and self-deprecation that resonate with me as a practitioner, a teacher, and a writer (she actually gave me my first full-blown case of writer-envy). Overall, reading was a pleasure of recognition and affirmation. But a couple of times, her words took my breath away with revelation.

One example is when she tells of learning about ancient yogic teachings that warn against effort in one’s practice. This confounds her since effort, she thinks, is the whole point of yoga. She writes:

It would be a long time before I could entertain the notion that maybe my yoga would improve if I didn’t try so hard, and a longer time still before I began to question why my yoga needed to improve at all.

As a lifelong over-achieving, direction-following self-improver, this hit me where I live. Truly, isn’t all practice about getting better? Isn’t improvement an inherent part of practicing? But after I gave Dederer a little chuckle/quizzical-face, I wondered, what would it be to practice without the goal of getting better?

With that tantalizing yet unimaginable seed planted, she tells of taking classes at Naropa University in Colorado:

The red-haired yoga teacher with the Indian accent … said: “Those of you who are really bad at yoga, you’re in the right place. I hope everyone will allow themselves to be really crappy today, to walk away from being perfect. The real yoga isn’t in the perfect pose; it’s in the crappy pose that you are really feeling. You want to feel it from the inside out, rather than make it perfect from the outside in.”

Okay, this, I get. As a teacher of mindful movement, this is what I want for my students: for them to feel it in their own skin and move/choose/respond from there. Parroting my movements and following what I do is entirely and precisely not the point.

But what Dederer writes next stopped me cold and has utterly changed my thinking about practice and life. She says, “I had a sudden thought: What if the opposite of good isn’t bad? What if the opposite of good was real?”

What if the opposite of good was real?

The truth of this stopped me. I thought of how much energy I put into improving my practice, my teaching, myself. I not only see but feel the tension and anxiety my students can put into doing things right. The notion of constant improvement carries the paradoxical enticement that someday, if I work hard enough, I’ll be good enough while simultaneously knowing I never will.

And when I’m not focusing on getting better and when I let go of doing it right? What’s left but real? Real and true and authentic.

The opposite of good is real. This so shakes the perspective of constant improvement that I’ve held as my main tool for getting love and acceptance, that I’m still processing it. When I find myself breathing shallow and calculating how to get it right and stay in the lines, I ask myself what would real look like right now?

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