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Intent

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.

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The practice of setting an intention is a way of consciously making a difference in our movement, our lives, and in the world. We make a difference whether we realize it or not. Setting an intention is a way of choosing the difference we want to make. (Check out last week’s post for more on this including a genius quote from Jane Goodall.)

What’s interesting, of course, is that we are human. Even if we set an intention, we won’t be able to stay with it. Not all the time. (Even though we know that it’s impossible, writer Leo Babauta suggests aspiring to that goal in his post Mindfulness All The Time. It’s a good read and I recommend it.) We’ll get distracted, get pulled into habit, go on auto-pilot. We’ll get pulled or pull ourselves away from our intention. That’s just the way it goes…for everybody.

The cool thing is that getting off track is not a bad thing. It’s actually fantastic. The moment that we find ourselves no longer connected to the intention we set is what Sharon Salzberg calls The Magic Moment (read her wonderful blog post about it here.) In her post, she’s talking about following the sensation of the breath in meditation as the intention. She writes,

if something arises — sensations, emotions, memories, plans, whatever it might be — that’s strong enough to take your attention away from the feeling of the breath, or if you’ve fallen asleep, or get lost in some incredible fantasy, the moment you realize you’ve been distracted is the magic moment.

It’s in that magic moment that we have the opportunity to really practice. We have the chance to begin again and to choose our intention again.

Stephanie Bennett Vogt teaches the A Year to Clear course that I’m taking right now (you can check that and other offerings at the Daily Om). She says that when creating a new practice, changing a habit or endeavoring to make any change, it requires four things:

Intent
Action
Non-Identification
Compassion

Her approach is that we need all four in order to create real and lasting change. If we only have Intent and no Action, the thought or desire just stays in our head. If we just have Action and no Intent, the action is unfocused, and arbitrary. If we have intention and action but don’t have non-identification and compassion, we’ll beat ourselves up when we get distracted and we’ll tend to quit.

I see it as a cycle more than a list. I see Intent as being the first step, knowing what we want to happen. Then Action is essential for embodiment and manifestation of what we want to occur. The Non-Identification (or as Buddhists would say, Non-Attachment) is not getting hooked on the outcome. Non-Identification is an allowing for things to unfold as they do without fighting against it. And then Compassion is the recognition that we are human and that we’ll forget and mess up in any number of ways and that’s just part of the process. I see it this way:

The Magic Moment happens with the Non-Identification and the Compassion: it’s when we realize we’ve veered from our intent in some way and that it’s time to return to it and make another action.

This mindful practice that we do together is impossible. No one can do it. And that is the whole point. It’s not about being perfect or never messing up. It’s about realizing we’ve lost our intention and then gently, kindly, beginning again.

This quote from Jane Goodall struck a chord with me. She said,

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.

There have been times in my life when I’ve turned my eyes away and decided that my choices didn’t really matter in the big scheme of things. Sometimes I convince myself that it doesn’t really matter if I buy water in plastic bottles or don’t send a thank you note or don’t vote in all the elections. There are so many people and the world is so big, what difference can it possibly make if I leave the lights on or don’t write to my senator about the latest injustice? So I throw up my hands and figure it doesn’t matter.

On the other side, there have been times when I have poured myself, dedicated myself, committed myself to what feels like skillful and right action. My choice, for example, to eat a whole food plant-based diet and not to eat meat or factory-farmed eggs is grounded in my understanding of the catastrophic impact of livestock farming on the environment and that meat is unnecessary for good health. I know that the diet I choose is better for the earth, for my body and it’s definitely better for the animals but when I see that well over 90% of Americans eat meat and a lot of it, I feel the utter futility of my choices. Why bother recycling or writing a blog every week or being kind to strangers?

I’m a drop in the ocean. A grain of sand in the desert. Nothing I do or don’t do can possibly make any difference whatsoever.

And yet my body knows this isn’t true. The small choices I make every day to move mindfully, to drink plenty of water, to sleep and breathe and take care of myself does make a difference. Just one week of sitting in a car and not eating / sleeping / hydrating / moving as I usually do showed up in all kinds of discomforts.

My mind knows this isn’t true. The daily choice to meditate even for a few minutes ripples out in how I approach the world and myself.

My heart knows this isn’t true. My intention to connect with people — my family and friends, my students, my co-workers, cashiers and waiters and delivery folks — has a powerful impact on my sense of my community and my place in it.

I am a drop in the ocean and at the same time I am, as the 13th Century Persian poet Rumi said, “[I am] the entire ocean in a drop.”

I know in my bones and breath and heart that I am connected to everything. My choices matter. This is why I set an intention at the beginning of every class. This is why I choose One Word at the beginning of every year. I know I can’t help but have an impact on the world around me. I get to decide the kind of difference I want to make.


IMPORTANT NOTE: All of this is not to say that I’ve got all this figured out and that when I set an intention I always do it all the time. In fact, that’s absolutely not the case and that’s actually a great thing. We’ll dance with that, my friends, next week.

On a sunny Friday morning, I rode my bike to the gym for a yoga class and a workout. Yoga was on the deck in the balmy summer air with a teacher I love. I was looking forward to a swim and then a leisurely ride home.

As I walked to the locker room, the sky suddenly went dark and rain roared on the roof. I threw my gear in a bag, ran out to my bike, and was soaked through before I had the lock off. I bumped my bike through the puddles in the parking lot but pedal as I might I couldn’t make it through the first traffic light before it turned red.

As the rain poured through my helmet and dripped down my nose, I stared angrily at the red light. I imagined riding home miserably, uncomfortably, grimly.

I’d missed my swim, but realized I was still getting wet on a summer morning. I took a breath and felt the rain on my skin. It felt tingly and alive. I wondered what would happen if I rode the rest of the way home happily. Or gratefully. Or joyfully. What if I changed the adverb to adventurously or curiously?

I felt the muscles in my face and shoulders soften. The light turned green and I turned onto the next street gleefully.

What happens when you choose your adverb with intention? How does that change the sensation? How does the adverb transform the experience?


I’m teaching extra classes and will be diving into the Adverb Dance with three classic Nia routines:
TranceVision ~ Monday 1045am acac square, Tuesday 840am acac downtown
Moodfood ~ Wednesday 11am acac square, Thursday 840am acac downtown
Fantasia ~ Friday, 6pm acac downtown (101 at 545pm), Saturday, 1245pm acac square (101 at 1230pm)
Inspired by the teaching of Brad Stoller as well as the Nia Blue Belt, we’ll explore how intention and focus changes movement, sensation and experience! Please join me.



My first book! Coming Soon!

I’ve finalized the pages and the cover mechanical is done (doesn’t that sound official and cool? I have no real idea what it means). Please join me in the adventure of the publication of my first book. Go to http://www.susanmcculley.com and sign up to be a Buddha Cat Backer! You’ll get updates, insights, goodies and discounts! Can’t wait to do this together.

Last week I took a break from teaching in order to put my attention on some creative and healing projects. I had this idea that in this week, I’d be able to clean up the corners, tuck in the edges, and close the files on these things I wanted to do.

The week was full of everything. I did much of the art and health work that I’d intended. I worked on my book and made some real strides. I did yoga every day, danced at home, played with new music, and listened deeply to what my body is telling me. I also met with a couple of friends, got distracted, did a bunch of cooking, got stuck in my head, felt discouraged and spun my wheels.

It might sound like the latter things were a pull away from my intention. It might sound like in those times I wasn’t doing what I’d promised myself I’d do. As it turns out, all of those things contributed to a really wonderful, surprising, and productive week.

I needed to do it all.

I went into my time away with this piece of art

I come back from the week realizing that there are many nouns that I need to remember are actually verbs. Balance, health, and life aren’t destinations, they aren’t a place to land and stop. They are all processes and ways of approaching the flow of our days.

This week, if you find yourself thinking there is some place you’re supposed to be, some state you think you ought to end up in, play with making whatever that word is into a verb.

Especially this time of year and especially as Americans, we can get hyper-focused on goals. “THIS,” I say to myself, “is what I want to achieve/do/be!”

But what if goals actually get in our way more than they get us where we want to go?

Writer James Clear in his article Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on Process Instead, argues that goals actually discourage us and don’t motivate us to keep going. By focusing on the process or the system, we get to what we strive for (and beyond) with more ease and success. Read his great piece here.

I love how Eric Thomas puts it. I can really relate to focusing on falling in love with the process over looking far ahead to a big goal. You can hear him talk about his own story of falling in love with the process here.

OK, so I adulterated the famous Chinese proverb from Lao Tzu a little. But you get the idea. Looking into the future doesn’t help us as much as focusing on what we can do now to get where we want to go. Set up a system and put your energy there. This short video explains it succinctly and persuasively.

Bonus Extra Opportunity to Apply This Wisdom!

Here’s something that you can play with: write down goals for each of the realms – body, mind, emotions & spirit. (This is actually optional, but I find it to be helpful to get to the next step.) THEN write down the processes and systems that will move you little by little, day by day, step by step in that direction. For example, here is mine for my mental realm:

Susan’s System:
Make art every day and share it. Learn new approaches every week – new songs, new drawing materials/exercises, new subject matter. Every week, challenge my habits and learn how to reach more of people who are turned on by what I do.

Susan’s Goal/Mental Realm (again, this is optional, but it’s helpful in creating the system):
I am a professional artist who creates images and experiences that awaken, inspire & delight as many people as possible.

I recommend actually writing these down — even better if you do it with a real pen on actual paper! It changes the brain to do this clearly and explicitly. Then post it somewhere you can see it and put your system into your schedule.

I’d love to hear how this works for you and even examples of your Goals/Systems if you’re willing to share them.

Breathe Deep, my friends. Shine Bright. Show Up.

mlk-injustice-anywhere-011517-b
A couple of weeks ago I got a message from my friend, Pam:

Hi Susan, Manu wanted me to tell you about a show he just watched, The O.A., and he thought of you. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to check it out on Netflix, as he describes it as “a metaphysical show about the power of movement.”

Pam and her husband, Manu are religious studies/Buddhist studies scholars who are also fascinated with popular art and culture. When Oscar night comes around, for example, they’ve already seen every nominated film and they have rich, thought-provoking things to say about each one.

A recommendation from Pam and Manu, then, is serious stuff … but with the lure of “the power of movement”? My husband and I had the first episode of The OA queued up to watch that very night.

We devoured all eight episodes in less than a week. Its unusual story line, unconventional storytelling style, excellent acting with a tendency toward mysterious loose ends all appealed to me. But even if I hadn’t loved it, the whole thing would have been worth watching for the incredible and (literally) moving last scene.

No spoilers, but if someone asked me what The OA was about, I would say:

Two different sets of five people
each person is isolated and alone (for a variety of reasons)
each group comes together to learn 5 movements
when those movements are moved together
magic happens

Intellect and thinking are highly prized in our culture while the wisdom and power of movement is hardly even an afterthought. Physical movement that is revered in Western culture is centered on sports and competition. Domination and winning is everything. Collaboration and connection are only considered in the context of a team working toward that winning and domination. Even dancing is turned into a win-lose competition.

By overlooking the wisdom of moving individually and together, our culture clouds the truth of our interconnectedness and dismisses one of the joys of being human. The simple fact that each of us has a body gives us the fundamental right to the pleasure and power of moving uniquely and the pleasure and power of moving together.

Often, when I’m preparing to teach, I choreograph alone in my studio. The movements feel good and connected to the music, but nothing ever prepares me for what happens when a room full of people do those movements together. Each in their own particular way, and all together. It is breath taking. Every single time.

What’s true in the body is true in all realms.

BOTH
I am my own rescue. – Lisa Nichols
(click here for her interview with Steve Harvey)
AND
We are all just walking each other home. ~ Ram Dass

Life is full of paradox. Here’s a big one: we are all responsible for ourselves and we are utterly and inextricably connected to each other. Each side of this paradox is absolutely true. American culture celebrates self-sufficiency and independence to such a degree, though, that we forget that it is impossible to separate ourselves from each other. Impossible.

Martin Luther King Jr., whose life and work we celebrate this week, spoke to this paradox in his 1963 letter from a Birmingham jail:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds. (my emphasis)

If suffering or injustice doesn’t precisely effect us, it’s easy to turn away. But that choice is a turning away from ourselves. The adage “every man for himself” is based on a deep misunderstanding of the inherent interconnection of all life. Instead of freezing or ignoring, bring all your particular skills, talents, and gifts and participate in the movement of everyone.

Dance your own dance and dance it together.


PS: Manu writes a blog about religion and pop culture and one of his recent posts was about The OA (check it out here but note that unlike me he DOES include a spoiler).

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