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Letting go

Here’s a question to ponder: What’s the difference between destruction and transformation? (I’ll let you noodle on that for a bit.)

When things feel dangerous, difficult and dark, I long for the miracle of a transformation. I love the idea that change, even radical change, is possible. Not only over glacial eons but real-time, witness-able change.

Take the classic: caterpillar to butterfly. Especially after a long winter, that’s what I’m all about. Until relatively recently, here’s how I thought about the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis:

  1. Bumpy, lumpy caterpillar gorges herself on leaves.
  2. Bumpy, lumpy caterpillar gets more bumpy and lumpy.
  3. Bumpy, lumpy caterpillar cleverly makes a chrysalis. Like I Dream of Jeannie’s bottle, this chrysalis is a groovy little apartment with a little makeup table, velvet pillows and nice-smelling lotions.
  4. As she rests comfortably on her soft sofa, the caterpillar’s sticky, knobby feet elegantly turn into delicate, slender legs.
  5. Out of the bumpy, lumpy caterpillar’s back iridescent wings gently unfold while her body lengthens and narrows.
  6. She gingerly cuts open her groovy little apartment, hangs out for a bit to get her bearings, and then off she flutters looking for lovely flowers to sip on.


As nice as it sounds, it actually doesn’t happen anything like that. This is how Scientific American describes it:

To become a butterfly, a caterpillar first digests itself. But certain groups of cells survive, turning the soup into eyes, wings, antennae and other adult structures.

Digests itself?? Caterpillar soup?? What about the glamorous apartment with the comfy couch and the cute pillows to rest on? What about the calm, organized process of changing from one thing into something else? The science of it sounds like a complete mess and incredibly, unavoidably uncomfortable.

Think about a time of change in your life, when something big was happening. You have a baby (or want to have one and don’t). You get a new job (or lose one). You move to a new city, go on big trip, get a divorce, or your kid moves away. Whatever it was, think about it. Was it neat and organized with soft music playing and a cashmere shawl around your shoulders?

Nope.
(Not for me, anyway. If it is for you, please start writing a blog so I can read it.)

It’s nerve-wracking and crying and fear and mud tracked into the living room and maple syrup spilled in the fridge and pickled herring on the floor. It’s a mess. It’s a life soup. And it’s out of that that something new emerges.

So, back to the original question: what’s the difference between transformation and destruction? On the surface of it, the two seem to be made from the same ingredients. But the difference? Resistance and intention.

Things are going to change. Everything is going to change. Sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. Resisting change, wanting it to be different than it is, is a recipe for suffering. Intentionally flowing with change, seeing possibilities for growth, is a recipe for metamorphosis soup.

It’s not neat. Or pretty. Or organized. There are rarely velvet pillows. It’s better than that. It’s a miracle.

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When I was a girl, my Nana had a wooden toy box in her living room full of old, unusual, fascinating things. There was an antique tin top with a plunger that would spin like crazy. There was an old set of tiddlywinks that were worth playing with just to say the word out loud. There was a classic set of Barrel Full of Monkeys.

But my favorite toy in Nana’s box was a kaleidoscope.

I could sit in the sun on her scratchy orange sofa and look through that thing for hours. (If you’ve never played with a kaleidoscope, here’s what it looks like when you look into it and turn it.)

“Life is like an ever-shifting kaleidoscope – a slight change, and all patterns alter.” – Sharon Salzberg

Our mindful movement practice reveals that all parts of the human body are connected. A movement in any part impacts them all. A misalignment in one place reverberates through your whole form. If one part of the body is in pain, instead of narrowing our attention only to that one part, the real practice and healing come from expanding our attention to the whole system. Sharon Salzberg reminds us that life is the same way.

Unbeknownst to us, when parking our beloved Le Que camper last fall, the roof got a crack in it that has left it open to the elements…for the whole winter. Which was, here in Virginia, the wettest winter on record. The inside of the framing is utterly soaked and ruined. The insurance company confirmed that it is a total loss.

It felt like a punch in the stomach. Traveling together in Le Que has been an adventurous joy. Despite the wretchedness of the discovery, I watched Frank turn the kaleidoscope of the situation. We talked about what we love about Le Que…and some of the things we don’t. We started to look into possible replacements and maybe even possible uses for the injured Le Que. What felt like a mess is shifting into a slew of interesting possibilities.

Kaleidoscope perspective isn’t necessarily one of sunny optimism (although that can be a happy side effect). Kaleidoscope perspective is about seeing the large and the small and all the ever-changing parts. Wayne Dyer suggests “if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” If you are in a disagreement, can you see perhaps the fear behind your side and the unmet needs behind theirs? If you are looking at a sunset, can you see both the expansive swash of colors and the details in the silhouetted branches of the trees? If your team loses in the basketball tournament, can you see the joy in the other team’s faces? (Nope, I can’t do that, either.)

Sarah Susanka, in her wonderful book, The Not So Big Life writes about this phenomenon and how the kaleidoscope shift requires a spacious attention to whatever is happening. Rather than narrowing our focus on one particular thing, we can open our peripheral vision to see more. She writes,

The flow of moments and synchronous happenings occurs whether or not we are present, but it is only when we are present that those dynamics are observable. (p. 145)

Our bodies, minds, emotions, and lives are full of kaleidoscopic changes. Nudging any situation – even a little – can change a simple handful of beads and colored glass into a fascinating, radiant rainbow. All we have to do is stay present and open and see what there is to see.

CALL FOR KALEIDOSCOPES! If you come to classes this week and have a kaleidoscope you’d be willing to share, bring it for show and tell! 


“Oh. Your jaw.”
I’d been dancing with enthusiasm and energy when my wise friend caught sight of me. She gently touched her own jaw with her fingertips.
“Your jaw.”
As soon as she said it, I could feel it: my jaw was stiff and locked. I felt the tension in my face, neck and shoulders. It’s a long-held habit that somewhere in my awareness is connected with not saying what I want to say.
I shook my head a little, opened my mouth and stretched it wide.
Then my dance really took off.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Walking up the path behind my husband, I see his familiar walk, the way he holds his head, the stride of his long legs. And his hands. I see his hands curved into the shape of the hammers and drills and circular saws that he’s used for years. Holding tools that he’d put down long ago.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Where do you hold tension? Do you know? For many of us, the patterns are so old that we don’t even notice them. Is it in your eyes? Your shoulders? Your feet? Your belly?

Chronically held tension in the body isn’t a bad thing. It is a teacher, an instruction of where we are stuck and where needs attention. Chronically held tension is a direct link to our growing edges.

Notice where tension gathers in you. Get curious about it. Instead of immediately shaking it out, inquire into what it has to tell you. What is it doing for you? How is it attempting to help you? What does it need? And what would happen if you released it?


The first time I heard these words, from meditation teacher Phillip Moffitt, I found them simultaneously confounding and profound. He was teaching about grasping and aversion, about clinging and resistance, about wantingwantingwanting and notwantingthatnotatall. He suggested that instead of pushing and pulling and fighting whatever was happening to open attention and simply acknowledge that this is what is happening right now.

Right now, this raspberry tastes sweet and cold and delicious.

Right now, my heart hurts from hearing the news.

Right now, this hot shower falling on my skin feels wonderful.

Right now, my hip hurts.

My mind is so quick to rush to the future — the next raspberry (and the next and the next), the cataclysm of what will become of the world, the apprehension about stepping into the cold bathroom, the fear that my hip will never be well. Instead I can say, “Right now, it’s like this” and just leave it at that.

Amazing.

The other thing my mind is quick to do is to compare what’s happening right now with the past and if it’s similar (even in the smallest way), my mind says, “Oh, I know this. This is the same as that. So I don’t have to pay any attention.”

Which is horse hockey, of course. Every moment is brand new. Every sensation is new. Every feeling/thought/awareness is new.

There is aliveness in this.

Especially when I’m resisting whatever is happening, I love Silvia Boorstein’s practice of choosing to meet each moment fully and as a friend. These two parts are important. It makes a difference to be both all in and with friendliness. She writes about how she uses this practice here. 

One definition of suffering is wanting things to be different than they are. This week, play with the possibility of making space for whatever is happening. Your mind will judge it — good, bad, like, not like — that’s what minds do. But this practice invites us to be with whatever is happening and letting go of the suffering.

Imagine that. No wonder every meditation teacher I’ve ever had says some version of “Right now, it’s like this.”

photo by Rebecca George ~ find her art at https://www.instagram.com/bravedragonfly/

My friend and colleague, Loring Myles, is teaching her last Nia class at acac today. The mother of one of my closest friends is dying. And it feels sincerely unclear to me what the Sam Hill is happening in the world. Endings and uncertainty can leave me wobbly. Which seems like an excellent time to revisit this post from late summer 2013

 

‘The old is not old enough to have died away;

The new is still too young to be born.’ ”

– from John O’Donohue’s poem For the Interim Time

The past few weeks have been full of everything at our house: family visiting from Minnesota, planning for upcoming travels near and far (including buying a camper!?), a parent’s serious illness (and then amazing recovery!), and then yesterday, we took our second (and last) child to college. Lots of broken routines and unexpected twists, lots of emotions of every color and intensity.

After all that, I feel fragile. Like I might crack if I move too quickly. Or at least bruise at the smallest thing: like when I see a parent laughing with (or angry with) their child, or an elder slowly and gingerly crossing a road, or the rich blue late summer sky filled with plumes of white clouds.

My friend calls it “wobbly.” It’s true. The past few days, I’ve felt all kinds of wobbly.

This week, on her (wonderful!) blog, author (and Nia student!) Deborah Prum posted a quote from Frederick Buechner that is full of paradox and wisdom and speaks directly to how I’m feeling. In part it reads, “We find by losing. We hold fast by letting go. We become something new by ceasing to be something old.” This is the interim time that John O’Donohue’s perceptive poem blesses. This is the uncomfortable, in-between time when even a familiar path feels uneven and strange. It’s the time when one thing is over but the next hasn’t yet begun. We’ve cast off from shore into a fog bank with no land is in sight.

In part, it’s the time of year. Kids are going to school, sometimes for the first time, or leaving home. I suspect I am not the only one who watched my boy walk away and wondered how my days will be, how my relationship with my partner will be, and who I will be with him gone. Wobbly questions, indeed.

But it’s not just a fall thing and it’s not just a child-going-to-school thing. We are all in transition all the time. We are all letting go of something and waiting for whatever comes next. For you it may be making plans to move, have or adopt a baby, change jobs or embark on a creative project. You may be preparing for retirement or travel or going to school. And of course, navigating the ultimate transitions of aging, illness, and death in ourselves and in others is so filled with uncertainty and fear that it can plop us smartly on our butts. Whether it’s an exciting something you want, or a troubling something you fear, there is always that in-between feeling when you’re leaving one thing and haven’t yet come to the next.

Most of us shrink from this interim time. The discomfort can be intolerable and we will do whatever we can to avoid it. Our unwillingness to be in the awkwardness of transition can lead to all manner of poor, short-sighted decisions. Fear of the interim time is at the root of rebound relationships, ill-considered next jobs, and even trashy magazine reading in the doctor’s office.

Whatever transitions you are in right now, whatever interim time you are wandering in, remind yourself that this is fertile, important ground to walk. It’s worth spending time in the uncomfortable liminal space. It’s important to stay here, breathe, and not run. As John O’Donohue encourages us:

As far as you can, hold your confidence.

Do not allow your confusion to sqauander

This call which is loosening

Your roots in the false ground,

That you might come free

From all you have outgrown.

Fear not the wobblies. Welcome them, as they are necessary for growth. Fear not the transitional, in-betweenie feeling. Allow yourself to walk wobbly but wise through the transitions for it is the only way to recognize what you have outgrown and see clearly what is next.

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With a new administration taking over in the US this week, I thought it would be a good time to revisit this post about expectations from December 2014. “From Ice to Water, from Water to Steam.” – SJM

Melting Expectations (originally posted December 7, 2014)

“Expectations are resentments under construction.”
~ Anne Lamott

‘Tis the season of expectation. I mean, honestly, it’s practically what December in the U.S. is about. What with the Christian season of advent (complete with an expecting mother and expectation of salvation), children everywhere writing lists of expected gifts, and all of us expecting the light and warmth to return to our side of the planet, expectation is woven into everything.

Desire and intention are one thing … but expectation has teeth. Expectation has an edge. There are inevitable consequences if expectations aren’t met. An expectation means that somebody is attached to an outcome and as a Buddhist teacher once pointed out, “Attachment to outcome: BEEEG problem.”

Especially at this time of year, it seems we have expectations for everything. We have expectations for meals and decorations and celebrations. For the way our friends and families should behave. For the way our children should respond. For way this time of year should feel. And Lord knows we have expectations of ourselves: to give a certain kind of gift, to look a certain way, and to be calm or cheerful or reverent or jolly.

Expectations are tricky and sticky. Trained as we are to gain approval and love from outside sources, most of us are programmed to do whatever we can to live up to expectations. But striving to get love for meeting someone’s expectations (including our own) is the prelude to resentment.

“The genius Taoists constantly give their full presence to scanning their whole body, locating any blocked or hard-to-describe discomforts, whereupon they say ‘Ice to Water, Water to Steam’ and literally use their imagination to SEE that place dissolve and the steam leave their body”. ~ Jamie Catto (see his full post here)

Expectations are the way we think things should be and that feels tight. There is next to no wiggle room in an expectation. Expectations are breath-holding brittleness and they are such a part of our lives that we often don’t realize they are there.

Expectations create tension in our activities, our meals, our parties, in our bodies. Expectations constrict. Something that started out as “I like to do it this way” (or “our family/religion/country likes to do it this way”) can morph into “I always do it this way” and then can mutate into “I have to do it this way.”

Stop reading for a second and notice anywhere where you feel tension in your body. Tension is where energy is stuck. Whether it is in your hamstrings or your heart, your thighs or your throat, tension is the body’s way of signaling to release and let flow. Release tension and more energy is available.

Especially at this time of year, our bodies and our minds can feel tight and dry. Mindful movement is a way of melting the dry tightness and introduces more liquid warmth to our experience. Whether mental, physical, or emotional tension, movement can allow the bristly edges of expectation soften.

Physicality affects the mind and emotions. Even just getting up from your desk to stretch and clear your mind can break up and melt the brittle hardness.

Our thoughts and imaginations affect the physical body. Imagining breathing space around you or light and love in and out of you can relax tension wherever it is lodged.

Sweat and tears and imagination all lend themselves to melting the hard edges of expectation and by extension, reducing the inevitable resentment that follows.

Let your intention be the hot skillet to icy expectation…Ice to water, water to steam.

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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.

On Thursday, I get on a train for Boston to teach a workshop and visit long lost friends. I’ve got piles of work and projects and books for the long train rides and then clothes, of course, dancing and otherwise, and hair products and green tea and all that. I expect I’ll be laiden down when I climb on the train and I can already feel the relief of stowing my gear and settling in for the ride.

There is something that shifts profoundly when we choose to put down whatever we are carrying. The first order of business is paying attention, noticing what we are carrying with us. Particularly if we’ve been carrying it for a long time, it can feel “normal” to worry about your children, for example, or obsess about your weight.

Here are 10 things to investigate: what am I carrying and what does it feel like to put it down?

1. Tension

The body is always a good place to begin. Investigate with a body scan (here’s a body scan for beginners) first large body parts and then narrowing down to smaller and smaller spaces. Where are you holding, can you let it go, even for a little while, and how does that feel? After exercise or just before bed are great times to experiment with this.

2. Stories & Voices

In the dance.sit.create. retreats, we talk a good deal about The Voices: the noise in our heads that we first picked up from other people and the culture at large and then sustained in our own noggins. Pay attention to the stories that bounce around in your head, perhaps unnoticed, and play with gently letting them go. You don’t have to scream at them to go away, just see what it feels like without them for even a few seconds.

3. Beliefs

Beliefs are similar to stories and voices but they can be even sneakier in that we can hold them as unassailably true. A belief along the lines of “I’m too old to do that” might be stopping you in one way and a belief like “I am strong and can do anything” might trip you up in another way. More institutional or cultural beliefs like “it’s not patriotic to do that” or “we don’t do it like that here” might be preventing you from seeing other possibilities or points of view. This isn’t to suggest that you need to abandon your beliefs, just see what it feels like to put them down for a little while.

4. Assumptions

Assumptions live in the future. When I see something and my mind quickly unspools a whole story about what has or will happen, I’m making an assumption. Assumptions are slippery devils to catch since we all make them all the time. The practice is to notice when it happens (it helps when my assumptions are disproved) and put it down. Let the next moment unfold brand new, with nothing attached.

5. Expectations

Similarly to assumptions, expectations are what we create around the future in an attempt to control what will happen. But as Anne Lamott points out, “expectations are resentments under construction.” My expectations for myself, other people, institutions are a set-up. See what happens if you simply put them down and come into direct contact with the present moment.

6. Anticipation

Another resident of the future, anticipation is what we carry when we step toward the unknown. It can be a mix of excitement, anxiety and fantasy (I had an anticipation dream last night, for example, in which I showed up to the workshop and I couldn’t find the stereo, and then couldn’t find my music and as usual in these situations, I couldn’t find my pants). It’s helps me to notice when I’m weaving a sticky web of wondering what will happen that keeps me out of what is actually happening right now.

7. Worries

One of my favorite uses of the word worry is to tear at, gnaw on, or drag around with the teeth. As in, “I sat in the waiting room, worrying a hangnail.” This definition gets at the feeling of continually returning to something over and over again even if doing so is unproductive or even painful. I can worry about something that happened in the past – replaying it on a loop. Or if I’m worrying about something in the future, Bhagavan Das reminds me that “worrying is praying for something you don’t want.” Either way, past or future, worry is an excellent thing to just put down.

8. Fears

Fears are just big worries that similarly live in a future which does not exist. Only the present moment exists. So putting down our fears makes space for responding to the present and making skillful choices. If I’m tied up in fear, I don’t have the same resources or vision of possibilities that I do when I set fear down and be present.

9. Excitement

It seems like a positive thing, excitement, but really it’s like worry, only it’s a positive illusion instead of negative. When I get that fluttery feeling in my chest, I know it’s taking me out of the present and actually living. So I play with putting down even excitement.

10. Hope

As excitement is the other side of worry, hope is the other side of fear. Thich Nhat Hahn says, “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear.” But hope does not reside in the present moment. If just for a little while, to feel the relief of not constructing a better tomorrow, put down even hope. Allow yourself to carry nothing even briefly to create space for what is possible.

BONUS: Habit

It has been said that the strongest force in the universe is the force of habit. We all carry habits in our bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, schedules — everything! Habits are so strong that putting them down unleashes a wave of energy (that often feels awkward and uncomfortable). Playing with breaking habit, even for short amounts of time is a practice that can offer big benefits.

The practice of putting it down doesn’t mean that we will never carry any of these things again. It only gives ourselves the opportunity to feel the relief of not holding on. Instead of habitually toting these things around, putting them down creates the space to make choices about what we really want to carry.

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