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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.

It’s true: I’m an anti-resolutionist. Resolutions are the what. Intentions are the why. Resolutions tend to be narrowly focused. Intentions are more spacious. I think if you really want to get to the heart of what you want to create in your life, focus on the feeling and on the why.

In my post this week, I referred to an exercise for finding the intention behind a resolution. Below I expand on that and add two additional ways to intentionally set your course for 2016.

1. Let It Get You In The Feels

Think of something you want and imagine yourself fully possessing it. What do you see when you have it? What do you hear? What do you smell and taste? Who is with you or are you on your own? And most of all, what do you feel? Inside and out? Physical and emotional? What do you feel like when you have this thing you want?

Get crystal clear on the feeling that your desire will give you. Then close your eyes and let the desire fade out of your imagination and let the feeling stay strong. With the feeling in mind, think of as many activities/situations/people/experiences that already give you that feeling in your life. Then think of other ways that you can get that feeling. Focus on the feeling and expand your imagination and make a list of as many ways as you can that you can get that feeling…including, perhaps but not necessarily, the thing you started out wanting.

Do this exercise with anything you feel a strong desire for to get to the heart of what you really want.
(inspired by Jamie Catto’s Practical Magic workshop)

2. Meditate On It

Make a list of all the resolutions your conscious mind wants you to make: all the things you think you should (or should not) be doing. Be exhaustive: let your mind list everything it can think of in all categories from career to family, health to friendships, spirituality to social action. Then set the list aside and meditate for 10 minutes: just sit quietly, follow the sensation of your breath and the sensations in your body. If you start thinking about your resolution list, just let it go and come gently back to your breathing. After sitting for 10 minutes, make a new list of what your heart wants. Are the lists the same or different? Which do you feel the most energy around? (inspired by The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World by Brenda Miller and Holly J. Hughes)

3. One Little Word

Since 2011, I’ve followed the inspiration of Ali Edwards and chosen one word to set my course for the year. It’s a simple and powerful way to make choices and focus my energy on what I want to create. The process of choosing my word is one of opening up my awareness to see what presents itself. When I stop over-thinking it, I feel like my word chooses me. Here are the words that chose me for the past few years:
2011 ~ Open
2012 ~ Release
2013 ~ Spacious
2014 ~ Worthy
2015 ~ Freedom
Let your mind relax and see what feels like your word for 2016. I’m still noodling on mine. When I have it, I’ll share it. I hope you will, too.
(inspired by Ali Edwards’ One Little Word project ~ I did her program for several years and highly recommend it!)

Do you make resolutions or intentions, set goals or choose a word to set your course for the new year? Share yours in the comments below or at the Focus Pocus Facebook page (I’m offering a gift of art meditation to all commenters and sharers)!

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.

In the London underground, there are reminders on the platform to “Mind the Gap.” In American, that means don’t fall and get squished by a train. Our practice is actually to Find the Gap: even in the midst of a harried season, to find the spaces of peace that are always available.

mind the gapAt this time of year particularly, I need this reminder. When I find myself wrapping presents while watching basketball with my husband and preparing for my classes while working in the kitchen and squeezing one more errand in on the way home, I can forget that peace and stillness really are right there with me.

In Nia, we call it Living Meditation: the ability to notice what is still in the midst of movement, what is silent in the midst of noise, what is resting in the midst of effort. It’s part of why mindfulness is a super power and here are 5 ways to practice finding the gaps that are all around us.

1. Pause
Take a handful of deliberate pauses during the day. In the midst of whatever you are doing, stop and take three deep breaths. See if you can simply be present to what is happening internally and externally. Maybe as you stand at the sink or wait at a red light or while you are walking: pause, breathe, feel the sensation of the gap.

2. Labeling meditation – Sensation, Image, Thought…
One of my meditation sisters taught me a labeling meditation that is particularly helpful when my mind and life is over-busy or stressful. Simply sit quietly and when something comes into your awareness, make gentle mental labels of Sensations, Images and Thoughts. If your feet are cold or you knee is sore, gently say to yourself “Sensation.” If you see visions of sugar plums or maybe piles of laundry, quietly note, “Image.” If you start planning how to attack your to-do list or worrying how the holiday dinner is going to go, make a mental note of “Thought.” Sometimes, you might also notice when none of the three are happening … and that is the gap.

3. Listen to the Music
Put on a piece of music that features multiple musicians – a band or orchestra or chorus – and listen for when a musician is playing and when she isn’t. This is also fun to do while watching musicians play (even better when live!): watch the one that isn’t playing. Listen for the gap.

4. Watch the Non-Speaker
Similarly while watching movies or plays, pay careful attention to the actors who are not speaking. Notice that it’s not that they are doing nothing, but they are leaving a gap for another player’s words to be spoken. You can do this in your own conversations, too, by dropping into the listening gap when someone else is speaking and being aware of the other person when they are in the gap.

5. Zone out
Give yourself a few minutes to do nothing. Crazy as it may sound, just stop and zone out. Watch a bird fly or a cat watch a bird fly. Gaze at the fire. Let the warm water of a shower flow over you. Slide into the gap.

find the gap

What are other ways you find the gap? Share them in the comments below or at the Focus Pocus Facebook page!

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Peace is all around us….It is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

‘Tis the season of speed. December feels like teetering at the top of a black diamond slope when I don’t feel particularly confident on my skis. Big breath. And. Here. We. Go.

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It doesn’t matter what traditions you follow or holidays you celebrate (or don’t). At this time of year, the glittery figgy pudding layer of tinselly, ornamental cacophony isn’t an option. In December, it’s the water we swim in. I resist the superficial, consumerist, cheap-feeling noise, but I’m sure it will change and slow down as soon as money isn’t a driving force in our culture.

So never. It’s going to change never.

Along with the crunchy sugar plum coating of Christmas all around us, often comes an extra layer of happenings at home. Sending cards greeting the season (family photos with color-coordinated outfits and Over-Cheerful-Holiday-Letters optional) need addresses to find and notes to write and adorable snowman stamps to buy. There are presents, of course, for children and family and friends and co-workers and wrapping and tagging and mailing or cheerfully hand-delivering. There are special meals and do we make what we always make or do we have something different or do we order sides from the grocery store or go out? And there are outfits for special church services and concerts and parties and does that jacket still fit him and does she need new tights and I should probably get a haircut but when?

I’m not being a Grinchtastic, Scroogey, grumpy pants here, really. (Even though I sometimes fit that description, that’s not my point in this particular instance.) If we presume that you totally love this time of year and you don’t have any stress about the shopping and preparation and dealing with Auntie Susan at the dinner table, if we presume that you’ve never lost anyone or you aren’t missing anyone, if we presume that this time of year for you is simply a feeling of home and love and connection and family and sacredness, well, if we presume all of that, then you’re probably 6.

So if you’re 6, this doesn’t (necessarily) apply to you.

But if you’re not 6, even if there is nothing but joy for you in this season, all of those special things about this time of year are layered on top of the life you already have. There is still work to do (and if you’re in retail or e-commerce there is an unending truck-load of work) and meals to make and laundry to fold and kids to get to hockey practice or the swim meet or (shudder) The Frost Bite Soccer Tourney.

The holiday jolliday time of year piles a layer of activity and busy-ness on top of our already busy, full lives. And those busy, full lives are really a reflection of our busy internal lives. Like a relentless ticker-tape of news running along the bottom of the screen, our minds are thinking and remembering and planning all the time (numbers vary, but we think somewhere between 20,000 and 70,000 thoughts a day).

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In this time of year particularly, we are squashed under layers of internal and external complexity and movement and urgency and expectation. Some people love the energy and excitement, some feel frayed and frenzied, some feel down and depressed by it all. Many of us feel a sloppy cocktail of all of it.

Wherever you fall on the holiday spectrum, peace and space and calm is not only possible, it is always available, always happening. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, it’s just a matter of practice.

Meditation teachers call it The Gap: the space between. In sitting practice, we bring attention to a space between inhaling and exhaling – a little place of neither breathing in nor breathing out. The Gap is the (sometimes teeny tiny) space between thoughts – a neither/nor place of rest.*

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What is so in the mind is so in the world: there are gaps everywhere if we know where to look.

In language there are spaces between words. Without it, we could understand nothing.

words require gaps

Music is both silence and sound. Notes play and stop. Instruments sound and quiet, vocalists tone and stop, percussionists strike and hold.

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A film looks like fluid movement but is actually a succession of still pictures.

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Practicing mindfulness — on the cushion, in the studio, on the mat, behind the wheel — helps us slow things down so we notice the gaps all around us. Even in the midst of a world-class sprint or an all-out hip-hop dance or a holiday shopping season, there is always something at rest.

Always a gap.

It’s just a matter of seeing it, and sliding in.



If you like this post, you might also enjoy this one! Go ahead, you have time.

* For more on The Gap from a meditative perspective, see Meditation Myth #2 in Deepak Chopra’s short piece and the transcript of a (longer) talk by Osho.]

when did you stop black dog“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a shaman or medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask you one of four questions: When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence? Where we stopped dancing, singing, being enchanted by stories, or finding comfort in silence is where we have experienced the loss of soul. Dancing, singing, storytelling, and silence are the four universal healing salves.” ~ Angeles Arrien, Cultural Anthropologist

Anxiety and depression have been part of my life since adolescence. For me, they don’t take the form of staying in bed all day or binge-watching Downton Abbey. For me, depression feels like a cold, heaviness that folds itself around my chest and anxiety feels like a jittery monkey wrapped around my head. When depression and anxiety move in, things I usually do with ease take enormous energy. My negative inner dialog gets so deafening that I feel unworthy of any goodness. I am a bear to live with although I pretend I’m not. I feel utterly incompetent but I pretend I’m fine. This World Health Organization video captures the feeling of depression for me (anxiety, on the other hand, has a decidedly more electric vibration). I’ve never had it bad. I’ve never had a big black dog, but I’ve had a medium-sized black beagle. And that was enough.

When I struggled the most with anxiety and depression, I did ask for help (sometimes the most difficult part of healing). I’ve seen a psychiatrist and have taken a handful of medications. I’ve done talk therapy with a string of therapists on and off and on again for years. For me, the medicine and the talking helped but what really made a shift was when I began to explore what Angeles Arriens calls the “universal healing salves”: dancing, singing, storytelling, and silence.

Everybody feels “disheartened, dispirited, or depressed” sometimes. Everybody deserves healing. And everybody is different. Depending on your chemistry, constitution and circumstances, a variety of approaches can offer relief from the black dog or the monkey on your head. In my own journey with dog and monkey, I notice that our Western medical culture has a tendency to rush to medication and professional help when there may be other, simply human practices, the “universal healing salves” that can offer healing, too.

When did you stop dancing?

The human body is designed to move. Moving, particularly in mindful and expressive ways, can unleash all manner of healing energy. Choose movement that you love, in which you can breathe fully, and that gives you pleasure. Whatever it looks like for you, breathe deep and dance.

When did you stop singing?

The physical act of singing, making sound and letting the vibration move through the body heals from the inside out. Whether you sing in church or the shower, chant Sanskrit or cheers for your favorite team, open your mouth and sing.

When did you stop being enchanted by stories?

Some of my most profound healing has come in writing and telling my own stories. Journaling can be a powerful tool for making sense of feelings and life. But even if that doesn’t appeal to you, find stories that do: read a book that you love (either a new one or one from childhood), listen to other people tell their stories, or watch movies that tell stories that enchant you. Stories can bring us together with the wide human experience, so use them as the salves that they are.

When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?

Modern life is a cacophony of talking and television, Muzak and sirens — a constant stream of noise. Making the conscious choice for silence and stillness can calm even the most rattled nervous system and is a deep salve for the soul. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or special. Just sit quietly for a few minutes every day.

If you suffer from depression or anxiety or anything that is sucking the life out of you, know that you are not alone. There is no shame in your suffering. Please ask for help and seek out the care that is right for you. You deserve healing.

One reality of being human is that we are all always healing something. Regularly incorporating the four universal healing salves into our days is a skillful choice. May these and whatever other healing salves work for you ease the depression dog off your chest and the anxiety monkey’s fingers from your face.

when did you stop marion and monkey

March is Meditation Month. It’s a great time to begin a sitting practice or to come back to a neglected cushion. I’ll be offering occasional posts from and about my own practice. May they be of benefit.


“Do you feel that tingling? Right below the surface of your skin? That tingling is more who you are than bones or blood or skin.” ~ Kelly Stine

Mindfulness practice, at its core, is a gratitude practice. If I really take it in, if I really pay attention to life, it’s breath-taking. Amazing. If I really notice the world, I cannot help but be grateful (for all of it, even lost earrings and taxes and reality TV).

Most of the time, though, we just blithely move through our days without noticing how flipping incredible the world is. Mostly, we’re outrageously casual about the miracles that are unfolding in and around us. Strawberries in February? Of course. Airplanes that can get us to the other side of the world in a day? Sure, but does it have WiFi? The warm roughness of my best friend’s hand? Nice, but did he take out the trash? The fizzy, bubbling-over feeling of a sneeze. Yeah, but it’s such a goofy sound.

Mindfulness helps me truly receive the amazingness of living ~ even when it’s difficult or painful. Being fully present to what is on offer in the moment, is an act of waking up to the gifts of life. I mean, right now I’m wearing a sweater that was made in Iceland! Iceland, people! And there are pine trees and butterscotch (I don’t even like butterscotch, but still!) and Japanese Wallpaper. Incredible.

And then there is the mystery. What about that tingle just under your skin? What is that? Is it what keeps my heart beating year after year? Is it what makes my breath and blood flow? Or is it something else? Is that tingle what makes me me?

Out in the world, in my day, mindfulness helps me fully receive the gifts of living. The tangible, present moment wonderment of smells and tastes and color and sound. The amazement of art and technology and Nature.

And on my cushion, I can feel that tingle. On my cushion, I can feel the enormous mystery of it all. That which we can see and touch and taste and that which is invisible and we know nothing about.

28-Day Meditation Challenge ~ Day 28
Saturday, February 28, 2015

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The Three Noble Principles:
Good at the Beginning.
Good in the Middle.
Now, good at the End.

May the merit of this practice serve to benefit all beings.
May the merit this practice lead to happiness and the root of happiness
May the merit of this practice bring an end to suffering and the root of suffering
for all beings everywhere.

Dance on.
Shine on.
Sit on your cushion.
Namaste, friends.

In February, meditation teacher and author, Sharon Salzberg sponsors a 28-Day Meditation Challenge. Everybody is invited to commit to meditating every day for the month and join the mindfulness community. As part of the challenge, I’ll be blogging throughout the month (along with other meditator/bloggers) about the experience. You can find the posts on Sharon’s site and I’ll share mine on Focus Pocus.

28-Day Meditation Challenge ~ Day 27
Friday, February 27, 2015

28 Day Challenge aspen leaf pub dom

“We practice meditation in the end not to become a great meditator but to have a different life.” ~ Sharon Salzberg

Sharon’s post this week has stuck with me. I do not practice meditation to get better at meditating but to get better at living.

At meditation group last night, my friend (and Balanced Hedonism Queen) Sandra Savine said, “Unconsciousness is painful.” My unskillful words and actions have caused all kinds of suffering…and still do. I sit to be more conscious.

It’s true for other practices, too.

In Nia, I don’t practice a heel lead and outward block to get better at them. I practice the movements to pay attention to how I do what I do.

In yoga, I don’t practice Crow to get better at Crow. I practice Crow to practice doing something that scares me and that I can’t do (yet).

I don’t get on the dance floor to become a better mover. I move to notice my habits and tendencies and to approach them with curiosity and compassion.

I don’t show up on my mat every day to get better at yoga. I show up on my mat to get better at being a person.

It’s not about getting better at the practice, but about getting better at life.

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