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Mindfulness

In a recent Contact Improvisation class with experienced teacher and mover, Brad Stoller, he taught about the sensations of full and empty. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the feelings of full and empty in physical movement, in breath and in awareness. Can I feel full without overflowing, without being overwhelmed or overdoing? Can I feel empty without feeling depleted?

Brad taught that full and empty allows for a wider range of movement, sensation, and experience than we might typically feel. Full and empty sounds both mundane and esoteric. We know the idea of full and empty, but how often to we embody them? I’ve been thinking about and experimenting with full and empty in three primary ways: breath, weight and attention.

Breath

“If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly.” ~ Andrew Weil

How often am I breathing in the mushy middle? Most of  my breaths are shallow ones that don’t really fill or empty my lungs. There is aliveness, groundedness, and energy in breathing in fully and emptying completely. You can do it right now: take three deep breaths, drawing as much air as you can in — then take a little extra sip at the top — and then letting go as much air as you can out — then squeezing the last drops out. It’s like working a muscle, stretching and strengthening what hasn’t been used to allow your body to expand its ability to nourish and cleanse itself. It can be a heady business so take your time but full and complete breathing is one of the most healthful, centering, and empowering things you can do for your body, mind and spirit.

Weight

All movement is weight shift. The only way an earth-bound being can move is by shifting weight. It’s common to shuffle or drag our feet, to not really push off the ground but to hesitantly scuffle along with the mistaken notion that it’s safer. I notice this scuffle-tendency in particular when I’m walking up stairs or doing movements that are unfamiliar. Experiment with movement with clear weight shift: really engaging whatever is in contact with the floor to put your full weight into and out of each movement.

You can also do this in your metaphorical weight in life. Decide when to show up with your full weight, your full presence. If something feels important to you, step in fully. If something isn’t important or feels dangerous in some way, step out completely. When you are engaged, engage fully. When you disengage, really disengage. Notice when you are scuffling along in a situation.

Attention

There is a scene is the 1997 movie, As Good As It Gets in which Carol (Helen Hunt) is driving with Simon (Greg Kinnear) and Melvin (Jack Nickolson). Simon is telling her a difficult story about his past and she says, “I’m going to pull over so I can give you my full attention.” Melvin squirms in the back seat since her full attention is exactly what he wants and she is ignoring him. Attention is a powerful thing when we direct it.

Much of the time, our attention is diluted. I’m making dinner and listening to a podcast. I’m driving and thinking about my next class. I’m watching a documentary and making art. As with breath and movement, there is a completely different sensation when I bring my full attention to what I’m doing.

Notice where you are putting your attention and make the choice to bring it fully or to let it go.

Our culture is one of distraction so few of us are comfortable with the sensations of full and empty. This week, see if you can stretch the edges of how completely you are willing to step in…and out.

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How do I know that I’ve had enough sleep?
Enough food?
Enough movement?

I can feel it.
My mind might want to over-rule it, but the “enough” feeling remains.

Cultivate clarity with the sensation of enough.
It’s an important thing to be intimately familiar with.

Knowing the feeling of “enough” can help us avoid injury and stay healthy in our physical lives but it’s also helpful in the rest of our lives.

How do I know when I’ve had enough with a stressful job?
How do I know when I’ve given enough to a relationship?
How do I know when I have enough money?

I can feel it.
You can feel it.
Our minds might want to over-rule it, but the “enough” feeling remains.

Cultivate clarity with the sensation of enough.
It can support us in a myriad of ways.

This week’s post is about intensity. More specifically, it’s about the benefits of mindfully choosing intensity. Even so, the topic can be a little, well, intense. So I offer the post in illustrations and color with a black cat on the side…

I know I find myself doing this. Avoid riding my bike because it’s easier to drive. Avoid doing another back bend because GAH! Do you do this, too? If so…Click here on the link to the research. It’s kind of amazing.

You can do that right now. Take a moment to take a deep breath before you keep reading. Okay, two more reasons to mindfully choose intensity.

To be clear, mindfully choosing intensity does NOT mean to beat yourself up, push yourself to exhaustion or anything like that. This is about feeling the urgency of intensity and allowing yourself to find the place where you are challenging yourself and able to keep breathing, stay balanced and present. Mindful intensity is an opportunity to offer kindness and strength to yourself. SO…

Meow, y’all.


P.S. Let me know what you think about the illustrated post!

I have to take a breath and pause. Stop talking. Sometimes even stop moving. When I do that, I can feel it. Usually.

It can be around something big like Do We Buy This House? Or something small like Do I Put Elephant (Dub) In My Playlist AGAIN? It’s often around, What’s The Best Next Thing For Me To Do Right Now?

If I stop and listen and pay attention, I can feel the sensation of Yes and I can feel the sensation of No. We all can. We’ve all had the sense that something is right – a Yes – or that something is off – a No. For those of us with busy minds, this “gut feeling” can take practice to feel and listen to.

You can do it right now. Think of something that you’re wondering about: maybe what to make for dinner or what to work on next week or what to plant in the garden. Think of one of the options, imagine it happening (imagine that you actually made the eggplant parmesan or planted the pieris japonica) and feel what you feel. Notice particularly what you feel in your belly and heart. It might be subtle and it might take practice but your body knows and will tell you if you listen.

Yes and No are the language of the Body. As I practice, though, I notice another answer that I get a lot. Sometimes, I take a breath and pause and what I feel isn’t Yes or No… it’s GAH.

I get GAH when I think about doing my books, or doing push ups, or emptying the dishwasher. I don’t want to do it even though I know I’ll be glad if I do. I get GAH when I think about squeezing another meeting into the afternoon, or joining another art class, or eating another piece of chocolate. I want to do it but I know that I’ll be sorry if I do.

GAH is what I feel when I want to do something but I know it’s not a real Yes or when I don’t want to do something but it’s not a real No.

Yes and No are the language of the Body. GAH is the language of the mind. The body never lies. The mind, on the other hand, is sometimes a sneaky, no-goodnik, huckster selling a seductive illusion of better-ness.

My mind is always sidling up to me and saying things like, “It’s fine. You don’t have to do all that annoying accounting. You can do it later.” Or, “You’re not THAT tired. You should do more. Do more. Make another call, write another post and take another meeting.” OR, “Dark chocolate has antioxidants in it, you know. And even though you’ve already had two pieces, you should have another.” Sneaky, tricky, no-goodnik stuff like that.

Luckily, the body is still there speaking its Yes and No language while the mind is doing its GAH thing. So when you feel the GAH, relax. Know your mind is just playing around to see what it can get you to do or not do. Relax and feel the Yes and No in your bones, your gut, your heart.

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I know how she felt. I’ve been in plenty of classes when I was hating on something. The room is too hot or someone throws open the window to winter winds. The music is too loud or I can’t hear it or it’s that annoying screechy electronic or repetitive Native American stuff. The teacher isn’t cueing enough or he’s talking too much.

And those are just my grumbles in Nia classes.

The list of things I’ve hated in life is laughably wide-ranging. It includes (but is certainly not limited to) pants without pockets, any nuts or fruit in stuffing, missed free throws, television in the morning, smoking, climate change protesters who drive Suburbans, and okra in anything.

Oh yes. I hate all kinds of things. So I know exactly where she is coming from when she approaches me after class and says, “What do I do if I hate it?”

She is quick to point out that she usually enjoys my classes but the freedance song I played that day, she really, really hated. So what should she do?

We all have preferences. Everybody likes some things and dislikes others. That’s just the way people roll. The problem isn’t preferences. The problem is what we do with them.

My freedance-hating friend wondered if she should leave the room when I play a song she doesn’t like. Or if she should ask me not to use that song/artist/genre in my classes. Or she could hum another song to herself to block out the song she hates.

The options are endless and I’ve heard them all.

“Don’t do freedance.”
“Do all freedance.”
“That music is objectively awful.”
“Those movements are too difficult.”
“Don’t make us get on the floor.”
“Do a whole class on the floor.”

And those are just things I’ve said (usually to myself but not always).

In Buddhism, avoiding that which we don’t like and clinging to that which we do is called shenpa. Traditionally, shenpa is translated as “attachment” but I prefer (ha!) Pema Chodron’s definition “being hooked.” She says,

It’s an everyday experience. … At the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us. … Someone looks at us in a certain way, or we hear a certain song, we smell a certain smell, we walk into a certain room and boom. The feeling has nothing to do with the present, and nevertheless, there it is.  (see Pema’s post on shenpa here.)

When I began teaching, I knew not everyone would love my classes and I pretended that was fine. Bull hockey. I wanted everybody to love my classes all the time. If they didn’t like something, I would change it so they would. You can imagine how well that went.

Instead, the most skillful choice when we are hating something is to lean into it, to feel the direct experience of it without pushing it away, without running, without ignoring it. As Pema says,

The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face. When we feel resentment because the room is too hot, we could meet the heat and feel its fieriness and its heaviness. When we feel resentment because the room is too cold, we could meet the cold and feel its iciness and its bite. When we want to complain about the rain, we could feel its wetness instead. When we worry because the wind is shaking our windows, we could meet the wind and hear its sound. Cutting our expectations for a cure is a gift we can give ourselves. There is no cure for hot and cold. They will go on forever. (from When Things Fall Apart)

So when she asks, “What do I do if I hate it?” I answer, “Feel that feeling. Where is it in your body? Is it tight or hot or jangling? Work with that. Dance that feeling. Are you angry or annoyed or irritated? Use what is actually happening in the moment and go with that.” The ability to meet whatever it is – whether we love it or hate it – is skillful action — and it’s a skill I wish I’d learned a long time ago.

Perhaps paradoxically, by neither clinging nor pushing away, we can taste the uniqueness of the moment and actually be in our lives without wanting to be somewhere else. When you hate it, love on the hate.

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A bunch of times last week, I lost my mind.

Once I was attempting (yet again) to do Crow Pose (Bakasana). I planted my hands on the floor, bent my elbows, put my shins on my upper arm bones, sucked my belly in annnnnd… nope, my feet simply would not come up off the floor. My face got flushed, my heart pounding. I felt frustrated and annoyed that my teacher called this damn pose that stumps me every time.

Another time, I was on Facebook and a friend I haven’t seen since high school made a nasty, personal comment annnnnd… my face flushes, my heart pounds. I fire with fury and dash off a tart retort in which I wonder if maybe he’s donated his heart to science since I’ve seen him.

In these situations (and more!), I lost my mind. More precisely, I lost my prefrontal cortex.

When I get upset and impulsive with my thoughts or actions, it’s a sure sign that I’m at the mercy of the less-evolved parts of my brain. The brain stem and the limbic areas of our brains evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. This lower brain keeps heart beating and breath breathing and when under stress it puts us into the fight / flight / freeze / collapse mode. The limbic area is emotion and memory center and is the home of the survivalist (and oft alarmist) amygdala.

I don’t behave well when my brain stem and limbic area are in charge.

The frontal cortex on the other hand (the outside “bark of the brain”), allows me to think, reflect, manage emotion, regulate information flow, and communicate. These are handy skills when I’m struggling with a difficult posture, a snarky email, or an upsetting conversation. And right in the middle of the frontal cortex, behind your forehead, the prefrontal cortex connects it all. This latest-to-evolve part of the brain takes in what’s going on around you, what’s going in your body, in your brain stem, in your limbic area, in your cortex and integrates it all. Note that it doesn’t turn off the lower brain, the prefrontal cortex integrates it.

An integrated brain is a healthy brain. And it’s one that’s less likely to dash off a surly email or curse a yoga teacher even when under stress.

The question, then, is how do I function from the integration and skillfulness of my prefrontal cortex instead of from my reactive lower brain?

My yoga teacher, Kelly Stine says, “directed, precise awareness in this moment gives access to a broader perspective.” In other words, mindfulness turns on the wisdom, regulation and integration of the prefrontal cortex. By paying attention to the details of what is arising right now – my heart is pounding, my jaw feels tight, my face is hot — I am able to manage my responses and choose more wisely. From a brain development point of view, when I reflect on my inner experience, identify emotions, and pay attention, I literally stimulate the integrative fibers of the brain.

How do I function from the healthy integration of my prefrontal cortex instead of my impulsive lower brain? The answer lies at the intersection of ancient meditation practices and modern neuroscience.

This from Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist

When you breathe in, you bring all yourself together, body and mind; you become one. And equipped with that energy of mindfulness and concentration, you may take a step. You have the insight that this is your true home—you are alive, you are fully present, you are touching life as a reality.

Breathe deep. Pay attention. Get integrated.

– – – – – –

Watch More about the connections between mindfulness and brain science with Dr. Dan Seigel whose work inspired this post.

Mindfulness. Brain Hand Model. Dan Siegel. Empathy and Cognition.

Mindfulness and Neural Integration: Daniel Siegel, MD at TEDxStudioCityED

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If you enjoyed this post, great! Please share it!
And you might also like this one from April 2013: Integration is Health, Part 1

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“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times

When I was a teenager, I took every art class that my little rural Connecticut high school offered. I painted and drew and made silk screens and prints. I took weaving and mixed media and pottery.

I even learned how to throw pots on a wheel.

I was terrible at it. I never made anything bigger or more interesting than a thick, squat, jar-ish thing. And while I wanted to make thin, light tea cups and tall, elegant vases, what I really loved was the feeling of working at the wheel. There was something satisfying about thumping a clump of clay onto the middle of the wheel, getting it slick slippery wet then bracing my elbow against my leg and centering the bumpy clump into a smooth-spinning column of clay.

Then, pressing into the spinning center with thumb and fingers, I would experiment with pulling up sides on the bowl/jar/cup. What I found (over and over) was that I’d be gently pulling up the little wall of clay and it would seem to be going fine. Then something somewhere would come slightly out of center and — whump-whump-schlump — it would fly apart into a bowl/jar/cup tangle. Hunks and chunks of my piece flung in all directions.

I’ve returned to Pema Chodron’s quote about coming together and flying apart many times in the past week. Every time I read it, I see myself hunched over the wheel, gathering the clay together into a cohesive mass, beginning to create something when it suddenly flies to pieces. Then I see my young, perfectionist self, frustrated, shaking my head at my lack of skill, picking up the stray clay hunks and pressing them together to start again.

“Things come together and fly apart. It’s just like that.”

If I’d known about Ani Pema’s teachings then, I would have been cranky and petulant about it. Who am I kidding? I’m still cranky and petulant that my life and the world doesn’t spin into the shape I want it to. I have a vision for how I want it to turn out and how sweet it will be to sip from the cup of my perfect design, but the wheel has other plans. There are irrefutable forces at work that I simply have to work with.

Like it or not, it is the way. Nature is constantly cycling in this way. Waves gather and organize themselves only to scatter on the beach. Plants collapse in and then expand out. Our bodies do it, too. Our blood collects in at the heart and then flies to every cell from fingertip to toe. Breath pulls in and then flies out. Every relationship you have is in some stage of pulling together and separating apart. The entire Universe is constantly expanding and contracting on all scales from incomprehensibly small to unfathomably big.

The cycle is everywhere, happening all the time in everything and yet I resist it. I resist it the most in myself. This week, I’ve fought back tears for fear that once I started crying, I wouldn’t stop. I feel waves (tsunamis sometimes) of anger that I feel like they will consume me. But of course, that isn’t what happens. The tears subside, the anger cools…and then it comes back again. And as Ani Pema teaches, The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

It’s silly to fight it. And yet I do. Even 35 years out from high school and my pot-throwing days, I’m still frustrated by the cycle. I want things solid and stable and as I like them. I’m afraid of the flying apart. Ani Pema’s words remind me to keep coming back and keep making room for all of it.

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