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.

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

– – – – –

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


“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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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.

Watch any political debate these days and what you see is a whole lot of black and white. It’s all or nothing, you are with us or against us. Gray is not a color that politicians readily sport.

Which is unfortunate, since real life is full of everything: good fortune and loss, gratitude and sadness, grief and joy. And while it is a cultural tendency to avoid the dark and make the light fluorescent, whole-hearted living requires that we are able to contain all of it, not just the happy bits. What’s more, life asks us to allow the contrasts to concurrently coexist.

Especially in the holly-jolly, jingle-bell-rock, Christmas-sweaters-that-light-up season, it can be a radical act to allow contrasts of sensation, thought, and emotion to reside together. In fact, it is a radical act that takes practice. Here are 4 ways to allow yourself to hang out in the Both/And.

1. Heart & Breath
Right now, or in any moment, slowly take a breath in and feel your heart beating at the same time. Notice the physical contrast of the pulse of heart and the flow of breath as they happen together. You might begin to feel the pulse in places other than your chest – perhaps your hands or face or belly. And you may notice, too that your breath can flow beyond your chest and into your hips, your neck, your feet. Both pulse and flow are always happening simultaneously, right in your own skin.

2. Heavy & Light
A wonderful meditation on Insight Timer by Jennifer Piercy called Yoga Nidra for Sleep invites awareness of heavy and light at the same time. Begin by inhaling and feeling the sense of lightness, even floating or dissolving. Then exhale and feel a grounded heaviness, a rooted density. Alternate with the breath: inhale, light; exhale, heavy. Then continue to breathe and feel both at the same time.

3. Rhythm & Melody
Slide on a favorite set of headphones, get relaxed and alert, and listen to a piece of music. Notice first the rhythmic patterns and then the melodic flow. Notice how rhythm and melody weave and together to create a harmony that does not exist without the other. See if you can feel the melody within the rhythm and the rhythm within the melody.

4. Emotional Investigation
Whenever you are feeling a strong emotion, pause and allow yourself to feel the nuances. Whether you are listening to beloved music of the season, watching a child open a gift, feeling irritation at the dinner table or bereft because someone is missing – give yourself a moment and really feel everything about the emotion. It’s rare that any emotion stands alone: happiness can intertwine with wistfulness, anger and fear often stand together, grief and gratitude can nestle against each other. Whatever it is, notice the contrasts and generously allow them all to coexist.

Give yourself the gift of experiencing concurrent contrasts rather than the black/white, good/bad, us/them paradigm. How do you hold the contrasts of the season (or any time)? Share your experience in the comments below or at the Focus Pocus Facebook page (I’m offering a gift of art therapy to all commenters)!

season of contrast globes 121915

What is up with me and this time of year? I find myself feeling all awkward and wonky like clapping off the beat and tripping over the curb.

I’m not one for organized religion but even my odd spiritual amalgam does allow me to see that this is a special season in many ways. It’s just that I feel out of sync and clumsy for most of it.

Perhaps more than any other time of year, there are a whole tangle forces at work: nature and culture, sacred and secular, light and dark, giving and receiving, grief and celebration. Life is always full of everything but in December, there is a lot more of everything. In fact, part of the reason I feel buffeted by the holidays is that this is the season of contrasts and contradictions.

For example,

  • Our side of the earth will be its darkest in just a few days. Nature’s natural cycle lends itself to nurturing introspection and healing rest now. And yet, flash-sparkly lights are strung on everything that doesn’t move and some things that do. The artificial pop and shimmer can be fun, breath-taking, delightful… and disorienting.
  • Temperatures drop (usually) into the windshield-scraping zone which makes me want to snug-bundle by the fire with an unending pot of tea and the warm, quiet company of cat and man. And yet, we have more parties and gatherings and high-heel-wearing occasions in the next two weeks than in any other time.
  • Gratitude and generosity are at the heart of the season. I love offering gifts of love to the people for whom I am thankful all year. And yet, it is also now when empty chairs are painfully obvious. Whether separated by distance or death, anger or the Army, feelings of loss stand fully alongside those of connection.

With all these wildly contrasting forces at work, it’s no wonder I feel a little scrambled up inside: I’m swinging between life’s extremes and after a while, that swinging makes me want to put my head down.

Instead of swaying back and forth between contradictory conditions, what happens if I opened enough to feel both at the same time? Appreciate the inky depths of the solstice sky and the simultaneously glowing moon. Snuggle into the warmth and nurture of company and community. Fully feel the complicated love for those who are here and those who aren’t.

Simultaneously light and heavy, bright and dark. Giving and receiving. Grateful and grieving.

A tricky balance, I grant you, but perhaps less confusing and unsettling to feel it together.

Contrasts coexisting concurrently.


LEAVE A COMMENT, GET A GIFT ~ ‘Tis the season of appreciation for Focus Pocus readers! Please add a comment below or at the Focus Pocus Facebook page and I’ll send you a gift for creative meditation! You can choose from the super-cool one from last week about The Gap (it’s got a hidden message!) or a new one for this week (which I haven’t made yet so who knows what it will be!). ❤


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.

black diamond december 121315

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.*

meditation gap 121315

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.

notes gaps 121315

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

film gaps 121315

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.]

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