A NOTE about the Focus Pocus art: I am in the middle of a book project called Octabusy: How To Let Go in a Sea of Doing. I’m excited about it and want to focus my art-making energy on it. So instead of making complex art pieces for the Focus Pocus blog, I make cartoons like this one that feature characters from the book. This week, the Sea Star (an expert in small steps and choices) goes where she wants to go one tiny choice at a time.

Three years ago this month, my husband Frank and I put an offer on the land on which our house now stands. We made the big choice to build a house three years ago but what got the house built was thousands and thousands of small choices every day. Each night when he came back from working on the project, I’d ask how it went that day. Each night, he’d tell me what they’d done and say, “Little by little, sweetie. Little by little.” Three years later, we’re living in the result of that series of choices.

From September to June, I was part of the coaching team for my friend, teacher, and nutritionist Cecily Armstrong’s transformational healing program called Love Your Body Love Your Life. I loved being part of this experience and witnessing the changes that this group of courageous woman made over the time we spent together. Near the end of the program, a participant shared a story about saying no to toxic food at an office gathering. In response, Cecily said something that keeps coming back to me:

“Small Choices Matter. You Matter.”

How many times? How many times do I intend to do something (or not do something), but when I’m tired or stressed or hungry I don’t. And how many times when this happens, I hear myself say, “Gah, it doesn’t matter.” What Cecily points out is that saying this is really saying “I don’t matter.”

In her program A Year to Clear, Stephanie Bennet Vogt invites this journaling prompt:

• Telling myself that “I matter” makes me feel______ (psst, notice any weather (emotional waves) that arises as you contemplate this statement and breathe into that)

When presented with this prompt, I sometimes bump into feelings of insecurity or old stories of self-importance come up. And it’s worth investigating what is at the root of the stories. Then I can find ways of reinforcing self-worth and the impact of incremental choices on my broader vision.

When Cecily and I were talking about the “small choices” approach and she shared this genius essay by Alexandrea Franzen called Ice. Imagine being in a frozen room and raising the temperature one degree a day. For a long time, it would seem like nothing was happening but keep at it, one degree a day, the cumulative effect of those small choices would transform everything.

Whatever we do over and over, day in and day out – whether conscious or not – is the most powerful force there is. As C.S. Lewis said,

“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different…”

Chart the course with big choices — know where you want to go — but know that the way to get there is with the small choices you make every moment.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

For more information on Cecily Armstrong’s work including her 9-month Love Your Body Love Your Life transformational healing program, you can go to her website and sign up for her FREE online workshops
Cecily Armstrong Web siteWeb siteWeb site
Cecily’s Decoding Your Body’s Wisdom ~ 3 mini-workshops
Cecily’s Decoding Your Body’s Wisdom ~ 1-hour workshop

If you’ve been a Focus Pocus Follower for a while, you might remember a post from several years ago called Be An Ant. It’s a favorite of mine in that it explains a core philosophy that I learned from my husband, Frank. “Be an Ant” is a powerful approach that I do my best to apply every day: do what’s in front of you, little by little, one step at a time. Be an ant. (If you don’t remember the post, do go check it out!)

In the intervening years, I’ve watched Frank “be an ant” over and over. Most recently, I’ve watched him take on the enormous project of building a house with that “ant-y” perseverance. He has a vision for where the project is going and every step of the way, every single day, he moves in that direction. Whether it was building the foundation, framing the walls, hanging the siding or making 15 hand-papered lanterns to hang in our new dining room, he has plugged along without letting the enormity of it all overwhelm him.

And now we have 13 hand-papered lanterns drying all around the house!


These days, I can find myself quickly overwhelmed by the enormity of the suffering in the world. And yet, I can apply the “be an ant” principle to the state of the world just as we did to making lanterns. When I am talking to a bullied gay teen, or listening to a woman stuck in an abusive marriage, or reading the relentlessly hopeless headlines, I can choose to do whatever little thing I can do to help.

Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg says, “Do the good that’s in front of you even if it feels small.”

Step by step, little by little, we can make a difference. That’s being an ant for a hurting world.

CLASS NOTE: This week, Mary Linn Bergstrom and I will be teaching together for these classes:
Tuesday, Nov 6, 840-940am at acac downtown
Tuesday, Nov 7, 545-645pm at acac Albemarle Square
Wednesday, Nov 8, 11-1215pm at acac Albemarle Square
Please join us!

P.S. I can only aspire to his mastery of it, but I’ve used it, too, for big projects and small. Most recently, I used “ant-ing” to create my book, Buddha Cat: Learning Awareness, Presence & Self-Care from a Teacher who Sometimes Barfs on the Bed. Read about my evolving practice of being an ant, in a recent piece I wrote in Streetlight Magazine. Please do take a look.

be an ant 3 leaf cuttersIn 2001, my corporate job and I parted ways.

Don’t you like how I said that? Actually, I got fired. Which stung a little. But the truth was that both of us – my corporate job and me – were not happy. It was just as well that we broke up.

My dream was to teach the mindful movement of Nia. I wanted to help people – big rooms full of sweaty smiling people – get happier and healthier. Back then I had only a couple of classes in the evenings. So in between learning Nia routines and teaching twice a week, I worked with my husband, Frank, renovating old houses.

Here’s what I know about renovating old houses: nothing.

Okay, that’s not quite true. I know that it’s messy, dirty work and that there are power tools involved. I know that Frank takes houses so heinously ugly that I can barely look at them and makes them into homes I pine for. That’s what I know. Not much of a resume, I grant you. But I was sleeping with the owner, so he took me on to do unskilled labor and make lunches that I brought to the site in the kids’ little red wagon.

One of the first things Frank taught me when we were working together was “be an ant.” He would get us started on a project – move all this lumber from here to there, say, or scrape this linoleum off of the kitchen floor, or unload this gravel from the back of the truck – and I would kind of wilt, wide-eyed at the prospect. “Be an ant,” he’d say. “Little by little. Just do what’s right in front of you. Take one more board, scrape this square foot, shovel this shovelful. Don’t look at the whole thing. It will just make you lose heart and energy. Just be an ant and do it one little bit at a time.”

Be an ant. It was simply amazing what we could accomplish with this one little instruction.

Stinky, disgusting rooms were transformed into lovely spaces. Falling down porches or odd concrete platforms became inviting places to sit and relax. Wildly overgrown yards became welcoming, landscaped gardens. All just by being an ant.

One thing about this approach: one of the ants has to have a vision. In this case, it was Frank. He could see clearly the house that was waiting to be uncovered under all the filth, decay, and strange decorating decisions. (Green floral paper and mirrors on the dining room walls? An outdoor hose bib in the stairwell? How do these things happen?) All I could manage was to put my head down and scrape the next square of lino, but Frank? Frank knew what we were creating and every day we took one more step toward that. Frank was our visionary ant.

The principle of being an ant is as true in our bodies and our lives as it is in renovating houses. But we have to be visionary ants. First, imagine what you want to do, create, feel, be and then take a step toward that. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small step that you take. It doesn’t matter if all you do is write about where you want to be in your journal – or on the back of your grocery list. It doesn’t even matter if it’s the wrong step or one you retrace later as long as it is an honest step toward what you want. What matters is taking a step consistently, persistently, every day.

Whatever you want to do — eat more healthfully, get stronger and more flexible, create a new career, travel around the world, whatever it is – be an ant. Do what’s in front of you. Take one step in the direction you want to go.

These days, I don’t work with Frank anymore. I teach more classes now and I’m writing both blog and book. I never really got the hang of the power tools or carpentry and keeping the site organized and bringing lunch in the wagon only got me so far.

But I think of Frank’s lesson to “be an ant” every day. Whether I’m weeding the front garden or creating a new routine or writing an essay, I often look at the whole project and my heart sinks. It’s so much to do! How will I do it all? I’m not sure what the steps in the middle and end will be. What about when I get to things I don’t know how to do? Looking at the whole thing can be a spirit killer, let me tell you.

Then I take a breath and say to myself, “Be an ant. Be an ant. Be an ant.”

Copyright 2006 Liquid Sculpture - www.liquidsculpture.comThe drops of rain make a hole in the stone not by violence but by oft falling. – Lucretius

This week, I’m traveling to the mountains of southwestern Virginia to spend some time in Nature with Frank and friends. As many of us take time away from our normal schedules and routines, I have been thinking persistently about persistence.

It can be easy, in the summer, to let go of positive intentions for making healthier, happier habits or of shifting away from those not-so-helpful tendencies. Why? Well, because, you see, the kids are out of school and I have to drive them more places and we went on vacation and I like to play in the garden and ice cream tastes so good when it’s hot out.

That’s why.

I’m not here to rag on summer for messing up our path toward growth and overall enlightenment. On the contrary, I think it’s good and healthy to break out of our patterns and shake things up at least a couple times a year. My suggestion is, though, to set an intention for getting back to those helpful practices when you come back from your vacation/taking the kids to the pool/the ice cream spree.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common that unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” — Calvin Coolidge

There are many ways to support ourselves in maintaining or returning to the practices that sustain us. One of my favorite thinkers on the subject is Leo Babauta on his ZenHabits blog and one of my favorite posts of his on the subject is called The Four Habits that Form Habits. What I’m talking about here is really about Habit #4: Have a Plan for When you Falter. Presume that summer will set up some kind of obstacle that will take you away from your intention. The suggestion is to make a plan for getting back to doing what you want to be doing.  Accountability is big in this endeavor.  Get a buddy to do it with you or at least tell somebody your intention.  It makes a huge difference.

“The most essential factor is persistence – the determination never to allow your energy or enthusiasm to be dampened by the discouragement that must inevitably come.” — James Whitcomb Riley

This summer, I knew wanted to continue my yoga practice even though I knew I’d be away for several weeks. My intention is to take yoga every day that I’m in Charlottesville this summer. So the day after Memorial Day, I started a 30-Day Yoga Challenge: 30 classes in 30 days (I did 33 days, actually  — just finished this morning!) Mostly, it was great fun and I feel really good…and there were definitely days that it would have been easier not to go. That 615am class comes right early, I’m telling you what. But I knew that my other Challenge Buddies would be there and my teachers were encouraging me, so I really wanted to show up and put the date on the chart at the end of class. I was mostly happy once I got there (maybe with the exception of the evening that they’d cleaned the carpets — it was so humid it was like doing yoga under water). When I get home again, I’m planning a 38-Day Challenge from the last week of July to the end of August! I’ll let you know how that goes.

So what would you like to do more of this summer? Where could you apply some persistence to help yourself do/be/have what you’d really love? Woody Allen famously said that “80 percent of success is just showing up.” And while we have to do our best even at the 615am yoga class, showing up really is the biggest and most challenging part. So get your butt on your meditation cushion. Tie on your sneakers and go for a run. Buy and prepare some green veggies this week. Make a commitment not to yell at your kids. You’ll falter, you will. It’s the nature of things. What is key is what your response is when you do.

One step at a time. Drop by drop, my friends, we can make the Grand Canyon!
Have a great week!

PS For my ACAC Nia friends, all of my classes this week will be taught by other members of the fabulous ACAC Nia team. Check out the teaching line up throughout the summer (and any time you want to know the latest info on who’s teaching when) at the ACAC Web site.

“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” ~ Lao Tzu

May 1, 2012.  The first day of my Radical Sabbatical, and it was a glorious spring day.  The sun was out, the breeze was cool and the sky was azure blue.  I was dying to be out in it.  I wanted to feel the warmth and the wind on my skin.  I wanted to see what was blooming and how the river was flowing.  I wanted to sweat in the open air.  So I went for a run.  Okay, more of a jog.  Maybe a walk decorated with brief moments of elevation.

It wasn’t pretty, my friends.  Since a bout with plantar fasciitis last fall/winter (click here for the posts on that), I hadn’t attempted any running at all and in addition, my left hamstring was tighttight.  Even in the best of my running days, I was more Clydesdale than gazelle and on this morning, I was decidedly warthog.

But what the heck?  My sabbatical had begun!  It was a time for experimentation and the call of the outdoors was strong.  So tally ho and all that!  Out I went.

When I’d run in the past, sports watch and Walkman were my constant companions (oy, Susan, how old are you?  I mean iPod, of course).  I wanted to know how fast I was going and how long I’d been out.  I was always preparing for a class or learning or choreographing a new routine, so earbuds inserted, I mentally tracked the music as I moved along the river trail.

This time though, on May 1, I ran “naked”:  no watch, no music.  As I shuffled along, I took in the scene and scents along the river, and received (a boatload) of information from my body.  Did I mention that it wasn’t pretty?  It wasn’t pretty.  I didn’t go fast or far.  When I came to the hill up Hazel Street that led back home, I groaned (audibly) and walked up it (slowly).

Everybody knows Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare.  Slow and steady wins the race, right?  And here’s the thing about it:  the only way the tortoise wins is if it’s a long distance race.  In order for persistence to prevail, I have to be looking at the long view.  And the only way the whole enterprise makes sense is to be present in (and, with luck, enjoying) the moment.  That is the philosophy of Turtle GO!:  be present and persist, with kindness and care just a little at a time.

Turtle GO! is a way of making choices about where I put my energy.  One of the ways I think about the choices I make is to ask myself, “If I keep doing this thing over and over, where will it take me?  And am I interested in going there?”  If I want to be able to enjoy running outside, but I consistently choose to have a second cup of tea and hang out on Facebook, I’m not likely to be gliding along the river trail in September!  If I want to eat more vegetables, I can move in that direction one meal, one snack, one bite at a time.  If I want to mediate more often, the best way I know to get there is to keep doing it, a little at a time.

Turtle GO! is about a certain kind of discipline.  One of the important learnings for me has been that it is not a perfect, absolute discipline and in fact, it is a discipline of presence and kindness.  There was a time when nothing could get between me and my workout.  Nothing.  Not family, not a holiday, not an ice storm, nothing.  That kind of obsessive intensity didn’t support me, and didn’t take me to a happy place.  It took me to a closed and disconnected place.  I don’t have any interest in going there now.  For me, it is important to have ease and care within the long view.  It all works best if I don’t put a vice grip on myself, but look at the big picture with soft eyes.   I can ask myself, “Am I generally moving in the direction I want to go?  Am I making the choices that take me there most of the time?”  If I am, then a day or two of not running as far as I did the day before or not running at all, are not just totally fine, they actually help me stay connected to the process.

The second piece of the Turtle GO! approach is the importance of being present and in the moment.  This relates to the Discipline-Without-Going-Crazy-and-Obsessing idea.  That first morning I went out along the river, while I did enjoy the sun and the air and the scenery, my body was saying, “Holy Moly, woman!  What are we DOING??”  My body wasn’t used to running, and it was uncomfortable in the unfamiliar movement.  I listened to her protests.  I didn’t go far, and I walked when I needed to.  When I got home, I drank lots of water and stretched for a long time.  Pushing is not what Turtle GO! is about.  Turtle GO! is about listening closely to what is happening in the moment, and nudging myself forward a little at a time.

A little at a time is The Body’s Way.  Our physical forms react most positively and most long-lastingly to small changes made over time.  My friend and Nia trainer, Helen Terry, tells the story of a student who came in to her classes with widely everted feet (commonly known as “duck feet”).  He wanted to work toward parallel feet to protect his joints, so whenever he was in Nia class, he would consciously and studiously line up his toes and make his feet parallel.  And as soon as he walked out of class – quack! – his feet would splay out again.  Helen suggested that instead he make the change more gradual and consistent.  She suggested making the change “a thumb’s width” at a time.

Turtle GO! is about a consistent change made little by little with awareness.  Rather than forcing or bullying myself, it’s about lovingly encouraging myself to make the small choices and micro decisions that help move me in the direction I want to go.  If I find lots of resistance, it is a chance to look at what is at the root of the resistance.  Am I afraid of failing?  Afraid of succeeding?  Have I changed my mind about where I want to go?  Depending on what the answer is, I can make choices from there.  Always gently and easefully; consistent and persistent.

Within the process of Turtle GO! there might also be great epiphanies and break-throughs.  There are days when I go faster and farther along the trail than I thought I would or could.  There are moments of huge expansion and growth.  And just like the times of contraction or resistance, I don’t make it the expectation or the norm.  I just keep taking steps in the direction I want to go – sometimes big strides, sometimes not so big – just moving myself along.

I’ve used my Turtle GO! approach for lots of things:  from eating habits to teaching Nia classes to writing this blog.  I keep asking myself, “If I keep doing this, where am I likely to end up?  And is that a place I want to go?”  For me, it’s much more approachable and easeful to say “I’m going to sit on my mediation cushion for 5 minutes and increase gradually” rather than “I’m going to meditate every day for 30 minutes.”  Yikes.  In my experience, lots and lots of small choices and little decisions add up in a big way and in a hurry.

In the two months since May 1, I’ve continued to get out and run along the river trail a couple times a week.  Every time I go out, I go just a little tiny bit further.  Maybe just a few yards.  On that long Hazel Street hill back to my house, I started running up just a little part of it, and then just a little more.  The day I ran all the way up Hazel Street, it didn’t feel like a strain.  It felt like a natural part of the process.

Let’s be perfectly clear here:  I am still no gazelle and I will not be entering any marathons any time soon but I feel pretty good on my jaunts along the river and soon I may change my route to play with going a little further.  Or maybe I’ll see someplace else I want to Turtle GO!  This week, ask yourself where you want to go and what is one small thing you can do to move in that direction?  Then take just one little step consistently and persistently, remembering the famous words of Mother Teresa, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

GO! with great love, my turtle friends!

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