Pleasure / Pain

If you’ve taken a class from me in the past few years, you might notice that at the end, we offer this dedication of merit:

May the merit of this practice serve to nourish the seeds and roots of happiness. May the merit of this practice serve to dissolve the seeds and roots of suffering.

I’ve been practicing mindful movement for 20 years, but I don’t practice to get better at moving. I practice to get better at living. I don’t practice to be a better dancer or to be able to do Bird of Paradise pose. I practice to get better at being human. I practice in class and on my mat and on my cushion so I can go out into the world and live more skillfully. Dedicating merit is an acknowledgment of this deeper intention behind the physical movement and form.

The idea of dedicating merit is that by practicing, we are doing something beneficial, something wholesome, and that we can then choose to take that benefit and offer it into the world. While my personal practices definitely offer me personal benefit, dedicating the merit expands my view of it. Rather than making my practice all about me and the good things it does for me, I can choose to send it out to where it’s needed. This broadens my view not just of my practice but of my place in the complex web of the world. (Lama Palden Drolma wrote a wonderful piece on dedicating merit that articulates the desire to expand the goodness beyond the self. I hope you’ll read it. You can find it here.)

May the merit of this practice serve to nourish the seeds and roots of happiness. May the merit of this practice serve to dissolve the seeds and roots of suffering.

They are interesting questions, aren’t they? What are the seeds and roots of happiness? What are the seeds and roots of suffering? I might say swimming in the ocean or dancing with my friends or a square (or three) of dark chocolate make me happy. I might say that an achy low back or witnessing the abuse of power or losing someone I love cause me suffering. But those are just specifics. What are the seeds and roots?

Buddhists have been thinking about these questions for thousands of years and they identify greed, hatred and ignorance, or The Three Poisons, as the root causes of suffering. (I love this down-to-earth post by Kaitlyn Hatch about this.)

While it can be intellectually interesting and enlightening to explore Buddhist philosophy on these questions, I am a simple woman who can easily get lost in the weeds of thought. Here’s how I think about it: suffering is simply wanting things to be different than they are. When I want things to be different than they are, I either want more of something or less of something. The seeds and roots of suffering are grasping (wanting more) and aversion (wanting less). The seeds and roots of happiness are letting go of wanting more or less and being with whatever is happening just as it is.

May the merit of this practice serve to nourish the seeds and roots of happiness. May the merit of this practice serve to dissolve the seeds and roots of suffering.

Dedicating the merit is dedicating ourselves not just to our own betterment, to our own well-being but to the betterment and well-being of all. All people, all creatures, all beings everywhere. Given the state of the world, this is insanity, of course. Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, recognizes the enormity of the undertaking and calls it making the warrior commitment. Pema writes

It’s said that when we make this commitment, it sows a seed deep in our unconscious, deep in our mind and heart, that never goes away. This seed is a catalyst that jump-starts our inherent capacity for love and compassion, for empathy, for seeing the sameness of us all. So we make the commitment, we sow the seed, then do our best never to harden our heart or close our mind to anyone.

We’ll fail, of course. We’ll get caught in wanting more of this and less of that and being greedy and hateful and ignorant. Oh heck yeah, we’ll fail over and over. That’s why we practice over and over. And why, at the end of our practice we dedicate whatever merit we might have gained toward nourishing happiness and dissolving all suffering.

What does dedicating the merit mean to you? What do you experience as the seeds and roots of happiness and suffering? It would be a gift to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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

favorites 24 hours of happyNew favorites.
Old favorites.
Brussels sprout favorites (the ones you didn’t think you’d like but – hey! Turns out you do!)

Favorites are fun and they have a sensation.  Favorites offer the combination of repetition and novelty that your brain just loves.  Pharrell Williams brilliantly put both together with a new song repeated 360 times in a row (with the novelty of new dancers) for 24 hours! 

A favorite is actually a habit. Not necessarily bad but maybe limiting.  Recognize your favorites as habits and enjoy them!  Return to old favorites ~ rediscover them!  Entertain the possibility that endless new favorites await you!


elephant-journal-logo*** Exciting News! ***
ELEPHANT JOURNAL (a mindfulness Web site) published an adaptation of a piece from Focus Pocus! You can find it HERE. And look for a link to ANOTHER brand new piece there this week! Join our mindful movement: read, enjoy, comment and share!

CR 021714 012In English, the typical response to “Thank you” is “You’re Welcome.”
In Spanish, “Gracias” usually gets “De nada.
De nada means, “It’s nothing.”

In Costa Rica, the response to “Gracias” is “Con gusto. Con mucho gusto.
With pleasure. With much pleasure.

Every time I heard it I remembered: I can choose pleasure. I can choose to do whatever I’m doing, even if I’ve done it a thousand times before, with great pleasure.

Often I focus on what is not working, what does not feel good.
Imagine choosing to focus on pleasure instead.

CR 021214 008Not to put to fine a point on it, but my Spanish sucks. I’ve listened to tapes. I’ve taken a community college class. I use my dictionary. But in the heat of the moment, I forget the word for breakfast and if aqua is masculine or feminine. I regularly use the wrong verb ending, which results in odd questions like “Do I have salads?” I spend five minutes constructing a question, but somehow forget that if I ask a question in Spanish, they will respond in Spanish! At which point I get the deer-in-the-headlights look, panic, and hope like hell Frank understood what they said.

The one word that I use consistently and with great success is gracias – thank you. When I’m traveling in a Spanish-speaking country, I use it a hundred times a day. Most everybody is patient and helpful as I garble their language while asking for more towels or hot water for my tea or when the bus leaves. For that, I am sincerely grateful. So I say gracias. All. The. Time.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve traveled in Mexico, to the Sacred Valley of Peru and to Guatemala. In all of those countries, whenever I said “Gracias,” people always said, “De nada” in return. The most common expression of “you’re welcome” in Spanish, de nada literally means “it’s nothing.” In Costa Rica, however, it was different. For the past month, every single time I said gracias, the response was always, con gusto. Con mucho gusto.

With pleasure. With much pleasure.

I loved it every time I heard it. Instead of a nearly dismissive response – it’s nothing — it felt completely different to receive the warmth and connection of “with much pleasure.”

What if this was the way we moved through our days? Through everything we do? In every interaction? What if we choose to do it all with pleasure, with great pleasure?

Returning home after a long time away, my life feels a little like an old pair of jeans found in the bottom of my drawer. Putting them on feels paradoxically both familiar and new. I’m taking the opportunity in the daily routine of my life, to practice doing things with great pleasure. Folding laundry. Driving the car. Chopping peppers. Hugging friends.

How would your day be different if you allow even the most mundane tasks that you’ve done a thousand times to be done with pleasure, with much pleasure?

Instead of my habitual “You’re welcome,” my intention is to say “with pleasure” in response to any thank yous that come my way. Unless I panic and forget the words. Which could happen. Even in English.

Standing-Separate-Leg-Stretching-PoseNo Pain, No Gain? Nope. Don’t buy it. Pain is the body’s way of warning us that we’ve gone too far.

No Pain, All Gain? Yessss … as long as we choose both pleasure and voluntary discomfort. Safe risks stretch us to get stronger. It’s a balance. It’s fearless and not reckless. It’s relaxed and engaged.

Voluntary discomfort is essential for reaching physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual potential.

In your life, when did you choose discomfort (not pain)? Where did it lead you?

What’s more, voluntary discomfort is practice for staying calm and strong when involuntary discomfort arrives. (Which it will.)

pain pleasure voluntary discomfort standing separate leg stretching“Why would I want to go to yoga and spend an hour in uncomfortable positions?” ~ my Uncle Bob

After years of subscribing to the bumper sticker wisdom of “No Pain, No Gain,” Nia suggested that I experiment with the possibility of “No Pain, All Gain.” Which was important healing for my self-punishing self, but at some point I wondered how I could reach my potential by only choosing pleasure.

First, mindful movement teaches me to distinguish between pain and discomfort. There is a world of difference between pain that leads to injury and the discomfort of stretching my edges. Mindful practice gives me the skills to tell that difference.  Pain is what has me hobbling up the steps the next day. Discomfort is what gives me a pleasant soreness that tells me I’ve awakened some muscles that had been snoozing. Knowing the difference between pain and discomfort is a skill that mindfulness and practice allow.

Second is what my friend and Nia Trainer Helen Terry calls taking safe risks. This is the brilliant edge on which I love to play. Taking safe risks is an invitation to step outside my habit and to expand my comfort zone – physically, mentally, emotionally. Taking safe risks is being fearless without being reckless. Taking safe risks is, as Mr. Money Mustache says, choosing voluntary discomfort. Which leads me to the last bumper sticker…


Okay, to be honest, I don’t think there is such a bumper sticker, but if there was I would put it on my car AND my bike. When I look back on all the choices I’ve made, many of the best things that have happened are when I choose voluntary discomfort.

Moving to Virginia from Boston. Marrying a man with two children. Traveling with said man in third world countries where I didn’t speak the language. Taking the Nia White Belt training (and beyond). Leading international Nia adventures. Going on silent meditation retreat. Taking a sabbatical from teaching. Writing a blog and a book. Sustaining a regular hot yoga practice.

All of these things scared the bejeezus out of me, pushed my edges, and all of them expanded what I saw as possible.  What’s more, all of these choices helped me be more relaxed with discomfort in general so I have more possibilities available to me.  If I am afraid of or never choose discomfort, my options get narrow in a hurry.

Which brings me to the quote from my Uncle Bob that opens this post. When I told him about my yoga practice he laughed at the notion of choosing to spend time in discomfort. I get it. It’s challenging and, well, obviously it’s uncomfortable. But the more I practice being with discomfort, learning to breathe into it, to be with the fear around it, the less scary it is.  The things that I once avoided become things that I do.  But perhaps even more importantly, it prepares me for when life gives me Involuntary Discomfort. Which it does. All the time. If I practice choosing voluntary discomfort, I’ve had practice so I can relax, stay present, and make skillful choices.  If I don’t practice, I’m likely to shut down or panic or have a tantrum when the real challenges arise.

Taking safe risks is choosing voluntary discomfort. Making those choices both expands our potential and strengthens our ability to be calm, skillful, and strong when involuntary discomfort – or pain — arrives.

What voluntary discomfort have you chosen? What safe risks have you taken?  Where did those choices lead you?  Are there things you now do without effort that once felt uncomfortable or scary?  I’d love to know.

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