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Practice

This week, I’m taking a couple of days away from teaching and my regular life. This choice is both part of my practice and a result of my practice. In fact, times like these are why I practice.

A cancelled vacation in January and the addition of new activities and responsibilities have drained my battery. What I need is a couple of days in Nature with my best friend being astonished by spring.

One part of the way that I know I need a break is mindfulness practice. The daily practice of listening to my body and mind gives me clues when something is out of balance. Which is not to say that I always listen with complete purity to said clues. In fact, I often ignore them.

And that leads to the second part of the way I know that I need a break: my friend suggested it.

Based on her observations, she thought I needed some time away. “Do you feel at all like you did before you went on Sabbatical?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say surprisingly, even alarmingly, quickly. “Yes, that’s how I feel.”

At which point she offers to teach for me and that was that.

Both of these things happen in my formal practices: on my cushion, on my mat, on the dance floor. I practice paying attention. I do my best to listen to subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) signals and sensations and respond to them. And when I either don’t notice something or when I ignore what I’m noticing, I am lucky enough to have teachers to help shine light on what I can’t see.

Why do I practice?
It’s not to get better at meditation.
It’s not to get better and doing yoga postures.
It’s not even to get better at dancing.
I practice to get better at life.


So, Anne will be teaching for me on Monday at 10:45am at acac Albemarle Square and Mary Linn on Tuesday at 8:40am at acac Downtown. I’ll be back on Wednesday at the Square and Thursday Downtown.

If you’re interested in this topic, you might enjoy reading these fanglorious posts:

Voluntary Discomfort from November 11, 2013

and

Why I Meditate, Part 2 from February 27, 2015

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“What do you do when you meditate and dance and you still feel angry?”

Her hair is sweaty, her cheeks are pink and her eyes exhausted.

It’s a good question…and I draw a complete blank. What do we do?

Alice Walker said “Hard times call for furious dancing” and heaven knows that’s what I’ve been doing. But the knot in my heart doesn’t seem to shift. The tightness in my belly and the swirl in my brain don’t go away.

As I look into her tired face looking for an answer, what pops into my mind is what my therapist, James Yates says: the only way out is through.

Gah, I hate it when he says that and he says it all the freaking time. I usually roll my eyes and make a face at him since it means I can’t skirt around the pain. I can’t take a pill or say a mantra or distract myself and think it will shift or heal. The bumper sticker truth is: The Only Way to Heal it is to Feel it.

One of the Nia Technique founders, Debbie Rosas told me once that when people ask her about what she does for work, she says, “I teach people to feel.” Which I thought was all woo-woo and gauzy dresses and Enya at the time. But after 17 years of teaching, I see that she is right. Somatic practices like Nia and yoga (and any body~mind method) are all about feeling sensation.

And doesn’t take much self or human observation to notice how much effort we put into avoiding feeling anything.

Maybe it’s natural to do the easiest thing. Water flows down the path of least resistance, why shouldn’t we? Our car seats have gotten cushier and smooshier. Our houses and offices can be heated and cooled to the precise degree. Our sneakers have air pockets, our jeans are prewashed, our fleece jackets are so soft and light that it’s like wearing a warm cloud. In the midst of all this comfort, we spend most of our time denying, avoiding, and running from any intense feeling.

Life has a way of overturning all our ardent efforts to make our days comfortable, easy, and convenient. It doesn’t matter how much money I pour into my custom-made luxuriousness. It doesn’t matter how obsessively I secure myself against difficulty (Check out Evan Osnos’ New Yorker piece, Survival of the Richest on people who are attempting this now.). It doesn’t matter. One way or another, discomfort and challenge will happen. It is the nature of human life.

The question is, how will I handle it when it inevitably arises? The answer lies in how much I’ve practiced being present in the face of difficulty. The skillfulness of my thoughts, words, and actions in adversity comes down to how comfortable I am with discomfort.

“Hard times call for furious dancing.” I’ve always thought that meant that dancing makes it feel better, makes the hardness not so hard. But now I’m realizing that furious dancing allows us to feel.

She asked a good question: what do you do when you’ve practiced and you still feel angry (or sad or afraid or…)? The answer is that practicing Nia or yoga or meditation isn’t meant to make the sensations go away. Practicing is meant to increase our capacity to feel all of it. Since without feeling it, it will never ease, it will never heal.

Dammit if James isn’t right: the only way out is through.


If you enjoyed this post, great! Please share it!
And you might also like this one from November 2013: Voluntary Discomfort

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These days as winter approaches. These days that get darker and darker. These days when the cold settles in. Every single year, these days challenge me body, mind and spirit.

In search of inspiration last week, I stumbled upon a poem that I wrote two Decembers ago when the world felt as dark as I’d ever remembered. Like a friend giving you back your own words of encouragement, it was oddly helpful to read what I myself had written 24 months ago. It reminded me of the constant cycle of things and that it is, as ever, our own light that is needed in the darkest of days.

Be the light, my friends. Blessings on this solstice.

Shine On

Darkness descends on our little city
(Maybe on yours, too. Or maybe on you.)

December with its Solstice silent blanket
And shadows darker under Nature’s night:
Disappearance and death
Violent violation
Agony, isolation
Fear

Even so
There is the moon
Luminous, listening
Receiving, reflecting
Illuminated from the source
Bright enough to wake us
So we can marvel

The city’s sinew
Its strongest femur
Bruised blue-black
Deep-rooted dis-ease
Stories and secrets
Defensive denial
Tangled doubt

Even so
There is the sun
Radiant, reassuring
Ever-generous, if shy these days
Self-sourced force toward which
the amaryllis aches and arches

Darkness is part of us
Shadows spiral in our fibers
Charcoal curtains can narrow vision

Each of us glow, reflect, radiate

But in these dark days
We bundle and trundle it
Beneath heavy coats of despair
Zip up and button down
Tuck in and turn out
Crossed arms over lost heart
Sighing sideways eyes
Furtively looking to see
Who will spark the shift
And shine the light

You
You are the light
You are the sun
The very source
You are the moon
Tender reflection

In the darkest of days
Unwrap
Show up
Shine out
Shine on.

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One of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had was on the streets of Boston’s North End. I wasn’t mugged and no mafia bosses wanted me to sleep with the fishes, but it scared the life out of me just the same.

On a Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I were double-parked in front of our apartment so we could unload our car. As much as Bostonians love hockey, football, and baseball, their two favorite sports are double parking and yelling at each other for double parking. So it was no surprise that a man in a Jeep pulled into our street and yelled about how stupid we were for parking like that. What was surprising was when my boyfriend, John, said something back to him, the guy jumped out of his car, flew across the sidewalk and smacked John in the face.

As scary and upsetting as this was, it was only then that the truly terrifying thing happened: I. Lost. My. Mind.

In a flash of white hot rage, I ran up to the man, got inches from his face, and screamed at him about his cowardice and lack of intellectual acuity (not my actual words). I bumped his chest with mine. I told him what a craven loser I thought he was. I dared him to hit me. He didn’t. Instead, he spit some hot words and drove away.

What terrified me wasn’t the angry Boston driver. It was me. I had no idea I had a lunatic living just under my skin. No idea about the fire in me that could be released so fast. It wasn’t the fight with a stranger but my own explosive fury that scared the bejeezus out of me.

Compare my story with one of my favorites from “Flip the Script,” an episode in the latest season of the Invisibilia podcast*: two families gather on a summer night on a backyard terrace for dinner and celebration. In the midst of their happy evening, a man walks into their midst with a gun. He points it at one of the women and tells them that if they don’t give him all their money, he will shoot her. But the group was outside, having a meal. No one had any money. None. The gunman didn’t believe them and ramped up his threats.

Then a woman at the table spoke up. “Will you have a glass of wine with us?”

Her question disarmed him in every sense. He put down his gun, had a glass of wine, ate a little cheese and asked for a hug. He thanked them and quietly left, gently setting his empty glass on the steps as he walked away.

Psychologists call the woman’s offer of wine noncomplementarity or doing the opposite of what the other is doing. The most natural response in any interaction is complementary behavior: to treat the other person as they treat you. If they are kind, it’s most natural to be kind back. If they are aggressive to you, well, remember me and the Boston guy?

But sometimes, the most powerful thing to do is noncomplementary: to get out of sync with the other.

Noncomplemenarity isn’t easy. It requires us to override our natural instinct and intuition. And as the Invisibilia story (ans any nonviolent protest from Gandhi to civil rights) points out, making that unnatural choice can completely turn situations around.

Buddhists call it tonglen: a practice which Pema Chödrön describes as “…a method for connecting with suffering—ours and that which is all around us…. a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart.”
(read a helpful article about tonglen by Ani Pema here.)

Simply stated, tonglen is the practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out ease for that suffering. (Do a short tonglen practice with her here.)

My favorite description of tonglen and the one I return to over and over comes from the book How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach**. In it, we imagine suffering as inky black tar around the heart of another. As we breathe in, we draw the sticky black suffering out of their heart and pull it into the flame of our own heart which explodes the blackness into white light.

We can practice tonglen or noncomplementarity whenever we encounter suffering: in our own bodies or minds, in relationships with our nearest or with strangers, in our communities and organizations, and in animals and the environment, in countries and the world. Instead of meeting suffering with suffering, instead of turning away, meet suffering with the heat and light of the heart.

The fire that exploded in me on that Boston street was instinct and reflex. I regret it as it felt terrible and did nothing to put more love into the world. Although I haven’t witnessed that kind of attack since then, I see and am aware suffering every single day. I do my best to practice and breathe and use my flame as best I can.

It doesn’t always work. I can still get lit up with all kinds of complementarity especially when I see someone inflicting suffering on someone else. But I practice now with the intention of using my fire more skillfully to burn away suffering’s black toxic tar wherever it is happening.


* Did you click on the link to the Invisibilia show? The whole episode is great but at the very least, listen to the actual participants tell the story. Click here.

** I’ve included the complete passage from How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach here as it is visceral and powerful. May it be of benefit.

“’Inside your heart is a tiny red flame, like the flame at the top of a candle. This flame is the power of our selfishness – the habit we have of taking care of ourselves first, and neglecting what others need or want….Look into the Sergeant’s heart. Right there in the middle is a dark, rotten little pool of blackness. It is his sadness, it is his pain; it is the reason why he drinks, and it is his drinking….You want to take this pain away from him, forever. It’s the compassion we spoke about before; it is the real reason why you are doing yoga. And you decide that you want to take his black pain away so badly that you would even take it into yourself, if it meant you could save him from it….And so you begin to take say seven long, slow breaths. The first time you breathe in, that little evil pool of darkness in the center of the Sergeant’s heart stirs and moves; it starts to rise up out of his body, like an ugly cloud of blackness. And as you take more breaths it is sucked up out of his chest, up his throat, and then out of his nostrils. And knowing you would take it on yourself to save him from it, you take all his drunken misery in that little cloud of darkness and you keep breathing it in, and in again, drawing it towards your own face. And then hold it there, just outside your own nostrils….And now something will happen; it will happen a little quickly and so you have to concentrate well upon this part. In one breath you will suck the blackness in through your own nose; you will take it upon yourself. The blackness will come down your throat, into your chest and then slowly – very slowly – it will approach the little red flame of your selfishness: the part of you that would never even imagine taking away someone else’s pain, if it meant having it yourself instead. And the blackness floats slowly towards the edge of the flame, and then suddenly the black makes contact with the red, and there is a burst of beautiful golden light, like a bolt of lightning shining in the purest gold. And in that moment, because you are willing, in that moment, to swallow all the Sergeant’s pain into yourself, the crimson fire of your own selfishness is extinguished, forever. It is gone. And in this explosion too the blackness of the Sergeant’s pain is destroyed: destroyed for him, destroyed for you, destroyed forever. For this is the power, the power of the grace of selfless compassion for others.” (How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach pp 93-95)

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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.

On Thursday, I get on a train for Boston to teach a workshop and visit long lost friends. I’ve got piles of work and projects and books for the long train rides and then clothes, of course, dancing and otherwise, and hair products and green tea and all that. I expect I’ll be laiden down when I climb on the train and I can already feel the relief of stowing my gear and settling in for the ride.

There is something that shifts profoundly when we choose to put down whatever we are carrying. The first order of business is paying attention, noticing what we are carrying with us. Particularly if we’ve been carrying it for a long time, it can feel “normal” to worry about your children, for example, or obsess about your weight.

Here are 10 things to investigate: what am I carrying and what does it feel like to put it down?

1. Tension

The body is always a good place to begin. Investigate with a body scan (here’s a body scan for beginners) first large body parts and then narrowing down to smaller and smaller spaces. Where are you holding, can you let it go, even for a little while, and how does that feel? After exercise or just before bed are great times to experiment with this.

2. Stories & Voices

In the dance.sit.create. retreats, we talk a good deal about The Voices: the noise in our heads that we first picked up from other people and the culture at large and then sustained in our own noggins. Pay attention to the stories that bounce around in your head, perhaps unnoticed, and play with gently letting them go. You don’t have to scream at them to go away, just see what it feels like without them for even a few seconds.

3. Beliefs

Beliefs are similar to stories and voices but they can be even sneakier in that we can hold them as unassailably true. A belief along the lines of “I’m too old to do that” might be stopping you in one way and a belief like “I am strong and can do anything” might trip you up in another way. More institutional or cultural beliefs like “it’s not patriotic to do that” or “we don’t do it like that here” might be preventing you from seeing other possibilities or points of view. This isn’t to suggest that you need to abandon your beliefs, just see what it feels like to put them down for a little while.

4. Assumptions

Assumptions live in the future. When I see something and my mind quickly unspools a whole story about what has or will happen, I’m making an assumption. Assumptions are slippery devils to catch since we all make them all the time. The practice is to notice when it happens (it helps when my assumptions are disproved) and put it down. Let the next moment unfold brand new, with nothing attached.

5. Expectations

Similarly to assumptions, expectations are what we create around the future in an attempt to control what will happen. But as Anne Lamott points out, “expectations are resentments under construction.” My expectations for myself, other people, institutions are a set-up. See what happens if you simply put them down and come into direct contact with the present moment.

6. Anticipation

Another resident of the future, anticipation is what we carry when we step toward the unknown. It can be a mix of excitement, anxiety and fantasy (I had an anticipation dream last night, for example, in which I showed up to the workshop and I couldn’t find the stereo, and then couldn’t find my music and as usual in these situations, I couldn’t find my pants). It’s helps me to notice when I’m weaving a sticky web of wondering what will happen that keeps me out of what is actually happening right now.

7. Worries

One of my favorite uses of the word worry is to tear at, gnaw on, or drag around with the teeth. As in, “I sat in the waiting room, worrying a hangnail.” This definition gets at the feeling of continually returning to something over and over again even if doing so is unproductive or even painful. I can worry about something that happened in the past – replaying it on a loop. Or if I’m worrying about something in the future, Bhagavan Das reminds me that “worrying is praying for something you don’t want.” Either way, past or future, worry is an excellent thing to just put down.

8. Fears

Fears are just big worries that similarly live in a future which does not exist. Only the present moment exists. So putting down our fears makes space for responding to the present and making skillful choices. If I’m tied up in fear, I don’t have the same resources or vision of possibilities that I do when I set fear down and be present.

9. Excitement

It seems like a positive thing, excitement, but really it’s like worry, only it’s a positive illusion instead of negative. When I get that fluttery feeling in my chest, I know it’s taking me out of the present and actually living. So I play with putting down even excitement.

10. Hope

As excitement is the other side of worry, hope is the other side of fear. Thich Nhat Hahn says, “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear.” But hope does not reside in the present moment. If just for a little while, to feel the relief of not constructing a better tomorrow, put down even hope. Allow yourself to carry nothing even briefly to create space for what is possible.

BONUS: Habit

It has been said that the strongest force in the universe is the force of habit. We all carry habits in our bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, schedules — everything! Habits are so strong that putting them down unleashes a wave of energy (that often feels awkward and uncomfortable). Playing with breaking habit, even for short amounts of time is a practice that can offer big benefits.

The practice of putting it down doesn’t mean that we will never carry any of these things again. It only gives ourselves the opportunity to feel the relief of not holding on. Instead of habitually toting these things around, putting them down creates the space to make choices about what we really want to carry.

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Open your eyes, for this world is only a dream.
~ Rumi

Dreams are slippery little devils. Sometimes in the groggy early morning, Frank and I tell each other any dreams we had. But I have to be careful. If Frank tells his dream first, even if mine was vivid, it can slip away and dissolve before I can say it. It’s like holding onto a handful of sand in rushing water: it slides away between my fingers, irretrievably lost.

It’s not just night dreams that are slippery. Future dreams are elusive, too. Things I care deeply about like my personal future, or that of my children, or my country might feel clear in sweeping terms. I dream of traveling to Patagonia. I dream that my children will earn advanced degrees. I dream that America be a place where everyone is equal. But without clear steps toward making them happen, dreams tend to hover vaguely in the fuzzy, foggy sometime-future.

Fears for the future can be this way, too. I, like Mark Twain, have “had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” I can put a pile of energy into fretting over troubling upcoming scenarios. Either those things happen and I deal with them or they don’t and they float down the dreamy stream of the next thing I’m worrying on.

The past is weird. I mean, does it really exist? It feels like it exists, but where is it? And if it did exist but doesn’t now, then where did it go?
~ A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozenki

The past is similarly slippery. Think about what you had for breakfast. You may well remember the granola and blueberries, but even recent memories quickly take on a watercolory quality. Memories from childhood or your early adulthood or even last year, slide into that same dreamy zone as if you are remembering the events of someone else’s life.

Brain research suggests that three things impact the memorability of an event. If something is novel, if we play close attention, and it is associated with a strong emotion, the memory will stay vivid. Mostly, though, the past is as easy to pin down as a fresh watermelon seed. Put your thumb on it and it squirts away and disappears under the fridge.

Row, Row, Row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
~ late 19th Century nursery rhyme

If day dreams and night dreams and the past are all amorphous, diaphanous aspects of our consciousness, what about NOW?

In Ruth Ozenki’s A Tale For The Time Being, the young Japanese character, Nao, struggles with the transience of now. To her, it feels like now is as slippery as a fat tuna. She says,

NOW felt like a big fish swallowing a little fish, and I wanted to catch it and make it stop.
…In the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already then.
Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. (pp 98-99)

I can think of now as a thing to pin down but like a wriggling minnow, it squirms away instantly. If I get too tight with it, now feels like a tiny rowboat that I’m precariously perched on in the stream of time.

Alternatively, I can see now as the biggest space there is, the only space there is. Now is where everything is happening. The most direct entry point to this expansive view of now is through the body and sensation. The body can only be right here and now and we can be there, too, when we practice directing our attention. Whether you are remembering when the mean kids picked on you in 2nd grade or dreaming forward to your future seaside home, your body remains right here and gives you information about how those dreams feel now. Staying in the expansive now is simply a matter of practice.

This is no news flash. The practice of staying present isn’t anything new, but recognizing the dream-like quality of past and future can help me remember to stay anchored in now. Fear, regret and excitement about things that have happened or haven’t happened yet, just make me miss the life I’m offered in the present.

The body lives only in the flow of now. With tight, narrow eyes, I feel myself teetering precariously in a tippy little row boat of now, or I can relax and open and feel it as a big, steady river boat floating merrily along.

Much of life feels like a dream but with practice we can choose to plant our feet on the sturdy deck of now.

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Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, 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.

What does it mean to have a practice? By its very nature, a practice is personal, so I suspect there are as many definitions as there are people practicing. Based on my own experience and conversations with other practicers, here are four distinguishing characteristics of a practice:

1. Do it regularly no matter how you feel or how it’s going

A practice is about showing up ~ even if (or especially if) your day is busy or your body feels creaky or it’s not coming out the way you think it should. If I only meditate when I’m on retreat or only when I feel relaxed, it’s not really a practice. A practice is about the consistent attention to the process, not the outcome.

2. Devote yourself to the activity for its own sake

Immerse yourself in the specificity of the activity and commit to it. Learning how to do Crow Pose or a Cross-Front-Cha-Cha-Cha might not seem to have any direct applications to your life. Trust that the gifts lie within the details of the practice. Avoid autopilot: do your heartfelt best every time you practice. Some days you’ll be sharper than others, of course, but keep aliveness in the activity. And especially if you have been doing it for a while, be willing to learn something new. Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki, said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

3. What you learn and do in the activity informs and supports the rest of your life

A practice can provide you both foundation and guidance. A practice gives you support that you can rely on and guides your choices especially in unfamiliar or difficult situations. Not long ago a customer at my friend’s restaurant cut himself deeply on a broken plate. My friend stayed centered in the midst of the panic and blood – and she saved his life. After it was over, she realized that it was the presence that she cultivated in her practice that allowed her to keep calm in the midst of chaos.

4. Your practice brings out the best in you

Notice if what you think is a practice is (or becomes) an obsession or a compulsion. It’s not a practice if it takes over and leaves you out of balance. A true practice allows you to step into your true potential. A question I often ask is, Am I leaving the place (be that my body, my life, the world) better than I found it?

That being said, lots of activities can be a practice. Anything from prayer to running, writing to gardening, making art to preparing food are all practices for some people and not for others.

If you don’t have a practice and you want one:

Go shopping. A practice doesn’t have to be formal or religious or fancy. It does have to be something that you are interested enough in to commit to doing it regularly. Working in the garden can be a chore done just for the resulting vegetables or a practice of connection with yourself, nature, your creativity and your impact on the environment.

If you used to have a practice but you’ve fallen away from it:

Begin again. Your practice is a most forgiving friend. She’s always ready to meet you where you are and start again.

If you have an active practice:

Notice what parts of your life are impacted by what you practice. Does your practice change the way you talk to your teenager, what you notice on the way to work, or what you buy at the grocery store? Do you feel more grounded or less rattled by the unexpected? Oddly, it may be challenging for you to see the effects of your practice since change is often incremental. One of my teachers reports that his children notice first when he isn’t meditating regularly. “Dad,” they say, “Time to get back on the cushion!”

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