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Presence

We know this from dancing, but no matter what you’re doing — whether it’s making art or building a house or starting a relationship — a strong foundation allows for spaciousness and possibility above it.

The key is to know what your foundation is and how to make it strong.

It’s true for doing Tree Pose, starting a company, or raising a child.

Ask yourself,
What is my foundation?
What is essential at the base of what I’m doing?
And how can I make that foundation stronger?

The more solid the foundation, the more creative, expressive, and limitless the possibilities in the space above.

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“The best way to prepare for the next pose is to be fully in this one.” – Kelly Stine

When I was in 3rd grade Mrs. Schneider had us do an exercise: write down and then tell the class something that you are good at. That clever Mrs. Schneider was way ahead of her time, assigning self-love to 8-year-olds in the early 1970s. I remember feeling uncomfortable to identify something I thought I did well, but I was nothing if not a direction-follower, so I did it.

Here’s what it was: I am organized.

My 3rd-grade-self loved keeping track of things, keeping my notebook in order and organizing what I was supposed to be doing. Even then, I was a list-making-planner, getting ready for what was coming.

To this day, I like having a plan. I like the neatness of a plan. A plan relaxes me and makes me feel ready. And yes thankyouverymuch, I do recognize that it is a way for me to pretend I have control over everything when I utterly and completely do not. I also recognize that this is a nervous person’s strategy. Thinking back on it, I feel tenderness for my little girl self that was already looking for ways of battening down the anxiety hatches.

These days, when my teachers talk about the almighty present moment and about staying in the Now instead of looking forward or back, I chafe a little. I mean, I get it. I know that Now is where life is happening and “Now is a gift; that’s why we call it the present” and all that. But we have to plan things, otherwise, the kids have no money for college, there is no food in the house at dinner time, and we’re homeless when we retire.

My genius yoga teacher, Kelly Stine says, “The best way to prepare for the next pose is to be fully in this one.”

My mind likes to think that I am already doing that, but my body knows different. I can feel it when I do yoga. Before I’m completely in Warrior I, I’m already beginning to open my hips and arms to get into Warrior II. Then, before I get into Warrior II, I’m flipping my front palm and reaching up and back for Reverse Warrior. If I keep projecting myself into the next pose, I’m never really in any of them.

I can feel it in Nia, too. I know another movement is coming up and I don’t really finish the one I’m doing to get the class ready for the next one. Kelly teaches that instead of mushing the two movements together, or having one dribble out, to be fully in the first right up until I’m in the next.

Like my organized, nervous 3rd grade self, I can see that this tendency to be projecting ahead happens often when I’m anxious about something.

Have you ever been at a cocktail party, having a conversation with someone, but they aren’t really looking at you? With eyes and attention wandering, they are casting around the room to see who is there and who might be the next person to talk to.

It’s possible that my love of planning and organizing is a way for me to get myself ready. It’s also a way to dissipate anxiety (social or otherwise) and disengage from whatever is happening in the moment. Instead, I could see whatever I’m doing right now as my planning. Fully engaged, present … and ready.

I don’t want to be a distracted flitting-ahead yogi. I don’t want to be that preoccupied person at the cocktail party. I want to be the one who is fully up to her eyebrows in the conversation she’s having right now. And when it’s over, it’s over and I have another full-on conversation.

I want to be ready now.

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“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” — Joseph Campbell

Evidently, I was born without a biological clock.*

I got most all the basic parts as I rolled down the conveyor belt of gestation: brain, check; heart and lungs, check check; sturdy bones, check; fly-away hair, blue-green eyes, and a love of physical comedy, check check and check. But while other baby girls had a time piece tucked snugly between their heart and their gut that began nudging them ever more urgently toward motherhood, I don’t have that particular tick-tock myself.

At 33, I’d said No to a marriage that sucked the spirit out of me, I’d said No to the post-divorce relationship that sucked the air out of the room, I’d said No to a job that just sucked. At last, I’d taken my plane off auto-pilot and I was actively choosing my life rather than passively accepting whatever happened to plop in front of me.

In addition to saying No to some things, I said Yes to other things. I knew I wanted a job that felt more expansive and inspiring, I knew I wanted a relationship with someone who whistled in the mornings and wanted to hike and laugh with me. I said Yes to optimism and enthusiasm, I said Yes to nature and spirituality, and I said Yes to not having children.

After years of beating myself up about being neutral to negative about the whole child-rearing thing, I decided that being childless by choice was fine. After thinking something was wrong with me for a long time, I found myself in a peaceful place about not having kids.

Then I met Frank.

Morning-whistling, easy-laughing, optimistic, nature-loving hiker, Frank….who had two small children.

I’d finally taken hold of my life. I’d pushed some things away. I’d pulled some things in. But now, I realized, I had to let go and live the life that was waiting for me. I had to put down my plan.

My favorite scene from the 1987 movie, Moonstruck**, isn’t the “Snap out of it!” scene, and it’s not the “You’ve got a love bite on your neck” scene. It’s not even the “Someone tell a joke” scene.

Nope. My favorite scene is the snow scene: Loretta and Johnny are walking back from the opera and he wants her to stay with him even though she’s engaged to his brother.

Loretta protests, “A person can see where they messed up in their life and they can change the way they do things. … I can take hold of myself and I can say yes to some things and no to other things that are going to ruin everything. I can do that.”

But Johnny reminds her that life and love isn’t neat and safe and it doesn’t always follow the plan. “We’re here to break our hearts,” he says. He’s asking Loretta to stop the pushing and pulling, to put it down and surrender to the life that is waiting for her.

I think they are both right. There is a time for standing up and getting clear on my Yes and my No. There is a time for shaping my choices with my will and heart and mind. There is a time for push and pull … and there is a time for surrendering to now. There is a time for putting down the plan, the belief, the role, the story.

There is a time to put it all down to see what falls into your hands after you drop the reigns.

 


* You know the scene I’m talking about! Did you click it? You haven’t seen it since 1992. Oh do click it if for nothing else, her outfit.

** In the mid-late 80s, there was a string of movies that I call the Can’t-Help-Who-You-Love Movies. My favorites: The Sure Thing (1985), Moonstruck (1987), Crossing Delancey (1988) and the Mother of Can’t-Help-Who-You-Love Movies, When Harry Met Sally (1989).

*** The snow scene! Please tell me you clicked it. No? Here it is…

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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.

“The best way to prepare for the next pose is to fully be in this one.”
~ Kelly Stine, Yoga and Life Instructor

Live in the present moment. Be here now.

These are not new ideas.

Spiritual teachers have been inviting us into the present for eons. From before Buddha to Ram Das to Eckhart Tolle and to the body itself, the great teachers are calling us to Now.

The mind can get caught up in the slippery nature of now but not the body. The body thrives in now’s spacious, flowing and constant change. When the mind wants to wander to past and future, here are 5 ways to reconnect to now.

Now ~

1. Feel your body. The most direct way to be present is to feel the physical sensation that is happening in this moment. And you can do this in any place, time and situation. Just feel whatever sensations you are aware of: your feet on the floor, your butt in the chair, your heart beating, your breath flowing. If the moment is challenging and sensation feels indistinct, just wiggle your toes!

2. Use your senses. All of the senses bring you into the now, too. Stop and listen to whatever sounds are arising. Smell and taste, especially, when eating and drinking but at other times, too. What does the conference room smell like? Or your car? Or, of course, the flowers! Swallow and taste your own mouth. Look with curiosity especially at familiar objects and scenes.

3. Sense for details. The mind can get tricky with sensation. As soon as it feels something, it can attach a story (Oh, man, I must have overdone it in the garden and that’s why my back hurts) or a fear (I’ve hurt my ankle, and now I won’t be able to dance at the wedding!) or a plan (I should put ice on this and call the doctor and cancel my classes). Instead of all that, simply feel what is actually happening: does it feel tight or tingly? achy or hot? pulsing or numb? See how much detail you can sense.

Past ~

4. Memory Now. Of course, memory is essential and we all think about things that have happened in the past. When you find yourself thinking about something from the past, rather than spinning the story, feel what that memory feels like now. Does your stomach get tight? Does heart beat faster? Do your eyes well up? Ground memory in now.

Future ~

5. Future Now. Similarly, we all have to spend time planning and looking forward into the future. Instead of letting the mind get carried away with all the great things that will happen after you get that job or all the terrible things that happen if you don’t, feel what that dream/plan/fear feels like right now. Again, your mind may get tricky with calculations and research (which may well be important and necessary) but let Now weigh in, too. Before making a decision, feel what it feels like now.

My version of my yoga teacher’s quote is “the best way to prepare for the future or process the past is to be fully present now.”

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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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“Make the pose feel like home.” ~ Liz Reynolds, yoga teacher

In a few days, Frank and I leave a house we love and step out into the next part of our life together. There are countless things in this house that I love: all the light and the windows and the arched openings, the view to the woods behind us, the front door that I refinished and the knocker we bought in Guatemala. And the kitchen. It has been just the most lovely kitchen to be in.

As good as these things feel, they aren’t what make it home. When Liz suggested making my yoga pose feel like home, it got me thinking. What is home really anyway?

“Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling.” ~ Cecelia Ahern

I’ve felt at home in houses that were not my own and in many natural places with no walls and recently in a very small camper pulled by a big red truck. And there have been times in my life when my own house hasn’t felt like home to me. Ultimately, it is the feeling, the ease and peace and connection that I feel there that make a home. Circumstances and other people may contribute to those feelings, but the one who has the greatest impact on the hominess of any situation is me. It’s up to me to make myself at home.

“Just keep coming home to yourself. You are the one you have been waiting for.” ~ Byron Katie

I have laughed a lot in this house. I’ve cried, too. I’ve felt calm and relaxed and I’ve felt rattled to my very bones. In the five years that we’ve lived here, I’ve deepened my practices, my marriage has gotten stronger, and made better friends with myself. One of the main reasons I get on the cushion, on the mat, in the studio, at the computer is to cultivate more ease and friendliness with my body, my mind and my emotions. Whenever my (multiple and easily accessible) buttons get pushed, I ask myself, how can I be easy and peaceful with whatever is happening in or around me?

“Be grateful for the home you have, knowing that at this moment, all you have is all you need.” ~ Sarah Ban Breathnach

The coming weeks will be a slow motion transplanting, with our roots hovering in the air for a while until our next house is ready. As we’ve prepared for a summer of peripatetic adventures, we’ve talked a good deal about the difference between “need” and “want.”

When I’ve felt most upset by the uncertainty, that’s when I’ve been most attached to what I “need.” I get tight and make lists: my favorite sundresses, my yoga mat, blue tea cup, my computer, my four-color pens. I need my pillows, my hiking boots, my decaffeinated green tea and all my earrings.

The more I can relax and be present, the more I can trust that everything will work out, and that I have the power to change what I need to, the less attached I am to what I “need.” The less I need, the freer, the more peaceful, the more content I am. And the more at home I feel.

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” ~ Maya Angelou

This is my intention for the summer and beyond. May it be so for you. Make yourself at home wherever you are and however you are.

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P.S. For more on this topic, read Rick Hanson’s post Be Home from Just One Thing

no neutral ripple“Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” ~ Scott Adams

Every interaction is either positive or negative. There is no such thing as a neutral interaction.

“No neutral” connects with the practice of offering metta (loving kindness). I start by sending care to me, then expand from there.

“No neutral” connects with this truth: every choice I make comes either from love or fear.

“No neutral” connects with the idea that in every relationship I have a choice about what I bring.

Showing up with intention ~ choosing love ~ feels better for me no matter what happens.

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