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Superheroes were never my big thing. Oh sure, I watched Super Friends on Saturday mornings in the 70s, but it was just what I did while I waited for my real love, Kimba (not Simba, the Disney one, Kimba the Japanese one) to come on.

Despite not being a huge superhero fan, I do love the question about what superpower I’d choose – to fly or to be invisible — and what it reveals. (Are you kidding me? No question whatsoever: I want to fly.)

When Mary Linn and I talked about doing a Halloween class together, I didn’t feel too inspired to come up with a costume and dance to Thriller again. But then we wondered, what would we be if we became our own super hero?

Improbably, this idea grew from the conversation we’d been having about Nia, the practice of mindful movement we both teach. After a talking a moth-path all morning, we determined that the ultimate goal of the practice is for the teacher to make herself obsolete. We agreed that what we really wanted for our students (and for ourselves) was to cultivate inner resources. Our dream is for everybody to be their own superhero.

Everybody needs teachers to turn their light onto the path and to encourage us to keep going. Our teachers are external resources that provide insights, reminders, challenges, and love. I am deeply grateful to my many teachers, past and present. All kinds of teachers – family, friends, writers, thinkers, movers, guides, animals and nature, too, – all have offered invaluable help to me when I’ve needed it. But as much as I love and appreciate them, they aren’t always so portable. Ultimately, what helps me the most is when I can actually be their teaching.

My experience with teachers goes in three ever-circling and intertwining stages:
(1) Introduction
(2) Immersion (aka Superhero costume)
(3) Embodiment

Introduction

First, I am introduced – sometimes intentionally, sometimes serendipitously – to a teacher. They might be an actual teacher by profession or they might be an artist or a thinker or an inspiring new friend. Something about them sparks my attention and makes my heart beat faster. Like the lady in the deli scene in When Harry Met Sally, something in me says, “I want what she’s having.”

Immersion (aka Superhero costume)

Then I dive into their work or world view and try it on. At first, I often forget the teachings almost as soon as I hear them or I take them on in a superficial way. It’s as if I’m wearing a Dalai Lama kindness shield under my shirt, or Pema Chödrön bracelets of basic goodness hidden under my sleeves, or a invisible Maya Angelou cape of courage. I’ve got them on me, but they aren’t really mine. But this is an essential step in making these qualities my own.

Embodiment

Finally, comes embodiment. Harvard Business School social psychologist, Amy Cuddy describes it as “Fake it until you become it.” After practice and study and time spent with a teacher, trying on their superhero garb, I find that I’m walking and talking the practice in my own way. Even if I haven’t consciously summoned up my teacher and the bracelets of basic goodness, I simply find myself living what they’ve taught me.

And then I forget. And get twisted up. And fall on my face with my foot in my mouth. Which is also part of the process. I just go back to the teachings, back to the closet of superhero outfits, back to the external resources, while I bolster my inner ones.

As Mary Linn and I thought about our Halloween Superhero class, I realized that I don’t want to fly or be invisible or be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. What I want is to be a

Enthusiastic heARTful Creativity Ninja

Looks like I’m going to need a pretty long cape.

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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.

Since I can remember, I’ve seen struggle and suffering as one single thing: seared together like the iron-on patches my mom put on my ToughSkins jeans, melted into one block like a Velveeta grilled cheese on white bread.

The first time I heard the Buddhist saying, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional,” it was as if it was spoken to me in Swahili. What does that even MEAN? Of COURSE, pain is suffering. Crazy Buddhists. Sheesh.

Mindful practice pries open some space between struggle and suffering and gives me a chance to make a choice. Doing something that is uncomfortable but with low stake – like spending time in a yoga posture or dancing all-out to Life During Wartime or sitting in stillness on the cushion — gives me ample opportunity to feel the struggle and then choose.

1. Feel the difference between struggle and suffering.

There is aliveness in struggle. Struggle is a place of learning, growth, of moving into potential. Struggle is where we build things and create things and make things happen. Especially when you are stepping into something difficult – Upward Facing Bow, perhaps, or building a Web site or having a conversation with your teenager — set an intention to notice the difference between struggle and suffering.

In the midst of what you’re doing, feel it fully and notice if there is a secondary layer of pain or discomfort in the form of thoughts telling you that it should be different than it is. Things like “You should be able to do this by now,” or “What is wrong with you (or the Web program) that this is going so crappily?” or simply “This shouldn’t be this difficult” are sure signs you are suffering. Notice the physical sensation of those voices in your head.

2. Feel the difference between making it easier and making it more easeful.

The Buddha called it The Second Arrow (there is a great, short explanation here and a more detailed one here). The pain of life will happen to everyone, that’s the first arrow. The mental entanglements (This isn’t fair! I hate this! Someone did this to me!) around the pain is the second arrow.

Making a situation easier might mean running from or postponing the difficult pose or task or conversation. Making it more easeful can mean staying in the midst of it but letting go of the mental entanglements.

While biking up a hill this morning and a big loud truck came up fast and close by me. It scared me a little (the first arrow) and my mind first went to the second arrow of anger, blame, irritation. When I noticed that, I took a breath, felt my legs working, and kept pedaling. That choice made the situation more easeful  – and pulled out the Second Arrow.

3. Listen to the story

We all have a different Second Arrow Chorus of voices in our heads so it can be useful to get curious about what they are saying. Your mind may paint you as the victim (“People always take advantage of me” or “Nothing good ever happens to me.”), or the unloved one (“I’m excluded or left out again” or “There is something wrong with me.”), or the martyr (“I have to do everything” or “No one helps me.”). Whatever your Chorus sings into your ear, know that your particular ear worm got lodged there a long time ago in a misguided attempt to protect you. Recognizing the (often untrue) stories as suffering can help release their hold and allow us just enough space to choose something different.

4. Know that you will choose suffering (consciously or not).

You are human. No matter how much you practice, it’s likely that you will suffer sometimes. (Even the Dalai Lama must have moments of cranky, right?) The key isn’t releasing suffering permanently and perfectly, but to recognize it when it’s happening (in yourself and others), offer some gentleness and kindness, and see if it’s possible to peel that grilled cheese open and separate the struggle from the suffering.

kind without caving dalai lamaIn yoga this morning I’m finding my feet in the flow of poses, feeling the ripple of my spine, bobbling, tipping, falling over, then finding my feet and spine again. When I get myself into a pose, I am determined to hold it, keep it, not lose it. That’s when Liz, our instructor, glides past my mat and says, “Be soft and strong at the same time.”

I lose my drishti and eyeball her. I so want it to be one or the other. I want my poses to be all soft and bendy or I want them to be crisp and sharp. I don’t even know how to do both. My brain and body look at Liz and knit their collective eyebrows, “At the same time?

Even though it feels unfamiliar and even counter-intuitive, I practice being both soft and strong on my mat. Over and over, I plant my feet and lengthen my spine and get strong and grounded without caving my chest or collapsing my core. And then I soften: soften my jaw, soften my eyes, soften my heart. There is a sensation when I can find the balance – a sweet spot of both/and.

It’s no shock that I deal with this bamfoozelment off the mat, too. With people, to be perfectly candid. I am forever figuring out how to be soft and strong at the same time.

I want to be kind. I value kindness. Kindness feels good. I never regret kindness.

So I practice kindness as I make my way through my day. I practice sending kindness to that zipperhead who just careened past me on the highway. I let my tight hands soften on the wheel. I melt my scowly eyebrows. I practice kindness with the person who cannot put their phone down ~ not at the table, not in yoga, not while driving. I breathe softly and wish her well. I practice kindness with the friend who is so stuck in his self-sabotaging pattern ~ a friend with whom I’ve had this exact same conversation 6000 times.

And yet. I want to be strong. I value strength. I don’t want people to walk all over me or take advantage. I want to call it like I see it. I want to have a backbone.

So I practice standing up for myself. I practice saying what is so and doing my best to tell the truth even when it’s difficult or embarrassing or not what the other person wants to hear. I practice asking for what matters to me…without being controlling … or saying what doesn’t need to be said … or overstepping my bounds or….

Argh.

How do I do this? How can I be soft and strong at the same time? How can I be clear without being defended? How can I be kind without caving? It feels like when my first ballet teacher told me to draw my front ribs together. Um, what? I don’t think I even have muscles that do that. Be soft and strong? Be kind without caving? I don’t even know how to begin.

To unwind this contradiction, I’m bringing in the big guns: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He said,

Cherishing others does not mean ignoring our own needs and caring only for others….While one form of self-interest is selfish, stingy, and irritable, another is wise self-interest that understands that benefiting ourselves and helping others need not be contradictory.

As is often the case with HH14, I find myself wanting him to explain more instead of turning away from the microphone right when he’s going to tell me how to do it.

If I sit with his words, though, just as if I sit with the sensation in a yoga pose, I can feel the difference between “selfish, stingy, and irritable” and “clear and strong.” I feel my attachment to controlling my friend or other drivers and phone users — and that attachment is not strength. I feel my resistance to the way people are and the nature of things — and that resistance is not soft. What I’m looking for is a middle way just like when I can feel my feet planted and my spine lifted while my neck and shoulders relax.

Like everything, it is a practice. “Soft and strong” and “kind without caving” have distinct sensations. The practice is becoming more familiar, more intimate with how that middle way feels and when I lose it — which I do, over and over — to keep coming back.

savoring living meditation rock-cairnsAt the end of May, I had this cute idea: I noticed I tend to rush to get places and that I pack a peck of projects into my days and wouldn’t it be funny, I thought, so smart and right for the times, to write about being a Rushin’ Refugee. Aren’t I clever and yet simultaneously profound and all that?

I should know better. I should know by now that whatever I focus on shows up either right in my face or biting my backside. Or both.

What began as a cute title to a blog post has expanded into an exploration of savoring that has included the malleability of time, the delight of taking things one step at a time, the difference between looking and seeing, and the richness of nourishment. My personal inquiry delved into my habits of drinking and eating and driving, and the difference between efficiency and rushing. In this month, we’ve celebrated lots of birthdays and marked the passing of my shero, Maya Angelou. We danced in the summer solstice and as a community created a strand of prayer flags of gratitude and welcome for another hero, Michael Franti. Personally, it’s been a month of holding space and staying present while many people I love are in terrible pain, including my beloved Frank.

For someone who is practicing non-rushing, it sure looks like a lot went on in these 30 days.

Not so fast, lambkins.

It may look like this month was full-to-bursting, but that’s just what life looks like sometimes.  What has really emerged in this month of savoring is simple: savoring is a living meditation. Savoring is really just about awareness, about paying attention, about receiving and allowing what is so to be so. There are lots of ways of exploring it and talking about it and explaining it, but savoring is simply choosing to be present and live life as a meditation.

Which sounds kind of high falutin’ new agey and even a little heady, I grant you. But bear with me. Living meditation, like many core human experiences, is simple and not always easy. Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote that life is like a raffle: you must be present to win. That’s all living meditation is: the moment-to-moment choice to be aware and present.

This savoring, this living meditation is a state the most of us come in and out of. We forget and then we remember. We get distracted and then we come back. Maybe Jon Kabat-Zinn is present all the time, maybe the Dalai Lama stays in awareness from dawn to dark, but for most of us, it’s a practice of remembering to come back. Over and over.

It’s been a full and rich month that has, at times, sucked royally. I’ve discovered untapped sources of love and support and strength both inside me and around me that I’m now tapping like crazy. I’m noticing that some long-held habits of hurrying are beginning to release their anxious, mindless grip. I’m sure I will come in and out of them. I’ll forget – perhaps even for long stretches of time – and then I’ll remember to savor again. The practice isn’t about staying present and centered and savoring, it’s about remembering to come back when we inevitably forget.

Whatever this month has held for you, I hope you’ve done some savoring. Remember that no matter what is happening, there is always something to savor. And if you’ve forgotten completely about savoring the whole month, that’s fine. Remember now.

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