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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

In February, meditation teacher and author, Sharon Salzberg sponsors a 28-Day Meditation Challenge. Everybody is invited to commit to meditating every day for the month and join the mindfulness community. As part of the challenge, I’ll be blogging throughout the month (along with other meditator/bloggers) about the experience. You can find the posts on Sharon’s site and I’ll share mine on Focus Pocus.

28-Day Meditation Challenge ~ Day 9
Monday, February 9, 2015

28 Day Challenge aspen leaf pub dom

“Worrying is praying for something you don’t want.” – Bhagavan Das

When I’ve got a bundle of things to do that are all familiar, straight-forward tasks – dinner to prepare, laundry to launder, errands to run, animals to feed – my busy mind loves to plan and make lists.

When I’ve got looming unknowns – will the house sell? how do I teach this routine? how do I lead this workshop? – my anxious mind loves to worry. The unknowns yawn like bottomless caverns waiting to swallow me up and my mind wants to find something to tether itself to.

My practice today is to notice the planning and put down the list.
My practice today is to notice the worrying and remember that what I’m doing right now is sitting and breathing.is sitting and breathing.

[I’m traveling this week, visiting a friend in California. I’ll resume our exploration of the Unofficial Guide to the Nia Principles with Principle 11 next week. For now, here is an essay. Enjoy.]

relishing radishes easter eggs

Relishing Radishes

“We forget that every person, including ourselves, is new every moment.” ~ Tara Brach from Radical Acceptance

My Great Uncle Phil appeared in the world of my childhood twice a year. My memory of my grandmother’s younger brother, Philip, is of him sitting at her Thanksgiving and Christmas tables talking about the current plight of the New England Patriots and eating radishes.

Nana carefully set a precious pile of red radishes in a cut glass bowl by his plate for every holiday meal. Just for him. I asked why in the world she would do such a thing.

“Oh,” she said casually, as if this was a perfectly obvious sister-thing to do, “Philip loves radishes.”

At our family holiday gatherings, I hovered around the raw vegetable platter. Nana called it the “relish tray” which made no sense to me since relish was that pickley condiment we put on hot dogs. Whatever the name, I would stand by the spread and eat a steady stream of hand-cut carrot sticks, crunchy celery (sometimes fancily stuffed with cream cheese), cherry tomatoes (that exploded, so I had to remember to close my mouth), and cucumber spears with stripes of green skin peeled clean.

I devoured the relish tray, but I would never, ever go near the radishes. Their sometimes-spicy hotness made my childish palette wary. Pretty though they were—little ornaments of crisp red and white – I could not abide their bitterness.

Even when my parents grew Easter egg radishes in their fancy, space-aged hydroponic tubes, I never ate a single one. I stayed away even from these truly gorgeous globes of white and red, pink and purple. I knew that sharpness and bite lurked in the beautiful baubles. Even as a young adult, I was certain I wouldn’t like them so I never tasted them.

As I expect is true for most people, radish avoidance was rarely an issue for me, especially after meeting my husband, Frank, who detested them as I did. “They taste like crushed aspirin,” he said the first time the topic of radishes came up (as it inevitably must). The accuracy of his description was almost sexy.

Years passed and my story about me hating the bitter, aspirin-y radish persisted until my 50th summer, when a close friend brought a bunch of radishes from a farmer’s market. (How did she not know about my distaste for the repulsive little things?) Sheepishly, I accepted them and then fed them to the chickens who enjoyed the greens but struggled with the roots just as I did. Then, not three weeks later, another dear friend dropped off a picnic lunch which included a bright blue bowl full of radishes.

After she’d left the generous basket on our table, I raised an eyebrow and asked Frank why anyone would ever eat a radish. Knowing the food wisdom of both these wise friends, I thought I’d look it up.

Who’d have guessed it? A member of the notoriously nutritious cruciferous vegetable family, radishes are high in Vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants and low in calories.

Huh.

I picked one up and eyeballed it. Beautiful as ever, lovingly trimmed, chilled and fresh. I looked at Frank dangerously and popped in in my mouth.

Sharp and crunchy and, yes, a little bitter but not unpleasantly so. Thinking of all that nourishment, I popped another. Frank looked first at them then at me. With lips pulled back, he nibbled the teeniest bite of one. Huh. Not bad.

Before long, the bright blue bowl was empty.

I buy radishes regularly now. I eat them as a snack and love them on salad. We just harvested our first crop of Easter eggs from our garden. They are beautiful and delicious and the chickens get the greens.

Impermanence is the nature of being human. Change is happening all the time. It is the way the world works. Even our preferences are always in flux. Hot yoga, traveling in a camper, and raising chickens are all things that I never even contemplated until just a few years ago (or poo-poo’ed them as crazy, tacky, and impractical, respectively).

Now I love them all.

My mind wanted the preferences of my childhood to be permanent so it grabbed onto the radish-hating story and never let go. My mind and its story kept me from years of lovely radishes. My mind told the story over and over and I believed it. I never stopped to question it. My new-found radish love makes me wonder: what else is my mind keeping me from?

phoenix in the washer“Suffering usually relates to wanting things to be different from the way they are.” ~ Allan Lokos

Our cat, Phoenix, is a purring ball of black silky fur. We love her to distraction and are lenient cat parents, particularly when it comes to her getting on the kitchen table. She is an indoor cat who loves lap sitting and sun sleeping occasionally interspersed with running really really fast through the house and launching onto a window sill.

Recently, though, she’s been getting herself into some strange spots. In the past couple of weeks I’ve found her
• stuck in a box full of extension cords on a closet shelf,
• in the washing machine on top of the dirty clothes (see photo),
• on the stove,
• locked in my closet getting litter box paw prints on my dance clothes,
• under the bushes in the front yard eating a weed that she later barfed on the rug.
The saying goes that curiosity killed the cat. While I’m not saying she was ever in any actual mortal danger, Phoenix is absolutely pushing her luck.

My mind is a funny thing. Especially when I am in pain or fear, it leaps like lightening to criticism and disaster scenarios. The inside of my knee feels tight and painful and instantly I’m thinking I’ve been careless in my movement and now I’ve got a torn ligament. When I brace to tell Frank how much my speeding ticket was, I think I’m a reckless driver and I’m sure he’s really angry with me. Tight jeans? I’m fat and a mindless eater. It is going on all the time: something is happening and, quick like Phoenix onto the windowsill, I’m critically thinking it should be happening differently.

In a life practice of mindfulness, curiosity is a powerful good thing. Especially when I feel a reaction of fear or criticism or judgment, an approach of curiosity expands my thinking and my experience. Get curious and expectations, stories, assumptions, judgments and criticisms all scatter like a clowder of cats in a rainstorm. Curiosity can take me from wanting things to be different than they are to a direct experience of how they actually are.

Instead, when I feel pain in my knee, I can pause and notice the details: get curious about if it hurts only when I put weight on it or when I bend it. When I tell Frank unwelcome news, I can breathe and ask him about how he feels or what he thinks the best course of action is rather than assuming he’s angry with me and not the speed trap.

Curiosity can transform what’s scary into just what is. Curiosity is a cure for the suffering that happens when we want things to be different than they are. By approaching situations with a curious mind, I’m much more likely to pause, ask questions, wonder, and explore instead of clamping down, making up a story about what’s happening and working out how to make things the way I think they should be.

I’d rather Phoenix stayed off the back burner of the stove and out of the extension cords, but I’m doing my best to encourage curiosity in myself and others. I guess I better just double check before throwing in the laundry soap and starting the spin cycle.

CR022214 004Today was a day filled with adventure and serendipity and wet activities (therefore another lazy one for the camera).  We are in the last few days of our month-long exploration experiment. I feel torn between sadness that this experience is almost over and excitement about getting back to my Nia and yoga practices, about getting back to my teachers and students, all my people, and getting back to the life that I love in Charlottesville.  While we’ve traveled, I’ve done some yoga and danced some Nia, and practiced some meditation and mindfulness, but not like when I’m at home.  A day like today reminds me that my practices are always with me, no matter where I am or what I’m doing.

In the morning, we took the long hike from our hotel to the farthest end of the public beach — next to a busy road, then down a steep slippery path, then all along the beach.  Half-way down the trail, we noticed movement in the trees and saw a troop of howler monkeys, the only Costa Rican species we hadn’t seen yet.  There were a couple of juveniles who wanted to ride on their moms but the moms kept plunking them back on the branches and letting them go on their own.

At the beach, we playedplayedplayed in the waves and watched some beach soccer and cheered parasailers llifting off from the sand and drank coconut water right out of the durn coconut.

Last night, we took the public bus to nearby Quepos to see their weekly farmer’s market.  On the way there, we met Nick and Kristin who are both rafting guides.  They not only helped us find the market but they suggested that we raft the Churro (or “chute”) section of the Naranjo River.  It is a narrow river that runs down a canyon of rock and the water is low now since this is the height of a dry dry season but they said the river and the forest is beautiful and worth the trip.  So this afternoon, we had a big rafting outing.  Nick and Kristin were so right:  the forest was lush and vibrant, the canyon was sculpted stone, and the river rushed cool and clean and blue.  There was much squealing and laughter.

It was a wonderful day.  And it reminded me to take one step at a time, to be open and see what happens next, to expand my awareness to experience with all my senses, and to relax to enjoy it all.

????????????In the mid-1990s, I had a love affair with Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Just divorced, living in Boston, I was bumbling around in chaos. Money had me squeezed tight and I was up to my eyelashes in debt. Then one afternoon, a whole division of our publishing company (more than fifty of us), got laid off. With no job prospects in Boston, this life-long New Englander was considering a move to Charlottesville (wait, what state is that in, again?). I felt like I had no solid ground under me – like I was reeling in space.

It’s no wonder that I fell in love with Captain Picard, the lead character on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Jean-Luc, with his strapping red uniform and his sage baritone, would gaze serenely from the bridge into the abyss of space. I waited expectantly for every episode, ready to soak up his self-possession. I craved his wisdom, his kindness, and his calm. Especially that down-to-the-core calm.

Just about everything can get me bundled into a bunch, and it was especially so then. If my boss asked me to take on an extra project, if I didn’t sleep well, if someone didn’t like me, or if the store didn’t carry that goat cheese I wanted, I got my undies all in a twist.

Jean-Luc, on the other hand, could be considering inter-galactic warfare, single-handedly saving an entire society, or (most terrifying to me) be trapped in an airshaft with a gaggle of 7-year-olds, and he always kept cool. I wanted some of that.

I don’t know if Captain Picard had any practices that kept him so steady, but two things help me keep calm(er) these days: breathing and sensing my body. When I’m flipping out about something, my lowest, lizard brain is narrowing my perspective to fight, flight, or freeze. Instead of reacting from this primitive brain, I’d rather respond from the larger, more evolved prefrontal cortex, the part that allows reasoning, language, and communication. Neuroscience demonstrates that the best way to get my prefrontal cortex on-line is to sense my body.

Not coincidentally, breath and body mindfulness are essential parts of yoga and Nia: put the body and brain under stress and then breathe and sense what’s happening. In yoga, my teachers repeatedly remind me to keep breathing calmly while I’m in the poses, even if that breath is not deep. Nia teachers say, “Everybody sense your (body part)” with the intent of bringing participants into their bodies and their higher brains. You can do it right now, sense your breath and your body and immediately you are tapping into the prefrontal cortex!

Recently, “Keep Calm and Carry On”, the phrase from the 1939 the British Government’s morale-boosting poster has been rediscovered. You can’t turn around these days without bumping into a reproduction (or some clever variation) on everything from t-shirts and tea cups, to pillows and aprons. Those clever variations run the gamut from inspirational (Keep Calm and Dream On) to silly (Keep Calm and Eat a Banana) to inexplicable (Keep Calm and Make Bacon Pancakes). My version, to inspire a bit of Jean-Luc-ness, might be “Keep Calm and Breathe On,” or “Keep Calm and Sense Your Feet,” or “Keep Calm and Wiggle With Awareness.”

I’m glad it’s Jean-Luc who’s in charge of keeping peace in the universe. If it was me on the bridge of the Enterprise and some alien aggressor approached with phasers a-blazin’, I’m guessing I would get worked up in a hurry. But presented with the more basic stresses of life (bills and relationships and climate change and sequesters), I am grateful for my breath and awareness that help me make skillful choices and enjoy the ride.

practice on your own mat savasana room 2Counter-intuitive perhaps, but when I practice on my own mat I deepen my connection with myself and I see other people more clearly. When I sense my own pain, annoyance, happiness, pleasure, anger, fear, I remember that everybody else feels those things. When I’m in my head thinkingandthinking and tellingallkindsofstories, I’m disconnected from me and from others. Drop in and connect.

“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant with the weak and the wrong. Sometime in your life you will have been all of these.”
~ Dr. Robert H. Goddard

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