OK, I’m going in.

“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her successes had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely. She didn’t understand why, but faced with those decaying buildings and straggling grasses, she was nothing but a child who had never lived.” —Han Kang, The Vegetarian

Wednesday and Thursday are supposed to be beautiful days — no rain, partly sky, and 76 degrees.  We have the new carpet upstairs and the world seems beautiful and full of possibilities; it’s funny how getting rid of something that’s just so gross and smelly makes everything else feel better. (I mean, we knew it was gross and that it stank, but when they dragged the old carpet out, Marc went outside to get something and saw that flies were swarming it.)

not my yard, but my neighborhood — I’ll probably walk here

So I’m going to do what I’ve been thinking of doing. I’m going to step into the world and just live, just be present to myself, with myself, to the world, just for those two days. Today I will run errands, finish a manuscript evaluation and get it off to my client, do some housework, and make myself a good dinner and do some deep yoga. Prep work, of a sort. And then Wednesday and Thursday I’m just me. I’m silent. I’m here and not anywhere else, and alone. Not online. No sharing a beautiful photo, no sharing a passage from a favorite book, or a poem.

That’s a lot of ‘not’s. Here’s a list of the ‘yes please’s:

  • yoga
  • sitting by the creek, maybe drawing maybe not
  • walking in the woods — mine, and nearby
  • reading, with a notepad by my side (my new book of poetry will arrive Wednesday, Hard Child by Natalie Shapero, reviewed here in The Rumpus) (I’ll also probably read some Anne Carson)
  • lots of sitting and staring, and spending as much of the day outside as possible
  • pushing myself outside after dark, even just in a chair in my front yard, staring at the sky
  • writing by hand, off my computer — not just to keep myself away from online, but also to connect to slow me
  • knitting
autumn is in the air

No Netflix (/Amazon/Acorn). No music, except maybe meditation music, chanting, or nature sounds. So nothing with lyrics, really. I want to be in quiet, in silence, so I can hear myself. Quakers sit in “gathered silence” together because they say you can’t hear God amid the noise. I am not imagining I’ll hear God — wouldn’t know what that would be like anyway — but I am imagining I’ll hear myself a little more clearly without all the distractions I hurl in my way.

I won’t post here during the next two days, and I won’t be on Facebook or Instagram. I’m a little anxious, to be honest, because I’ll have to face whatever anxiety I come up against by just being present with it. I won’t have the agita inflamed by being online and seeing/engaging with everything that our government is doing (and not doing) in the world, but I also won’t have the distraction of “just hopping on.” No pretty pictures, no smiling faces of friends around the world, just me. I wonder how it’ll be. I imagine it will be everything at some point.

But at least it will be happening on lovely new carpeting. Ciao, friends. Back on Friday. xoxox

going rogue

With gratitude to my friend (and former health coach) Jeff for that phrase in the post title, I too am going rogue with my meditation and mindfulness practice. Last night I went to Shambhala to listen to a public talk on the “Culture of Awake.” (“As more and more people introduce principles and disciplines of wakefulness into their lives, such as mindfulness or yoga, we are together cultivating a culture of awake. In this talk, we will explore some of the basic principles of this culture that can give deeper meaning to how we live our lives and help transform our world into a better place.”) I’ve been feeling heavy and blue, and hoped that listening to the talk would lift my spirits in some way.

Of course that’s an unfair expectation of a talk — it’s not the speaker’s job to do that for me. He was a perfectly lovely smiley man who waved his hands in circles the whole evening, and he did do this one exercise that I found meaningful, and I’ll come back to it at the end.

mindfulnessBut he opened by saying that the whole world is becoming awake, isn’t it wonderful. And he had this blissful smile on his face. He reminded us that mindfulness made the cover of Time Magazine, and you can’t be more mainstream than that! And I felt thrown out of the room by his opening premise. No it isn’t! The world is not becoming awake! Just before I left for the talk I watched news of ISIS destroying ancient art, and a report on the discovery of the identity of Jihadi John, the Brit responsible for beheading so many people.

We’re freezing and the global climate is transforming dangerously and too many Americans (and others) laugh and mock and say “then how is this ‘global warming'” with idiotic gaping grins betraying their stupidity. Morons are in charge of important subcommittees. The world looks pretty dangerous and stupid and threatening to me, and I am in pretty deep despair about the cruelty of the Republicans in charge. (The Democrats have their own problems, including naivete and being bought and all kinds of things, but they don’t tend toward the same breathtaking cruelty.)

The world does not seem like it’s waking up to me. However much the affluent white people sitting on cushions in gold-painted rooms might say it is, it just isn’t.

What is the point and purpose of meditation and mindfulness? Is it to become smug in your own practice? Is it to delude yourself into thinking this is how the world is? Surely not; that seems the very opposite of the point, at least as I understand it. Isn’t the point of it to see more clearly what is?? To get rid of the story as much as possible — and this seems as dangerous a story as any other. This is like any other delusion, surely, even if it’s dharma-ed by a dude on a cushion in front of an altar.

And so I do the exercise he taught, which he called “Finding Home:”

  1. Feel my weight
  2. Move the center of gravity from my head down to my heart. Feel my embodiment.
  3. Open my awareness out to the world — from which I’ve never really been separate.

And from that position, I try to encounter the world as it is, not as I really wish it were. I continue my own meditation practice alone, I remain mindful as much as I can, I find value for myself in these things, and I think I let the rest go, the institutional parts. I seek the lightness and kindness and compassion that meditation and mindfulness can bring, but I will do that on my own.

And sheesh.

those funny Buddhists

They are funny, you know. The Buddhists I know (not just junior-Buddhist-wannabes like me) are so light, they laugh all the time. All the time. They laugh at what they say, at what you say, at the weather. So funny, so lighthearted. I want some of that.

They’re also funny in their love of numbered lists. I love a good numbered list, don’t get me wrong, but I bow before the organization they’ve arrived at in understanding what it is to be in the world. Here’s a cheat sheet:

cheatsheet

Isn’t that great? And it’s the ‘minimal edition’! Essentially it just comes down to a couple of things, so all these various stages and kinds and precepts unfold out of that center. They’re very subtle in their thinking. Marnie studied Tibetan Buddhism in college and some of her books are still on my shelves — marvels of the outline, those philosophies. I love a good outline myself.

And have you ever seen Tibetan monks debating? It’s loud and includes this fantastic hand-slapping movement. I watched one video of senior monks debating junior monks about the hungry ghost, and OH the shouting and slapping.

Isn’t that funny? I’d love to know the origin of that strange hand slapping/sliding technique; I do know that when the senior monk stops speaking, he does that to indicate that the junior monk should respond. Such a ‘violent’ behavior for such peaceful people.

* * *

Last night I did a really beautiful Level 2 Vinyasa Flow class (“Evening Yoga Flow,” 45 minutes) with Jo Tastula, one of my favorite teachers at YogaGlo. At the end she led us through a bit of gratitude meditation, asking us first to think of one thing from our day that filled us with gratitude. Katie had sent me a video of Oliver playing with the quilt I made for him, and laughing and loving it, so that’s what I meditated on — and it’s a whole complex, that little video. Sweet happy Oliver, Katie as loving giggling mama, my lucky role in their lives, and the pleasure of having made something for my grandson that he loves. At the end of the meditation, which we did with our hands resting palm-up on our knees, we took our arms slowly out into a big circle up to touching our palms over our head, while we chanted an OM. Then as the -M rumbled in our chests we pulled our palms slowly down to namaste at our hearts. My gratitude swelled in that moment outward, to my teacher, to YogaGlo, to yoga, to my beautiful little home, to my place in the world, to my connections to others, to my beating heart and still mind, to the world to the universe to Being. I love it when that happens, don’t you?

 

I’m not saying it’s magic, but….

Remember a couple of days ago I wrote a post about sitting with feelings — the ‘you are the blue sky’ one? In that post I talked about sitting with extreme anxiety that seemed to be due to a memory trying to come back. WELL! Once I was sitting with the anxiety and I realized that all that physical stuff was the memory. It was the memory of how it felt then, that specific and horrible dread and anxiety in the night — and just to be sure I figured it out, my little mind kept making me ‘see’ a man standing in my room at night.

!!! That was the memory, how it felt. I acknowledged it, understood it, accepted it.

Since that insight, I have not had a moment of anxiety. I haven’t been waking up with it in the middle of the night, I haven’t been seeing the man, my heart has not done that pounding thing. I can breathe. I am amazed.

wonderWould I have gotten through it so quickly if I’d treated the symptoms to make them go away? Taken Klonopin constantly, had a beer here and there? Would it have passed so fast if I’d distracted myself so I didn’t have to feel it? (I’m not sure that would’ve been possible, it was pretty intense.) Would it have moved through if I’d indulged it and gone to talk to someone about this extreme anxiety? Of course I have no idea. But I think not.

Here.

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Happy Friday everyone. Stay warm if you’re in the north! And don’t be afraid of your feelings, they won’t kill you. And be kind. For heaven’s sake.

 

I do it my way

“You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” ~Pema Chodron

I’ve been steadily meditating on that idea since last June, and it fits so beautifully — of course — with the focus on mindfulness that has also been part of my life since June. Meditation and mindfulness help you develop an ability to be in the present and simply allow what is, to be what is. (Newsflash: it is anyway, whether you ‘allow’ it or not.) The blue sky is your clear mind, which is always available even when the sky is filled with storm clouds of stories and emotions. Your clear mind is there, behind it all. It’s available to you.

If you’re lucky, the stormy weather is ordinary. A too-busy schedule that leaves you resentful and overwhelmed. Drudgery that leaves you frustrated or resentful. A bit of trouble with a friend that leaves you feeling abandoned or hurt. A project you’re behind on that makes you fearful you might lose your job. Various issues with the kids, your spouse. Those ordinary things can feel pretty big from time to time, but they’re great to practice on. Having a clear mind and not getting swept away by the stories and emotional overwhelm can be helpful (and it certainly feels better). Sometimes ‘what is’ is dire, of course — your loved one is dying, or facing harrowing treatment. Your child has to be hospitalized and the prognosis is scary. Your child is going through anything dreadful, actually. You find a lump and you have a family history. I am so so sorry, and the fact that your clear mind — the blue sky — is available to you is probably not too helpful right then no matter how much practice you’ve done, although it’s good if you can find some of it.

see? look at the bottom corner of the storm clouds...there's still blue sky behind it. There's always blue sky behind it. And the storm always passes, no matter how terrible it is.
See? Look at the bottom left corner of the storm clouds…there’s still blue sky behind it. There’s always blue sky behind it. And the storm always passes, no matter how terrible it is.

Sometimes the trouble simply comes from within. I can provide two examples from my own life of different kinds of trouble from within. The first is my son, and my heartache and anger and worry and heartache (worth saying twice) that he has again abandoned us all and refused to communicate with any of us for the last 19 months. That’s how long it’s been since he has said a single word to anyone. My heart aches, I miss him, I’m pissed off at him, I feel helpless, I cry a lot sometimes, I’ll get caught off guard by something that reminds me of him and I feel the devastation of his absence. I imagine he’ll never come back, that something bad will happen to him and I won’t know. My helplessness overwhelms me sometimes I want to lash out, yell at him, write my anger to him, howl to the sky. That’s an awful lot of weather, and here you can surely see that calling it ‘weather’ does not minimize the very real quality of these thoughts and feelings. But I’ll tell you this: meditation has honestly helped me with this. When those feelings and thoughts come, I open my hands and just sit with them. Heartache — I sit there with my hands open and feel the heartache. It hurts, and sometimes I cry. I let it be, I don’t grab it and clutch it to me, I don’t engage in battle with it, I don’t push it away because I don’t want to feel it. I feel it, it is, I remember that I am the sky and this is the weather, I take deep breaths, and the heartache begins to ease. It was a real feeling, it is a real feeling, but without all the story attached to it (stories of blame falling all around, stories of why he’s doing this, stories of the future) it’s a sorrowful and painful feeling, and it appears and is and then fades. It will come back, but I have felt it and it passed along and my clear mind returns.

In this way, actually, I have known the heartache more clearly than if I’d done something else with it. More clearly than if I put my energy into denying it (that doesn’t really work anyway). More clearly than if I sat there clutching it and embellishing it. More clearly than if I turned my head to imagine scenarios in the future. I know my heartache, I have felt it, it hurts, and it drifts away with the moments. It doesn’t stay with me as long as when I try the other approaches, and the more experience I have sitting with it, the sting is a little less, the crushing feeling becomes bearable — because I have born it. This is my heartache. I am stronger than it.

The other inside thing I’m having to sit with is an old memory that’s trying to resurface. For the last several days I’ve been suddenly consumed with anxiety so great my hands shake. My heart has been pounding so hard it can be difficult to breathe. It’s not a panic attack. I’ve been waking up throughout the night and each time my body holds a very specific kind of anxiety, gritty, filled with dread, sickening. I’ve been thinking I see a man standing in my bedroom. I have a pretty good guess what this memory is, but I don’t know yet. This kind of experience used to terrify me, because the things I already remembered were so terrible, how much worse must be the ones that I repressed? It doesn’t terrify me any more when this happens. A friend asked if I surely want to push it back down, build a wall around it, shut it down. But I don’t. I don’t look forward to remembering, but it’s my memory, from my life — not all of which has been great, but I don’t want to know only the super happy peppy stuff, that’s not my life, then. So instead of spinning out fantasies of what the memory might be (“to prepare myself”) or pushing against it, I’ve been dealing with the sudden periods of anxiety by sitting with them. Feeling them (it’s not fun). Allowing them to be. Remembering that I am the sky and this is just the weather. And knowing that I am stronger than them, I have born others, I can bear this, and it’s simply a memory of something, it isn’t real right now. What is real right now is that I am sitting in my living room in my own beautiful house in sunny Austin filled with strength and light and I know I can bear a memory. I know I can bear a feeling. I am strong. So I feel whatever there is to feel and it passes away. And maybe I’m left with a shadow, maybe I feel tired, but it passed like a storm and I will be OK if it comes again, until it’s done. And still then I will be the blue sky. And I deepen my emotional intelligence.

And one time it was simply too much, too big, my anxiety was so huge and I could not breathe and I took half a Klonopin. Because sometimes that’s how it is. That’s real. Meditation is a process, a practice, not a one-time-fix-all, but always always worth the effort. When the physical response stilled just a little bit, I was able to return to sitting and allowing it to be.

I am the blue sky. You are the blue sky. Everything else, it’s just the sometimes-shitty weather.

fighting the not-doing

Doing savasana in Nong Khiaw. Gosh I wish I were there right now.
Doing savasana in Nong Khiaw. Gosh I wish I were there right now.

At the end of a yoga practice, you end in corpse pose — savasana. My yoga teachers always call it “the most important pose” and then they say something about integrating something something something. Before I started doing yoga in earnest, before I undertook this massive mindfulness change in my life, I thought that pose must be great because you’re tired from doing the yoga, so aaah, you get to rest. Silly me.

It’s the hardest pose of the whole practice, whatever the practice entails. Other poses may be difficult to hold, hard to find your way into, they may require a lot of hours of practice to be able to do fully, but they’re hard in such a different way, a kind of fun way. Can I balance like this today? Can my legs become a little straighter today? Are my hamstrings loosening (nope!)? But when I am moving into the pose, it focuses and holds my attention and I am doing. Rib cage lifted and shifted right (hmmm, ok), slide right hand down my leg to the floor (hmmm, ok), and voila. I’m there to some degree.

But in corpse pose, I’m meant to just be. Instead, my mind is racing with things I need to do when I get up, lists I need to make, chores to do, conversations I am in or need to be in, things I want to write. NO NO NO, be. The challenge for people my age is that the task will be completely forgotten if it’s not acted on, but . . . um, so? So what. I’ll make the list, and if something slips off it I will deal. If I miss a chore, um, so? If I completely forget the point of what I wanted to write, OK. But it doesn’t feel that way when those thoughts are pressing on me during savasana. How very hard it is not to do something.

worryAnd not just during this pose, either. When we worry, we feel like we’re doing something. Or rather, if we just stop worrying, we feel guilty because it feels like we don’t care (or however you might construct that). If we’re anxious, and all we’re doing, really, is focusing our mental and emotional energy on thoughts, it can feel impossible NOT to do that. Right? When the lawsuit was hanging over my head and would suddenly rear up again, all my energy got dark and swirled hard inside me as I imagined all the ways it could go badly, all the damage it could cause to my life. Of course it’s retrospect joy to say, “Well, and look: it all came to nothing and so that was wasted time!” But I could also note that however it turned out, all that swirl and worry was wasted time, because it had no impact on what was happening. What it did, though, was to keep me terrified and exhausted. Unless it’s a kind of focused, problem-solving thinking that results in an action that can be taken (even if the action is just a way to help yourself deal emotionally), it’s not “doing” anything. That’s a big lie. When you worry and indulge anxiety, you aren’t really doing anything. You’re indulging thoughts of all the most dire consequences. My worrying, my periods of anxiety, sure aren’t indulging thoughts of how great it might turn out. I’m feeling as if the worst has happened — and it’s not like that prepares me in some way. There have been times in my life when the worst did happen, and the consequences were not lessened because I’d been practicing experiencing them during my worry and anxiety! If anything I was so exhausted by the time they happened I was less help to myself and others.

Oh so easy to say, just don’t do it. Yeah, right. But you can practice! Savasana lets me practice, when the biggest consequence is that I won’t remember an item on a list. Meditation lets me practice, when the biggest consequence is that I will not be able to find a moment of just being. I’m now in my seventh month of nothing terribly dire happening to me or anyone I love, which means two things: (1) easy for me to say, what would I be saying if I were in trouble?! AND (2) seven lovely months of practicing, so I am likely to be able to be more helpful to myself and others when it comes, as it will.

Savasana is really just meditation, you know. Sit up on a cushion, lie down on your back, sit on the couch or in a chair, sit under a tree outside, sit in your car. Be still and present for five minutes. That is practice, and it’s harder than you can imagine.

after the thrill is gone….

….happens to be the title of one of my favorite Eagles songs from the 1970s. But I was also thinking about this yesterday when I was doing yoga. On June 27 I started a big project I kind of jokingly called the “anti-flailing project.” As of yesterday, that’s ONE HUNDRED AND TWO DAYS. First of all, a big hurrah for sticking with it for 102 days. Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

changeI have nothing new to say about the benefits, the changes I feel that seem due to this new way of doing things. But I do have something to say about the slog factor that hits once the thrill of newness fades. When I was on the yoga mat a couple of nights ago, I was facing that feeling. Actually, I faced it before I started. Ugh, I just don’t feel like it. No thrill to get me out of that chair. My focus was on how tired I felt, instead of on how great I knew I’d feel during the practice, and afterwards. A few weeks ago I went through a brief 1.5-day period of slipping back into my multi-tasking ways. Television on in the background all day, I’m sure I cooked and ate but I don’t remember, noise all around. When it hit me what I was doing, I thought nah, I’m just going to watch this show while I work. But pretty quickly, on the second day, that new wore off too. So moving as if I were wearing weights and reaching through molasses, I found the remote and turned off the television. Kinda resentful, I felt.

sloggingIt can be very hard to persist in a change when it’s no longer something new and different. When the contrast between before and now has faded in your memory. Across the span of my life I’ve tried to make changes, hit that persist point, and for any of a number of reasons just went back to my old ways. You know, they’re so comfortable! They’ve been my ways as long as I can remember! They’re normal, natural! That’s pretty seductive, especially when you feel a little weary of the new thing, when you feel like you’re just slogging along.

There are a couple of ways I have found that help me with this slog deal:

  • As in meditation, find the attitude of “just bring it back.” Just bring it back. OK, just turn off the television, bring it back. OK, just go change into your workout clothes. OK, just run to the market and get something fresh to make for dinner. No judgment of any kind (you’re not “bad!”), no stories (“well hell, I’ve ruined it now so whatever, more cake!”), just bring it back. I love that old Chinese sentiment, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today. OK, maybe you’ve fallen off and that was several days/weeks ago (20 years), just bring it back (today). The “just bring it back” attitude is gentle and compassionate, and has nothing to say about what went ‘wrong,’ nothing at all. It’s not chiding. Just bring it back, that’s all.
  • If the compassionate approach doesn’t seem motivating to you, try the JFDI approach! People in an online weight loss group I belong to (now I just stay there to support the others) use that acronym on occasion and it always cracks me up. Just Fuckin Do It! As a Texan I drop my Gs, so that’s how I hear it. Now and then you might just have to be your own drill sergeant. For me, JBIB works better, but I share this in case you think it’ll help.
  • If that doesn’t work, use a cognitive-behavioral therapy technique: tell yourself you’re only going to do it for a set period of time. “OK, I’m just going to turn off the television for the next three hours.” Implicit there is that you can go right back to it when the time passes. And probably, assuming it’s something you really do want to be doing, probably you’ll remember why you were doing it in the first place! Probably it’ll feel good. Probably you won’t want to go back to the old thing after all.

Those have helped me when I stumble. To help with the long haul, though, at some point you have to let go of the words and idea “my new thing.” At some point it has to become just part of your day, part of your life, part of your identity. I am a person who tries to do yoga every day and mostly succeeds, unless I’m having an airport and flying day. (Even then I think about it and try to do some stretches when and where I can…..because I am a person who….) I am a person who tries to be present as much as possible. If the new thing can be phrased more simply (e.g., “I am a Quaker” instead of “a person who”) that’s even better. That is in fact an identity statement. The changes I’ve made don’t lend themselves to that, but the more I incorporate them into just who I am and just how I live my life, the easier it is to do the long haul. Because now it’s just my life.

Making a substantial change and sticking with it is so hard, and not all that common! Millions of dollars are spent on self-help books, diet books, and if they worked, the need for them would quickly disappear. Instead, people try this thing and then give up, so they try that thing and give up, and on and on. It’s hard. I’ve never been able to do it before, in all my years, and to be honest I’m not exactly sure why it’s been so easy this time. Maybe there’s an element of being ready for it. I’m sure that’s true.

If you have other tricks of the trade that have helped you stick with a change, please share them! Most of us are trying to make some kind of change, and we need all the help we can get. xo