What Kind Of A World?

 

It is so very, very easy to look out at the world and to believe that all of the difficult and horrible things that are happening are due to someone else. Some other group of people. Some set of circumstances beyond our lives. So, not only do we find ourselves in the position of feeling afraid and overwhelmed, simultaneously we can feel that it is beyond our control to do anything about what is happening.

Every semester, with the college students I teach, we do a group think exercise at the board. I divide the white board up into the following categories; physical, social, emotional, mental and spiritual. Then, we collectively brainstorm on all of the costs associated with living stressed out. As you might imagine, the list includes things like headaches, insomnia, illness, irritability, anger, isolation, poor judgment, anxiety, depression and lack of faith. Just to name a few. This is nothing new. We know this. What we don’t know or think about is how this personal experience of being so out of balance is impacting the world we live in.

What we do next is to imagine what kind of a world we are creating by living in a state of chronic and habitual stress. Words like “unsafe, unhealthy, unnatural, scary, pessimistic, dark, bad and toxic regularly make the list. It is always a sobering moment to be in a group of people realizing not only what their behavior is costing them, but how it is creating the very things that they loathe and fear in the world. Before our next class, their homework assignment is to catch themselves in a stress response noticing what kind of a world they are creating when they live from a place of tension and overwhelm.

If we have any hope of things changing for us collectively, we must begin to connect the dots between our personal choices and the state of the world. And we must do this not in theory, but in practice. Daily practice. So, what do your stressed out behaviors and choices cost you? What do they cost the world?

Direct Experience

 

Every time I go away on retreat I have only one intention, prayer, hope and focus: “May I be faithful to my experience.” What this means to me is, may I be able to recognize what is actually happening for me in any given moment, as opposed to seeing my experience through the stories I have amassed over a lifetime. Stories that run beneath the surface of my awareness. Stories that tell me what I need to do and say and feel in order to belong, be safe, be me. These are stories that I have told myself for a long, long time.

This intention translates into a running dialogue with myself where moment by moment I am checking in to notice how things are actually going for me. I focus on what is happening at that very moment. I notice which  direction I am most inclined to move in. I notice when I am eating, not what my mind is pushing for, but the actual feel of the food in my mouth and in my stomach. When I leave a program session, I try not have to an agenda about what I do next, following instead wherever it is that my feet take me. Quite literally that may mean I get about 20 feet before I sit down, waiting where I am, until I feel directed to the next place. As for my mind and my emotions, well, I let them be too. I notice what is rising and falling like I am watching images on a screen. Instead of trying to fix or push away, instead of getting lost in a story, I try and just be with what is there, noticing as impartially as I can where it comes from and what it is linked to. For me it is like a game of connect the dots for my mind. I look at how my responses now come from then.

And while this is a tremendous amount of effort, exhausting even, at some point, I hit a critical mass, and it clicks over into a place where I just am as I am.  All my edges are worn off. The need to run incessant story lines is gone. And I am left with a softness and a spaciousness that far exceeds any story I could come up with. I tell you all of this because we are living in times where the pull from the external world is great, so great in fact, that it is pulling us out of the truth of what we are personally experiencing. We look  outside of ourselves to tell us what to think, how to feel and what to want. And we run our lives on memories from the past. This leaves us without the presence to know reality for what it is. And without that knowledge we will always, always suffer.

The body is such a great antidote to any story line. Over and over throughout your day, come back to any experience that the body is having, and watch what your mind has to say about it. You do not have to like it or want it. When you feel a sensation or a need, notice the stories the mind is telling you about it. For instance, if you are tired, see if you can let yourself just be tired without trying to make it go away. Watch what happens with the mind. Watch all the reasons you have for not being able to be tired. Watch all the actions you will take to deny that reality. Watch the feelings that arise when you are denying exhaustion, and then when you allow it. Daily we lose track of ourselves because we do not want what is happening with us to be happening; believing that it just has to be something else that is right, or better. When we do this, we deny our very existence. And to deny our existence is to say that what we feel and experience does not matter, or is wrong. Denying ourselves in this way is to create a kind of sickness inside for which there is no outside cure. Denying ourselves in this way is to collectively create all of the horror we see in a world bent on denying the existence of Life itself.

Do Something Else

 

In practice, I am contemplating old relational patterns that are not working for me. I write. I analyze. I breathe. I meditate. I engage all the practices that support me so well, and yet, my end of the pattern is still there. And then, a funny thing happens. As I go to put my pen away, clipping it to the side of my journal, the pen makes marks on the back cover. I think to myself that if I put it away like this I am going to have ink all over my bag. So, I start pushing the button down on top of the pen to make it retract. Only, it doesn’t work. I keep doing this over and over again to no avail. I am thinking; “What’s going on? This thing must be broken.” Frustrated, I finally pause long enough to notice that the button to retract the ball point is on the side of the pen. Oh. Suddenly the whole thing becomes very, very obvious and very, very easy. I was just going at it in the wrong way. I just needed to do something else. And it hits me– Yes, understanding what is behind our patterns is so helpful, necessary even. But in the end, it will always, always boil down to needing to do something else, if you want something else.

Demons and Goddesses

 

In Tantric Hatha Yoga, there is a model that breaks down our experience of life into two energies: demons and goddesses. Demons are those things which feel harmful to us, and goddesses are those things which feel like blessings to us. It is easy to see this split in our own lives. We all have experiences, energies, emotions, thoughts, circumstances and people which feel upsetting and threatening to us. And we all have those aspects of being alive which bestow upon us great calm, support, generosity and abundance. Mostly we believe that these two energies live separately from one another. Mostly we believe that it is best to avoid the demon and to curry the favor of the goddess.

From the Tantric perspective however, it is said that if we can learn the name of our demon, i.e. what that experience, feeling, thought or habit actually means to us, then we can transmute that demon into a goddess who  blesses us. To learn who the demon is is to learn its power and precisely how it is that it hurts us. This is the alchemical process of changing darkness into light.This approach offers a rationale for turning towards the dark, as opposed to hiding from it. This view offers a way to embrace the totality of what life brings to us while allowing us to be strengthened in the process And it gives the permission and the protection that we need to actually look forward to getting to know what we most seek to avoid.

I was away last week for my father’s memorial service. Anticipating seeing family of origin, while preparing for the day itself, brought up more emotions, and more combinations of emotions, than I could possibly list out. It was the equivalent of repeatedly being caught in a daily avalanche which ripped and pulled at me as I spiraled down and out of control. Every day I walked, ran, danced, did yoga, and meditated; multiple times on certain days because the demons had me on the run. It was exhausting. And when it was over, it was liberating. Why? Because I had learned the name of my demons. And they did not exist in others. They were, in fact, alive and well within me. While overwhelming at times, ultimately it left me with one unavoidable question; “Do you want to be free and happy, or do you want to continue to pull forward pain and suffering in the form of what other people do, or do not do?”

Every day we are all faced with some version of this question. And while we would all likely say we would rather be free, we often do not think or behave that way. There is a world of difference between wanting something and choosing something. To choose is to get to know your demon’s name, his real name. This is a very, very difficult thing to do. It requires that you be willing to see things differently. It requires that you be willing to put your attention to this. It requires that you slow down enough to feel some things you have been desperately trying to avoid.

Try sitting quietly with yourself taking long, slow, deep breaths. Allow an image of your demon to surface. What does it look like, smell like, feel like to you? What memories and thoughts arise in association with it? When you feel ready, ask it its name, and nothing more. Do not try and do anything to it. Do not try and make it go away. Instead, try listening. Just as you would introduce yourself to a new person and spend time getting to know them, do this with your demon. Be open to allowing the demon’s name to shift and change over time. Doing this will bring you closer and closer to the power it holds over you. From this place, it will become clear how what has harmed you can instead be what blesses you.

As I did multiple versions of this work across the week, my demon changed form many, many times. Initially it began as a person from my past, only to shift into “the governor;” that internal part of me that keeps tabs on me, making sure I do not step out of line. That part of me that references others to make sure I am doing it “right.” Not exactly the path to freedom I am yearning for. Ultimately, it presented as an essential protection that I required growing up, but that I no longer need. I had finally caught up with the change in my reality. Difficult as it is to do this work, once you know your demon’s name, you have something to sink your teeth into, as opposed to something sinking its teeth into you.

A Life By Design

 

Last week in a yoga class, the teacher invited us to see the practice of Yoga as a way to create a life by design; as opposed to one built on default. And there it is. That is the choice. Always. Each and every day. Will we allow the conditioning of the past, our busyness, our fears and anxieties, or the distractions of modern life to lull us into a kind of neglectful living? Or will we be intentional about our choices?

All around us, every day, we see the consequences of lives neglected and languishing in default mode. We do not have to travel far. It is in our homes. It is in how physically and mentally ill we are collectively. It is in our addictions. It is in the rape of the Earth. It is in the loss of innocence with our little ones. It is in money and machines mattering more than people. It is in our violence towards those different from us, and towards those we say we love. It is in our inabilities to make dramatic and sweeping changes as a culture for the collective good.

How is it then that we can move out of default and into something we create by design and through intention? It is not found in New Year’s resolutions. It is not found in a redemptive moment after hitting a rough patch. It is not found in reading or hearing something. It is found in this seemingly ordinary moment; the one that is with you right now. Here is the only place that you can decide not to do what you have always done. Here is where you choose to see the pain you are causing to yourself or another. Here is where you finally move your body, stop the emotional eating, choose a different approach to a loved one, drive differently, think differently, love differently.

As my teacher once said; “Consistency is the key.” To create a life by design requires choice after choice after choice; all tacking in a particular direction. So while there will be an ongoing series of adjustments, our aim towards something Greater is what keeps us on course. Do you have a something Greater that you are aiming for?

Where Is The Space?

 

In our day to day, where is the space? The discerning pause. The intentional choice to not fill up every nook and cranny of our lives. The experience of spaciousness is often sorely lacking in our day to day. Too often it remains non-existent in our schedules. It is MIA in the way we listen to both ourselves and to one another. We do not have space for our own emotions and needs or for the differences that arise between us. We leave no room for coincidences or synchronicities; closing out the chance for the long arm of the Universe to work its magic in our lives.

It is only from a place of spaciousness that can we notice the temporary as it rises and falls, always giving way to something else in our minds. When our minds can become as vast as the sky, the annoyances and problems become like leaves blowing in the wind against the back-drop of that very same sky.

In the meantime, we are filled to overflowing. And we are choking on the effluence.

The spaciousness is found in the gap between breaths.

It is in the conscious pause as you step through your door after a long day at work.

It is found in the self-control required to turn your phone off and to quit the obsessive and time-consuming checking.

It is in the early arrival for your next commitment that affords you the opportunity to just sit for a few moments.

It is in the regular use of the word, “No.”

It is in the taking of a long, slow deep breath before a response.

It is in the setting aside, each and every day, a time to check in with yourself.

And it is in the recognition that who you are is far vaster than any to-do list or external expectation of how you should spend your limited time here.

Yearning

We all yearn for so much, and wind up settling for so little. Why is that? It wasn’t always like this. In the beginning, we were very, very grand in our largess*, aliveness and possibility. And then…the world got to us. We believed what “they” said, felt and did. We took in their ideas of what was true, not true, possible, and not possible. The fears, disappointments and judgments of others entered our open, vulnerable and unprotected little bodies and minds. And in the end, we tamed our spirits down to fit into a box that allowed us to belong.

We have become far too comfortable and familiar with our self-made and self-imposed boxes. It will require thinking and acting in novel, unfamiliar and contrary ways to break that box down. Make it a daily practice to throw away what it is that cautions you. Stop listening to the tyranny of the rational mind that cites all the documentation and evidence for why it can’t or shouldn’t happen. Let the ache of what you yearn for be your guide. Let the rawness of your own vulnerability let you know when you are on the right path. And let the fear and the terror around “what will they do or think” alert you to the truth: Our greatest power will present itself to us initially as our greatest fear.

* “Generous bestowal of gifts” is the definition of largess and perfectly describes the truth of what we came in with.

Habits

 

Habits. We all have them. Habits of thinking, eating, moving, feeling and of being in relationship. Like a well worn path they offer us familiar comfort and a sense of security in the world. They give us something to count on, to lean into, serving as an oasis of stability in an ever-changing world. Simultaneously, they are exactly what limits us. Exactly what keeps us from our goals, dreams and desires for other ways of being. Over time, we can even make life-depleting habits the ones we turn to out of routine, security and a lack of skill or awareness. And even though they might be keeping us from our heart’s desire, they are indeed the devil we know and prefer. In the words of Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, we “normalize the abnormal,” making the wrong things the foundation of our lives.

One of the most energizing things we can do around ingrained habits is to look at what it costs us to do what we do. For indeed, what we do moment by moment and day by day is in fact what creates the sum total of our lives. Imagine if you could add up all of the habits you keep and the equation would show you a visual depicting the life that you have chosen. What would your image be? Knowingly or not this is exactly what we do, every day. Our habits become so second-nature, so unconscious, that we do not even challenge their presence in our lives. Like a hamster on a wheel, we fill and create our lives by playing them out over and over again. Day after day.  And, in the end, we wind up going nowhere.

Try this. Identify something you feel is a habit that no longer serves you. Try and take an attitude of non-judgment. When we judge we shut down the possibility of learning and set up a conflict within ourselves further entrenching the very thing we are trying to walk away from. So, after you identify what it is, work to disarm. Then, begin to learn about this habit of yours. How has it served you? You do it regularly, it must be there for some reason. What might that reason be? Spend time genuinely thanking it for the role it has played in your life. Let it know that while grateful, you are ready to move on. Lastly, notice when the habit arises, and before you engage, pause. If only for a second. Contained in the pause is the seed for a new habit. One that quite likely is more aligned with the truth of who you are and the life you are yearning to live.

“People do not decide their futures, They decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.”   ~F.M. Alexander

Nothing

 

Over the years, my daily practice has shifted. While I have several “formal” practices like yoga, meditation, contemplative writing and dance, there is one “practice” that is winning out these days. It is the practice of doing nothing. Not a thing.

I begin my doing nothing by sitting on the couch. That’s it. I don’t pray or meditate or write. I sit and I sit and I sit. I notice my body, my thoughts, my breath. I allow myself to be without agenda, other than to be with myself as is. But  mostly, I wait. I wait until I am urged from within to take the next step. That next step might be to start moving or write in my journal. Just as likely, it might be to close my eyes, go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. During my nothing times there is no preconceived idea of what should or should not happen. The Tao Te Ching asks, “Do you have the patience to wait ’till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving ’till the right action arises by itself?”

In a world so forcibly driven forward, the idea of doing nothing can feel like death, laziness, or a risk too dangerous to take. And yet, without built in times to let our mud settle, we run the risk of entrenching the wrong habits. We run the risk of reacting versus responding. We run the risk of spending our whole lives running on a treadmill to nowhere. Let nothing give you everything you need.

Ghouls

 

When I was growing up, our neighborhood gang of friends would play a chase and capture game. Strategically positioned throughout the designated boundaries of the game were “ghouls;” places that if your body was making contact to the exact spot, you were safe. For a few sweet and nerve racking moments you were secure, free from harm. And then just as quickly, you were thrust back into the frenzy of the chase. It sometimes feels to me that this is the game we grown-ups continue to play. Rushing from one thing to the next, we momentarily touch down, only to propel ourselves back out into the busyness of our lives.

Life is not a game of capture and chase. Nor is life an emergency. And yet, that is exactly how many of us are living. We slam from place to place throughout the day; skidding across the finish line of our to-do lists and responsibilities, both exhausted and wired. Even the so-called “healthy and good” things we do for ourselves, like going to  a yoga class, rev us up as we race to get there on time. Living in a state of emergency stresses our digestion, impairs our sleep, and compromises our health. Our state of mind is one of survival. In survival mind, everyone and everything that thwarts our forward progress is an obstacle at best and a threat at worst. Look out into our world and it is not difficult to see the consequences of this collective “game” we play.

To choose another way is to go against the grain of our society. To choose another way is to stop creating an identity built on stress and busyness. To choose another way is to be willing to say no to a dehumanizing pace and set of expectations. It is to opt out. It is to agree and say to yourself regularly, “Life is not an emergency.