Know this: you don’t have to do a single thing to find calm. Just decide. From now on, be calm.
It could be that easy. Read some Zen koans, some Osho, some Tao and see how crafty the sages have been with their recommendations. Find simplicity; find peace. There you are.
And I absolutely believe it. I absolutely know this is possible and our shared potential.
But first, with respect to Jack Kornfield, the laundry. And then the commute. The work. The kids. The meetings. The mortgage. The retirement gone dry. The agony. The grief. The fear. And what’s for dinner, anyway?
Finding calm within the storm isn’t our bailiwick. If the storm has arrived, we’re better trained to freak first, curse the weather second and then discover our better selves in the recovery effort. Hooray for the storm. Like all catalysts, it’s a gift.
Which is why Yoga, with its kind (occasionally disdainful) acknowledgement of our body and its energies, is such a special offering to humans. Especially these days. If I asked you to sit still for five minutes, without your phone, how would you do? Maybe you’d fidget? You’d itch? Would your back hurt? How many times do you think you’d check the time?
If you try it, notice. You’ll make it. Just notice what you discover. The foot sleeping. The mind shouting. The thoughts that concern you so much you open your eyes. The trash truck rattling the house.
We all have a dependency on distraction these days. It’s the nature of the world we’ve created for ourselves, in our technology, our cars, our jobs with their fun committees, our homes with their smart appliances and toys. In a strange way, it keeps us in a certain communion with each other. It’s a ‘misery loves company’ thing. Unfortunately, we don’t enjoy it. We suffer together because we don’t want to suffer a moment alone.
Which is the big charade. Whoever said the moment alone would bring suffering? The answer to that, broadly and somewhat metaphorically, is the distraction itself. We’ve been told that happiness is somewhere and we’ve all accepted that it must be out there because it’s the out there world that pays to get into your mind. You getting into your mind is free. But no one is advertising to promote this adventure. And it’s way easier, sadly, to just accept someone else in your mind than to do the work to get there yourself.
Though, that’s not actually true, if you decide. And commit to a bit of work. The advertisers do their work. Why can’t you?
The true purpose of Yoga is to calm the mind but to get there, it offers a sweet bit of guidance and preparation. First, you got to get yourself right with the world. Figure out a relationship with kindness and honesty, with moderation and generosity. Then, know that you’re going to have to make a commitment that will require a little introspection. This usually follows that revelation we all have… the one that sounds like this, ‘I don’t know what’s up with me but I’m tired of it.’
At this point, if you’re willing to pay attention, Yoga can give you a few tools to put your body in a state of stability and ease. The most introductory of these is all those poses. They are diagnostic and therapeutic. They can kick your ass and help you spend the energy of pent-up anxiety or they can encourage you to rely and rest on the ground beneath you. They can give you more than good deltoids and bulbous asses. They give you information about the state of you. Your physical condition, your nervous system, your resilience, your ability to focus, your balance, your breathing, your pride, your acceptance, your patterns. It just takes a moment to recognize that the inquiry is worth it. A reminder that you’re in the right place to observe you. The teacher, well, she’s cool. But observe yourself.
The next time you do a movement, any movement, do it consciously. Ask yourself: what is my body doing to get me from here to there? And how does it feel? And where is my weight? And do I always move this way?
Your asana can be this thoughtful. In fact, it’s just exercise if it isn’t. And what does exercise really mean if it doesn’t find some integration in your actual life?
Please let me know if you have questions. You’re a wonder.
We all like a moment of weird. We all seek a moment of wonder.
And Wednesdays are sort of, well, custom-made for the contemplation of those deeper truths.
Am I right?
If I’ve learned anything in this life, it’s that the cultivation of connection—with people, animals, plants, rocks, clouds—is just about the pinnacle of our purpose. You may think you’re working to pay your mortgage but I bet there’s some ulterior motive there that involves someone else. Or at least the potential of a someone. Or you may think your purpose is to learn as much as possible about your very special field of study: ‘I’m an expert in drainwater litigation in the southern regions of Edgetucky.’ Well done, you. But who are you doing this for really? Because it puts you with clients. Or the rolling hills. Or water. It’s a connection.
And those of you who say, ‘I go it alone. I read alone. I’m the biggest introvert ever.’ You too are connecting. With authors generous enough to share their enlightenment through the ages. With poets who offer you their take on the world. With sages whose words ride on the breath of truth.
I don’t know much but I’ve observed the movement of the wind lately. It carries an offer into the trees and the leaves dance. It whispers around corners and the corners sing out secrets. Maybe I’m being a little poetic but it’s an inspiration. It suggests that the purpose of existence is simply to learn and share. To make our offers and experience the delight of acceptance. To give and also to receive.
Which is why the first Wednesday of every month is now Weird, Wonder, Wisdom Wednesday. Or just Weird Wednesday. And if you’re reading this, you’re invited. We meet and we chat about the wisdom that has traveled through the ages, across vast distances, or even just from our mothers and fathers. We share ideas that astound us with their importance. Or, we share fun that surprises us in its simplicity. We share storytelling or poetry and discover its guidance. We share food and ponder nourishment. We learn from each other and share again.
If you’d like to join us, and it’s convenient for you, please send along a note.I’ll put you on the invite list. We meet at my place. It’s sweet. We drink tea. Everyone who shows up is awesome.
Even if you can’t make it, please know that wherever you are, I’m grateful every day for the people who wander through with open hearts to exchange information with me. That includes you.
Have you noticed how deeply convinced you are sometimes that you are the primary mover and shaker of all? It’s what life does to us. We have jobs, kids, lovers. We think, somehow, without us, everything will drop into a sinkhole. We tell ourselves a funny story: if I don’t do it… well, the universe will crumble. Into a sinkhole.
But have you ever noticed that even your best efforts on behalf of everyone all the time doesn’t yield consistent results? Have you noticed that sometimes the results are just darn unsatisfactory? Have you noticed how you even start to build resentment—little by little—because no one sees how incredibly hard you work?
And still… you persist.
A wonderful teaching of yoga offers this reminder: your effort is required AND so is your acceptance of whatever results eventuate. You can find this teaching in a few prime locations.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises a conflicted Arjuna that his qualms about going to war against his family members are projections of himself. He asks Arjuna to see more clearly the forces at work before him. Sure, it’s a crappy situation, but Arjuna must look beyond his personal concerns to realize the crisis before him. It isn’t just about bloodshed, justice and death. Arjuna comes to understand that the real battle is the one within. To find peace, he must direct his inquiry beyond the risk to flesh in battle and learn the import of his purpose as a warrior.
It’s a beautiful metaphor. The arising of our doubts and fears signals to us the presence of obstacles. Who put those there? Guess. What you see as a crisis is a mirror inviting you toward self-discovery. We like to pretend like it’s the world out there to blame. Or the person in that car at fault. Or the other country, other community, other neighborhood provoking all the bad, all the horror, all the shit on all the walls. But these are judgments with a source within. As in, this kind of thinking is you forgetting it’s you. It’s always been you. As Rumi put it, ‘If you have not seen the Devil, go look in the mirror.’
Likewise, in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, we are advised that the transformative system of Yoga requires both our consistent effort and our patient acceptance. We engage. We do what we must. And then we remember that our attachment to the outcome will totally lead us to suffering. Come what may. So instead of attaching, what if we decide to honor whatever comes.
Think about it: if you work hard but your plan doesn’t work, you’re bummed. You put in your effort so where are your gains? Oh… we suffer. And if you work so hard and your plan does work, how long does that happiness last? Only as long as it takes your next plan to fail. As it surely will. (And should. Otherwise, how would you ever learn a thing?)
As you go about your day, see how it feels to engage with the world deeply while reminding yourself that struggles and distraction, celebration and defeat are all experiences to take you toward yourself. Make every effort to share your skills, your intellect and your heart and then observe with equanimity the evolving form of your world. It will always leave you in wonder if you stop thinking it should be otherwise.
Love. Wonder. Love.
It’s a funny thing about the world these days… in our increasing technological connection, we experience increasing disconnection from ourselves and others. We are so disconnected that I often hear students say things like, ‘well, I don’t know if I’m feeling that or imagining it.’ To which I answer, what’s the difference? And when people say, ‘I can’t imagine that,’ I sometimes suggest, ‘maybe try, if you want to understand it.’
So, is there a difference? Can you gain knowledge through imagination? Is this experience of imagining somehow a lesser enterprise than a straight-up, reality-based feeling. Which is what exactly?
Scientists play this game with their subjects. See what happens with daydreams (they enhance feelings of love) and self-imagination (it enhances memory) and pretend crises (they lead to greater empathy and willingness to help).
Old yoga dudes suggested as much when they lumped imagination and sleep in with other manners of gaining knowledge like firsthand experience, being taught by a teacher and memory.
What do you think?
Let’s play a little game. Imagine yourself becoming very sad. Imagine a very sad event. Remember the sadness you’ve experienced. See loved ones crying and dogs whining and mother nature exploited of her resources. Now watch the effects in yourself. Bummer, right?
You could do this for days. You could imagine that everything and everyone is sad with you. And, most likely, they will be. You’ll notice the saddest things. And when someone suggests you cheer up, you’ll think they’re in a truly sad state for not seeing how sad things are. Pretty soon, your thoughts will be stuck on sadness. Your body will follow the message of these thoughts and become heavy with sadness. In sum, from an imagined sadness, you’ll find sadness that is indistinguishable from sadness provoked by what you perceive as another means.
Likewise, you could try this. (Though, in truth, this is harder because you haven’t practiced happiness as much as sadness.) Imagine yourself feeling happy. Think of the happiest sounds of laughter and the happiest events. Imagine them now. See green grass and sunshine, ocean’s waves and smiling friends waving. See puppy dogs and tiny kittens play with otters. Now feel the effects. Better?
It’s all for you to experience. Whether you come to an experience through engagement with a teacher, through the written word, observation, dream, daydream or imagination, your experience affects you. It makes you feel. It’s a legitimate feeling. It leaves its mark and, if you’re paying attention, you learn from it. You get a taste of the greater fabric of life than you knew before.
So free yourself up to feel in whatever way you do. Leave aside doubt and misgivings for now. Pay attention and be grateful for every experience offered to you, in whatever form it arises. Purple elephants? Pretty! Life on Mars? Okay! See how it feels to consider the possibilities offered by your imagination.
And remember! It’s a blessing we don’t have to live through every sort of pain to generate compassion for the suffering in others. It’s also a relief to accept kindness from those who offer it even if they haven’t lived our story.
In this way, we start to see that the separation we feel is nothing more than a distraction. Just behind it—see if you can imagine it—is our true and profound connection to everything.
When grief arises, the whole world can become a devastation. A great loss may also take with it our own sense of purpose. We may feel abandoned. We may lose faith.A grieving heart doesn’t only hurt. Mentally, it saps us of clarity. We forget things. We feel distracted. Our mood may swing between sadness and irritability, causing us to make choices in our behavior that may numb the heart but not heal it. Intoxication may appeal. So might a review of the past actions that leaves us paralyzed as to choice in the present.
Using yoga tools in response to grief will help us find the perspective to understand not only the grief but the loss that precedes it. Loss is the event; the resulting grief is our process of restoring balance to the tipped scales. We can address the symptoms of grief—the physical and emotional pain, the confusion, sorrow, irritation—with special practices that help the heart. They will enrich our sense of peace, courage, faith. As we do, our enhanced relationship with peace, courage and faith will guide us to understand loss itself. Life is always in flux. Change is a constant. As we develop personal peace, courage and faith, the scales will not shift so abruptly as life comes and goes around and within us.
So we use the tools to strengthen the heart.
A strong heart is a peaceful one. It also offers us the courage to acknowledge the sorrow of loss, to integrate the power of it, and to allow it to transform into a sweet faith—in our abilities, in our insight, in our access to deeper wisdom. This access is the reward of grief; the door will open for us and we can step into compassion for those who suffer as we have and forgiveness of those who may cause it.
And it isn’t just our spiritual hearts that are strengthened in these practices.
The anatomical and physiological dimensions of grief will help you understand why loss can hit us so hard.
When we encounter loss, the primal limbic brain perceives the loss as a threat to our own survival. It orders up a resistance—and the nervous system prioritizes protection and self-preservation. You’ve probably heard the term ‘fight or flight.’ This is the primary function of the sympathetic nervous system. It responds to the brain’s perception of threat by creating physiological responses like increasing heart rate, enlarging bronchial passages, channeling blood flow to big movement muscles, opening the pupils, overriding circadian rhythms and slowing metabolism to ensure energetic resources are directed toward a fight or an escape.
As you can imagine, we don’t want to stay in this state for long. It’s stressful. Our digestion gets screwy, our sleep doesn’t come, our blood pressure soars and we don’t do all that social engagement stuff that humans, with their language and love, can be quite good at! Stress is meant for acute situations; depleting energy quickly, it’s not made for the long haul.
But this is what grief can manifest in us, physiologically. Anatomically and physiologically, grief looks very much like a chronic stress state. And because so many of us move through each day in a state of stress—constantly perceiving threat and risk and challenge—the arising of grief, for whatever reason, further tightens an already taut wire.
When loss complicates stress, the brain will seek greater protective measures, and these may result in seclusion, high anxiety, cognitive fog, indecision, distraction and anger. When these issues become chronic, we can become depressed with a distorted sense of self that is looking for any way to take control. Our hearts—physically and emotionally—may ache.
Welcome, yoga practices. If we’re lucky, we learn some techniques to reclaim our nervous system from a chronic stress state. If we’re disciplined, we remember to use them when stress arises.
Here’s how they work. One of the greatest gifts of yoga over the millennia is that it recognizes that a stressed person isn’t going to sit still easily. We don’t simply surrender to calm if we’re used to fighting for control. Meditation is awesome but inaccessible to someone who doesn’t know how to settle in for to rest.
Old school yogis (and some contemporary ones too) understood that our interaction with the world around us is not a one-way street. We aren’t made to simply react and react and react. Eventually, it wears us out. If we learn to understand the circumstances around us, we can respond appropriately. We can breathe in such a way that we indicate to the nervous system that it’s okay to rest. With consistent deep breathing, our heart is toned and soothed. With a good, long exhale, our nervous system understands that we’re safe. Thus, we open up a boulevard of experience in which we can send signals through our body to our brain as readily as the environment around us. We begin to see that impermanence is a constant but something about us isn’t.
So we find ways to calibrate our energy. We work with our energy. Maybe we do strong asana. Maybe we do soothing breathing. Maybe we rest on our bellies. Or chant. Or meditate. We find methods that restore us to balance.
In the case of grief, we strengthen the heart. We restore ourselves to joy. Joy, as you can imagine, strengthens the heart. She’s the sister of grief. She knows how to settle her down. It doesn’t mean that we push the heart or demand that we release all of our sadness. It simply means that we provide energy to the space at our heart so that the experience of grief has room to breathe. Practices like brahmari—a sweet hum on exhale—serve this purpose. When the heart gains a bit of space, the experiences that are gripped around it—of misunderstood loss, or unresolved grief—begin to soften. That’s when they begin to transform. They don’t go away; they integrate. They lead us to the wisdom of compassion and understanding. To an appreciation of all the comings and goings of life. To joy.
A while back, a mentor gently chided me: ‘you really love what’s sad, Megan.’
I agreed and we laughed and laughed. And then I wandered off and wondered, sort of sadly: I do really love what’s sad. Why?
It came down to this: in my life, what’s sad has always been accompanied—before or after—by the greatest knowings. Sadness—allowed and deeply felt—ushers in those little or big understandings about the nature of life: that all experiences come and go; that what I hold now will eventually be put down; that today’s joy is meant for today; that a hope for joy tomorrow is, ultimately, meaningless and moderately desperate. Joy happens now; tomorrow never happens ever; the degree of my suffering and delight at every moment depends on the degree to which I regulate both.
Hard-won knowings, these bits. And not always speedy or even timely. Some take a long time to settle themselves. Some settle and settle again. The loss of my tiny, 8-week old puppy? That was an intense sadness. But fast. A lesson in mutual comfort and connection that offered itself as quickly as the puppy lived her fleeting life. The loss of my 13-year old dog? A heartbreaking sob-fest that guided me to see my loyalty and commitment had risen to the levels she taught me.
Then there are those churners. The great miseries of ’95, when an already shaky trust in authority, love and family crumbled? That resolved in ’03, with a law degree and a realization that authority is always silly, love is truth and family is whomever I chose. The devastation of my dad’s suicide in ’92? Partial reconciliation occurred over years. It was ’98, with the help of a lover. Then in ’02, thanks to a professor. Again in ’05, with a therapist. Another therapist in ’12 and a dear friend in ’14.
To complete the grief in me, I had to complete the relationships I’d lost. And that meant I had to see myself as someone capable of doing it. With guidance, but ultimately alone. Because people were lost… to time and death. And those who weren’t lost weren’t responsible. It was only me who could do this work. And seeing myself that way meant that I recognized my agency in life. No one would transform sadness for me. Not great friends or teachers, not pills or strong margaritas. It was for me, with whatever wisdom I could muster. These were my tragedies to experience. These were my treasures to unearth.
So life goes on. We strive, acquire and lose. In this cycle, we’re trained to acquire but we don’t learn how to lose. Even though it’s integral and essential to our evolution. To every moment passing.
I think of this stuff, sometimes, like perennial fruits. Memories sprout, grow, bloom, fruit. Then they die back to the roots giving the ground a little more to work off. This is how we thrive.
But we forget to appreciate our crops. Shit, we barely acknowledge the garden they grow in. The gift of our whole life. Most importantly, we tend to overlook our responsibility as gardeners. If we don’t tend to ourselves, we grow out of control, out of balance, out of reach among the weeds.
And this is why I love the sad stuff. Because it IS the shit. Not the weeds, but the shit. It’s this from which our lives expand, bear fruit, offer respite from the weeds—the noise and chaos of the world around us.
Our resilience strengthens us; it offers us solace in faith and understanding. We find warmth and comfort, compassion and forgiveness with every bit of sadness we transform. We discover gratitude and joy as we experience our ability to influence change.
If you’re curious about techniques to help you reconcile loss, please consider joining me at Foundation Yoga for a three-part yoga therapy series on grief. Grief manifests as an uprooting and separation from your innate sense of home. A mindful, gentle practice will offer guideposts to show you the way back. As you navigate your path, you’ll rediscover and strengthen your capacity to feel and share forgiveness, peace, and courage. With practice, you’ll learn that you can always find your way home, from sadness to joy.
November 2, 9, 16 at from noon to 1:15pm. Cost is $50 for all three sessions or whatever your heart allows. Class size is limited so please RSVP by October 28.
I think we can all agree that yoga, these days, appears a little absurd.
People carry their mats in stylish little bags and spend most of their day in pants especially designed to enhance your down dog. Great! May all our down dogs be so happy for the assistance.
Now what do those pants offer my mind? Or my heart?
The deeper practices of yoga intend to take any of us who are willing into an experience of bliss. What does that mean, actually? A quiet mind. In the stillness, your Self. The capital S indicates its importance. It’s your true nature. The resident of your heart. The eternal you that is not confined to your body or ego. The you that realizes how to move beyond suffering. It’s a spiritual thing, for sure. It’s the science of Self-realization. We are the scientists of ourselves. We use the system, experience its effects and consider the results. No one can experience it for us. And no one can tell us, really, what our bliss will be. Not your teacher. Not your mate. We can only study ourselves and find out. That’s the dance.
A neat thing about the dance is the variety of steps for your particular rhythm. You can plop down and meditate until you know the choreography, but this isn’t completely feasible for folks who have to work to pay rent and may also have some back pain. You can study the old texts a ton but the shoulder tension could distract you from that ultimate realization. Who knows?
Which is why yoga is a system. It’s got a bunch of options available to you as you progress in your practice. It also has a variety of tools to aid in the progression. And to help you understand how you should practice, Patanjali kindly offered eight steps to guide you: yama niyama asana pranayama pratyahara dharana dhyana samadhayo ‘stav agani. The eight limbs of yoga are social and personal conduct, posture, breath control, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation and absorption.
Oh my gosh! Asana is in there! Long live yoga pants; long live my down dog!
In the West, most people equate yoga with asana. If people learn I’m a yoga teacher, they want to know my favorite pose. (Savasana. Duh.) To most, yoga means a form of exercise. Or, gentle yoga means a form of stretching. Or, restorative yoga means a form of napping. And, more recently, yoga therapy means a form of rehabilitation. All fine. Each of these forms are good and helpful. But there’s so much more. Taking asana to be the whole world of yoga is to take the spot where you currently sit as the whole world. Please don’t limit yourself.
Asana is just a fraction of a greater system. And the system is more vast than even Patanjali’s simplified rubric. Still, asana absolutely is part of the dance. Here’s why.
The practice of various poses will help you figure out the physical and energetic disturbances that keep your mind hurtling at mach speed. The appropriate practice of asana will balance your energy, so you can learn to settle your mind. It may be that your body requires physical purification. Certain asana, done in certain ways, are very effective for this. It may also be that your body requires greater strength to sit still. Certain asana are effective for this as well. In coordination with the asana, we also should learn to regulate our breath. This sort of integration of appropriate asana and pranayama gets us moving toward a greater understanding of our energy (and how to work with it) and how to start focusing our minds.
Another lovely aspect to asana is the familiarity it will give you with the temple housing your soul. Your body isn’t going to live forever. I’m sorry if I’m the first one to tell you. It also isn’t redeemable for a trade-in. The one you have in this life is the one you have to work with. You can look around these days and see a ton of variations on the theme of body-neglect. Folks in pain. Folks eating crap. Sedentary folks who don’t want to make the effort to let their bodies move through space. Highly active folks who don’t want to make the effort to let their bodies rest. So many people have forgotten how to be friendly and loyal to their bodies. They care more for their pets. (The reason we love down dogs so dearly?)
An appropriate asana practice can help you start to pay attention to what your body needs. That lovely body of yours is constantly sending you signals. You may be familiar with those for hunger and those for ouch. Listening in more carefully, you can hear it ask more specifically. It may ask for sunlight or a siesta. Touch or a banana. Protein or the feel of dirt under your toes. The body knows what it wants. It’s amazing how often we fail to give our bodies what they want. How we fail to provide an appropriate offering to the temple.
Finally, an appropriate asana practice is a kick in the pants for self-discipline. It’s a thing these days: we prioritize everyone and everything but ourselves. Some people even hold this habit up as an achievement. Well, it ain’t gonna get you on the shortlist for sainthood. Just suffering.
Having a short sequence of postures to do in the morning or evening will help us learn to create space and time for ourselves amidst the noise. Even to realize that the noise is not all that noisy when we learn to integrate it properly.
So. Asana. Purposeful. But not everything. Pants or no pants.
Final note: I’ve mentioned several times the word ‘appropriate.’ Yeah. Intentional. If you’d like to know more about what’s appropriate, contact me. And if you’re shy, just think about this: would you expect a 30-year old marathon runner to do the same series of movements as a 70-year with a recent hip transplant? Do you think a new mother, post-Caesarean, with barely a moment needs the same movement patterns as a 45-year old dude who works in a cubicle all day and drinks beer all night? Good. Now send me a note and let’s talk.
I love you and your yoga pants.
Ah. What a sweet life we get to live.
For those of you snarling… bear with me. This one’s for you.
Think for a moment about that last little moment of hatred you shared with someone. ‘I hate that; don’t you hate that?’ Or disgust: ‘Gross.’ Or maybe you unleashed anger at a loved one. Or demanded that someone change for you. Criticized someone. Remember that moment. And then feel it. Feel that feeling? Of that choice you made to give someone a gift you wouldn’t want to receive. Something less than kindness.
How does that really feel to you?
We all do these things. We’re human. We’re relatively new to our potentials of consciousness and we forget all the time that we’re just bundles of energy bumbling around the joint. If you think about it for half a second, you know this. You’ve been in that situation when Mopey McMoperstein shows up and your beautiful day turns sludgy. And you also love when Joy O’Sweetness Sunshine comes around. She always makes you feel good. (Except when she leaves. And then you wonder why with angst and uncertainty.)
Buddha was good and clear when he broke it down: As humans, we suffer. As humans, we have the possibility of waking up. Yoga is clear on the subject too. We suffer our ignorance. When we relieve ourselves of ignorance, we relieve ourselves of suffering. Our ignorance is vast and comprised of all the multitudinous clanging and clatter of matter, but what’s say we part the curtains a touch to see this little gem?
The way your feel is because of your feeling. The way you feel is the result of you feeling the way you’re feeling. The way you feel is because of you.
(The caller is in the house!)
‘No,’ you may say. ‘You don’t know my mother.’ Or, ‘Don’t you read the news?’
(I love your mother for making you and no. Also leave your mother out of this.)
The truth is, while the news always sucks and tragedies around the world are abundant, we have a choice of response. It’s understandable to experience anger and grief but what’s the purpose of holding onto it and becoming a vector? We become angry and, if we don’t recognize that the emotion is transitory in nature, we’re carrying a burden that our structures aren’t meant to bear. Emotions are transitory in nature. They arise and they fall. Holding onto them—whether they are good emotions or bad emotions—leads to suffering. Holding onto emotions is like carrying your packed luggage when the trip is over. Or gripping at clouds. Choose your metaphor, but understand that it’s silly. The emotion is meant to pass. To be unpacked. To fade away.
Which doesn’t mean that emotions don’t impact us. They do. They affect us dearly, and we can be grateful for the lessons. The energy of emotions shifts us. Like the moon affects the tide, the energy of our emotions pulls at our energies and transforms our personal landscapes. It’s imperative that we learn to navigate the new terrain or we continue to fall and fall and fall again.
Know that it’s not about escape. And it’s not ignoring the facts. Your mother may set off alarms in you. And the news may hit you hard. But it’s you who gets to respond appropriately. You have the duty and you have the privilege.
So take a moment when emotions arise. Discover what you’re feeling and feel it more deeply. Watch the feeling. Breathing deeply helps to maintain your attention on the feeling instead of wanting to act out the energy of it. As you watch it, notice how it fades.
You may even try to flip the script. Think opposites. Turn it upside down. In yoga philosophy, this is called pratipaksha bhavanam. I like to call this the most challenging inversion you’re scared to try.
It goes like this: If you’re feeling hatred, consider how the person you hate is another human who suffers as you do. Maybe even more. See if you can feel a moment of connection through kindness or compassion. If you’re feeling disgust, see if you can cultivate a sense of wonder for the object you don’t understand. It exists as you do. If you feel anger, cultivate joy. If you feel greed, consider generosity. If you’re jealous, try love. Keep working at it. It’s a practice.
The point is, you don’t have to carry the weight of your negative emotions. They weigh you down. They make you want to share them here and there. But please don’t keep passing it along. No one wants to carry your weight in addition to theirs. Everyone has their own freight.
Let’s lighten our own loads so we can help others do the same. Life really is very sweet when you choose to see it that way.
The other day, a client mentioned that she was keen to keep a pain journal.
I asked, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to keep a pleasure journal instead?’
She said she wanted the information recorded so she could answer the doctor’s questions about origin and onset of discomfort.
I asked, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if the doctor asked about origin and onset of comfort?’
She just stared at me.
But here’s the thing. Yes, of course, pain. We all have it. Some of us have it worse than others. Some of us think we have it worse than others, which probably means we do. And some of us have it, ignore it and then suffer more when it gets worse.
We also have pleasure. All of us. Some of us have it more than others, mostly by choice. Some of us think we never have it. And then someone points out that we’re smiling, and we remember.
So what if we shifted our perspective? As a yoga therapist in training with my superb teacher, Gary Kraftsow, I’ve learned to seek doorways that will guide my clients back to an experience of joy. We’ve got a bunch of dimensions, as humans. Joy is not to be confused with pleasant sensations. They’re distinct, but related. Joy is the source, I think, of pleasant sensation. And also an effective remedy for pain.
Guess what the body feels when we experience joy?
Think about it. How about those times when you’ve hurt yourself, and then laughed? Or when your heart breaks, and you notice beauty? Our joy is a deep well. From it, we can draw pleasure, awe, wonder, inspiration, connection. Good love draws on joy and replenishes it.
Our pain body is an alert system. It’s advising us of an imbalance that requires correction. Like an alarm on the machine. If we address it appropriately, the machine resumes its functioning. Miraculous! Plus we learn a thing or two about the cogs and pulleys keeping us going.
But if we focus on the alarm instead of the underlying problem, well, shit, the alarm just gets annoying. It gets louder. It seems to be the only damn noise in the whole building. Can someone shut this thing off? The whole neighborhood frowns at us. We wish we could move out.
Pain is as we do with it. If we accept its purpose—to send a message—it will quiet down. If we accept its foundation—a transient imbalance in the machine—we won’t have to suffer its presence. Instead, we can cultivate an attitude of appreciation towards it. For alerting us. For sending us a message. For reminding us that listening in to our bodies is our duty and our privilege. For confirming our own power: that we’re the ones best-placed to oversee, manage, and maintain ourselves, if we honestly accept our responsibility to do so.
Weirdly, so many of us want to bullshit ourselves. To pretend like we take care of ourselves when we don’t. To outsource our self-care. To cede our power.
We have choice when it comes to pain. And we have responsibility.
We can focus entirely on the negative stuff. The pain itself. The way we hate it. The way it bugs us. The way it victimizes us. The way we feel like we’re the only ones ever to feel so horrible. And the pain, in that chronic condition of complaint, will reward you with its own chronicity.
Or we can remember how to smile. Even with pain. We can notice where pain isn’t and smile at our good fortune. We can offer kindness to others and feel our happiness when they receive it. We can experiment with kindness toward ourselves and feel the deeper, ecstatic joy of that. We can remind ourselves that we love, and that love is our treasure that multiplies in its distribution. And while we do, we can take care of our pain appropriately.
Complaining is a pattern. Patterns love reiteration. With chronic complaint comes neural networks that habituate the recitation of the negative. It becomes easier to complain than to find a way out of the negative situation. And with the ongoing complaint, the discomfort goes on.
So practice the converse. Create a new pattern. In the yoga tradition, this is called pratipaksha bhavanam. I call it the ‘practice of turning frowns upside down.’ Second chapter, 33rd verse of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: ‘vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam.’ Or, ‘when negative thoughts present themselves, cultivate their opposite.’
In other words, that frown? Flip it! It’s the best yoga inversion out there, I swear. When practiced regularly, those old habits of wah-wah-boo-hoo-me become sort of silly. Where do they lead us? Away from any understanding of our bodies and our emotions, that’s for sure. What if, instead, we cultivated a willingness to look inside? To engage in introspection and interoception? To learn how we create joy and experience its sensation? To realize our simple fortune of life?
What if we chronicled all that? The origin and onset of a sweet life?
Today, I hiked with a student. I shared a favorite trail. Together, we smelled the blooming chaparral and watched the flowers seek the sun. My heart swelled to see his awe. My well-worked legs felt strong and capable. My body was grateful for a rest in the afternoon and a sensation in my knee reminded me to go easy through the evening. Today was a good day. (Cue Ice Cube.)
Imagine if we all brought journals like this into our doctors?
May you, and Ice Cube, create joy every day.
Here’s a reminder: we know how to find the present moment.
So what do we do with it?
We immerse ourselves. We engage with it. We live.
But what’s living?
Look around and notice your sensations, your emotions, your thoughts. Can you accept the complete situation of your present moment and see what it offers? This is your opportunity to become totally involved in your life. This is the only time you have. Your sense of the past and future is illusory. You only have now and now is the only place where you connect with everything around you.
So experience the moment and be grateful for it. Say thank you. Notice what you see. Holy cow. I promise you: you’ll see so much more.
And then, when you notice something that prompts an instinct to judge, decide if you can refrain. To refrain from judgment is to accept totally that the present situation is the truth you’ve discovered.
What if, instead of trying to correct it, criticize it, rephrase it or reform it, you instead allowed yourself to explore the information around you? What messages is the universe sending you through this moment? When you withhold judgment, you open yourself to the truth—to the lessons of truth. You’ll discover how much you’ve missed. You may never have actually heard your friend’s thoughts because you’ve always had an instinct to correct her. You may not understand your partner’s position because you always discount his sensitivity. What if you listen instead and learn? What more can you find?
This technique reveals the truth of the world. It opens the world up. It makes you realize that the world was always ready for you. Waiting for you. You’re the one who’s been closed down. When we open up, we find nourishment everywhere. In the light, the sounds, touch, taste, smell. Our senses become keen as we open to deeper communication. We become more patient as we investigate the messages out there. We learn. And what we learn is connection.
Also, as we ponder our newly connected awareness, we start to see how our persistent judging is simply a habit that holds us hostage to fear, shame, and guilt. It’s a habit that continuously depletes us of energy. A habit at the base of all the obstacles we place in our own way. Basically, a habit of a defense system that just isn’t necessary. Thankfully, it’s also a habit that can be changed as soon as we notice that judgment isn’t requisite.
So see what happens if you immerse yourself in this moment? See what’s here for you. Notice how quickly you become a judge. What if it’s okay that the way things are is the way things are? What if you decide to look more deeply? What if you accept it and engage with it with wider eyes?
Here’s a wager: I bet that your cooperation with the moment will give you a better understanding of the appropriate action to take right now. I bet your opportunities for connection will expand. And I bet that some obstacles you’ve stumbled over again and again might become surmountable or disappear.
You can high five me later.
Seriously, try it. Give it a go. Then spread the word when it works. Because it will. We’re all meant to do this. It’s the truth awaiting our discovery. And when more and more of us do it, we’ll find our way to clear minds, pure hearts and a deep connection that changes our worldview.
We’ll stop acting like hostages. We’ll share freedom.