When Gratitude is Too Big

fullsizeoutput_6e7Over the past few weeks in the creative expression classes I teach we’ve been creating gratitude journals. Gratitude journals are, as they say, ‘trending’. There are studies, in fact, that suggest keeping one benefits our mental and physical health. This might be true. Shifting our energy toward the positive rather than nurturing our habit of catastrophizing the difficulties we encounter builds our emotional resilience and reminds us that living is a group experience. 

But sometimes the concept of gratitude feels too big for me and at the same time too elementary. It’s difficult for me to winnow down all the reasons I have for being grateful.  The simple act of creating a daily list of well-meaning gestures, happy accidents and unexpected outcomes might remind me of the good in life, but it doesn’t satisfy the yearning I feel in my heart to understand how acknowledging these moments feeds my soul.

How can we add depth to the act of recognizing the positive in life?  The things that turn our frowns upside down?

In yogic philosophy we study Patanjali’s niyamas. The niyamas are a collection of five virtues. One of these virtues is self-study (‘svadhyaya’).  Anchoring the contemplation of gratitude in self-study provides an opportunity to embrace those moments for which we are grateful and then to explore the deeper nature of gratitude and how we can express the gratitude we experience. 

If we want to narrow our focus even further we can turn to Naikan – the Japanese practice of introspection. When we practice Naikan we ask three simple questions:

  • What have I received?
  • What have I given?
  • What difficulties have I caused?

The questions might be asked about a relationship, a situation or even an event. For example, if I choose to practice Naikan on my mother then the questions I ask are:

  • What have I received from my mother?
  • What have I given to my mother?
  • What difficulties have I caused my mother?

The obvious fourth questions, What difficulties has my mother caused me?, is ignored. It is human nature to shine a spotlight on that question, but it is through the examination of our answers to the first three questions that we’ll find enlightenment.

When you open your journal tonight, how will self-study or a Naikan practice influence how you consider gratitude?


Small Rituals

fullsizeoutput_5dfI threw off the morning’s rhythm on Monday and made everyone cranky. Even Bruce the Cat. I rose early rather than settling in for a second round of snooze control. I filled the kettle, ground the beans and sifted the matcha. I gave Bruce fresh kibbles and changed his water.

This is not my job on a Monday morning.

My job is to linger under the covers, snuggle with Bruce the Cat and to listen as my dear Ben shuffles into the kitchen to complete the tasks that on this particular Monday morning I completed instead.

And now the rhythm is off and the morning (at least Ben’s morning) has been not quite ruined but most definitely bumped from our household’s comfort zone. Bruce the Cat, however, is doing just fine. He’s eating breakfast and has already forgotten that I didn’t rub his belly this morning. I’m doing just fine, too. It was nice to boil the water, grind the beans and sift the matcha. I know that I barged unfairly into a weekday ritual that is Ben’s, but my intentions were pure.

Ben has gone back to bed. His morning ritual stolen, the day has temporarily become too much to face.

Rituals pull together the loose threads of our lives. We all have rituals, whether we label them as such or not. Some rituals are obvious: attending church or temple, family meals taken together or the walk we enjoy with loved ones at the start of the new year. Others rituals are less obvious. Like sifting matcha in a dark kitchen by the dim light of pre-dawn or counting the number of turns it takes for the burr to grind enough beans for the cafetiere.

Rituals shift and change – at least mine do – depending on the season. When I was a child, before I even knew the word ritual, I sat on the deep windowsill in my bedroom and watched muskrats swim upstream in the steep-banked creek toward their den. The creek was one of many small afterthoughts that broke from the larger Ontaulaunee, which originated in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In spring heavy blooms of white and purple lilac leaned down over the water to drink. In summer the giant weeping willow standing guard on the far bank kept the creek in shade. Sometimes, after the winter snow melt, the waters would rise a foot or so up the bank, turn from clear to muddied grey and push downstream with violent energy. Once, during Hurricane Agnes, the water breeched the banks and threatened to spill through my window. I guess when that happened the muskrat dens were washed away. I didn’t think about that as a young girl. When I was a girl, watching muskrats swim against the current calmed me and reminded me that there was a world beyond the view from my window that my heart ached to explore.

My small rituals as an adult are also tied to the world around me. On my walks to the yoga studio I am certain to keep to a particular side of one street in order to walk past the lemon tree that has, from time to time, left fruit for me to enjoy. And I make sure to walk through the abandoned lot where a fig tree grows. If I didn’t follow this path on my walks to work it wouldn’t feel right. And when I walk to the pain clinic I keep my eye on the persimmon trees growing in Peers Park. Watching the lemon, the fig and the persimmon trees blossom and bear fruit season after season, no matter the depth of chaos and suffering shown on the news, reminds me of the long afternoons I sat at the windowsill and watched muskrats. It keeps me calm and reminds me that it is still a beautiful world.

What are your small rituals? What pulls together the loose threads of your life?

 

 

 


What Do We Value?

 

fullsizeoutput_62dThis winter I’ve been spending some time considering the difference between the goals we set and the values we admire. As a life long goal setter and resolution maker, I’m accustomed to the rigidity of goals, the frequent concessions to failure and, when a goal is achieved, the empty sense of wondering “what next?”

I had a recent opportunity, however, to immerse myself in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a form of therapy that seeks to increase psychological flexibility through acceptance and mindfulness strategies. The technique does not ask for us to eliminate difficult feelings, nor to simply let go of the negative. Instead, ACT supports our being present for life’s sometimes bumpy ride. With ACT we practice being open to difficulty and in that way learn to accept and to not over-react to situations that are unpleasant or emotionally painful.

In ACT, we work to move toward what provides heart and meaning. While setting finite, achievable goals is useful, having an understanding of what truly matters to us – those things that sing in our soul – requires that we have clarity about our values.

Values are about who we want to be in the world. Values are not about what we want from life but what we can offer. They are not rules but qualities that resonate from a place deep within. Knowing what our values are brings life into focus and empowers us to choose how we behave when we are witnesses to pain, injustice or bullying.

What are your values?

In 2018 what can we do to hold our values as we walk through the world? What choices will we make to honor our values?


Patience is My Practice – Sometimes

IMG_0697Im not the most patient individual in the world.  Or universe.  I try.  Its part of my practice.  But at my weakest moments, when life is too full and I feel overwhelmed by it all, I can be an impatient, humorless and cantankerous grouch.

Case in point:  a recent any interaction with a nationwide cable company that shall remain nameless (Comcast).  During the move in February my beloved NCLP – a man of seemingly infinite patience without a cantankerous bone in his body – offered to deal with installing wireless in the new condo.  As it happened, I was present when our technician arrived.  A lovely, intelligent and engaging gentleman, he had the wireless up and running in minutes.  As the technician was leaving I kindly asked begged him to take with him two cable boxes (who needs a television when theres free Hulu?) and the modem that had just been replaced by its smaller and speedier cousin. He was sympathetic but could not help.  The equipment would stay with me.

A few days later, while standing in my storage unit determining how to stack the detritus of life from which Ive yet to find the courage to part, it hit me.  Literally.  Looking back, my reaction to being bonked by a cable box was extreme.  But I can tell you it felt great.

After letting loose with a few expletives and without taking a moment to consider the ramifications of my actions I picked up the box, walked the few yards to the garbage dumpster behind the Chinese restaurant, and threw the damn thing away.

And now, two months later, my impetuousness has come back to bite me in the tuckus.  The cable company would like their box back.   Theyve been calling repeatedly and until today Ive avoided admitting the pickle my lack of patience has created.  This morning I drove to the local Xfinity Emporium (ironically and with a healthy bit of snark I parked at the ATT shop next door).  I handed in the old modem.  I tried to return the new cable box but it was refused on the grounds that the box – all shiny silver and still shrink wrapped – is part of my bundle.  Dont ask.  Finally, the customer service rep (who was desperate with allergies but really a very nice woman) asked about the missing cable box.

I dont know where it is.

You should really try to find it.

I think it got lost in the move.

You should really try to find it because youre being charged for it.  Once you return it all that money will be credited to you.

Im not going to find it.  I couldnt quite summon the courage to confess to Comcast how their box met its end.  How much will I be charged?

One hundred sixty-two dollars.

Can I just pay for it now?

You should really try to find it.

She seemed so nice.  So certain that surely the cable box was in a closet somewhere and not littering a landfill.  I just didnt have the heart to tell her and so I thanked her and said goodbye.  Im down one modem but theres a cable box in the back of my car that I will not be throwing in a dumpster no matter how many times it falls on my head.  Its going right back into my storage unit.

As for the money my impatience has cost me?  I have a bucket full of change that Ill take over to the Coinstar machine at Mollie’s.  I was hoping to treat my NCLP to a nice dinner on California Avenue but I suspect there’re just enough quarters in that bucket to cover the cost of that poor cable box.

Patience is my practice, and there was a time in my life when I would have blamed the technician or the customer service rep before even considering that I am the one responsible for my actions and my reactions.  I’m grateful for that understanding.  I’m grateful that I can find humor in this latest adventure in Comcastland.  I’m even a bit grateful that it’s going to set me back one hundred and sixty-two dollars.  I’m not certain why.  

Maybe the next time I feel full and overwhelmed I’ll remember to step back and breathe.

 

 

 


Blue Sky Mornings

CIMG2291I love grey sky mornings. I love blue sky mornings, too, but there’s something about grey mornings – at least during the Bay Area summer – that are especially nice. Wrapping my hands around a mug of coffee feels different on a grey sky morning. It feels comforting and somehow warms me more than it might on those days when the world is shimmering with clear light.

The pace of a grey sky morning is different, too. Life – the same frenetic full life that was bright and busy yesterday – rests easy through dawn and then breathes itself awake. Muted, soft and lazy yet full of hope and holding the promise of a blue sky afternoon.

On some mornings the shift from grey to blue goes by almost unnoticed. On other mornings the sun burns through the thick cloud fast and hot like a torch.

But that’s what change is like, isn’t it? Sometimes it hangs gently around us until we’re ready to notice. And at other times it’s unexpected. It’s speed and ferocity with which it hits is blinding.

The way things change has been on my mind this week. Especially today. We have traveled more than halfway through our journey around the sun and it seems that the first half of this year has been, for me, a constant teaching aboutaccepting change. Not the small moment-by-moment changes that each breath of life brings but the big rock em’ sock em’ changes.

I want to write that some of the changes in my life were exquisite and others filled with grief. But that’s what we do, isn’t it? We love to assign qualities to change: good, bad, sudden, unexpected. But with our need to name change we forget that names offer our mutable circumstances a potency that can direct our emotional state and determine how we look at what simply is and always will be the movement of our lives.

One of my instructors at Niroga Institute, where I’m enrolled in the yoga therapy teacher-training course, spoke of the simplicity of being neutral. Her words have stayed with me.

Change is here. Always. If we don’t notice change in this breath we might in the next or in the breath after that. Change is our one constant. And as it is we may as well sit in the middle of it free of judgment, fear and craving. Neutral. Only in that basic state will we see the purity of change. Only in that basic state will our instincts know if we’re waking a grey sky morning, a blue sky morning or a brand new morning.

 


Pathway to Stillness

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The Opening Circle for the Pathway to Stillness Immersion will take place this Sunday the 27th of April at Samyama Yoga Center from 1:30 to 3:30 pm.

I am extremely honored that I was asked to join in this beautiful program. For four weeks participants will dive into an experience that will burnish the hard edges and soften the soul. We’ll be introduced to new ideas about meditation and how we can live our meditation moment to moment. We’ll enjoy sound and energetic healing. We’ll deepen our practice through pure yin and yin flow. Breath work, yoga nidra and journaling exercises will open our hearts and minds.

But I’m just a very small part of Pathway to Stillness. Leading our journey is John Berg, founder and director of Samyama Yoga Center. Also guiding us are teachers Natalie Donofrio and Lindsay Amrein, sound healer Devin Begley and vibrational healer Joanne Brohmer.

It’s not too late to enroll. If you would like to know more visit the Samyama website or stop by the studio at 2995 Middlefield Road.

Samyama Open House

To celebrate the beginning of our second Pathway immersion Samyama is hosting a Therapeutic Open House. Massage practitioner Paul Crowl, Sound Healer Devin Begley, Cranio-Sacral and Reiki specialist Joanne Brohmer and little ol’ me, the house reflexologist, are providing free (yes, FREE) sample treatments from 10:30 to 3:30 on Saturday 26th April and from 10:30 to 12:30 on Sunday 27th April.

Spaces are limited and appointments are filling up fast. Visit the website or stop by Samyama to book your time. Each treatment is twenty minutes long.


Breath Taking

IMG_0190Breath taking.

That’s what change can be.  It can take our breath away with the most wonderful gasp of delight, or the breath can be caught tight in our chest, sharp and immovable.

My life has seen so much change in the past six weeks.  The beginning of exciting new projects and sudden changes in circumstances that I didn’t expect.

Awe inspiring change can make us feel lighter than air.  Awful change can make us feel leaden and stuck.

I prefer awe-inspiring change.  Who doesn’t?

Here’s the thing – how we describe change depends on how we process the change.  The story we write about it in our heads and our hearts.  The peace or the violence we ascribe to it.

I’ve been thinking about this because of the labels I’ve been using to describe the changes in my life.

One of our assignments during our first month of training at Niroga Institute in Berkeley was to give some thought to Ahimsa.  Ahimsa is the first of Patanjali’s Yamas – or moral codes.  Ahimsa asks that we be compassionate.  It asks us to walk a path free of violence.

What is violence?  Is there ever a time when an act of violence can be justified?

This is what I wrote for my assignment:

 

Ahimsa

Violence is a small thing.

It is a girl child running through the jungle, arms stretched out, mouth open in silent cry,

clothes seared from her body.

It is a small thing.

Violence is an act of war.

It is a jetliner ripping a skyscraper in half.  It is men detonating the bombs they strap to their bodies.  It is women being gang raped on the back of busses.  Violence is the sting of a mother’s slap on her young son’s frozen cheek.

Non-violence begins when I remember that violence doesn’t ask for much.

Because violence is a small thing.

Violence begins when I wake to curse the haggard reflection staring back at me.

Violence ends when I wake and offer thanks for my humble life.

Violence begins when I whisper secrets that belong to someone else.

It ends when I sit in quiet contemplation.

Violence begins when I fill my eyes with gratuitous images.

It ends when I change the channel.

Violence.  Non-violence.  Ahimsa.  Himsa.

Two sides of the same coin that we toss into the air without a second thought.

We can choose the side on which it lands.