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?


In a World of Karoshi, Can We Find our Bliss?

IMG_0172On Friday I wasn’t feeling quite right. At the same time I wasn’t ill. I know you’ve been there, too. I wanted to call a sick day, make a pot of tea and crawl back into to bed. But I couldn’t. With the exception of the occasional, errant sneeze and despite having a sore throat and headache the day before, I wasn’t exhibiting one single symptom that would lead anyone to suspect I was at death’s door. There was no fever, no pox, no projectile vomiting nor was there a consumptive cough. And so I did not call in sick because to do so would require my telling one big fat whopper of a story. Plus, I had work to do.

In the past I’ve named the day I was craving a ‘mental health day’. It turns out Mental Health Day is a real thing. It has been marked annually every October 10th since 1992. Who knew? And each year the founders of Mental Health Day, the World Federation for Mental Health, select a theme. In 2017 the theme was mental health in the workplace.

In the decades that I’ve been in the workforce it has gradually become a point of pride to overwork. We use our level of stress to measure self-worth, and then wear that stress like a badge of honor. In our quest to define who we are we spend more time with our co-workers looking at screens than we do with the people we love.

Our culture of over-work contributes to poor health and wellness, societal isolation, the break down of relationships and the loss of self.

To be honest, though, we have it easy in the United States compared to Japan. In Japan, the word karoshi means death-by-overwork. While Japan’s government is working to reverse the trend, according to this article from 2014 each year thousands of workers die from either stress-related illnesses or they commit suicide. While the Japanese government has tried to reverse the trend, a more recent article shows their attempts showing meagre results. Sadly, Japan isn’t the only country where extreme devotion to the job and self-sacrifice risks death from heart failure in people as young as twenty-seven. South Korea, China and even the United Kingdom trend toward compulsive and obligatory overwork compared to the United States. Living in the heart of Silicon Valley, that doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true. Compared to these countries, we’re slackers.

I wrote the last sentence with a tinge of guilt as the thought ran through my mind, “I have to work harder.” And I bet I’m not alone.

So how do we separate the job we do from the work we love? Where is the fuzzy line between paying the mortgage and the bliss Joseph Campbell promises if we follow our heart? When we are dragged below the surface of a world moving too fast to fathom, where do we find the strength to break through the surface and breathe?


This is Not a Test

rocket-launch-693256_1920I love Ben. He’s been my friend and partner for four years this month. I have friends who have been married longer than I’ve been alive, and so I understand that four years is a very small stretch of time. Yet if feels long enough for life to have always been this way. Me and Ben.

Our views on the world as individuals are slightly different shades of the same color. Like many couples, they are similar but not identical. Where we differ is in our reactions to the mutability of life.

On January 13th the State of Hawaii informed its residents that ballistic missiles were twenty minutes away. Forty-five minutes later they learned it was a false alarm. Long after Hawaiians breathed a collective sigh of relief I remained glued to the news. I watched the same images of clear Hawaiian skies and people running for their lives in what they believed might be their last moments again and again as the videos played in a continuous loop on CNN.

I wasn’t reacting to the thought of missiles raining down on Maui. I was reacting to the thought of what it must have felt like to feel the vibration of an incoming text, to reach for the phone expecting a funny message from your family on the mainland, and instead seeing words almost impossible to process: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Meanwhile Ben, one of the most compassionate and caring humans I know, shrugged his shoulders. His only reaction was to tell me that if we found ourselves at home and in the same situation there would be no reason to panic. He would take my hand and tell me he loved me. We would simply sit down, hold one another and wait for our lives to continue or for our lives to end. I don’t know if that’s entirely true. I believe he would want to reach out to his family. But after that, what else could we do?

After all, life turns on a dime.

Yoga, I’ve learned, is about self-regulation. Self-regulation means having the ability to manage of our actions and emotional states. Instead of rarefied peaks and dark valleys, we learn to bring the peaks and valleys in our lives closer together until they become gentle, rolling hills. I suppose it’s a little like transforming the Rocky Mountains into the Appalachians. Our lives do not become flat. We don’t become emotionless automatons. We do, however, build resilience. We cultivate the ability to choose wisely. We see our lives more clearly and are better able to move forward, grounded and confident. Stress and cortisol levels lower in tandem and our health improves.

We practice self-regulation in our yoga when we move through asana thoughtfully, at the intensity and depth that is appropriate for our bodies. We practice self-regulation in our yoga when we breathe with intent. We practice self-regulation in our yoga but off our mat when we respond to criticism – whether it’s directed at us from friends, family, strangers or the voice in our head – with composed equanimity.

In truth, as yogis, every moment is a practice preparing us for the next.


Peace and Reconciliation

images-2I landed in Ireland around the same time that peace and reconciliation was breaking out. It was a wonderful time. It coincided with the Celtic Tiger – that period of great economic growth – and people were happy. There seemed to be more space in everyone’s lives. Yoga classes and wellness centers were popping up like the thorny yellow gorse on the Donegal hills in springtime. It seemed everyone was in training to become a massage therapist or reflexologist, myself included. All of this happened in part because the air was temporarily cleared of anger and hate. It was a little easier for hearts to love and for hands to reach out.

Peace and reconciliation can be a far reaching movement that builds communities, as it was in Ireland twenty years ago. It can also be something that we struggle with on our own.

My mother is an elderly woman with whom I did not speak during my entire decade in Donegal. From 1994 until 2010 we were completely and, I was certain, irrevocably estranged. This is something of which I am not proud. As someone who has worked most of her adult life to walk a yogic path, this shames me.

When I did, finally, reach out it was because I believed I was strong enough to be a good child. But despite my dutiful phone calls and yearly visits, the pain I still feel from the real and imagined wounds of my youth prevent me from being the woman I want to be – the daughter all mothers hope for.

Maybe the peace and reconciliation I need in order to shape a compassionate relationship with my mother is, like yoga, a practice. What holds my heart back from giving her the love she craves is this: My mother is a racist who glues herself to Fox news. She does not seem capable of finding the good in people. The good in the world. She is also an elderly woman who lives alone and depends upon social assistance to keep her in the crusty single-wide trailer she has lived in since I left for college over forty years ago.

Two days ago the rent she pays for the land on which her trailer rests was increased by twenty-eight dollars and she is terrified of losing her home.

I will, of course, help her. I will help her because I do believe that people are good. I believe there is good in the world. And I’ll help her because I know that there is no peace without reconciliation.


Leave Behind a Residue Ash of Happiness

fullsizeoutput_3eAll this week I’ve been attempting to reclaim time lost. Yes, there have been some Maddow Moments. And, yes, some screen time spent on Solitaire. But overall I feel as if I’ve moved nearer to the woman I remember being sixteen months ago.

Of course, time cannot be reclaimed. I know that. The best we can do is move forward with the belief that our actions reflect our values; with the hope that we are contributing something positive not to the world – that would be too high a hope – but to our lives and to the lives of the people we meet while walking our path. We want to extend love to our biological family and our chosen family, kindness to the lip-pierced and leathered man looking for a seat on the train, patience to the young mother struggling to make ends meet as a cashier at the local CVS.

Yesterday I was walking the literal path I take to Samyama – dodging traffic while I jaywalk and leaning cold into the morning waiting for the improbably long traffic light to go green on Bryant. Somewhere on Colorado Avenue I began to ponder what it is about the world that tricks us into giving up our gifts.

This is what I mean: Along the way to being a responsible member of society we stumble into some other version of ourselves. We set aside our reckless enthusiasm for life and march forward convinced we’ll return to our unique interpretation of joy at the first opportunity. On the precipice of adulthood, we look out at the wonderful world but take too seriously the advice to “choose something practical.”

But what if the contribution we are meant to bring to the world is the joy we abandoned? How can we hope to leave a residue ash of happiness behind when we leave our body if we forget how to be happy while still in it?

I’m not suggesting that we do anything different except remember those things we did not before we knew better but when we knew better. Bring those things back into our lives. Touch base and honor that person, that old friend who played guitar and sang at the top of her lungs, splashed paint on raw canvas and walked for hours lost in the woods.


Building a Better Me

rsTUx8ifQBWRDyXc9SJ1zwWhen The Counter restaurant chain first began to remodel the building on California Avenue, they had a banner to announce their arrival which read, Build a Better Burger.

Unlike the dozens of restaurants on the long thoroughfare outside my window that have opened, closed and morphed into new and doomed eateries, The Counter is still thriving. Most in my neighborhood will remember the gourmet hotdog restaurant that opened and closed faster than you can say ‘kielbasa’. They offered choices, too, but the options were off-putting and the posh wieners were priced higher than what most sane individuals would pay for a quick bite. Ten years on, however, The Counter remains packed with people for loud weekday lunches, after work suppers and jammed with hungry families every weekend. It turns out that, given a multitude of reasonably priced choices, any combination of patty, bun and condiment actually CAN be a better burger.

The choices we’re offered and the price we have to pay are the keys, right? In food and in life. When we remind ourselves that no matter where we are in life we have spiritually affordable options, living transforms from a dull, soggy bun to something scrumptious.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with ‘two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickle-onion on a sesame seed bun’ – but it’s easy to fall into a rut. What if I want to try a veggie burger, hold the onion or special sauce, on a toasted ciabatta?

I’m pretty sure my life is wonderful. But I can’t be absolutely certain because most of it moves by me without my being aware. I’ve fallen into the mucky rut of too much screen time. Not screen time like this, when I’m engaged in something that offers my life meaning. I’m thinking of screen time that includes my news addiction, my mindless scrolling through Facebook posts and the countless games of solitaire I play on the iPad before bed (which, I might add, really screws with the quality of my sleep).

It’s time to try something different. It’s time to build a better me.

We’re force-fed an onslaught of images – especially on social media – that make us feel ‘less-than’. I want to be clear: my plan to Build a Better Mimm has nothing to do with the notion that I’m not good enough. If anything, it’s the opposite. I am good enough. Good enough to have a life that feeds my soul. So are you. We are all good enough. But sometimes our gorgeous heart-light is dulled by less-than satisfying habits that don’t support the values we want to honor. Our habits divert us away from the choices our heart wants to make. The choices that keep us true to who we are. Our ‘heart-choices’ aren’t always the comfortable ones, but they undoubtedly keep us on the path that gives life meaning.

These ideas rose up for me because of the connection I feel and the inspiration I receive from the individuals I work with both through the Dharma Path Teacher Training program at Samyama Yoga Center and the clients who have become friends through the Artfully Twisted program I share with pain clinics in the Bay Area.

In both these groups we’ve worked to discover our values – those things that give our lives meaning. There is a critical connection between what we value and how we care for ourselves. Over the last fourteen months my preoccupation with the news and the escape I found through mesmerizing social media scrolls and smothering gaming habits created a disconnect. I lost touch with my values and was left feeling numb. Incomplete. A little like a bun-less burger left alone on a plate and under the heat lamp just a minute too long.

I bet I’m not alone.

Do you remember what you value? What has heart and meaning? The things you lost over the past year but know, if you find them, you’ll feel whole again?