What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

Have you ever thought about something, or maybe saw something totally outside the realm of normal and then, for whatever the reason, it’s everywhere? Sort of like when Uno won the Westminster Dog Show and then suddenly we were running into beagles around every corner. 

That happened to me three times this past week. Three times in the span of five days this question appeared: ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’. I first saw the question in an article I was reading online. Then I heard the same question posed to an audience during a TED talk. Finally, the question shows up in the tome my book club is reading,  David Brooks’ The Second Mountain.

It could be that I’m riding the edge of a wave and by the end of next week we won’t be able to turn around without bumping into posters, bumperstickers and tee shirts imploring us to contemplate the answer. Or maybe the universe is directing the question to me and me alone – a little bit like the freeway sign who talks to Steve Martin’s weather man in the movie L.A. Story.

Either way, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to contemplate. What would YOU do if you weren’t afraid?

Maybe you’re already doing it. Maybe not. Does it matter?

I’m all for living fearlessly but the suggestion that we’re holding ourselves back from full self-actualization because we’re afraid is annoying. Why? Because it feeds the idea of individuation during a time in our history when, more than anything, we need to connect. The question encourages us to be selfish during a time in our history when we should be selfless.

Yes, sometimes fear keeps us from walking a certain path but is that always bad? I’ve often thought about getting a tattoo. With a great sigh of relief I happily confess that fear has kept me from the artist’s needle. The saying ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ is not one I choose to embrace. The intention of these ideas, on the surface, do not encourage community building. Instead, they lean us toward a narcissistic variant of introspection.


Day VIII, Week II, Phase I: Oops, I Did it Again

I’m an emotional eater. Always have been. What does that mean? It means when something comes along to jangle my equilibrium – a quiet disagreement, a perceived slight, difficulties at work or even just the voice in my head chipping away at my self-esteem – I eat.

And believe me, I’m not stuffing my face with kale salad. Nope. Remember, sugar is my nemesis.

I reach for ice cream.

I knew there was a half eaten pint of Talenti gelato in our freezer and with a little foresight I would have either finished it or thrown it away before the start of this reboot journey. But I didn’t. You can figure out the rest of the story.

“I’ll just have a spoonful,” I said to myself. Three spoonfuls later I said, “Just one more.” Thankfully, Ben was home and pried the carton from my cold, curled fingers before I could inflict any more self-harm. He and I both knew a few spoonfuls of creamy chocolate goodness wouldn’t derail the progress of my detox/flush/reboot journey. The guilt scheduled to arrive the moment that last spoonful hit my gullet would be my undoing.

What do we do when our best intentions take a back seat to our reflexive instincts?

One of the gifts that a yoga practice offers is self-regulation. Yoga teaches us to have a measured response – the ability to dial down the strong reactions we might have to external events. In other words, instead of reaching for the ice cream I might have reached for the meditation cushion.

But sometimes self-regulation defaults to stress-induced tantrum and before I know it I’m a sticky chocolate mess. When that happens – it’s time to practice forgiveness. When forgiveness opens my heart I remind myself that one of the gifts of this program is the opportunity to look at the small choices we all make each day. Approaching each choice with presence and mindfulness and – sometimes – a little bit of forgiveness is an act of healing.


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?


Judgement and Discernment

IMG_3147I’m a judgmental woman. It’s not charming and not something of which I’m particularly proud. Nevertheless, I own my judgmental nature in the same way that I own my adorableness, my ability to empathize and to be kind, my sense of humor, my lack of math skills, my ability to organize and my fear of driving. I judge. Sometimes harshly, almost always unfairly.

Understanding who we are and owning the qualities that make us who we are – qualities that shift and change shape from moment to moment – opens the door to deep self-inquiry. I am, at times, a judgmental person. If I deny this character flaw then I am unable to observe my actions and correct them when necessary.

Self-inquiry is part of our yoga journey. We can study the self through meditation and journaling or when we step on the mat to take our asana practice. Self-inquiry is also, for me, a daily examination of how I live my life. Did I tell an untruth today? Did I cheat someone or steal from someone? Did I honor my friends and students with kindness and generosity? Or did I snap and growl, caught up in my own story. The truth is I am human. And being a human means that there are moments when the truth eludes me, moments when my integrity sags and moments, too, when my grace and integrity shine as bright as the sun.

Where does judgement come from?

My harsh judgements are reactionary, fleeting, biased and not based on evidence. They momentarily allow me to feel “better than.” My judgements are like sentries protecting me from truths I don’t want to examine. But after the heat of judgement cools the truth still seeps in. When that happens I feel “less than.” My harsh judgements sit next to my fears, just a few pews away from insecurity’s quagmire. That’s where my judgement comes from.

As part of my personal practice, I acknowledge those moments when I judge harshly. I take a step back to consider why I’m being reactive. I look for the evidence and attempt to discern whether my judgement is based on an external reality or is answering an insecurity that I carry within.

Our practice as students of yoga is to understand how judgements can arise, the difference between judgement and discernment, and how right understanding can move us closer to the truth.


The Wonder of a Blood Red Moon

lunar-eclipse-factsI know very little about the science of astronomy, yet I’ve been captivated by stars, satellites and transits since I was a little girl standing in the driveway with my mom in Lynnport, Pennsylvania searching the sky for Perseids. The anticipation I feel when I know we’re about to experience a meteor shower, an eclipse, an unusual alignment of planets along the ecliptic plane or those same planets’ transit across the solar disc is as giddy as a child’s anticipation of Santa Claus.

The cosmos is a vast and constant beauty, as it was on Wednesday morning when the earth’s shadow turned January’s blue moon blood red.

I am compelled to bear witness to these celestial events. When I do, I am one with the motion of the planets. I feel connected to the stars. I feel connected to the spinning earth and the energy of every other creature craning her neck on a frosty pre-dawn. I’m part of a collection of craned necks looking up in amazement and wondering what lies beyond the sparkling dark and inky pool above.

Being present for the stars, the moons and the planets reminds me of my infinitesimal smallness and the terrible burden of weight I place on the most insignificant of circumstances.

It’s a wondrous, wonderful thing to know that on Wednesday the brick red glow reflected back to earth was the light of all the planet’s sunsets and sunrises. For those few hours, anyone who looked up at the moon saw the beginning of every new day and the close of another. It was like looking at the breath of Gaia.

 

 


Satellites, Stars and the Stories We Tell

IMG_0451The last thing I remember is whale watching in May. And then it was September. That’s how quickly summer passed.

Ben and I were on a mission late last spring. We’d been working long hours and needed some time together. We needed an adventure. Until May I’d never been whale watching (don’t tell anyone but I’ve never been to Yosemite, either). We chose a 4-hour excursion with a company in Santa Cruz over an 8-hour journey out to the Farallon Islands.

Our morning began on a positive note with our first sighting just moments after leaving the dock. It was also our last sighting. I rode the waves for the next two hundred and twenty minutes with an ever-optimistic dramamine induced smile on my face while Ben tried his best to pretend he wasn’t miserable.

Back on dry land we warmed our chilly, wind-beaten bones with steaming clam chowder in a bread bowl and washed our dashed expectations down with beer.

And then, as I mentioned, it was September.

I learned a lesson that May morning about putting too much hope on circumstances well out of my control. That lesson stayed with me for one hundred and six days.

My excitement for August’s total solar eclipse began four years ago from the side of a road in Queensland, Australia about two seconds after totality signaled its end with a diamond flash of white light. Last year, after studying eclipse maps and weather patterns, Ben and I booked our hotel on the Nebraska plains and ordered our dark glasses. They were top of the line glasses. No cardboard frames for us.
But when fate intervened with an offer too good to be true we canceled our plans and chose to stay home. I was fine. Ben and I made the decision together and, besides, we’d share a partial eclipse from our little porch.

It’s true that when everyone I know headed to Oregon I began to feel the pang of regret.

But I was fine.

About ten days before the moon was due to pass in front of the sun Amazon sent me an urgent email. Our fancy glasses were worthless. That couldn’t be right. How could Amazon sell such a dangerously faulty product? Besides, I’d already worn them to look at the sun and didn’t go blind. But one test with my iPhone flashlight app proved them right. The glasses were tossed.

No problem. We’d build pinhole viewers. I was fine.

On the morning of the eclipse, it was cloudy in Palo Alto. The only image we managed to see was a multitude of fuzzy crescents through the holes of a kitchen colander.

I was inconsolable. Ridiculously inconsolable. Thinking about it now still makes me cry.

I learned a lesson that day about putting too much hope on circumstances well out of my control.

And then it was September.

I’ll admit it. Summer sort of sucked. I didn’t write. I didn’t see a whale breech. I didn’t get to share the spiritual high that totality invokes in the middle of a Nebraska wheat field with my beloved. And if my next sentence is all about how much worse the summer was for a whole bunch of other people in the world then I am completely invalidating my experience.

And where’s the lesson in that?

The lesson is here: life is not the story we write for ourselves in our head. Life is something else. Life is out there waiting. Life is out there being weird and unpredictable and funny and full of sorrow. Life is right now. This moment.

Our yoga practice asks us to be mindful. Teaches us to be present. When it’s September 2017 and I’m already making plans for the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse in Syracuse, New York it’s obvious that I’m missing something.

I’m missing the lessons yoga teaches. I’m missing life.


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.