Morning Light and Failing Better

fullsizeoutput_746Since it’s Memorial Day, Ben is off from work and is enjoying a lie-in. I, on the other hand, am set to teach my Monday morning class at Samyama. So when the alarm rang at 6AM Ben, blessed soul that he is, continued snoring while I stumbled first to the bathroom and then to the kitchen where I fed Bruce the Cat, boiled the water and ground the beans for the morning brew.

It wasn’t until I was at my computer checking the record low number of emails that fell into my inbox during the night that I remembered. When I wrote, so many months ago, about re-awakening my writer-self; about reviving discipline and being present – this is not what I meant. What I imagined was my waking early, sitting down and arriving for the work I do for me – the work that feeds me.

Which makes me want to pause and ask – what work feeds you?

I managed to honor those good intentions for a few months and then, as happens to so many of us so often, just when the habit was beginning to set it slipped away. It’s easy to understand how that happened. Maybe, one morning, instead of answering the first call of the alarm I hit the snooze button once then twice. Maybe, one morning, I became distracted by something that had happened in the news while I was sleeping. Maybe, one morning, I was pressed by a deadline for work and had no choice but to set aside the ‘other’.

It doesn’t matter. The sweet rhythm of hope that tickled the heart of me stopped beating. So here I am again, charging the metaphorical defibrillator and starting again.

What’s that wonderful Samuel Beckett quote? 

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

And so I shall.


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?


My Left Wrist: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

IMG_0035Remember when we took walks for the joy of fresh air and sunshine? When the best thing about walking was the unmistakable scent of spring in the air or the sharp, salty brine and the startling launch of an egret?

I do.

But then I wrapped a FitBit Charge II around my wrist and became shackled to the number of steps I took instead of being thrilled by the number of pelicans feeding near the shoreline. I looked forward to the reward of positive feedback from my FitBit’s app when I moved every hour for ten consecutive hours instead of looking forward to and embracing every opportunity to be still. I lived for seeing those celebratory green stars, animated balloons and flashy stripes that meant the goals my FitBit and I set had been accomplished. I was obsessed with keeping my FitBit happy and losing track of the happiness I deserve.

And so, on Monday morning we broke up. I broke free from the device and its freakishIMG_1676 ability to manipulate how I feel. I removed the FitBit and put it in my dresser drawer.

Yes. I know. A FitBit is a simple device. An inanimate object. A tool I use to measure with some accuracy the energy I expend and the energy I ingest. But for a person like me – a woman who likes to have a place for everything and everything in its place – it’s easy to become preoccupied with the numbers, the graphs and the positive reinforcement. Prone to giving human characteristics to machines, at times my FitBit became an encouraging best buddy. Sometimes, though, it was my worst enemy. 

My left wrist feels naked but removing the tracker is liberating. It’s brought me back to the reason why exercise and a healthy diet are important. My walks to work are mood balancing. They reduce anxiety and improve my outlook on life. They soothe me. Good food made from locally sourced ingredients provides my body with ‘clean energy’. Together exercise and an intentional diet have helped me lose the twenty extra pounds that were adding too much stress to my joints, my heart and my pancreas (there’s a bit too much diabetes in my gene stock to ignore).

Ending the relationship with my tracker does not mean I’ve lost my motivation. In fact, let’s be honest. I’ve not ended anything. What I’ve done is reconsidered the relationship. There will be a time when I reach into the dresser drawer and charge up my Charge. It may be that I need a little bit of motivation or that I’ve become so wrapped up in work that I need to re-focus my intentions.  And that will be ok. A tracker as a tool is ok. As long as I remember that healthy living – a life worth living –  can’t be measured in an app.


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?


Death by Sugar

d689d520cd3e2d7653c5e1469e50ff90--liquorice-allsorts-floppy-hatsMy mother craved licorice while carrying the child who would become me. I blame her for my addiction.

Last week a client who eschews quests asked me if I would purchase a box of Barrett’s Licorice All-Sorts for her as she could not find them where she shops for groceries. This was a little bit like asking someone avoiding alcohol to pick up a box of pinot (a box, not a bottle – no cork screw required).

I giddily agreed.

I love licorice all-sorts and I know for a fact they are available for purchase at the store across the street from where I live. I know this because when I see them near the baked goods or stacked in the candy aisle I stare longingly. I marvel at the confection’s bright colors. I remember with affection their sweet and bitter taste. And I know that should I give in to temptation and bring a box of the candies home they will be eaten within the hour. I also know that it will be less a slippery slope and more an oil slicked slide. I won’t be able to stop and will continue to buy and eat licorice all-sorts until the inventory at Mollie Stone’s is decimated. Or I’m in a sugar coma. Whichever comes first.

Sugar is poison.

Is that true? The media loves an extreme headline almost as much as I love licorice all-sorts and as powerful as it is to label sugar a poison, it may not go far enough. I prefer to think of sugar – and by ‘sugar’ I mean sweeteners we add to foods as obvious as cookies and as surprising as spaghetti sauce – as a passive aggressive bully gaslighting me to ill-health. I’ll admit it, more often than not sugar can sweet talk me into those Panera chocolate chip cookies in the pain clinic’s staff room, the chocolate covered macadamia nuts at the yoga studio and even the half-pint of sorbet gathering ice crystals in the back of the freezer.

And while sugar is tickling my taste buds with sweet nothings it’s also contributing to weight gain and tooth decay, placing stress on my liver, heart, kidneys and pancreas, aging my skin and inflaming my joints.

The most recent nutritional advice is trading the theory that a calorie is a calorie no matter where it comes from for the more obvious and intuitive notion that it’s quality, not quantity.

In other words, one thousand calories derived from a balanced combination of fruits, vegetables and whole grains will beat one thousand calories derived from fruit rolls, potato chips and donuts hands down.
I told you it was obvious and intuitive.

A box of Barrett’s Licorice All-Sorts will not kill me. Death by sugar is more insidious. All it takes is a little label reading to discover sugar shows up in places we’d never expect.
Why am I firing up my sweet tooth with all this thinking about sugar? It’s New York Time’s David Leonhardt’s fault. He wrote this, which lead me down several internet rabbit holes to this and this.

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Last week I stood in front of the Barrett’s Licorice All-Sorts and weighed my options. In the end, I didn’t buy them. I didn’t even pick them up. Instead, I came home with a bag of Pontefract Cakes.

And I ate them all.

Nobody said it was easy.


Turn Into the Spin: Build a Better Me, Part III

IMG_0097Driver’s Education was compulsory in Pennsylvania when I was in high school. Our teacher, Mr. D, was a suave and handsome man with a reputation. The halls that echoed with the sound of slamming lockers were also filled with whispers about Mr. D and a certain senior who seemed to always linger around his office. Then again, Mr. D was popular and there were plenty of us who made excuses to see him. But she was always there shuffling files or helping prepare transparencies for the overhead projector. She was always perfectly put together. Always pretty and always self-assured and apparently unfazed by rumors about the alleged tryst. I was in awe.

And then one day Mr. D questioned my decision to wear a pale blue bra underneath the cheap, white polyester pullover I bought from Two Guys with my allowance money. It felt weird, the attention, and I fumbled for an answer because the truth was I had no idea the color of my bra was at all obvious through the loose knit of the sweater.

After that I stopped thinking of excuses to stop by his office.

But in order to qualify for my learner’s permit, I still listened attentively to Mr. D’s afternoon lectures on safety and shared driving time on the narrow roads of New Tripoli with classmates I barely knew in a car that smelled vaguely of fear sweat, gasoline and pencil shavings.

There are three things I took away from Mr. D’s driver’s ed class. The first, of course, is to consider more carefully my choice in underwear.

The second is to remain aware of the world around me. When I first slipped into the driver’s seat, I was like a horse wearing blinders. I gripped the wheel and kept my eyes fixed on the hood of the car thinking that was how to keep the vehicle pointed in the right direction. Mr. D taught me to see beyond what was in front of me.

The third is to turn into the spin. Pennsylvania has real winter, and a good deal of time was spent learning how to drive through inclement weather. Mr. D taught me that in icy conditions the car might begin to lose traction. When it does I won’t save myself by turning away. I have to fight to regain control.

California doesn’t have real winter. At least not in the Bay Area. But that doesn’t mean things can’t get slippery. I hit a patch of ice life in February and lost control of my ongoing quest to Build a Better Me. The clarity that was coming into focus through January went sideways as I began to spin. My 500 words-a-day trickled to 500 words-a-week if I was lucky. I lost sight of what was beyond and focused on the immediate. Good intentions began to slide.

And to be honest, it would have been easier to let go of the wheel. Except I know how that feels, and I no longer want to feel the restlessness and lack of conviction that a life with no traction offers.

So instead I’m going to practice what Mr. D taught. I’m going to look at the big picture, and I’m going to turn into the spin.


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.