Love Without A Shield

I look at my children and their capacity to love openly, completely, just letting the raw emotion bubble to the surface. Their joys and frustrations are so obvious and palpable. They aren’t throwing up the smoke screens, fakes, and armor that I so often recognize in myself and other adults that I encounter.

 

I could argue that this can be a good thing, that all of that armor isn’t really armor, but maturity and more control over our emotions. My psychology training would largely agree. We develop emotional regulation over time and become more equipped to deal with difficult emotions. We are making great developmental progress, right? We well-adjusted adults have the emotional game figured out, right?

 

Not so fast. I fear that with that control over difficult emotions, we lose the ability to freely feel the joy and love and wonderfully, wishfully un-difficult emotions that life has to offer with the unabashed abandon of a child. We have been disappointed, let down, and heartbroken by joy and love in the past and we aren’t about to run at them without our armor.

 

The sadness to this scenario is that, just because we have been hurt by past loves or had our hopes dashed when we were really looking forward to something, does not mean that it will happen in this instance or in the next one, but the armor that we put up to shield our hearts from that potential disappointment will keep us from fully feeling the joy. That armor will make it harder for us to open our hearts to a new love and having that armor in place reduces our chances of successfully fostering that love. Love can’t grow to its full potential with a shield in place. All of the goodness just bounces off and falls at your feet.

 

How beautiful would it be if we could drop that shield? We could let all of those amazing, extraordinary emotions in and truly feel the love and joy that life has to offer, all the while trusting that if things go wrong then all of that maturity and emotional control and ability that we have developed to deal with the difficult stuff of life will kick in.
Because the truth is they will. We can handle any of the potential disappointments that life throws our way. The real question is, can we afford to shield ourselves from all of the love and joy and goodness? I why would we want to?
 

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Make Ahimsa, Not War

 
Why are we so violent, so competitive, so cruel? There are so many news stories and articles that cross our consciousness each and every day and far too many of these reports are examples of violence and cruelty. We are assaulted by stories of war and terrorism, mistreatment because someone didn’t like the beliefs or color or gender of someone else, oppression because of greed or competition, abuses of power across virtually every facet of society- politics, business, family, even my beloved yoga community.
 
This isn’t a new phenomenon. I have been listening to an offering from The Great Courses that addresses ancient history and presents the other side of history, looking at how people lived. With each ancient culture that is analyzed- Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome- I am struck by the violence that is glaringly apparent. From turf wars in hunter-gatherer societies to oppressive class structures to downright cruel treatment of women to shocking and sickening treatment of children, the violence and brutality are ever present.
 
So with such pervasive violent tendencies and the compounding effect that the constant barrage of media coverage and personal experiences expose us to, how do we combat it? Society as a whole is a daunting, probably impossible task. We can start with ourselves, though.
 
All of this violence and harm makes me think of its opposite, Ahimsa, which quite literally translates to non-violence or non-harm. I was introduced to the word Ahimsa through my yoga training, as it is a core tenet of Raja Yoga and is present in many important yoga texts, like the Sutras of Patanjali and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. But as I delve deeper into learning about spirituality, Ahimsa is also very present in major religions, like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and its ethical concept of non-harm extends to virtually every belief system.
 
So what exactly is Ahimsa and how do we practice it? Ahimsa is non-violence in thought, word, or deed. In a world where the ideals of not inflicting harm and acting in kindness are values that most of us are taught, we certainly struggle to put that kindness into action. An honest evaluation, certainly mine of myself, reveals that there is some work to be done in this arena. Ahimsa isn’t just talking about physical violence, after all, it is all encompassing, covering nonviolence in thought, word, or deed. While I wouldn’t consciously hurt someone, I do let not so kind words fly and I definitely have unkind thoughts swirling around in my head.
 
In Sri Swami Sivananda’s book, Bliss Divine, he suggests a gradational practice of Ahimsa that I really connect with. He says first control the physical body, then speech, then finally going to thoughts. Since I feel that I have a pretty good handle on avoiding inflicting physical harm, I have focused on keeping violent, mean-spirited, or harmful words from escaping my lips.
 
Sure, I still say things that I shouldn’t. Sarcasm is deeply rooted in my interactions. However, I have really had success with choosing not to gossip and not to crack jokes at another’s expense in a mean-spirited way. It really has been an interesting exercise, because I will think a thought, let’s say while people watching at Walmart, and I will catch myself, telling myself not to judge, to practice Ahimsa.
 
I challenge you to try it. Try to keep yourself from saying anything mean. Try to notice your thoughts and pick up on anything uncharitable that you are thinking. And finally, extend that non-violence to yourself, as well. Let’s not beat ourselves up for having slip-ups and extend the same kindness to ourselves that we would so readily extend to others.
 
I would love to hear about your experience in the comments below!
 

True to You?

I have been listening to a podcast called Secular Buddhism with Noah Rasheta. A couple of days ago, I listened to an episode called What is Freedom? What is Truth? Among other things, this episode talked about conceptual truths versus empirical truths, which really got me thinking.

In brief, an empirical truth can be observed, proven through data or evidence, while a conceptual truth is much blurrier. A conceptual truth might be an idea that is accepted by society or culture or a personal idea that is true to you. An example would be precious gems, certainly they are pretty and maybe they are rare, but in the end, they are just a rock that society attaches a value to.

It really is a mind boggling rabbit hole to go down- looking at the things in your life that you accept as true and examining whether they are objectively true or whether they have all sorts of conditions and learned responses and societal influences that make them into changelings.

In terms of my own life, I have been thinking quite a bit about expectations and how much importance I place on how I am perceived by others, finding that too often I am letting this weigh on my actions and decisions. It is difficult to get past what we think things should look like. I find myself assessing whether I’m doing enough with/for my kids, saving enough, moving in the right direction at work or in relationships, finding balance between responsibility and enjoyment, exercising enough, eating the right things… oh, the list could go on.

So, thinking about this unending list, I just have to stop and ask, “What am I measuring myself against?” There isn’t a single thing on this list that is based solely around an empirical truth. Instead, each item is completely convoluted by conceptual truths, skewed by societal influence and my own personal experiences and expectations.

The people that I am trying to please, who I would like to show that I am succeeding on all of the bullet points on my list, have their own conceptual truths that are influenced by their own cultural and personal experiences. So success in people-pleasing is a moving target.

The ideals that I am striving for need to be mine, because I can never achieve the futile task of pleasing everyone else. However aha this realization is, putting it into practice is still pretty daunting. It is daunting because trusting your own intuition and decision making requires self-confidence and determination. It is also daunting because even the conceptual truths that you accept as “true” may and probably will change with further life experience. So success in pleasing yourself is also a moving target.

This means that another piece to the puzzle is accepting that we don’t have all of the answers. We could believe something today and then gather information tomorrow that completely changes what we accept as true. The only real option is to be open to that growth. Accept that we are not static beings who already know all that we will ever know and be receptive to the knowledge and transformation that further life experience gives.
 

Resources: 

http://secularbuddhism.com/ Secular Buddhism with Noah Rasheta
 

The Power of Yet

I am participating in a yoga challenge in celebration of Sri Dharma Mittra’s 77th birthday. Each week Dharma Yoga posts poses and then participants snap a pic of themselves in the current pose to offer up on their instagram.

I have made it a goal to submit posts of every pose throughout the challenge. It has been a fun process that I am really enjoying. It has also been humbling.

While I am strong and flexible and adventurous with my asana practice, it is pretty amazing to see the remarkable offerings that members of the Dharma Yoga community have been sharing throughout the challenge. There have been so many beautiful and poignant photos and sentiments shared and the sheer talent, strength, and expertise of the participants is awe-inspiring.

Last night, I enlisted my mom to snap my photo, as I have for many of the others, and she asked “What are we doing this time?” To which I replied, in kind of a defeated tone, “Well, I’m not doing what I wish I could do. I’m doing a different variation because I can’t get my body to do the pose that I want to do”. And she said, “Yet. You can’t do it yet”. Touché.

Instead of letting myself feel frustrated and disappointed that I haven’t quite mastered a pose, I am going to step back and appreciate the power of yet. I’m going to use those awe-inspiring offerings as just that, inspiration. The beauty of what I haven’t mastered yet is a window of opportunity and the exquisite examples that I am seeing are an example to strive for, to work towards. In the words of Sri Dharma Mittra himself, “See yourself in the practice you are not able to access right now. Imagine yourself in it.” These challenge offerings are a gift, giving me concrete examples of that practice that I cannot quite access right now, opening my mind to what I can imagine myself in.

Attaching that yet to things that we are striving for has implications that reach far beyond an asana practice. There are so many times that we get frustrated at something that we haven’t mastered or achieved, that we feel a twinge of jealousy at something we wish we could do better. Let’s step back and see it as a possibility instead of a weakness or failure. Identifying that we don’t have access to it right now, doesn’t mean that we never will. It simply means that we don’t have access to it yet. There is power there. The power to grow and change and expand. The power of yet.

You can check out my instagram at http://www.instagram.com/bodhiyogi and all of the challenge entries under #dharmayoga77challenge.

Life is Hard. Bloom Anyway.

It has been a cold few days. After weeks of spring teasing weather, the temperatures plummeted and we were graced with a late spring snow.

As I was dropping my children off for school one morning, I noticed a row of daffodils drooping from the cold and snow and ice. The daffodils were completely arched over, noses to the ground, but even with the inhospitable conditions their vibrant yellow blooms were still shining through.

I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by my own life that morning, struggling with my son’s behavior and the subsequent feelings of inadequacy at my own parenting abilities. Struggling to keep my cool as I was feeling a bit helpless and stuck in a negative cycle. Struggling with work and all of the other curve balls that life has a tendency to throw.

The daffodils served as a bit of a wake-up call. Sure life can be really hard sometimes. It can be overwhelming and crazy-making and downright cruel. But even if this day is a hard day, I am at least as tough as a frilly, spring bloom. I may bend over a bit under the weight of my stresses, just like those daffodils, but I am going to keep on blooming just like they did, too.

Sometimes our perspective can get clouded by the trials and tribulations that we face in a particular moment. We get so bogged down by those difficult bits, letting them become a little piece of who we believe we are, rather than recognizing them as something that is happening to or around us. It is sometimes easier to recognize that an external force is acting on something outside of ourselves. We don’t look at the drooping daffodils and blame them for not being able to withstand the beating that nature threw their way. Why do we blame ourselves for struggling through difficult situations?

We sometimes find it challenging to see all of the strength and beauty that we retain, even in those difficult times. We need to work to see those strong and beautiful parts of ourselves and how they continue to shine through, like the yellow bloom of the daffodil.

Our struggles do not define us. The drooping daffodil is still a daffodil and our struggling self is still the same smart, beautiful, strong human. Life is hard. Bloom anyway.

Ruminations

When someone ruminates, they turn something over and over in their mind. They examine it and pick it apart and even obsess a bit about it. They keep thinking about something, coming back to it, getting preoccupied by it long after the conversation or event or mistake has occurred.

I catch myself ruminating over such seemingly small things sometimes. I will be driving my car and realize that I don’t even know what the last song that played was because I was so busy wandering around inside my head. While wandering, I might be rehashing a conversation that I had (hmmm, I wonder what she really meant by that or I wonder if that offended so and so) or beating myself up about a mistake (does so and so think I’m a bad person/mother/friend/coworker now?!). The list could go on.

This past weekend, a loved one brought up something, just jokingly, that happened many months ago, that I have returned to many times on my own and feel powerless to change. I found myself coming back to it hours and even days later. Feeling frustrated to be thinking about it again. Feeling helpless about changing it.

And that really is the crux of it- feeling helpless. When in the throes of rumination, we are so focused on the problem and the many facets and potential effects of our preoccupation that we cannot see out of the fog of negativity that we create. And if we cannot see through the fog, we feel helpless about making change. We are focused on the problem itself rather than problem solving.

So, what do we do to get out of that fog? A potential solution dawned on me this morning, while reading Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron. She talks about kleshas, which are basically poisonous mental states that cloud the mind. She describes these kleshas in some detail and then discusses how we deal with them, either by acting out- with a physical or mental attack- or by repressing. She encourages us to find a middle ground between acting out and repressing where we are conscious of our negative thought process and allow ourselves to really feel what lies beneath that negative thought.

This is what I am going to try as a solution. Instead of rehashing the details of a situation and spinning around and around focusing on all of the things I cannot change, I am going to choose to turn that focus to the emotion underneath. I am going to choose to put my energy into understanding why I am so stuck on the thing I’m ruminating over; letting myself feel so that I can see what step to take next more clearly.

 
If you would like to read Pema Chodron’s beautiful book, you can get it here: http://amzn.to/1RpMIs5

Don’t Should On Me.

I really want to ________, but I shouldn’t. I really should be more ________. I tried ________, but I should have known better. I shouldn’t let ________ get to me. We could enter any number of things into these blank spaces. Should is a dangerous word. We use it to measure our perceived shortcomings.

I work as a counselor and the word should often rears its ugly head in conversations with clients. When should is used, the client is often expressing a feeling of inadequacy. They are feeling inadequate because the choices that they have made go against what society or their parent or their best friend agrees with. They are feeling inadequate because they perceive that others are judging them or disappointed by them.

When I think of the times that I use the word should, my experience mirrors what I have observed in conversations with my clients. The word should reflects an expectation, obligation or duty that I do not feel like I am meeting. I use should when I am being critical of myself, and not in a pick me up by my bootstraps motivational kind of way, but in a look at how inadequate I am kind of way.

It is a word that I catch myself and others saying all too frequently. We could all benefit from making a conscious effort to notice what those shoulds are doing, what effect should statements are having on our lives and what emotional baggage they are carrying.

The things that we attach a should to are often things that we aren’t internally motivated to achieve and as a result they are things that we don’t really put our hearts into. This means that the unaccomplished shoulds can really build up and that build up can have a very negative impact on our self-concept and confidence.

Let’s make an effort to eliminate the word should from our vocabulary. We can begin with ourselves. The next time that you catch yourself using the word should, check in to see if you could replace should with want or need. If you can’t, then take a moment to think about why this thing that you don’t want or need is something that you have declared that you should.
The lovely people at Elephant Journal have published an edited version of this post. You can find it here: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/03/dont-should-on-me-3-tips-to-get-the-shoulds-out-of-our-lives/

Don’t just see the forest. Let yourself see the trees.

We have all heard the adage that someone couldn’t see the forest for the trees, meaning that we get so wrapped up in the details that we lose perspective and can no longer see the bigger picture. I worry that we get so wrapped up in planning for the future, for that bigger picture, that we lose the beauty of experiencing the details. I am not saying you shouldn’t see the forest, definitely see the forest, the big picture of the forest is undisputedly important. What I am saying is make sure that you also allow yourself to see the trees.

I am a planner. I make lists and do research and create elaborate itineraries. When planning for a recent trip, I was deep into my research process and caught myself. How much time have I spent preparing for this trip? Checking restaurant reviews? Determining the best hotel location? Coming up with a plan and a rainy day plan to be the back-up plan to my plan?

The answer was a big ‘ol bunch of time. When the amount of planning time starts to rival the amount of time that will actually be spent enjoying the trip being planned for, I’d say it is safe to consider it too much time.

I just get so bogged down in details, in striving for perfection, in making sure I’m not missing anything. This travel planning anecdote is just a trivial example, though. I also get bogged down in the details of day to day life. I get so busy focusing on the tasks that need to happen to achieve the end goal of an impeccably kept home that I miss the opportunity to color or read or play hide and seek with my kids right now. I get so busy planning out schedules to make my family’s calendar run smoothly that I miss the enjoyment of the individual items on that calendar; enjoying my daughter’s gymnastics class or watching my children participate in story hour at the library.

I am seeing the big picture forest goals, but I am not always seeing the individual moments of the trees.

I think that we could all benefit from letting ourselves experience, and I mean truly see and enjoy, the trees a bit more. The beauty of life is hiding in the minutia. Let’s be more mindful of the moment that we are in, choosing to interact with our loved ones, stop to appreciate a beautiful sight and, gasp, actually sit and chew and digest. Letting ourselves experience the little moments that are happening to us and around us every second will let us actually connect to the life that we are working so hard to create.

The next time that you find yourself completely wrapped up in planning for a future event or checking things off of your to do list, make a conscious effort to stop and notice what you weren’t noticing in the present moment. The next time you tell your child or loved one to wait a minute, check in to see what is so important that you are putting real-time life on hold. And in those moments, even though you know there is a whole forest out there, stop to appreciate all of the beautiful trees that are the entire reason the forest exists.
An edited version of this post was published by the good people at Elephant Journal. Here’s the link: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/03/dont-just-see-the-forest-let-yourself-see-the-trees/

Through the Eyes of a Child

Are you working to improve your ability to live in the moment? Turns out, there is no guru or speaker or reading list required. Just spend the day with a six year old.

I had the pleasure of spending the whole day alone with my daughter, which is something, because I also have an eight year old son. This phenomena could be observed in the presence of both children, but it is so much more difficult to pause and appreciate while being pulled in two opposite directions and feeling like you forgot your whistle and your black and white polo shirt.

My daughter appreciates everything. “Wow, look at that!”, “Can we go see that?”, and “What’s that? It looks like the Eiffel Tower!?” All that my adult eyes would have seen was the metal structure holding a power line- that’s if I even noticed it at all. The sheer joy at seeing the river and that bird flying overhead and the train that we had to stop and wait for. I need to cultivate that.

She hums when she is really enjoying herself. She hums when she eats; something that she has done since infancy. Every time that I hear her, I stop and think, well first that she is the cutest, but then, if only we could all allow ourselves to get so lost in an experience. So lost and happy that we hum. She lets herself forget everything but what she is doing and truly experience joy. I need to cultivate that.

Books and speakers and inspirational quotes are all great. I’ll keep seeking out all of the knowledge and resources that I can, but my own six year old guru, she’s the real expert.

Noise? What Noise? Thoughts On Applying Pratyahara.

It was an unseasonably nice day yesterday and a warm and inviting evening. The studio windows just begged to be open, but as soon as I opened a window, a truck went by and I had second thoughts about my decision. I turned to the student closest to the window and gave her the option of closing it if the outside noise became a bit much, but my next thought was, maybe the noise is an opportunity.

Pratyahara, or the withdrawing of the senses, in what I see as its simplest form, is moving beyond the noise and distractions that we gather from our senses to turn the focus inward. The street noise gave an opportunity to practice and an opportunity to discuss.

In the discussion, one of the students in class (who also happened to be my mother…) said just remember pratyahara the next time your kids are fighting and whining and screeching. A more challenging task than a little bit of street noise, right? For sure. But also a really valid point.

The practice of pratyahara has so many applications to everyday life. In a world where we are constantly bombarded by distraction, I know that I could benefit from a better ability to turn inward, remove some distraction and awaken my intuitive mind. This is no easy task with the constant technology and sound and flashing light and smells and screeches of everyday life, but we can be more aware of the things that we are letting ourselves be distracted by. We can make an effort to notice when we are mindlessly thumbing through our phone instead of doing what we told ourselves we were about to do. We can give ourselves permission to focus and breathe and do despite the barrage of stimuli that are vying for our attention.

Sometimes I find myself so distracted by the things that are happening around me that it seems like I am struggling to accomplish anything at all. I will set out to complete a task and pick up a new task or twelve along the way; hear an argument and pause to mediate, see a toy in the middle of the floor and stop to grab it, notice that it feels kind of chilly and go adjust the heat, hear a vibration and check a text message, notice a funky smell and pause to take the garbage out, see a red light flashing and check a message. Wait, what was I doing?

While some of the distractions of day to day life may truly be a reason to drop whatever you are doing to deal with them immediately, many, many more of those distractions are certainly not. For me, real life application of pratyahara means working to avoid letting those less pressing distractions have the opportunity to do so much distracting. The world will not stop spinning if I do not immediately answer that message or if I step over that toy in the middle of the floor. These things can certainly wait until I accomplish the task at hand.

Bringing it back to last night’s class, the window remained open for the duration of our practice. Throughout class, I didn’t notice any street noise. The first time that I was reminded of my concern with distraction was as I was holding court over my students in savasana and worried that the noises would be disruptive to them. They all had that blissed out look as we closed our practice, though, so I’m calling it a win. Now to keep that bliss as we get bombarded by distraction outside of the studio space.
An edited version of this post was published by the good people at Elephant Journal. Here’s the link: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2016/03/noise-what-noise-thoughts-on-applying-pratyahara/