Sunday, December 29, 2013

Lessons In Running In The Rain

I awake on a Sunday, what has come to be my favorite day of the week. I let myself sleep in, knowing my body needs the rest, despite my mind which is delighted with the prospect of getting so many things done, things I want to do. It is a gray, December day. I take Wally for a walk aware of some light rain drops every now and then. Realizing that it is likely to come down in greater quantities soon, I have the thought that I should go running now. But, it is not the order of events that feels good. I want to have tea and do some writing first, start laundry, meditate, and then go running. So, of course, by that time, it is pouring. 

I get dressed in my running gear and step out into the lobby of my building working up the courage to join in the rain. There is no wavering in the fact that I will go, but just that initial self-motivated push that I am waiting for. I stand there and think about discipline and concentration and that this practice of running, like the practice of meditation, is the ability to stay and do it no matter what. To run even if it it would be easier to stay in a cozy, clean, warm apartment. To stay on a meditation cushion, allowing the anxious thoughts to be there, even if it would be easier to get up and get busy doing things. A neighbor comes by and comments on the fact that I am about to go running. He talks about his own intentions to get going on some training for an event and then encourages me. That push was handed to me like a gift that I am only realizing now as I write this. These are one of those subtle and beautiful acts of help we often receive and fail to appreciate. I step outside and go.

I enter the trails in the woods and quickly see that it is going to be a messy run. In the first minute, I feel the sensation of cold water seeping into the mesh fabric of my sneakers. I think to myself, "already!" But, then I say, "ah, this is what cold water on my feet feels like" and I run on feeling the sensation and that it is really okay. It is actually fun. I then find myself navigating through the rocks and puddles and mud. I discover that running on the rocks, which I would usually avoid, is the best option. It is this deceptive thing where you might think that the smoother part is safer, but it is hard to see what muddy parts are slippery. In fact, sometimes you need to stay on the rocky path for a while to find your way to a more secure footing on solid ground. I get through the trail and enter the road, at this point, fully drenched. My pants are sticking to my legs and I feel the cold water against my thighs. But, I am delighted. I am still navigating puddles and cars against narrow shoulders. There is an elegance to it all. It is not about plowing through like in one of those warrior races that are now in fashion, where you dive into mud and climb through muck to get to the end. It's about making decisions of which puddle to go around or through. When to jump and when to just feel the messiness. There is grace in the mud. I am now running on the smooth open, curving road, feeling strong and wild with freedom. I am reminded that we can do anything if we commit ourselves and we won't melt. It is simply experience and sensation when we don't label it as good or bad. Most of all, it is the courage to stay that moves us.

I run toward home and see a hubcap on the side of the road. It is on the forest side and sitting in leaves. I run passed it, but as I run on, I think no one will see it, so I turn back and prop it up against a street sign, hoping it gives the owner a chance to claim it. I am sure it was my experience of opening through the run that allowed everything in me to expand. The world becomes larger than just me. Thank goodness!

I write this because whether you run in the pouring rain or not, I am sure you, too, have an experience of staying with something, of concentrating, even as forces outside and in attempt to pull you away. When the timing is right and we have enough of whatever it is to be able to experience what is there and not back away, we discover some other kind of freedom and joy and aliveness that is worth it all. Do you have a memory of such an experience? I would be honored to hear it in the comments below. Reflecting on it, reliving it in words brings the feeling back and reminds us what really matters, what makes us feel inspired in this life. We can help each other stay with ourselves and in doing so, we are able to arrive for others. What a beautiful thing.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Season of Light and Darkness

This is what I am most aware of as Christmas winds down and the last of the series of holidays lies just before us. This time of the year holds both light and darkness. It puts a spotlight on love and joy, rightfully giving them the recognition that is often overlooked in the frenetic energy of our "ordinary" days. What a gift that we have a moment in the year where we take the time to celebrate love and show it in coming together, in giving and receiving, in song and bright lights, in speaking to the fantastic minds of children. This is the light. 

Simultaneously, it is also the darkest time of the year. The sun makes its short, radiant appearances as though it is visiting family and has done it long enough to know to only stay a short while. She comes and goes quickly and I feel grateful for her appearances. I soak her in on the train, always sitting on the side where I can feel her light drenching me gracefully through the window. I realize that I look for the empty seat with the most glow as if some part of me is subconsciously desperate to absorb whatever bright rays I can. Besides the literal darkness, it appears in other forms. We can feel losses we haven't felt in a while. I was driving home on Christmas Eve imagining, for the first time since he died 13 years ago, driving to the cemetery where my dad's ashes are kept. Wanting to touch his stone and walk the grounds. Wanting to go on Christmas Day. The urge came on suddenly. Why? I cannot say for sure. Or, we can, at this time, feel some kind of emptiness or disconnection and long for something unknown or unclear to ourselves. The feelings that accompany it can be raw. This is the darkness waiting for the light to find an opening.

This is what I have learned, especially in the winter season. The light and the dark will exist together. I can breathe them in and out and feel my feet on the ground, delving down into the dark, cool earth like tree roots and I can feel the length of my spine extending upward to the light. In the space between, I can recognize them and hold them both and breathe knowing it's not about having one over the other. In doing so, I have found new meaning for this time of the year. I take greater joy in the holiday lights as they decorate the dark sky. I buy, wrap, and give gifts knowing that what feels unfulfilling in the process is that I can't wrap what I'd truly like to give, so no gift feels good enough. I now understand what that is about and can feel the frustration, let it go and truly enjoy giving what I can. Giving like this feels good. I get to experience the joy of receiving and allowing myself to take in the gift, in any form, of another. It is a practice, too, to know when I am receiving and to take in the time, care, and thought of the other. Each gift is perfect. The ride of personalities and relationships and their dynamics, which play out like the most well rehearsed show on stage, is there to revel in, too. When I remember that I am not threatened by what gets said or done by those around me, I can humbly appreciate who I am with and let them be who they are. I can smile and observe my family and friends as if looking at them from outside into warm lit windows of a house. All of our imperfections allowed to be just as they are. And then, to know when I need to be quiet and come back inside, slow down and take some personal space to absorb all that goes on is the gift to myself.

Whether it is the light or the darkness that is prevailing at any hour this season, we can stay with what is and come home to ourselves again and again, in our bodies and minds. There is a safe haven there when we remember our innate beauty, that we are lovable and enough just as we are. Inside there is always a glowing light.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Pausing In A Parking Lot

On Sunday afternoon, I had gotten in my car in the parking lot of a shopping center. I had left my dog in the car for the short time I was in the store and when I closed my door, a woman approached my car clearly wanting my attention. I rolled down my window expecting her to say something judgmental about my leaving a dog in the car or, more benignly, she possibly needed directions. She immediately started talking rapidly in that run on, apologetic way, stating her case as to why she needed money. It is a story I've heard countless times on subways...that she lost her job and has kids to feed and how awful it was to have to ask, but that she didn't know what else to do. There was no pause in her words and there was no pause in my reactions. I opened my wallet, took out a bill, and handed it to her. In my nervousness, I wished her luck and regretted the poor choice in words. Luck had nothing to do with it, nor did it capture what I did wish for her. As she walked away, I saw tears had been flowing down the sides of her cheek, hidden from the front by the big, dark sunglasses. I drove on surprised by the interaction. I get asked for money often in NYC, but I've never had it happen quite this way, in a shopping center in NJ where I live. 

I went to meditation a few hours later where the moment kept returning to me while I practiced pausing and not reacting. I realized how quickly my knee-jerk reactions set in at that moment. The assumptions, the fear, the unasked questions, the quick decision to give or not give money. I couldn't get the sight of her tears out of my mind. In those tears, I saw the person that I couldn't at first glance see. I wondered if they were tears of shame, the thought of which makes my heart ache. I wish I had asked her more, inquired of her suffering, showed true compassion, no matter what her story. Pausing in that moment and offering a listening, empathic presence would have cost me nothing, but may have given her something much more than the money I gave. After that wish came down over me, I also recognized the vulnerable position I was in at that moment. I did not know who she was, what she wanted, and I was constricted within my car. Just this week, a couple's car was hijacked at a nearby, upscale mall and the man was shot dead. It was an unusual crime in the area. We never know what could happen and so my knee-jerk reactions may not be so off, but I have greater trust in good than in bad. In retrospect, I am aware that this woman and I shared a common feeling in that parking lot. Our experiences might have looked different, but we were both afraid. 

This speaks to my last post on trust, again. If I had relied on trust in that moment, I might have been able to act from my "higher" self. Trust in what? Trust in knowing that no one can really hurt me if I come from an honest, loving, heartfelt place. It is a trust in myself, in love, and in goodness. From here I can have a conversation, create an opening, let someone know that he/she is seen and matters.

I will keep practicing pausing and staying without reacting because I aspire to live from this place of love, free from fear, open and full because I need nothing more. Christmas week is upon us. Gifts will be given; kids will be excited. As I give and receive, I will remember this woman whose story I don't know, though the very words she used I've heard before. I will give thanks for the abundance that I am surrounded with and wish the same abundance be felt by anyone who asks for it, even if the asking is for small change through a rolled down window in a parking lot.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Love and Letting Go

There have been countless songs about it and I continually come across beautifully expressed lines from wise teachers on the subject. It is this notion that true love requires us to allow the object of our love to be free. It is a profound truth. And yet, it is not what we instinctively do. It is as though we are hardwired to hang on for dear life to anything or anyone we love or connect with. I rub up against it with people when I start wanting more from someone than the conditions are ripe for. I rub up against it with my dog, whose inevitably short life span I began fretting over from the moment he came home at 10 weeks old. Or, when I look at my kids running to school with their backpacks, which are half the size of their 6 year old bodies, swinging on their shoulders and I beg that this time doesn't go any faster. I rub up against it when I fear that I won't be able to continue getting by financially with my work that I love. I rub up against it in writing this blog, in wanting it to be something people respond to. It is all the same thing, though it might not seem like it at first. It has a distinct appearance. Though others might not notice it, I sense the difference in me. My mood gets slightly hardened as if I am bracing against the wind, my mind busy, my voice tougher, my vision narrower, my smile selective, my eye contact with others limited. And, it happens in subtle ways throughout the day. It is amazing really. Its persistence is commendable. So much so that I now understand why I should treat this part of me nicely, but that's for later.

To let what is important to me be free is to recognize its beauty, to know its value, to respect its fullness and its own time frame. But, to do that requires trust. When I have the fear of letting go of some tightness around something or someone, even slightly, as if taking a knot out of my shoelace and not undoing it completely, but making it loose enough that if I kept walking it would come undone -- when I can do that and have a mere drop of grace to say the word "trust," a  calm seeps through me, like a pleasant shot of relief through my veins. I ask myself, "can I trust here and let go instead?" If I can ask the question, then I am already at the place of responding, "yes, I can."  Not only can I, but there is further relief in knowing that there is nothing else to do. I just need enough courage to ask the question. If I place loving in this world as what matters most to me, then I must bow down and trust. Though I am not religious, I feel like I know what devout people get down on their knees for, why people might open their arms, palms up to the sky, and shout out some praise. It's a two way street, too. I trust in love and in loving I find trust. A double opening and a knowing that in this realm there is no where hard to fall. There are endless billowy cushions on which to land.

And so, there are days when I lose trust and just need to get by, however unpleasant. And, there are days when I remember to ask the question that brings the slightest opening, a sliver of light that lets the river flow again. That ebb and flow is how it goes; it is the path. In order to remember to ask for trust, I keep practicing and the roots of it get deeper and the wind shakes my branches less violently. I stay longer with an ease in my face, a softness in my eyes, an openness in my chest and arms and I smile more, letting it all in.  So, with the holidays approaching, too, I remind myself that there is no better time to love and let what I love be free. I can give myself permission to enjoy people as they are, the hectic nature of these two weeks as joyful in and of themselves with whatever they entail. What feels overwhelming, I can set free, which is what it needs to be anyway, and then remarkably the things get done (if they are of that sort) or the feeling releases, or the relationship surprisingly shifts without my doing something. I can control less, keep my heart open, and trust. From that place, I have nothing to lose and the birds can fly from the birdhouse in my heart and I know they are free to return without my beckoning call.

Monday, December 9, 2013

You Are More Than An “It”

When it comes to your body, how do you regard yourself? I am often reflecting on the value of handling ourselves with kindness and responding to our inner voices with a gentle, benevolent attitude, but there is a place where the very words we choose and the attitude we take has an impact that might not be so readily apparent. We were born here on earth in the form of a physical body. And yet, we talk about our body as if “it” does something to us, or “it” fails us, or “it” hurts. We bring "it" to a doctor hoping to get "it" fixed as we would a car to a mechanic, but the problem is that we don’t actually work that way. I have been witnessing people’s physical struggles and am realizing that I can play a greater part in relaying a whole picture of what I’ve learned about health and why it matters. I hope this post will not only give insight into what I do in my work, which centers around health -- physical, emotional and mental health, but will also open the door to ways of seeing, questioning, and being with the amazing reality that we exist here in a physical form and how we might want to go about it.

I remember when my father was in the hospital struggling with lung cancer, there were times where some count was low. It might have been platelets, or white blood cells, or potassium and one deficiency would cause another reaction or failure. It was the first time I got an unshakable understanding that our body works as a whole system and depends on all of its parts functioning together. And, if I think about why he had lung cancer and what was behind his habit of smoking, the emotional and mental come blaring to the forefront. In other cases, I have seen how untended to stress and tension, built up over long periods of time, culminated in tense abdominal and pelvic floor muscles that then wreaked havoc on the digestive system and a potential physical collapse throughout the body. The lesson I’ve learned in witnessing physical struggle is that to maintain good health, we need to be mindful on many levels and we need to stop regarding our bodies as if they do something to us.

We do not get better, improve, feel good by addressing the physical, the mental or emotional as separate and unrelated. And, we need to remind ourselves that our thoughts and emotions play just as large a role in how we feel physically as do our lungs or big toes. When we approach ourselves with that understanding, if we have pain in our back, we don’t say, “I don’t know what’s wrong with it; I want it to go away” rather we say, “I’m feeling pain in my back and I’m not sure what I need to feel better; I wonder what the pain is trying to say and what I need.” The difference is greater than the words alone might suggest. When we regard ourselves with this kind of inquiry and care, we are paying attention; we are taking responsibility; we are being kind; we are listening. From this space, real lasting change happens. The alternative wants a quick fix, a pill, a procedure, an answer. There’s no learning, growth, or true healing in that approach and more likely than not, the issue will return. This sense of separation shows itself in our attitudes about exercising or eating well.  They feel like something we “should” do for our body. But, if we could listen to why it might be hard to make a change in nutrition or physical activity, we might learn more about what is really in the way and have a greater possibility for change. Again, as I am often coming back to, when we look at fear, it becomes less scary.

In my own life, I remember being transformed when I went to a skilled physical therapist who specializes in Feldenkrais Method work. I went in for back pain. I was chronically sore and tight and finally in exasperation that I was not improving I said, “I am working so hard to get better!”  In response, he said, “maybe you don’t need to work hard, maybe you need to do less.” I have not forgotten those words. Something shifted in me in hearing them. I started to let go of controlling how I’d get better and in doing so, I softened, physically and mentally. It spilled over into all areas of my life. I recognized how hard I had been working in all ways. Partly it had to do with his touch and direction, partly it had to do with his words, partly it had to do with our relating.  The process changed me over time and even beyond the time I worked with him. That is what true healing looks like and it is not something to be rushed or even attained. Healing is growing and we have a choice to keep growing throughout our life.

Knowing that we have the amazing capacity to transform ourselves and that maintaining good health requires a multi-layered approach is the reason why I do the work I do, in all the forms I do it. I teach meditation; I use touch to help people let go; I guide people to see what they do in posture and movement; I inquire about feelings in the body and where they are stored so they can be acknowledged and transformed in that process; I ask people to stay with themselves just as they are and not run from what appears to be uncomfortable; I make visible what is well; I listen; and I am solid in my presence and in the trust of that relationship alone there is healing. It is not always obvious; it is not necessarily a quick fix, though it could be. The healing is in the process.

What we as therapists, healers, teachers can do is create a space for this kind of attention and guide clients with compassion, presence, and hopefully with a new perspective. The most important information and discovery comes from the client herself. We have wisdom built in. Sometimes we just need to remember where the key to the door that holds it is. When we stop regarding our bodies as things we are in, we have opened that door and we begin living with deeper insight, more compassion and understanding. A whole new world awaits there. Life is no longer happening to us. We are living fully and suddenly self-care has a new and more significant meaning.

  • Regard your whole self with kindness.
  • Give compassionate attention to what your body is saying and be willing to ask and listen.
  • Remember when your mind is busy with thoughts and feelings to come down into your body and tend to how they feel on a physical level. From there, you may find clarity.
  • Get support from a person or a group you trust. It is not a luxury as it pays itself off in much greater and lasting ways over time.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

What Is True

It is December and the woods I run through are down to their bare bones. Missing the vibrant lushness of the greens canopying over the trails and filling the negative spaces, I‘ve been running and feeling a chill of loneliness out there. That was the case until the other day when I looked out at the open spaces between trunks and branches, which extended as far as my eye could see. It occurred to me that the trees didn’t leave me. They may be bare, but they are very alive. It was me, in fact, that had abandoned them by thinking I was now alone in the woods. Instead of feeling emptiness, I could feel full of what is there. These solid trunks and flexible branches are as present as ever doing their internal work of resting. Just because they are not adorned in their finest doesn’t mean I should stop seeing them. Just as when I am not at my finest, I should not abandon myself. We are all worth more than that.

It is so easy to forget what we do have, to abandon what is in front of us in the desire for something else. We do it with people and objects and we do it with ourselves. In those moments of longing for something, someone, some situation, or ourselves to be different, if we can pause long enough to stay with what is here, just as it is, we might recognize, as I did in the woods, that this place is enough and maybe even has gifts that we were too closed to see before. We still might need something more, but we are seeing clearly and there is more possibility in that.

I once read, in one of his many books, Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh express the importance of asking, “is it true?” For a long while, I had it written on my desk so I could see it often. I have since learned through another practice to ask, “what else is true here?” The leaves may be gone, but am I really alone in the woods? I may be at this Thanksgiving table with my newly shaped family and feeling out of place, but am I really? Am I not fully embraced by this beautiful group before me? That question of “what else is true” recognizes that there is something I’m sensing that is real for me (and important to embrace), but that there is likely more to it that allows for a fuller experience. In seeing from this more complete existence, I can get a greater perspective and choose where my thoughts take me. I might need to make a change, ask for something, stand up for myself, call for help, but it comes from a more open place, which in turn makes me better able to receive.

What I’ve learned in and out of the woods this fall is that I can stay close to what I love though it might temporarily take a different form. By taking that moment to pause, step back, and see, I get closer to what is true and it usually brings me closer to what I love.