Sunday, June 22, 2014


For some people the title of this post alone might deter them from reading it. The word “pain” itself can cause a kind of “ugh” feeling in the body as one says it. Try this, say the word “pain” and see what it feels like in your body. Then, add a word before it like incredible pain, or amazing pain, or beautiful pain. Doesn’t that change the way it feels? I think this is a great thing to know and it might teach us something about pain that could ultimately help us.

For the past few weeks, I have been serving as a model bodywork client for a small supervision group. I knew going in that the work would be deeper than I am inclined to receive, but the practitioner is a friend of mine who knows my body well after years of massage work in my dancing days and her touch and knowledge is highly skilled. I knew I was in good hands. She wanted to work with the connective tissue affecting the curves in my spine and thought it would be a good challenge and investigation both for her work and for the colleagues/students watching. Last week, as I laid there and felt the sensation of the stretching tissue, one of the observers closest to me noticed I was smiling and gently asked if the work tickled. The question made me smile even more. The experience has me thinking a great deal about our responses to pain. It doesn’t matter whether it is physical or emotional pain, our strategies are often the same. We can get angry at it, avoid it, distract ourselves, make a joke of it, cower from it, shut down in reaction to it, get busy trying to fix it, or maybe even smile at it. What I have learned with physical pain and what I continue to learn with emotional pain is that there is a way to be with what is uncomfortable that can either close us off or opens us up.

The first time I remember feeling deep physical pain was in high school when I sprained my ankle rehearsing for a dance performance. The physical therapist at school instructed me to submerge my ankle in a bucket of ice water and stay for 5 minutes multiple times a day. The ankle hurt to walk on, but nothing hurt like that ice water did. It felt like something was in the bucket breaking my ankle. Everything in me tensed up as I sat next to the bobbing, crackling cubes ready to moan once the sensation hit. I survived those few ice age days and my ankle was better in no time. After massage school, with my hands still not strong enough for the amount of deep tissue work I was doing, I had to repeat this chilly procedure with my hands and wrists. It was here that I started to work with my reaction to the painful sensation and discovered that we have an amazing ability to cope if we train ourselves to. I didn’t know how to do it in high school, but I now believe that all the years of meditation since then have taught me how. Since pain is going to keep on coming in this life, why not have it as a goal to keep training?

Back to last week…there I was, lying on the table as an un-lotioned fist was making its way through my pectoral muscles, I could have scrunched up my face, tensed up my legs, arms and fists, pulled my back muscles in and away from the table. All of that would have braced me against what was happening, but it also would have made it worse by adding tension to something that was already hard. I’d be creating more work and more pain. Or, I could do what I did, which was to surrender to the sensation, to let go and give in, softening to the benevolent hand treating me. Tensing up would have made this voluntary treatment feel like abuse or at the very least, as though something was forcing its will on my tissue. Instead, it was as though I said, “yes, you are welcome here.” I also removed the idea that pain is “bad” and chose to feel the sensation without naming it as something. This is what this feels like and that’s all. In doing that, I could actually feel how amazing the sensation was. If I could have said it out loud, it would have sounded like, “wow, that’s incredible.” Now if I thought I was in danger or if I didn’t know what was happening, I might have to take an action, but I wasn’t in danger. I could feel what I was experiencing and stay with it. This ability to stay with what is happening and not feel the need for a distraction or something to do takes concentration, but the there is a gift in it. It’s the gift of knowing that inside, I am okay. The pain is not all of me. When I, for the first time, experienced one of those back spasms that lasts for days, the kind where the simplest action feels monumental, I found myself laughing even more than usual. It was a profound experience of “holy cow, this is incredible! We humans actually go through this!” Of course, laughing with a back spasm is excruciating, but it would have been worse not to. When I was upset, it wasn’t the pain, it was the fear that I wouldn’t be able to work. The fear required more attention than the physical issue at hand, but actually the technique is the same. The relief comes in simply feeling what I am feeling as sensation and not adding labels on top of it. I can breathe with whatever is there and, in feeling acceptance and self-compassion, something inevitably shifts. 

The other morning, I had a painful emotion welling up in me as I sat in meditation. It was one of those dark feelings triggered by past events, casting ominous clouds over the future. Quick sand. But, I sat there anyway and tapped into the part of me that could observe and sense. I felt the darkness reside in the front of my head and I let it be there. Slowly more room opened and I could see that this was only one part, other things were also true. I could breathe with those parts, too. Though I didn’t want the darkness there, I let it be and gradually it opened the curtains, letting more light in. We can choose to stay with the sensation and stop resisting it until there is a solution. If we resist it, there is no room for change to happen. Even if it were to happen, we might miss it because our energy is still tied up in what was.

When we can find the “wow” behind anything difficult, we are doing well. For me, this is something worth working on. How can I, in those moments of emotional discomfort, get enough distance to say, with a spirit of delight, “wow, that’s painful!” Don’t laugh. I’m not being ridiculous. Well, actually, please do laugh because that is exactly what I want to be able to do. Laugh with my pain, taking in the sensation with compassion and wonder as opposed to resisting it with wanting something else. I will get something else, just maybe not in that very moment. And some days, we just can’t find that wonder, laughter, or delight in what is happening and that’s okay, too. Everything keeps changing, despite ourselves. Yesterday I couldn’t laugh, but today I can. That alone is a wondrous thing. This is the way life is…beautifully painful. It is awesome, in the true sense of the word.

Monday, June 9, 2014

My Latest Lesson In Love

I learned a lesson in love this week. Intellectually I could say I already "knew" what I am about to share; it is after all, what I teach, write, and practice on a regular basis. But, we all have those particular lessons in love that need to come out of difficult places relative to our past and to who we are now. They are the ones that move us into a deeper ability to love. Of all things, it came by going to my grade school class' 25th reunion. You might think, "who goes to such a thing or what kind of school has such an event?" I'll give some brief background and it is understandable if you don't relate to this part of the story. In the end, I think what awakened me is something we can all relate to. It happens in all groups, in all places; it is not particular to me. 
I went to a private school on the North Shore of Long Island from 3rd through 9th grade. It was a class of around 40 students and most of us were together for all of those years and many were there longer. Looking back I can say that the education was excellent. The school ended after 9th grade and most kids went on to boarding schools. My parents moved us to Florida after graduation and I was no longer in touch with this group of people with which I had spent these critically formative years. Something about my experience there was not easy for me. I never felt like I fit in. I was shy. I didn't belong to the same country clubs. I rarely felt like I had the right clothes and I always knew my life was going to take a very different turn. It did. 

When I got the invitation to this reunion, the first of its kind, I felt this surge of complex feelings run through me ending with the question, "do I go?" I'd be a single mom going with a history that would surely be "different" than most of the paths taken there. I had an artist's life. I struggled to get by. I lived in Brooklyn and now in NJ (saying NJ alone, turned some heads, which if you're from NY you know what I mean). I work hard and live simply. My fear in going was that I'd feel so apart from the group, yet again. My excitement in going was to return to this place, where I once felt so much struggle, with the sense of who I am now, which is much more confident, not so shy, joyful, and appreciative of the richness of my experience. I wanted to step onto those beautiful school grounds, walk through those buildings, talk with my past classmates, and feel good. I wanted some healing. Not healing from a bad experience or from being treated wrongly, of which I never was, but healing in the internal struggle I felt there, that I have never been able to reconcile. This feeling of being “apart.” It is a feeling many of us may know.

I pulled up alongside the old, tremendous trees that line the entrance to the school and was flooded with memories and an unexpected sense of joy, excitement, and familiarity. There is something about leaving what you know so well that makes returning magical. If we never leave, we lack the perspective to see anew. I drove through the gate and passed the playing fields that sent me reeling back in time to wearing those blue athletic shorts and gold shirts. I walked into the new building where the event was to be held and it was not long before I was greeted with a huge hello and a giant hug from a classmate of mine whose outgoing nature clearly grew even larger in the years away. It was such a welcomed relief to receive first thing upon arrival. Only a small section of our class was going to be at this reunion, but it was perfect. I can't say I was completely at ease, but as we all took a walk through the school and reflected and laughed at the times there, there was something warm and comforting about it. As I listened to people, I could tell my life was in fact way outside the bounds of theirs, as I always knew it would be. It still unnerved me as I drove the long drive home feeling that strange mixture of warmth and separateness again, even though they all made me feel welcomed. No one asked too much and so I never had to share the turns of my life over the past 25 years. As I drove, I imagined that, if they had inquired, I would be judged. That assumption kept coursing through me, perpetuating this old notion I had of the way things were. But then, an amazing thing happened. I slept on it and in the morning had the insight that if I put all of my defenses down, if I stopped that story that I was on the outside and instead took in these friends who never rejected me or hurt me and opened my heart to them, I could finally heal. If I stopped being afraid of being hurt and brought forward the person I am, with my openness, warmth, and kindness and shared it as I do with so many these days, I could, for once, enjoy this group I had spent my childhood with. Not only could I do it now, but I could do it retroactively. I can now appreciate those 7 significant years. I have permission to say, “wow, that was a gift of an experience.” 

We can choose to love. We have the amazing capacity to decide to let go of our defenses and love instead. I can stop the comparing and the judging that I was doing, thinking all along it was “them.” Even if any one of them were to judge my life or not include me in his/her circles then or now, I can still love and keep my heart open and offer kindness. I would have nothing to lose; love can't be hurt. When we are fearful, we limit our experience of life. It is as though we put a cage around ourselves in the name of safety, but in fact there is no tiger to guard ourselves from if we recognize that love and safety are inside us and are boundless. We often limit our freedom. Even a tiger coming at us can’t touch our love. It is the most powerful tool we have, greater than any shield, armor or weapon. 

Some part of me feels as though I owe an apology to my classmates for holding myself back out of fear all those years. I also feel that I owe myself a tremendous amount of compassion for feeling the way I did, for those years of not knowing who to play with on the playground when I wasn't outwardly invited to join in the game of foursquare or the anxiety of who to sit with at lunch. Kids don't do that! They don’t necessarily invite you. I am now teaching my children not to wait for an invitation, but rather to be the invitation. To share our love and life, laughter and pain -- that is what makes a rewarding life, at any age. It needs no invitation. When I think I am going to be judged, I am holding myself back and that is a lost opportunity. I can also see and value that my nature is sensitive, that I am an observer and a reflector, and that those years of feeling slightly apart set me up to do the work I do with people. There is nothing I would change. In fact this lesson will continue to serve me in new settings I enter, in teaching before a group, in giving a talk before strangers. It reminds me that it is not their acceptance I need, it is my smile and warmth I need to give and that is all. To be a monk walking in the rush-hour crowd at Penn Station. It is the same thing. No matter where I am, I have at the core of me love and I can move, think, act and feel from there. This is happiness.

Who really knows how different my path is from any of those classmates of mine. It appears different on the outside, but inside, we are all made of the same blood, flesh and bones. We have the same vulnerable hearts and the same wish for love. That is all we ever need to remember. I am grateful for my experience, for that school, for the teachers there, and for the boys and girls who made that grade. I could see their beauty at the reunion and my own. There is such healing in that. I am grateful that I had to leave and I am grateful that I came back.