Listen well to those still, small voices

Sometimes in yoga class I hear voices in my head. No, I’m not losing my mind – rather, I keep being reminded of lessons I’ve absorbed from my teachers over the years, both the ones I loved and the ones I didn’t. Their “voices” trigger muscle memory, but also something more – a deeply ingrained wisdom.

We’re nearing the end of the traditional school year; my semester of teaching is already over. I often whether my  students have taken anything away with them from our short time together. Sometimes I tell them straight out what I hope they will remember: pay attention, don’t lose sight of your strengths, remember to breathe. But once they’re gone from my sphere, what do they recall? Have I given them anything that serves them in their future?

Current pedagogy tells us that teachers talk too much, that if students are really going to learn and internalize concepts, they need to be the ones generating the ideas and doing more of the talking. But it takes a special kind of teacher to pose the right questions, the challenging statements, or even the metaphors that prompt students to think critically and come up with valuable ideas.

When we take the responsibility for our own learning, it doesn’t necessarily matter if  what we hear from one teacher contradicts what we were told by another. This happens sometimes in yoga class. One teacher will instruct that the position of the feet be just so for a certain posture; another will say something different. Or one will say the hand should rest just here, another will say no, it shouldn’t. That used to annoy me, now it just makes me smile, because I know I can count on the wisdom of my body to position feet, hands or whatever just where I need them to be. At the same time, I’m still hearing the voices of teachers saying things like “Don’t collapse into the posture,” or “Imagine that your shoulder blades are the temple doors,” and their whispers tell me what adjustments I need to make in that moment.3-Co. Kerry-Slea Head loop (35)

Most of us talk too much, and listen not nearly enough. What if we were to see ourselves as being both teachers and students, simultaneously? Instead of passively taking in information, students also need to be able share and teach it, but they need tools and the right environment for that shift to happen. Otherwise the wisdom – whether it’s the teacher’s voice or our own — doesn’t stick. My younger sister, who just received her doctorate in education, has mastered the creation of that kind of environment. It doesn’t matter whether she is sitting with a class of sixth graders or with a group of adult learners — she raises everyone up by the respect she shows them and the joy she brings to the process. She perfectly embodies the concept of taking your work very seriously, but not taking yourself too seriously. She is humble enough to know that she has as much to learn from the sixth graders as from her professors.

Last week, my sister shared a reflective practice on her professional blog that came out of a course for educators. The first two questions of it could (and perhaps should) be used by anyone who aspires to be a lifelong learner:

What have you learned this week?

How have you learned this week?

Her point is that to incorporate learning into practice, we need reflection. We have to be able to articulate not only what we learned, but how we learned it. Whether that’s kinetically, through practicing postures in yoga, or through the use of a metaphor, like the temple doors, reflection on the process reinforces learning and stores those voices in memory.

A couple of years ago, I heard from a former student unexpectedly. He wasn’t a particularly stellar student, nor had I been that close to him. It had been at least a year, maybe more, since he was in my class. But he emailed me to say that he was using the breathing techniques that he learned in my class and they were really helping him. I guess he was hearing voices too.

 

Dreaming & scheming together

I was nearing my seventeenth birthday before I slept in a room without one of my sisters. I’ve always thought those years of close contact had something to do with my need for a lot of “alone” time now. As Joseph Campbell said, we all need “a sacred space,” even just a corner of a room, where “you can experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.” And yet, my memories of the rooms I shared resonate so much more vividly than those I had to myself.

The Patient Voice Project at the University of Iowa (an expressive writing project for people who are ill) often assigns participants to write about their childhood bedrooms. After all, it’s a topic that virtually everyone can write about, and it offers a “way in” to the practice of expressive writing. Telling stories through expressive writing often changes the experience and shows us the way forward.

We lived first in a small duplex house built in 1924. The presence of my older sister, born only 16 months before, hovered over me. We napped together, played together, and shared everything. Shortly after our third sister was born (just  shy of two years after me) we moved to a “bigger” house, about 1000 square feet, but with three bedrooms. Most of my memories begin  there.

The musician Robert Smith says that he still goes back to his parents’ house so that he can just sit in his childhood bedroom and “feel small.” When I think about the shared rooms of my childhood, small is the operative word. We felt small and so we played small games and dreamed small dreams in those rooms.

Little golden bookMy older sister and I like to tell people how we constructed paths around our room with our collection of Little Golden Books. I have no idea how many books we actually had, but at the time, it seemed liked hundreds. Since they were all the same size, we could line them up and turn them into roads. While we were supposed to be napping, somehow we were developing a sense that we needed to have a path to somewhere else.

Role-playing the life of the adults we knew was another pastime in our room. Our mother went every week to have her hair done, so we decided to do it too. My sister (being the bossy one) decided to take the part of hairdresser, so it fell to me to have my hair “done.” She cut my hair with preschool scissors, we stuffed the shorn locks into a shoe box and thought no one would notice. I don’t recall feeling any remorse or regret, even after we were found out.

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After the haircut

For many years, the three of us shared a room with Sleeping Beauty cut-outs on the wall where we created our own fantasy lives. We had to go to bed when it was still light outside and other kids were playing in the streets, so we played “house” in our beds. By carefully turning down the covers (bedspread, blanket, sheet) to different intervals, we could delineate three different rooms atop the bed. There, we would each play-out grown-up life in our own “home.” Invariably, we ended up making too much noise and bringing down the wrath of our very real parents.

By high school, of course, our world had expanded, and the bedroom was no longer our playground. My older sister and I got a “new”, wood-paneled bedroom when my dad finished the basement of the house, but we fought like cats and dogs over the space. My sharpest memory of that time is when I divided our room by building a wall between our beds out of my shoe boxes. (Even then, I loved shoes!) We had gone from building roads to building walls, and I couldn’t wait for her to go off to college and leave me with a room of my own.

The funny thing is that I don’t remember much from the time when I had the room to myself. Sarah Susanka has written that, “We are all searching for home, but we are trying to find it by building more rooms and more space,” instead of thinking about the essence of what makes the spaces feel like home. Without someone to share it and fight over it, the room lost some its luster. There’s a line in the Beach Boys’ song, “In My Room,” that goes, “Do my dreaming and my scheming lie awake and pray…” I think I must have sensed that so much of the dreaming, scheming and praying had been a shared experience, that it was the people, not the place, that were important to me.

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Do or do not? Procrastination’s grip.

The ancient Greeks had a word, “akrasia,” that meant doing something against one’s better judgment. To put it another way, akrasia is a failure to do what one has intended to do and what one ought to do. Our modern word for this is procrastination.

Here are the things I do when I’m procrastinating about doing something else:

  • Check my email
  • Tell myself I can read one (just one!) chapter of a book
  • Call someone
  • Do some laundry
  • Do the crossword puzzle or Sudoko
  • Organize my desk

Here are some of the things that I should be doing instead:

  • Grading my students’ homework
  • Writing for this blog
  • Catching up on work projects
  • Scanning the documents that have been sitting in a box for 3 years

Why is it so hard to get started on these tasks? I know that I can’t really relax with the book or the puzzle while these other things are hovering in the background, yet even that unsettled feeling can’t always move me to begin.

Having just finished teaching a unit on time management to my students, I know that  researchers characterize people like me as either avoidance or arousal procrastinators. Avoidance procrastinators tend to be self-critical, often have a maladaptive sense of perfectionism, and possess irrational beliefs about the outcome that would result from actually doing the thing they avoid. Arousal procrastinators, on the other hand, claim to work best under pressure (which is usually not true) and seek the thrill that comes from doing things at the last minute.

I’m pretty sure that I’m an avoidance procrastinator, although I do have to admit that I get a little adrenaline rush when I’m working up against a deadline. We avoidance procrastinators often believe that unless our work is absolutely perfect and liked by everyone, our self-esteem will be threatened. On other tasks, we switch into avoidance mode because they require us to do something that is out of our comfort zone, and we question our ability to even accomplish them.2016-04-02 12.50.04

Those of us who struggle with procrastination could try jolting ourselves out of it with the Nike motto, “Just do it.” Or we could use Brian Tracy’s metaphor, “Eat That Frog!” which comes from a Mark Twain quote: “If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.” In other words, get the tough stuff done first and then it’s out of the way.

Those tricks might work for some of us some of the time, but it’s important to realize that procrastination isn’t just laziness or lack of willpower. For some people it can have lifelong consequences, such as an inability to make and achieve career or financial goals, a tendency to anxiety and depression, and poorer physical health. Fortunately, procrastination can be treated with cognitive behavior therapies such as REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy). REBT asks you to imagine doing the thing you’ve been avoiding, and then predict and label the emotion that you would experience with it. It’s like a trial run for the real thing.

Practicing mindfulness might also help. A study done by Sirois and Tosti showed that higher mindfulness scores were associated with lower levels of procrastination and with more unconditional self-acceptance. It may seem counter-intuitive that the present-moment awareness of mindfulness would be beneficial to procrastinators who already have difficulty being future-oriented and goal-directed. It’s true that many procrastinators are too focused on short-term pleasure and current rewards, but that’s not the same thing as mindfulness. When we practice mindful acceptance of our present experience, we can accept the discomfort of the difficult task and also generate more self-compassion while we do it.

As Thich Nhat Hanh has written,

“When fear manifests, we want to have the seed of mindfulness also manifest to embrace it. So we have two energies present — the first is the energy of fear, and the second is the energy of mindfulness. The fear receives a bath of mindfulness and becomes a little bit weaker before it drops back down to  the depths of our consciousness in the form of a seed.”

Do you believe in miracles?

“We need to recognize that there is no age at which we lose our ability to be miracle workers,” writes  Darren Main in “Spiritual Journeys Along the Yellow Brick Road.”  Leave your comfort zone, he says, take risks and rediscover a sense of creativity and exploration – because in doing so, you can accomplish great things.

IMG_0086Are you feeling like it might take a miracle to get through the next four years? Do you doubt how much control you have over what happens to you? If so, it might be a good time to take stock of your physical, emotional and psychological “bank account”. What resources do you have and how can you best put them to use?

It is widely recognized that resilient people are more able to recover quickly from stressful events, and to utilize a variety of coping skills and strengths in doing so. Resilient people have generally built up these resources ahead of time (i.e. the bank account) by engaging in practices that enhance their physical and psychological well-being.  So when tough times hit, they have a more positive view of themselves, can make plans, and are clear-eyed about what’s needed. Most importantly, resilient people tend to have what’s called an internal locus of control.

Locus of control is a term that refers to the degree to which individuals believe that they can control the events that affect them. Are outcomes based on your ability and effort, or are they the result of outside forces and luck? If you believe that you can control yourself and influence the world around you, you are said to have an internal locus of control. If, on the other hand, you think that everything is decided outside of your control, and many events are just fated to happen, you probably have an external locus of control. While most people don’t fall at one extreme or another, we do have tendencies in one direction.

People who have a high internal locus of control tend to be happier, less depressed, and to suffer less stress. People who have a higher external locus of control often don’t seek solutions for problems because they don’t believe they can effect any change. It is possible to develop a more internal locus of control, however, by monitoring your self-talk. Check to see if you are speaking in absolutes (never, always, must, have to), and try substituting other words. Instead of saying, “I can’t”, say “I won’t” or “I choose not to”. The important thing is to remind yourself that you do have choices.

The more you can leave your comfort zone and have some success making small changes, the more you will believe in your capabilities, and the greater sense of agency you will have. Or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, “Your confidence in your ability to grow influences your ability to grow.”

This is more important than ever for people who are unhappy about the direction of the new U.S. administration. During a recent talk at American University, DeRay Mckesson of the Black Lives Matter movement said that progressive activists need to do more than just oppose everything for the next four years. They need to be creative, ambitious, and to “fight for real things, too, in this moment.  I worry sometimes because I’ve seen people get so defeated that they forget to dream about what the world can be.”

Miracle workers are the resilient, dedicated people who leave their comfort zones every day to dream and enact what the world can be. They are the teachers who show their students how to be critical thinkers. They are the people I volunteer with, who provide food, clothing and opportunity (with dignity) to those who need a helping hand. They are the lawyers who went to airports to represent immigrants. They are the women who are deciding to run for office in their local communities.

Amelia Earhart once said that, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” We can all be miracle workers if we set aside fear, make the decision to act, and fight for real, positive change.

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First, do no harm

To reflect upon our true nature is one of the purposes of the five “yamas” in yoga, the ethical and moral codes that are at the center of the practice. In English they are nonharming, truthfulness, generosity, balance and moderation, and abundance. At the Women’s March on Washington this past Saturday, I saw the yamas — and our true nature — on magnificent display. 2017-01-21-09-34-09

People of all ages, races, and backgrounds joined together with one purpose — to say “no” to the policies and mean-spiritedness of the new administration, and to say “yes” to love, inclusiveness and prosperity for all. While everyone came to the march with strong feelings and determination, there was still a joyfulness in the air. It was a relief to hear leaders speak the truth, and energizing to be surrounded by such an abundance of passion. There was no violence, there was a balance between pro and anti messages, and I saw uncountable examples of generosity and kindness among strangers. 2017-01-21-14-43-15

Going forward, though, the most difficult yama to practice could well be nonharming, because it means more than just physical nonviolence toward others. Stephen Cope says that the yamas “are really about restraining behaviors that are motivated by grasping, aversion, hatred and delusion.” So when we practice nonviolence (ahimsa) it means we have to monitor our negative thoughts, which can be a form of violence. We have to let go of hostility, and invite peace into our hearts and minds.  2017-01-21-09-13-08

Yoga Journal has some suggested asana (postures) for cultivating ahimsa. They include warrior poses, which might sound counterintuitive, but the challenge is to use our “warrior” energy with virtue. If you have ever done a warrior sequence in a yoga class, you may remember flowing from Warrior 1 to Warrior 2, to reverse Warrior, and perhaps Warrior 3. The sequence is done slowly and with grace, so that it becomes thoughtful, intentional and nonharming.

Can we bring the strength and quiet grace of the warrior to the long task ahead of us now? Thich Nhat Hanh says:

“Many people…know what needs to be done, and they engage in political, social, and environmental work to try to change things. But after a period of intense involvement, they may become discouraged if they lack the strength needed to sustain a life of action. Real strength is not in power, money, or weapons, but in deep, inner peace.

“Practicing mindfulness in each moment of our daily lives, we can cultivate our own peace. With clarity, determination, and patience — the fruits of meditation — we can sustain a life of action and be real instruments of peace. I have seen this peace in people of various religious and cultural backgrounds who spend their time and energy protecting the weak, struggling for social justice, lessening the disparity between rich and poor, stopping the arms race, fighting against discrimination, and watering the trees of love and understanding throughout the world.”

If we are to be warriors for preserving the ideals of our democracy, we need to be mindful about treating ourselves and others with ahimsa. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, ahimsa toward self means that you recognize your limits and don’t push yourself beyond the point of well-being.  “You can start practicing ahimsa’s gentleness on yourself,” before turning it toward others. Expect to be challenged by ahimsa, he says. “It is easy to relate with ahimsa to someone who doesn’t threaten you. The test is in how you will relate to a person or situation when you do feel threatened.”

This January, don’t resolve — repose

 

It’s interesting that January 1st brings on a frenzy of promises to eat better, exercise more, stop smoking and similar action-oriented resolutions when I always feel like all I want to do is hibernate like a bear. So I was happy to find out when I went to my yoga studio last week that the pose of the month is Savasana.

Savasana (shah-VAHS-anna), also called Corpse Pose, usually is done at the end of every yoga practice, and it looks deceptively easy. After all, what could be that hard about lying flat on one’s back with arms and legs stretched out away from the body, and closing the eyes for 10 minutes or so? But I say “deceptive” because Savasana can be the most difficult yoga pose of all — first, because it’s hard for many of us to truly relax, and second because Savasana is about relaxing “with attention”. Yoga Journal says that in Savasana we attempt to “quiet the physical body and pacify the sense organs”, so we need to pay particular attention to relaxing the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It asks us to surrender to the point where the boundaries of the body begin to dissolve, where we can symbolically “die” to old ways of thinking and doing. savasana_in_yoga_gembira_community

Savasana is the bridge that allows you to take the benefits of class into your everyday life. This is why yoga teachers tell people who have to leave class early that they should plan to stop the regular practice with enough time left to take a few minutes in the pose before going. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, “Not forcing anything, we just do our best to line up with the warp and woof of body and mind, floor, and world, staying in touch.” Savasana brings together all the disparate pieces of the yoga class and gives you time for processing them and absorbing their benefits.

Sleep, which we tend to crave during the cold winter months, is like Savasana in that it is important for integrating the separate pieces of our days. We can be more effective the next day if we’ve spent time in sleep, regrouping and consolidating everything that we learned and experienced during the day. In addition, sleep sometimes helps us problem-solve because the useless information that came in during the day is forgotten, and only the crux remains. While there is still much to learn about the purposes of sleep, some researchers theorize that it helps the brain be “plastic”, to dial down synaptic activity for a while and use less energy. We are literally resting the brain, perhaps more so than resting the body.

Animals hibernate in the winter as a way of saving energy too, because food resources are scarce. Most of us don’t have that problem, but there’s still a case to be made for looking at January as a month of repose. It’s the coldest month of the year in the northern hemisphere and has some of the shortest days, so why not sleep a little more and yes, get down on the mat in Savasana? Use the darkness to gather energy, reflect on where you’re going and prepare for the longer days ahead. The word “January” comes from the Latin word meaning “door”. Consider opening the door to the new year slowly rather than abruptly. Take the time to first figure out what’s on the other side.

Indira Gandhi said that, “You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.” That’s not only the challenge of Savasana, but also the way we manifest it in our everyday lives.

 

What do you want to add to your life?

A list, by its nature, has to have some importance. We make lists to organize our thoughts and to remember what we want to recall, and why would we do that if it wasn’t for something meaningful or important? Right now I have a grocery list in my purse and a to-do list on my desk.  On my iPad, I have a list of 100 books “That Shaped America”. Last week the “Best of 2016” lists started appearing. And a few years ago, Rosanne Cash even made an album called “The List”, featuring the songs her father had considered essential for her to know.

So lists can be made up of things that are the best, the most influential, or the most essential. And lists can be more mundane: groceries, names, chores, goals. The common factor is always, “Let’s not forget these things.”

For my birthday, I received a journal called “The 52 Lists Project“. The idea of the journal is to take lists beyond what we want to remember and into the realm of inspiration and insight. What do our lists reveal about us? Loosely organized around the calendar year, each week’s list challenges the writer to look a little more deeply inside.

List #48 asks me to “list the things you want to add to your life.” This is the time of year when many of us are expecting gifts, but list #48 is something different — the non-tangibles that I desire. Here is my list:

Joy/smiles/laughter — is there anyone who feels they have enough of these? Our world gives us so much to be serious and worried about, but how can we temper those thoughts with occasions of joy?  My inner child wants to delight in the glow of holiday lights and the beauty of new snow, to laugh at something silly, to smile at a loved one.zoolights-december-5

Civility & respect — These traits seem to have gone missing from society. A nearby Quaker church used to have a banner that asked, “How does your life help to remove the causes of war?” My question now is, “How can my life add to civility and respect in the world around me?” Can the way I think and talk about people, places and things (even in my own home) be a small step that contributes to a shift in the environment?

Volunteering — Our time and presence are powerful gifts to offer others. When we give help, most of us get just as much out of it as we put in. It’s an opportunity to put passions into practice; get out of our own heads for a while; and shift our perspective. It is also a way to experience humility and demonstrate respect for others.

Meditation — I’m in the middle of a personal 28-day meditation challenge. I especially like a 5-minute meditation I found on YogaGlo called “With empty hands, I take hold of the plough.” It helps me visualize the balance between letting go and holding on, as well as approaching each task with openness.Hand Reaching

Sleep — The Dalai Lama has said that sleep is the best meditation, but it is an ongoing challenge for me to get deep, uninterrupted sleep. Since sleep is so important for repairing the body, and contributing to a longer life, this will always be on my wish list.

Time with friends — It’s so easy to get caught up in juggling everyday life that time with friends often goes to the bottom of the list. But the nourishment that comes from these moments together makes our daily burdens so much lighter. As Henry Van Dyke wrote, “A friend is what the heart needs all the time.”

A list of 6 simple things to add to my life. Now I’ll see if it translates to action, or just procrastination!

Some lists endure longer than others. The grocery list might get tossed tomorrow; the book list will be marked up and crossed off; the to-do list will probably get longer. Some lists, like #48, serve as guideposts. Some, as Rosanne Cash discovered, become legacies. What kind of list are you writing this week?