Why you need to declare independence

We observed Independence Day all over America yesterday, celebrating our freedom as a country. Yet, as individuals, we still put ourselves in chains a lot of the time. We imprison ourselves with judgment, and with the dreaded “should, ought and must.”

As often happens, I started thinking about this in a yoga class. One day last week, a teacher said, “Allow your eyes to close,” which is typical language in yoga class. But the use of the word “allow” got me thinking. Then I heard a teacher say, “Give yourself permission to….” Hmm – I was starting to see a pattern. It didn’t seem like the words were meant just to let us know that we had a choice; it seemed more like the words were an acknowledgment that we don’t often let ourselves relax, or choose to do less than we are capable of.Woman Closing Eye

At another point, the teacher asked us to do tree pose, which involves resting one foot against the opposite leg while balancing on the other foot. Usually people will use a hand to assist them in getting the foot high up on the inner thigh of the other leg; but this time the teacher asked us not to use our hands, even if that meant that we wouldn’t be able to get the foot as high. It was interesting to me to watch as some in the class couldn’t seem to bring themselves to “settle” for the foot just resting against the ankle or calf — they had to use their hands to bring the foot as high as possible. They just couldn’t allow themselves to do less than their max.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the two parts of Buddhist meditation are stopping, and looking deeply. It’s the stopping that’s the hurdle, because once we can do that, the looking deeply will naturally follow. But as he says, “If you’re like most of us, since you’ve been born, you’ve been running. Now it’s a strong habit that many generations of your ancestors also had before you and transmitted to you — the habit of running, being tense, and being carried away by many things, so that your mind is not totally, deeply, peacefully in the present moment.”

The constant running can lead to “wrong perceptions,” including the self-judgment that results in constant striving.  For some of us, the constant striving comes from the mistaken belief that we have to be the best at everything we do — the best in our professional lives, the best parent, the best athlete, the best host, and yes, the best in yoga class. But why? If there is one, or maybe two or three, area of life where we really give 110% to be our best, why can’t we just let ourselves be…okay at some of the other things?

In their book, “Five Good Minutes,” Jeff Brantley and Wendy Millstine have a practice called, “Retire the judges in your mind.” It’s all about letting go of the self-judgment and self-criticism. They suggest that while you are sitting quietly, and with that intention, that you notice the judgmental thoughts and say, “Thank you, you may or  may not be true, but thank you anyway.”Brisbane_85

If you stop striving for a moment, and let that foot rest a little lower on the leg in tree pose, maybe you’ll notice something about tree that you couldn’t see when you were using so much effort. Maybe stopping and looking deeply for a moment allows you to grow your tree differently the next time you do it. Thich Nhat Hanh compares the release of tension that comes from letting go with soaking mung beans: “You don’t need to force the water to enter the mung bean. You let the mung bean be in the water, and slowly, slowly it goes in….The same is true for you.”

Here’s a radical thought — sometimes maybe we should do less in order to do more. So declare your independence from the tyranny of “I must,” “I should” and “I have to.” Allow your eyes to close, give yourself permission to stop, take whatever it is you need.

 

5 Ways to take a Vacation Day right now

In Washington, some of the bars opened early yesterday so that people could come and drink while watching James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. All around the country people took the day off from work so that they could stay riveted to the TV. It’s a crazy world when this is how we’re spending our days off!

Instead of sitting on a barstool, however, I turned to my “52 Lists Project” journal for inspiration and distraction (although I confess to a few sneak peeks at the testimony). List #22 asks us to think of favorite places we have been and what made them so appealing. But that’s not the end — the next step is to think of places in our communities that could “transport” us the same way. In other words, can we bring the vacation experience to our everyday lives? Can we transport ourselves for a little while away from all the chaos of recent times?

When I list my favorite vacations, in places like Croatia, Hawaii, Seattle, Yosemite or Australia, here are some of the characteristics that pop out:

  • Simplicity
  • Scenic drives
  • Grandeur
  • Friendly people
  • Fresh food
  • Connections to the past
  • Bringing the outdoors in

How do I replicate that at home?

1. Simplicity & fresh food:

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When I visited Croatia, I was impressed by the beautiful national parks, the simplicity of people’s lifestyles, the ability to eat a meal where every bite of food came from the farm we were on. Here at home the next best thing is to make a meal based on what comes from the farmer’s market or my yard:

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2. Bringing the outdoors in:

Poipu Beach Park

In Hawaii, the thing I liked best was the way the boundary between indoors and outdoors was so blurred. Nearly everyplace I went was open to the outside; there wasn’t a big reliance on artificial air conditioning.  This is hard to achieve during summer in DC, but I could spend more time on the roof of my building, eat at more outdoor restaurants, and open my windows when the temperature allows:

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3. Grandeur. I haven’t been to Yosemite in years, but the grandeur of the park is something one can never forget. Its sheer rock faces, memorialized by Ansel Adams and countless photographers since him, are familiar even to people who haven’t been there. It’s a place that is just jaw-dropping in all seasons. What my area offers:

Great Falls_3Great Falls Park – the rocky passage of the Potomac down the Mather Gorge, accessible by way of the Olmsted Island bridges, provides a pretty awe-inspiring outing that I never tire of.

IMG_2318The monuments, while man-made, have a whole lot of grandeur about them.

4. Connections to the past:Rome - Colosseum, Forum, Palatine (12)In America, we can’t compete with the Greeks or Romans on the ancient past, but we do have the advantage of recent history here in Washington:

Arboretum_20120407_13The original columns from the U.S. Capitol can be seen at the National Arboretum.  The way they rise up out of nothing, in the middle of a huge expanse of green, is spectacular.

5. Scenic drives:

Great Ocean Road_226In both Ireland and Australia, I took breathtaking drives along coastal roads. That’s tougher to replicate here where we’re inland, but how about the cherry blossoms in spring:

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In some ways, this prompt is very much like a values exercise we do in stress management. It asks you to imagine your perfect day and what it would include, then compare it to your typical day. How alike are they? Is there a way to make more days perfect, by incorporating more of what you value?

The columnist Earl Wilson once said that, “A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking.” As much as we might value watching important Senate testimony, a steady diet of it isn’t good for anyone. If you can’t take it anymore, perhaps it’s time to take a real vacation day.

 

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.”