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?

How do we define our values after an election that tested them?

It’s been hard not to think a lot about values during these days following the election. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values…all reality hinges on moral foundations…” With those moral foundations so profoundly shaken, can Americans still believe in shared values?

Difficult times test people’s values, and the election proved to be one of those times. Many of us trusted that shared values of love, respect, kindness and honesty would guide people’s decisions. But as I wrote several weeks ago, people often vote with their toddler brains, not their adult brains. Competing values, or alternative interpretations of values, prevailed.

Values can be organized a couple of different ways. We can talk about core vs. satellite values, with core values being the ones you are most strongly attached to, the ones you would fight or die for; and satellite values being ones that are more loosely held and amenable to change. We can also define values as being either instrumental or terminal. Instrumental values are those personal characteristics and traits that guide us, such as honesty and courage, while terminal values are those related to goals or outcomes like having a job that will allow you to support your family.picture1

People’s core values usually don’t change much over time; they are central to who you are. But what if you have to choose between upholding one or another of your core values? Then what? That collection of core principles must be subject to some sort of hierarchy of importance. Is having enough money more important than religion? Some people make that choice when deciding whether to work on the sabbath. Is spending time with your family more highly valued than your career? Many of us have to make that choice.

In much the same way, if we look at values using the instrumental/terminal construct, there might come a time when you perceive that a choice is necessary between upholding an instrumental value, such as respect for others or yourself, and a terminal value, such as getting the job you want.

What do we do when we are tested like that? I could say that I would never sacrifice my core values of respect for others, belief in religious freedom, and teaching our children  loving kindness — no matter which other core value was at risk. But perhaps not everyone feels they have that luxury. Or maybe they just see it through a different lens.

When they cast their votes, did people think that they could temporarily set aside the values of respect, knowledge, inclusiveness and truth, and get them back later? Did they realize that they were making that trade-off for only a promise of something better, not a guarantee? What happens when we are tested again?

This might be a good time for all of us to consider the constitution. Not the U.S. Constitution, but our personal constitutions. A personal constitution is a written clarification of values, a way of identifying and prioritizing core and satellite values.  Your constitution can be just a paragraph that describes in your own words what you believe in and what it means to live by your values. That statement, says Stephen Covey, “becomes the criterion by which you measure everything else in your life.” It’s your guidebook for challenging times and moral tests.

If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values. Start with the constitution, your constitution. Let it be your foundation for the next four years and beyond.

 

 

“We write to taste life twice”

Mark Zuckerberg looks forward to the day when the camera, rather than the text box, will be the main way we share on social networks. What would that mean for the future of words and the experience of writing?

When I read Zuckerberg’s comment, I had already been thinking about how less rich our communication is now that we so rarely write letters to each other anymore. Handwritten letters were on a list of objects and ideas in American Magazine last November that are “teetering on the edge of extinction” (along with cursive handwriting and proper grammar!) I realize that communication consists of a myriad of nonverbal elements, and that a picture is often “worth a thousand words”, but do we value words, especially written words, enough anymore?printed words

In the American Magazine piece, Amy Burroughs writes that letters have been a rich historical source of “information about the way people lived, loved, learned, fought, created, and died…In their own words, in unguarded candor and confidence, letters reveal the day-to-day experience of real individuals.” I know from my own experience that I communicate differently in writing than I do when speaking. I am more likely to say what’s in my heart and to express my emotions, and less likely to worry about sounding “cool.”

When I was a young adult, I moved across the country a couple of times, leaving friends and family behind. In those days shortly before the internet exploded onto the scene, we wrote letters back and forth to stay in touch. Two years ago, when I was moving yet again, I spent some time going through a huge box of those letters that I had saved. The thing that struck me the most was how thoughtful all of my friends were. They spent a considerable amount of time, and care, writing their letters, and it shows. The letters are smart, funny and clever. Many of them are several pages long. Some of them are from younger people I worked with, which touches me now, realizing that I must have had some impact on their lives.

I also have the privilege of being in possession of much older letters, some written by distant family members back in the 1800s, others by parents, grandparents and cousins. The letter that my father-in-law wrote as he shipped out of New York harbor on his way to fight in Europe during World War II is especially poignant. He reflects on his entire life as he departs, not knowing when he will see his family again. More quotidian are the letters from my mother-in-law to her mother while she was living in Toronto and expecting her first child (my husband). They detail her struggles with making friends, her shopping and decorating of their apartment, and of course her pregnancy, including the choice of baby names.

jrcletterThe letters are a way for me to know people I never met, or to know the younger selves of people I only knew when they were older. The letters sometimes reflect an optimism that was missing later in their lives. Often the change from optimism to discouragement is recorded in the letters, as with the relative who between the 1830s and 1840s lost 11 of 12 children, divorced his wife, and thought his brother had forgotten him. I’m fascinated by these people, and I wonder if my children and grandchildren might feel the same if they ever come across my old letters and my younger self.

The thing is – I have a lot of old photos too – pictures that might be posted on Facebook if they were taken today. But they only tell me so much. Sometimes I don’t even know the names of the people in the photos, or when exactly they were taken. That wouldn’t be a problem with Facebook tags, but still…what was going on when the photos were taken? What was in their minds, their hearts? We just won’t know without the words to go with them.

People want very much to be heard, not just seen, by others. They want to tell their stories. When Burroughs speaks about the “unguarded candor and confidence” of letter writers, it’s the desire to be heard and known, a desire for intimate retelling, that inspires it. Or as Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

 

 

 

Wouldn’t it be more pleasant to ask for nothing?

Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that the “Santosha” of my blog name means contentment. I write about the struggle to find contentment more than what it means to have it. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said that “We never reflect how pleasant it is to ask for nothing.” Now I see that I’ve been asking for contentment more than discovering it right here.

One of my favorite yoga teachers, Jo Tastula, says that we tend to focus a lot on what we want to receive, rather than what we want to let go of. She relates this to the season of Fall, and recommends that we consider the image of the tree dropping its leaves. What does that perspective look like? From up in the branches, perhaps it is a relief, or a comfort, to let go of what’s been weighing us down; to be bare and pared down to essentials. The fullness of Fall (imagine a nice round pumpkin or apple) gives way to completion (harvest, year-end). It’s a time to rest, to renew, and to strive less and prepare more.pumpkinsWhile Seneca has a somewhat mixed historical reputation, he is still considered to be one of the first great Western thinkers, and much of what he had to say about emotions is relevant to us today. When he said that “Contentment is achieved through a simple, unperturbed life,” he was talking not only about emotional regulation, but also gratitude, because contentment is impossible without feeling grateful for what we have already. Contentment requires us to stop asking for things, so that we can reflect on what is present. Thanksgiving_23

A recent episode of the comedy TV show “Blackish” demonstrated this idea in a gently humorous way. The main character, Andre, is upset to learn that his daughter is questioning her belief in God. But his own belief often consists of prayers that are requests  — asking God for some action or some thing that he thinks will make him happy. Later in the episode, after a moment of crisis for the family, he realizes the value of what he has and what he almost lost. Then his prayers change, and are about gratitude and thanks. In that moment, he stops striving, knowing that he has what is essential to him.

What would happen if you stopped striving for a while, maybe even shed some dead leaves? Perhaps you’d have time to nourish the truly important parts of your core. Or maybe just have time to breathe, and in that moment, discover santosha.

It seems to me that contentment is about satisfaction, and happiness is about satisfaction-plus. The plus is extra joy, extra pleasure. It’s like dessert at the end of the meal – it’s nice, but you don’t need to have it every day. I’m reminded of two books that I used to read to my kids when they were little. One was called “More, More, More, said the Baby”, and the other was titled “Just Enough is Plenty.” It’s nice to have more, but on many days, simply to be satisfied is enough, in fact it’s plenty.

 

If only this were a Mel Brooks movie

Each new day of the 2016 presidential election campaign makes me feel more as if I’m in some sort of psychocomedy like the movie “High Anxiety“, only instead of a hospital for the “very, very nervous” we have an entire nation on the edge of its seat, unsettled, uncertain, unhappy and yes, very nervous.

Plato said that “a good decision is based on knowledge,” but he also said that “human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion and knowedge.” And when it comes to elections, emotion might have the upper hand. Psychologist Steven Sosny, writing in Psychology Today, says that we suffer from election stress partly because the “toddler brain” hijacks the “adult brain.” Adult thinking is rational and calm, while toddlers make impatient and sometimes greedy choices based on emotions.

A lot of people are already locked in to their candidate. Often such certainty is emotional, says Sosny, not intellectual. That’s why it’s becoming virtually impossible to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you politically. In fact, just today in The Washington Post, there was an article about how geographically and socially polarized we are politically. People who would have discussed the elections with friends and co-workers in prior years are staying strictly away from such conversations this year.

A study of the 2012 presidential election found that voters don’t always want to feel responsible for the outcomes of elections, especially independent and undecided voters. The harder it was for a person to decide on a candidate, the more likely they were to ascribe the outcome of the election to fate.  In addition, stress hormone levels might even impact voter turnout. Research published in 2014 found that people who have higher baseline levels of the stress hormone cortisol are less likely to participate in voting, while those with lower baseline levels are more likely to vote. In other words, people who have a lower tolerance for stress don’t want to engage in what is an inherently stressful process.door-number

The stress continues into the voting booth. Israeli researchers found that cortisol levels just prior to casting a vote were twice as high as people’s baseline levels and even higher in people whose candidate was predicted to lose. This year, with the rollercoaster we’ve been on, it’s hard to say when we last experienced baseline stress levels. No wonder I’m hearing more and more people say, “I just wish it were over!”

Following a 2004 election in Taiwan, about 10% of the population was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, labeled “post-election stress syndrome.” And in this country, we usually see advice after election day on how to deal with these “blues”. This year, however, our high anxiety and election coverage fatigue might call for some pre-election stress relief. So what might help?

  • Going on a complete media “fast” for a few days.
  • Getting your news from print sources rather than TV or radio, which tend to be more hyped.
  • Focusing on your own life. The truth is that the election outcome won’t affect your day-to-day routine at all, at least not right away. So take comfort in that and use your emotional resources there.
  • Doing a loving kindness “just like me” meditation. The hardest thing for those of us who feel passionate about a candidate is recognizing that those on the “other side” want the same things we want, deep down. Focusing on the ways that they are “just like me” can help.

If the election really were a Mel Brooks movie, it would end with all the bad guys getting their comeuppance and all the good guys living happily ever after. In real life and politics, it’s not that simple. But at least we know that we can do it all over again in 4 more years.

Give up or let go? What’s the difference?

Why do we give up? Why do we surrender, admit defeat, part ways with somebody or something, or stop hoping for a positive outcome? Maybe it’s because sticking with it is too hard, or it takes too long, or because we’re tired of failing. Sometimes we decide that we’re just not strong enough to see something through, or we just don’t care enough.

That’s very different from letting go, at least in the Buddhist sense of letting go. Letting go means easing up on the tightness with which we hold onto people, things or ideas. It means relinquishing our hold on how we want things to be, and instead knowing that we have given our best effort and now we accept what happens. Thich Nhat Hanh has written:

…for many of us, even when we are most joyful, there is fear behind our joy…We are afraid of things outside of ourselves that we cannot control…We try to hold tight to the things we care about — our positions, our property, our loved ones. But holding tightly doesn’t ease our fear. Eventually, one day, we will have to let go of all of them.

Letting go can be a lot scarier than giving up. When you give up, you can stop thinking about the person, thing or  idea, and just eliminate it from your life. Letting go, on the other hand, means realizing that you don’t have control over everything, and you might have to live with and accept an outcome that is different than what you hoped for. You don’t stop caring when you let go of the outcome.

How can the feelings of caring very deeply about something, while at the same time having no control over it, co-exist? To Jon Kabat-Zinn, letting go is “allowing things to be as they are.” That means being a witness to one’s fears and insecurities, being fully aware of those feelings, and being able to live peacefully with them. How hard is that?!

Without a doubt, a really strong mindfulness practice is a good place to start the process of letting go: The practice of looking deeply inside and not being afraid of what arises, but rather noting it and letting it go by. But that’s not enough. We also have to be able, in that stillness, to move from worry and unease to comfort and joy. Not an easy task!

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that instead of running from the present moment because of the difficulties we face there, we instead try to remember all the positive things in life, which usually are greater. Maybe it’s the smiling face of a loved one, a particular place that brings you peace, or some accomplishment of which you are proud. There is an exercise in a stress workbook that I have, which can help identify both the things in life that drain your energy (the difficulties and worries) as well as the things that fill you with energy and revitalize you. These are the things you want to bring attention to:

Drainers and Fillers

Once you go through this process of identifying what aspects of your life are either filling you with joy and energy, or sapping your strength, you can make decisions. There might actually be things on the left side (drainers) it would make sense to give up on. There will be others on which you’ll want to loosen your grip and try to live with more peacefully. The fillers will help you do that — you’ll remember who is there to support you, what brings you joy, and where you find meaning in your life. The fillers will provide the images you turn your thoughts to during meditation. They will help you remember the wide open space in front of you, and all of the possibility that exists beyond your fears.