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.

 

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Navigating a disturbance in the force

Ever since the first Star Wars movie burst into our cultural consciousness almost 40 years ago, its lexicon has become a part of our conversational lives. From the moment Obi-Wan uttered the line, “I felt a great disturbance in the force,” we understood that it was possible to feel shifts in the energy that “surrounds us” and binds us together. There’s no better metaphor for describing the unsettled feeling that arises when stress hits us and our homeostasis is threatened.

I’ve been experiencing just that kind of disturbance in the “force” for the past 6 weeks or so, ever since my son announced that he was moving across the country. While I’m happy for him and feel hopeful that he will be successful in his new life, I have many moments of anxiety about both the change and the process of getting there. In addition, my own home is experiencing upheaval as the things he wants to keep, but can’t take, somehow materialize here for storage. So I decided to look for some Star Wars wisdom to help me:

“Search your feelings.” (Palpatine) This seems like a good first step. Why exactly am I feeling anxious? Is it anticipation of loss? Is it fear of his failure? Fear of my failure? Do I not have enough trust? These are uncomfortable questions, but we can’t hide from emotions that make us squirm. It’s worth sitting a while with the discomfort to gain some clarity and see the path forward.

“Fear is the path to the dark side.” (Yoda) It’s very easy to slip into darkness and inertia when we let fear take over. I recognize that my own fears and anxieties don’t help my son, yodabut only make him more anxious. If I catastrophize about this move by engaging in negative self-talk about it, that can only hurt. Focusing on strengths and practicing positive self-talk will help dispel fear, and leads to:

“Your focus determines your reality.” (Qui-Gon Jinn) If we think only about what can go wrong, something probably will go wrong. If we can stay focused on positive outcomes, our actions will move us in that direction.

“Patience you must have..” More wise guidance from Yoda. Not only must I have patience with my son, who doesn’t always follow the path I want him for him, I must have patience with the process. Transitions take time, and frequently there are bumps in the road. Not everything is on my timetable. I will take a breath, and allow things to fall into place with time.

“Many of the truths we cling to depend on our point of view.” (Obi-Wan) Or as we say in stress management, perspective is everything. Sometimes there is no universal truth, just different versions of the story. Can I shift my point of view about my son’s capabilities, about my role in his life at this point, about what is a good outcome? Can I be flexible enough to let go of beliefs that don’t serve me or him anymore?

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” (Yoda) My naturally cautious son has suddenly adopted Yoda’s philosophy, and is just going to do this. He is letting go of fear and stepping off the diving board. As for me, there can be no “try” either when it comes to supporting him. I must just do it.

“Remember — the force will be with you always.” If we change the word “force” to “love”, this is the message I am left with. No matter what happens, I will always love my son and be here for him. I am cheering for him as he embarks on this journey, and ready to live with all the uncertainty that risks worth taking bring.

Knowing when to surrender

While doing child’s pose yesterday in yoga, our teacher said that the pose is also called “wisdom pose”. I had never heard this before, but as I thought about it, it made sense. In child’s pose, we need to relax and surrender to gravity, to make ourselves vulnerable like children. And in life, it often requires a lot of wisdom for us to fully surrender and let things be.

Do you ever think about how much energy you use up fighting things? From the mundane fights (traffic, kids’ bedtimes, the cable company) to more important fights (interpersonal conflict, problems at work, health issues), so much of our time is taken up with struggling against things that we sometimes feel like we’re not moving to anything.

Part of what drives us is the need to have and keep control of things in our lives. A feeling of control is important to managing stress; but so is realizing when something is out of our control, or deciding that control just isn’t worth the price it requires. So there might be times when it’s appropriate to “give in”, such as when maintaining a relationship is more important than winning an argument, or when the outcome is clearly more important to the other person than it is to you.

Exercising control is often a response to fear as well. Fear of change, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of facing difficult emotions – all can lead us to fiercely hold onto positions that really aren’t serving us. Bertrand Russell said that “to conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” And sometimes surrendering control, allowing events to happen and feelings to rise, is the beginning of conquering fear.

Sometimes when we are over-efforting, micromanaging every detail, too focused on the outcome, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. If we take a step back to see things as they are, and just stop trying so hard, we might be more successful in reaching our goals. Soren Gordhamer writes that “we can often make more progress and with less stress not by trying harder but by trying softer. By doing so, there is an ease to our effort…”

Top athletes and other types of performers know how to try “softer”, although they may call it by a different name. They train and practice for hours, but when called upon to perform, they have to let go of thinking through every move, step, or note and just let things flow through them. They have the wisdom to surrender, and to trust what is inside of them.

I just read about a study of centenarians showing that the people who live longest are the most optimistic and carefree, relaxed and upbeat, and notably non-neurotic. They are the people who let go of their stress rather than internalizing it. I don’t know if they are practicing child’s pose, but something tells me that they are also people who have learned the value of surrendering.