Friday, July 20, 2012

Conquering the Control Freak Demon

The following is a piece I wrote for another purpose, so it may read just a bit more formally than my usual shtick. It does fit the theme of the blog, so please have a go! :-)

I’ve been doing yoga since I was 16. I’ve done therapy, studied meditation, and worked with other anxiety-reducing techniques. Though the benefits are many, there’s one demon I am not even close to conquering: I'm a control freak. 

“To relinquish the futile effort to control change is one of the strengthening forces of true detachment and thus true love,” meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg writes. “Relinquish the futile effort to control change”-- That's beautiful stuff. What a lofty goal to work toward. I'm going to get on that one--right after I take an hour nap, followed by a 45-minute swim, a dinner during which I have one glass of wine, a cheeseburger with onion rings, and then a few pages in Peter Mathiesen's The Snow Leopard before turning the lights out by midnight.

The tight schedule above is a bit of an exaggeration, but in all honesty, the desire to control is a driving force in my life. Bikram yoga, with its rigidly outlined series of postures, feeds into my control freakiness. I like the consistency: 26 postures, two breathing exercises, taught with virtually the same dialog. I'm also enough of a control freak that I don't mind it when my boyfriend plans to cook our pizza and I end up doing most of the work. I like doing it my way!

I could do a cognitive reframe on this, I suppose. Perhaps I'm simply organizationally inclined. But that label wouldn't take into account my most recent, desperate attempt to control the universe. 

About a month ago, my boyfriend and I decided he would move in. Everything had been going swimmingly between us, but the week before the move, the impact of the change on the horizon hit me. I had lived alone for almost four years. Before that, I lived with my father in a giant house, and we orbited each other, interacting only infrequently. It became apparent how wedded I was to my personal space. Although I loved my boyfriend and knew the move was the right one, I was anxious. 

The boyfriend and I had decided that Saturday was to be the big day. The boyfriend, completely at ease with the whole move thing, dropped his stuff at the house in dribs and drabs. (To be fair, he didn’t have much stuff. Like, at all.) With each load and trip to IKEA, my anxiety mounted. Instead of being able to address my anxiety head-on, encompassing the complex (and understandable) emotions that come with such a life change, I funneled it obsessively into one tiny avenue: the bed

Now, to say I'm a light sleeper would be an understatement. I've wrestled with sleep issues since I was old enough to remember. Going to bed is like going to war: I equip myself with ear plugs, and eye mask, a queen bed, and a bedtime routine that would have a normal sleeper in a coma 20 minutes in. And now, a man was going to enter this precious space? I was terrified. 

I made the bed my focus in the week leading up to the big day. What would I do if I couldn't fall asleep? Would I toss and turn, risking waking him up? Would I relegate myself to the guest bedroom to ensure we both got a good night's sleep? After a yoga class that week, I stopped at a consignment store nearby and thought I'd found the answer to my prayers:
Ugly chaise

This sofa (a chaise, if you want to get technical) is ugly as sin. I figured, well, I could put it in the bedroom, have it set up, and then if I couldn't sleep in the bed I would be just across the room. Everything with this move in would now be OK! And all for only $110! And all I'd have to do to get the thing to my house is borrow a friend's truck, get my boyfriend to take a couple of hours off work, and find some way to get the thing down into the bedroom.

The boyfriend, bless his heart, was very supportive about the whole thing, and arranged to take the time off work. Upon glancing at the couch, however, he said, “OK. Fine, but you're not sleeping on that until you get it cleaned. It's filthy." He was right. It was filthy, ugly, and would be a pain to get into the house. But still I pressed forward, on an exhausting journey involved our carrying the chaise around the entire building, as well as a $65 cleaning bill.

At every step, my yoga and meditation honed insight told me to relax, that this couch thing was completely unnecessary. I knew I was taking a leap into the unknown, and this was scary. At the same time, though, I was fueled to move forward with the move because it felt like the right thing. This is love, isn't it? Why can't I relax into this? Why must I try to control this change? 

It’s now been a month since the couch was moved into my house. It sits, ugly as ever, covered by a sheet, dominated by my three cats. I’ve yet to sleep on it. 

We take many steps in our journey toward mental well-being. At times, we manage face our doubts head-on and are able to prevent our anxieties from getting the best of us. At others, they do get the best of us, however, and giant, lumpy reminders stay with us, reminding us to that we need to keep working to abandon those “futile efforts to control change.”  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Examining the Narrative

"Sometimes, you gotta break out of your own narrative," said Bruce Springsteen when he left the E-Street band years ago.

This Saturday will mark three years since returning to Bikram yoga. Reflective anniversary posts may not be the most thrilling, but I think pausing to "take stock" and observe the unfolding of the years is worth doing, so long as it doesn't descend into rumination ;-) What narrative are we in now? How has this story come to be? In what was do we hope it will evolve?

First, what hasn't happened in three years. I still have high blood pressure, which kinda sucks. I'm also tempted to be frustrated by what appears to be stagnation in the postures and in my stamina. In today's class, I lay on my mat, exhausted, dehydrated, as I sat out the second set of the final four postures. Y'know, come to think of it, I skip postures often. I even leave the room occasionally. If you'd asked me during the first year of practice where I hoped I'd be by year three, I might have said something like, "I'd like to pretty much always do the entire class, no sitting out poses, and never leave the room."

It's easy to focus on what hasn't happened. But predicting what benefits we'll receive out of any discipline is probably not the best place to put our energy. As Pema Chodron says in the recent issue of Shambala Sun, "to look for progress is a setup--a guarantee that we won't measure up to some arbitrary goal we've established."

Pema's words ring true to me. At the same time, I recognize that goals are what drive many people into any discipline. We feel a need to get fitter, to calm down, or to feel more energized, so we join a gym/cleanse/diet/juice/meditate/pray/etc. Some of us have serious health issues that we hope will improve with a disciplined practice. The downside of clinging to this list, though, is that we can get frustrated when we don't check those goals off the list. More importantly, we can fail to notice other, equally important changes simply because they fail to fit our chosen narrative.

Dart Board
In some ways, I guess I've been lucky all around here. I actually have met some of my self-prescribed "goals." These are some of the "measurable outcomes" (oh God, did I actually just write that?): A minor thyroid issue no longer afflicts me. I can enjoy a glass or two of wine without getting a migraine. As a matter of fact, I no longer live in fear of getting a migraine--they've reduced in frequency so dramatically that I'm surprised when I get one. As the end of the semester nears and the piles of grading mount, I no longer get the throbbing tension in my upper back and shoulders, and I can concentrate more deeply and for longer periods of time. I still have difficulty sleeping, but when I lie awake at night the dread that used to fill my body and mind is now nothing more a quiet whir in the background. I appreciate my strength, flexibility, and a pretty forgiving metabolism.

More impressive but less quantifiable are the emotional and mental benefits of yoga. When I started, I had moderate social anxiety and would not go out more than once or twice a week--doing so was so taxing I needed a day to recover, to build the stamina for another go-around. Having people in my home left me fraught with anxiety. There is something in this practice, though, that encourages you, bit by bit, to be OK with who we really are, and now I find social engagements energizing instead of enervating. As I write this post, a man is readying his things to move in, something I would not have thought possible even two years ago. I look forward to this move, to both the joys and challenges it will bring us.

These are the changes I really didn't anticipate. I could almost say that there's been a personality shift in the last seven months or so. This is what can occur when we "allow it to happen," as my yoga teacher often says. Goals are fine if you need 'em to get you in the door, but what ultimately happens can be so much more. "We practice letting go of our idea of a 'goal' and letting go of our concept of 'progress,'" writes Chodron, "because right there, in that process of letting go, is where our hearts open and soften--over and over again."

I understand that as we age we evolve (hopefully). I can't contribute all changes on this list solely to Bikram yoga. But it does deserve a big chunk of the credit. There is something about a regular, mindful practice that encourages expansiveness in one's mind. Increased awareness of the body's and the mind's doings urges us to shift our perception and to make wiser, more compassionate decisions--from the mundane to the life-altering. Talk about breaking out of one's narrative!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Payoff

I want to talk about payoffs.

Every month, I put $100 into a retirement account. The hope is that 35+ years from now I will withdraw those monthly donations, and that with interest I'll have accumulated a nice little nest egg. (Do you hear the sound of me blithely ignoring the stock market as it drips steadily downward? Ignorance is bliss.)

There are other types of payoffs too, of course, and perhaps they offer far more than monetary value. Several times a week, many of us drag ourselves to the hot room, believing that our efforts will bring us rewards in the form of a healthier body, a saner mind, and a purer spirit. Effort takes the form of therapy, prayer, and meditation, typically done with a sort of "goal" in mind: we endure what is often a "grim duty" in the hopes that we'll achieve a sense of peace.

The struggles that push me into these activities are not unique to me. I get worried. I'm tightly wound. I have difficulty sleeping. And when I do sleep, anxieties persist: even my dreams reflect my mountain of insecurities back to me. "Life is a journey, not a destination," I tell myself to make it through a tough moment, pleading with myself to stay in the present.

One thing I think we can all agree on, though. The destination can be pretty sweet.

I took the time to pause and savor one of those destinations just last night.

Jamul view
Jamul, Hollenbeck Canyon
Every year, I go out to "the country," Jamul, which is located about 20+ miles east of San Diego. Each April, I celebrate the birthday of a dear friend, whose wife invites dozens of friends out to their sprawling property to explore, eat, drink, and dance to a band's rendition of Tom Petty, Santana, and The Doors.

Oh, and people also ride dirt bikes and ATVs.

I've been going to these Jamul parties for about five years now. Whenever I arrive, the hosts, Jerry and Cindy, offer me a drink and the keys their ATV, also known as The Rhino. Always I have declined, unless I happen to be with a guest that wants to jump into the driver's seat. I have ridden shotgun many a time around Jerry and Cindy's sprawling country property, always content to be in the passenger's seat. Whether it is from fear or simply from the result of resistance to new experiences, it never even occurred to me to grab the keys myself.

But there have been changes 'round these parts these last few months. Years of yoga and deep spiritual and emotional exploration have tenderly prepared the soil for new growth. A new man is at my side, a trellis that encourages those new tendrils to sprout upward. I was ready to start a new tradition at Jerry's party.

"Where are the keys?" I asked, not long after I arrived. My partner bravely entered the vehicle and gripped the dusty handle for dear life. Off we rode, bumping through ruts, nearly tipping over into brambles, streaming through mud puddles, and reversing down roads to avoid territorial guard dogs.

To say it was fun would be an understatement. As I steered us through windy country roads, I felt as if I were putting the miles between me and my old self--the past was, for once, going to stay put. A few moments of freedom, speeding steadily forward.

I know I'll keep on toiling away in the hot room. I will continue to sit until our sits bones are sore, and I'll dutifully deposit the money into my retirement accounts. But the payoff? When it arrives, I promise to love it. We should all spend a few moments reveling in that gloriously muddy, dusty destination.

Territorial canine
Avoid the territorial canines

E in the rhino
Enjoy the ride in the Rhino

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Triumphant, Uncomfortable, Still employed, and Groggy: A Week in Review.

Looking back on my little post on living in the "discomfort zone," it seems like quite an optimistic rallying cry. I love getting the positive feedback, of course, and I'm overjoyed if it brought an ounce of happy to your life. It's good to be reminded that things can feel that right.

So. One week down. How's my list of resolutions going? Admittedly, a couple of work crises, a pile of papers weighing on my shoulders, and a cold rainstorm this weekend have dampened my spring-filled spirit just a titch. As I write this post, a pack of coyotes fill the wet air outside my window with childlike yips, rejoicing over a kill. It's an ominous note to end a Sunday on.

In looking back on the week's events, I realize the fatal flaw in my play to intentionally step out into the discomfort zone: The world will present you with discomfort at every turn. You don't need to seek it out. Darn that hasty post! How rarely we have the energy to actively seek out challenges.

All that negativity/self-doubt stuff aside, though, I think these resolutions are ultimately a good thing. 

As the first of two work crises raised its ugly head earlier in the week, I watched my old patterns flair up--anxiety, a need to pull into my shell. At one point I felt a desire to rescind a commitment to a social obligation in favor of some Netflix and an early night. I remembered this idea of the discomfort zone--simply doing seemed to steady myself. I ended up having a great time at said social outing.

So, highlights from this week (well, the ones that I will mention on a public blog ;-) 
  • Got up during a sleepless night and scoured the internet for laughs from Got some kind consolations from a fellow insomniac on Facebook. Woke up feeling triumphant, if a bit groggy.
  • Had some really tough conversations with coworkers--the kind that make me feel like an eight-year-old girl dressed up in her mother's heels, just waiting to be called out. Still employed.
  • Said no a couple of times. Said yes often. Loved it all.
  • Did something loving for a relative. Uncomfortable. But ultimately, a good move.

In Bikram, we do 30-day challenges. On New Year's, we write our resolutions. Some pledge to love Jesus, Buddha, and Allah. I guess the benefit of these commitments is that they serve as a compass: remind me of the path.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Discomfort Zone: Where Life really Begins

No, this ain't a post about contraception :-) For more on that, turn to your preferred media outlet, which  greedily catalogs the Republican presidential nominee race.

Have y'all noticed? Spring is here.

Flowers in the Anza desert
I hate to be cliche, but I'm working on sharing honest opinions. In this case, my thoughts toward spring probably mirror most other folks'. Spring is alive. It's hopeful, and it's bright. It's blue, shiny, green, laden with scent and fluttery animals. Shoot, out here in the SoCal desert, even our cacti bloom, exhaling radiant colors into our atmosphere.

And, dare I say it, I come to life. I admit that I kind of hibernate during winter. It's a time to hunker down and pull into myself. (An aside: I think there's a reason our major holidays are in winter. We've gotta put dates on family celebrations, or else it's likely we'll sink tragically into ourselves for the remainder of the dark months.)

Don't get me wrong. I love me some introspection. Enough about yoga as an Olympic event: if Rumination were a contest, I would take the gold medal.

I guess you can imagine my relief when daylight savings time arrives and the weather starts to tick upward a few degrees. I'm propelled to get outside and out of my routines and out of my head.

It was at this moment of springtime appreciation that I saw a delightful fellow blogger's FB status update that she was going to make adventures a priority. Not just any adventure--as she put it, she's looking for adventures that put her "out of her comfort zone." A ding of recognition went off in my head as I read her post. What if I did the same? What if I identified actions that would put me out of my comfort zone, and then, drawing upon the inspiration of this beautiful spring, tackle them one by one? What would happen if I actually went through with this little experiment?

I am tempted to try it out. 

So, the first step is to identify just what constitutes adventure for me. It's not as easy as it sounds. In my case, I do not need to sign myself up for more traditional occurrences that would be labeled "adventurous." I have been spelunking. I have bungee jumped. I dove off cliffs into cool pools of water in Belize. I climbed rocks and rode horseback in the Rockies, I've swum with sharks; I traveled to South and Central America alone; I have ridden across the border into Mexico on the back of a motorcycle, my arms around a man I hardly knew.

Those aren't the kinds of adventures I need. For me, those are comfortable adventures. Although I plan to get back to Asia one day, perhaps to stay in a monastery in Bhutan or to soak in hot springs in Japan, I don't have to rev myself up much to make that a possibility.

The kinds of adventures I need are the ones that will knock me off balance. I am one who walks through life as if on a tightrope. As you can see from the list above, I can manage some real feats! However, those feats are accomplished under a microscope of minute calculations--none was taken up as a result of true spontaneity. Everything is planned, analyzed, evaluated, and teased apart for potential complications and consequences. Don't want the week to be too exciting--tomorrow, I might get exhausted and behind on work. Don't become too much of a recluse--boredom and anxiety can breed under such conditions.

What I need to do is take myself off balance. Below are actions, listed from simplest to most complex, that would do precisely that. This would get me into the discomfort zone.

  • Stay up late doing something I love, the night before I've gotta do some heavy-duty teaching or grading. Enjoy myself without worrying about the consequences for once.
  • Tell students, point blank but with compassion, that they simply will not pass this time. Feel the discomfort and tell them anyway. 
  • Have a drink when I'm out with friends. Don't have a drink when out with friends--do what's more uncomfortable.
  • In yoga: do not leave the room. 
    • **Unless staying in the room is something I'm doing out of fear of the teacher's disapproval. In that case, leave the room.
  •  After lying in bed for two hours, trying desperately to sleep, mind stuck like iTunes on repeat, get up, and do something I love. Do not worry about the consequences.
  • Do something really, really loving for someone I'm related to. It has to take the form of an act of love not typically expressed in my family (i.e., money-bestowing or letter-writing). 
  • Say no--repeatedly--when I am asked to do something I'm not up for. Say no, especially to men. 
  • Get uncomfortably intimate (emotionally) with someone I care about, knowing full well that doing so will feel like inhaling water. 
  • Do not make important decisions without knowing how I truly feel.
  • Be who I am, who I really am, around the people I'm often not.
  • Recognize that this list might contradict itself and make decision-making even tougher.
  • Sit. (Meaning, meditate. On a regular basis.)
This may not be your list. But if I could get through this, even once (except for the yoga/meditation ones: those have to be regular), I would be taking a long stroll through discomfort. And as they say, life begins when we leave our comfort zones.

So. How do I proceed from here? Well, some of that stuff can't be scheduled, so I'll have to keep 'em in the back of my mind and act when the moment arises. Others, like yoga and meditation time, are easier that way. I recently bought tickets to a concert that will take place on a Tuesday evening. It's almost mandatory that a couple of adult beverages will be consumed at this show, and wouldn't you know it? Wednesday is my longest (and earliest) teaching day. But I won't worry about the consequences--at least for that one day.

Part of me wants to keep writing and address questions like, "for how long is this experiment an actual focus of mine? How often will I report on it?" But I think I've done enough obsessive planning. I'm trying to do less of that, after all.

It's in the name of science that I undertake this little experiment. Does life really begin when we leave our comfort zone? And what would be on your "discomfort zone" list?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It's What I Know.

The school's absence policy is strict: two weeks of missed classes and you are out.  Armed with this reassurance from the dean, I walked into class, prepared to go to the mat on this issue.

"I've been recovering from surgery. I have a baby. I'm a veteran. If you drop me, I'll lose my stipend." The student stood in front of me as I prepared for class to begin, his arm wrapped in a cast. Persistently, he repeated his reasons for staying in the class as he washed a Percocet down with soda. My resolve buckled. I told him to sit down, and I caved to his every request for missed materials and laborious recounting of past lectures.

As I left class, I felt myself slip into a familiar pattern of thinking: trapped between my "take a hard line" self and my "Yes! Limitless compassion for all!" self. Fueling this vacillation was my old self-loathing, angry and ashamed that I had been unable to take the stand I'd committed to.

On my way home from work, a stanza from Ani Difranco's new album stuck out like a neon vacancy sign blinks at weary travelers:

"I walk past my own self-loathing
Like I walk past animals in the zoo
Trying not to really see them
And the prison they didn’t choose."

One of the reasons I love that stanza so much is because it pictures the self-criticism so aptly as a series of traps. It is like a prison, but, as a friend once told me, it's a prison with an open door; we can walk out at any time. "How frightening it could be out there!" we think, and cling desperately to the bars of our own cells. Because there's something familiar in those old negative patterns, isn't there? We grasp onto our suffering, afraid that if we let it go something new and more terrifying will replace it.

In the past few years, I've cultivated technique after technique for dealing with this, ah, problem. Yoga provides me with a baseline of strength and awareness from which to address this stuff directly. Meditation, prayer, and biofeedback training arm me with methods for interrupting these thoughts mid-stream. But sometimes I get too tired to fight, and let's face it: these techniques don't provide an easy 180 out of suffering. And fighting means facing the fact that those old patterns are still there.

So, fine, I'll say. Let the student stay in class. Let nepotism continue. Let me continue to lie awake at night, haunted by streams of self-criticism and doubt. I may not have chosen this prison, but it's what I know.

I've never been much of a gardener, but I imagine this is what folks mean when they say it's like getting stuck in a rut. It can be so easy, so comfortable, to keep pushing your wheelbarrow forward on that familiar path. But a rut is a rut; at some point, we've got to get the strength to heave our barrows up and out and to continue on, forging a new (if bumpy) path forward.

Wheelbarrow/ "So much depends..."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Scalpel Moments

When I was 18, I cut open a pig.
Small pig

I don't mean that I enjoyed a nice pork chop, or that I wrapped filet mignon in bacon. I literally took a baby pig, sliced it open with a knife, and poked and marveled its insides.

I guess the knife part gives it all away. It was a biology lab I took my first semester of college, and the one dissection we had to do was of a fetal pig.

I remember the first day of class, when the instructor announced that we'd be doing the fetal pig dissection. "No fucking way," I thought to myself.

I was young, high on Ani Difranco and burgeoning liberal beliefs, and there was no way I would let this injustice stand. I discussed this with my mother, who encouraged me to abstain and to bring a brochure from AAVS to the instructor. I put the brochure in my bag, and on the second day the class met, I had fortified myself, ready to broach the topic with the instructor.

"Don't trip," my lab partner (and former McDonald's coworker) said. "I'll dissect it when the day comes. And you get to miss one lab per semester; you can just be absent that day." My political standpoint crumpled in the face of this opportunity for laziness. Plus, the instructor was kind of scary, and I didn't want to get into it with an instructor my first semester of college.

Inevitably, the day to dissect the pig arrived. My lab partner's one absence coincided with D-Day. My last-minute protestations to the instructor fell on deaf ears, of course, and the pig was placed in front of me. Bigger, pinker, and waaay cuter than I expected, the pig lay tragically on the tray, scalpel neatly placed beside it. I didn't know what I was going to do. As the only person without a lab partner, I felt the victim of some great injustice. I was an English major, for Chrissakes. In what possible context would I need to know what the insides of a dead pig look like?

To say that making the first incision was the hardest part would be an understatement. I couldn't have felt more dread and disgust as I would walking toward a pile of writhing caterpillars (of which I am intensely afraid). I understood that I was most definitely not going to take a stand, that I was going to participate in what I thought was a strange and unnecessary process. But once the skin gave way to the blade, once it pulled away to reveal the tiny, compact organs, the resistance dropped away. There was the pale heart, the maroon liver; there were the daffodil-colored intestines that could be unraveled like a ball of yarn. Not only was it not as bad as I thought it would have been, it was actually kind of cool.

I thought of that pig yesterday as my mind mapped out brilliant excuses to skip out on yoga (these scalpel moments present themselves all the time, don't they?). This time, the pig was far too cute, and I talked myself out of a Bikram class. How many wonderful experiences do we miss out on because we resist and fight? As Jack Kornfield says, "This resistance is a pushing away or closing off to the experience, just the opposite of opening to it."

I'm not really sure what the "takeaway" for this piece is, exactly, but maybe we can take a page out of Kornfield's book and just keep opening to experience. Pick up that blade and get to work! :-)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Motherless? Never.

In the tiny black and white photo I keep in my mom's old jewelry box, Richard looks like a short Peter Sellers. Richard was a small man, my grandma confirms, smart as a whip and capable of handling any task, from cleaning a dove he'd shot to arguing both sides of a political issue at a party.

Peter Sellers, my grandpa's doppelganger
You could say my mom was fatherless at a young age. Richard, her father, died when she was ten. You could say I was motherless at a relatively young age, too. By the time I was 19, I knew my mom wouldn't be around to celebrate my buying my first home or being granted tenure. You could say that these things are tragedies.

It ain't easy when we experience losses that go against "the natural order." The death of a child or the loss of a parent at a young age is not a walk in the park. Recently, I had to put my 14 year-old cat, Lily, to sleep. Although my mom initially rebelled against my idea of bringing this white cat home ("Think of all the white hair over your purple furniture!), she immediately fell in love. When I went on trips around the world, Lily would curl up with her foster mother. When I had to surrender that cat's life, it felt like I was cutting yet another string that connected me to my mother.

But is it really true that those who have lost parents are really motherless, fatherless? What does it mean when a parent dies?

I had dinner and a lovely walk with a friend of my mom's recently. As the sun began to set, the frogs by the river started croaking their rusty evening songs. We talked about getting older, teaching, and raising children (this includes pets, of course :-).

That night, I had one of those "Oh, now I get it!" dreams that shed light on one of those issues that has held you captive for years. In the dream, I was sitting at my grandmother's counter top, looking at the spot on the stove where my grandma usually stood as my brother and I ate our dinners. Instead of my grandma in the kitchen, though, it was Richard, the grandfather I never knew except for memories told and retold by my mother and grandmother, tied to the tiny black and white photo.

"It's OK your grandma got remarried," Richard said. From his quiet and sweet demeanor, I knew who he was immediately. "I'm glad she had a stepfather, someone to take care of her and give her brothers and a sister. And I'm glad you had a grandfather."

I awoke from the dream stunned. I am careful to write down dreams that seem like they might have something to offer, and I hastily jotted it down.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a mother, to be mothered. I think I've been working these past few years to understand that I'm OK without a mother. I'm trying to accept that it's OK that I've found ways to be mothered--and to mother--even without her lovely presence. I think one of the hardest parts about the healing process after someone dies is to begin to be alright with the fact that you're going to get that love elsewhere. But I don't think we should worry about that. The human heart is vast enough to preserve a space for those we've lost while making room for new opportunities for love.

So when a female friend pays for my glass of white wine and cheeseburger after an evening of laughter and tears, or when another friend envelops me in a random embrace after noticing my long face, I accept it: I'm still being mothered.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It is enough.

“What is the totality of life? Listen and attend carefully. The totality is simply the eye and sights, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and taste, the body and sensations, the mind and mind objects. Anyone who tried to describe a totality beyond this would not know of what they were speaking.” –the Buddha, the Totality Sutta

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Surprise, surprise.

I've been surprised by a lot of what life's thrown at me. Relationships, births, deaths, adventurous travels--all of it, so unexpected.

I remember the globe my family kept in the living room when I was a child. At that point in my life, my world was pretty small. Nice parents, a silly brother, some family, and a smattering of friends and teachers. Before I was 10, I don't think I ever left Southern California. I'd look at the globe, spin it halfway around, and gaze at China. Halfway around the world. And yet, so tiny on the map.

When I was 20, my tiny world began unfolding at an exponential rate. As I grew up, I learned how distances actually could be compressed to the point of becoming inconsequential. With a bit of pluck and a few extra pennies, those distances could be traversed in a single plane flight. But standing on the Great Wall of China when I was 20 was only the beginning. Since then, there have been loves. There have been degrees and jobs earned. There have been trips taken and trips cancelled. There have been family members lost, and family members born.

Grove of Aspens
 But after reading Emily Rapp's lovely article over on The Rumpus, I'm reminded of the biggest surprise of all: Our hearts are vaster than I ever imagined it to be. Forget the Gap's infinitely forgiving stretch jeans; the human heart's capacity for love, like an ant capable of carrying ten times its own weight, is the real miracle.

What I notice as I've gotten older is the way the friendships I've made on the playground, on the yoga mat, and in the teachers' lounge have quietly guided our lives. We no longer happen to be friends. Our lives have been shaped by each other, and it's as if we are now inextricably linked. I think of the way Aspens grow--their roots are intertwined, as if they were a family. Chop one down and the whole colony could die.

Had you told the little girl with the globe about the experiences that lay before her, she would have said no one's heart would be big enough to bear them. And yet, it seems the heart grows like some magical oddity--Harry Potter and the Infinitely Expanding Heart!

Thanks to my dear friends for letting those roots mingle...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Be aware. Be VERY aware.

"I should have taken a shower before class. This top accentuates my collar bones nicely. Argh--why is it so humid today? I really wish I were eating a pomelo."

Is there any limit to the utter insanity of mental chatter? Sit down to meditate or practice yoga and you see the stuff that comes up is absurd. As Jack Kornfield likes to say, the mind has no shame. And usually, the thoughts that come up are one rerun after the next.

Isn't stopping the flow of chatter what we mean when we say we want to increase our awareness? We do yoga and meditation because we hope that our valiant efforts will eventually quiet our crazy monkey mind and that we'll go through life more engaged, focused, calm, and level-headed. But there are other ways in which we are not aware. Take me, for instance: I'm a dweller.

I am still dwelling on a conversation I had with a colleague last week. Well, obsessing is probably the right word.

I'm currently enrolled in a psychology class. Although it's not my area of expertise, psychology has always interested me, and as I've gotten older that interest has expanded into a full-on preoccupation. One of the things psych teachers will tell as you settle into the first day is that you're going to learn about lots of odd disorders. You're going to learn how psychologists diagnose people. And under no circumstances are you to attempt to apply these criteria to yourself or the people you know. It takes training, not an introductory course, to correctly diagnose patients, and what's more, you can't ever objectively diagnose yourself or people you're close to. So don't even try.

Got it! Makes perfect sense, right? I will never do that. Of course not.

Ha. Ha, ha.

In the aforementioned conversation with the colleague, he mentioned a behavioral tick that set off a little bell of recognition in my head. I eagerly asked my coworker a couple of followup questions, and before I could check myself, I sputtered, "Oh! That sounds like a symptom of ________!" I then followed up with, "do you also get X, Y, and Z?" before catching myself and apologizing profusely.

Despite my apology, the conversation ended awkwardly. And I don't blame the person. Ugh, imagine getting an armchair assessment from your coworker! (Especially if there's a grain of truth in their observations ;-)

So, on the one hand, that little scenario would indicate a lack of awareness on my part. I shouldn't have jumped to judge the guy. But also note my above statement: "I am still dwelling on a conversation I had with a colleague last week." Seriously? Last week? Is rumination essential to awareness? How many present moments am I skipping out on when I berate myself  for a) disobeying a teacher (I have this thing about disobeying perceived authority figures) and b) potentially causing distress to a coworker.

I guess this is why we practice yoga and meditate. Doing so rockets us out of our heads and back into our bodies, enabling us to be present.

Well, except for the pomelos and the collarbones ;-)

A tasty pomelo

Pomelo cat also enjoys pomelos

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Something New

...And not just a new blog layout!

It's taken me a while to process the fact that it's a new year. I keep writing 2011 when I sign checks or write the dates on HW assignments. I'm not one who's big on making and then desperately trying to keep rigid resolutions, but I do like to take a moment to reflect on what changes I wouldn't mind coming my way ;-)

I think, if anything, I'm resolving to do more of the same. One is to keep settling into myself, allowing myself to be comfortable in my own skin rather than working so hard to fix every imperfection. The other is to be as open as possible to new experiences.

I started the new year with one of those: two weeks without a Bikram class--the longest it's been without being forced to due solely to travel! This wasn't by choice, though. The day I got back from Sedona, I got some sort of cold/sicky thing that hung around for at least a week. Since it's the new year and the room is packed, I figured I'd do my fellow yogis a favor and sit it out a few days. The anticipation--and the "I'm a bad absent yogi guilt"--mounted.

Breathing in
Finally, Friday a.m. came. With no morning classes to teach and no yucky symptoms to coddle, I confidently rolled out my mat. I breathed warm, humid air into my lungs during Pranyama and kicked my leg out proudly during Standing Head to Knee. And then.... I was just done. You ever work on a really tedious task, avoiding looking at the clock, thinking, surely, hours must be going by, only to find it's been about 13 minutes? That fun feeling hit me by Standing Bow.

I spent most of the class on the floor, trying to convince myself that I wasn't humiliating myself and that I shouldn't have stayed home. I tried to be a good yogi and just stay present, breathing the humid air into my desert-dry lungs. I slogged home, drank a bunch of juice, and spent the rest of the day in that occasional unpleasant post-yoga hangover: wrung out, headachey, unmotivated, yet unable to sleep. Ugh. It's not a fun combo.

Still, I dragged myself out to dinner, hoping that the warm glow of the pub and friends' faces (not to mention its greasy and delicious fried food) would snap me out of it. I wasn't halfway through a glass of wine when it hit: migraine! Crap. And I had been ignoring all the warning signs: post-illness, intense exercise, citrus, and now alcohol (both common migraine triggers). I excused myself early and dragged myself home.

Now, you migraine sufferers know that once it gets under way, it can feel like a full-blown attack in a war that lasts hours. I tried to resign myself to its course--fighting never seems to help much--and settled into bed, readying my iPhone to a Jack Kornfield talk should the need for his soothing words arise.

But not two hours later, I remembered seeing Deepak Chopra on TV not six months before, talking about a meditation-based/biofeedback-ish technique for easing the pain of migraines. The instructions are as follows:

"Put your hands out and then close your eyes. Watch your breath for a few seconds and bring all of your awareness into the middle of your chest. Listen to your heartbeat and tell it to slowdown. Now move your awareness into your fingertips, and focus on experiencing your heartbeat as a throbbing sensation that has moved there. This technique diverts blood from your brain into your limbs, reducing blood pressure and slowing your heart rate so your headache goes away."
From "A How-to Guide to Holistic Health"

I did this, more or less, in about five or ten minutes while lying in bed. And would you know, it worked! I actually fell asleep--something that doesn't happen for hours into the migraine cycle. I woke up a couple of hours later but simply tried it again and slept through the night. I woke up feeling relatively normal.

It could be a coincidence that I managed to interrupt the typical course of a migraine. But I'd rather chalk it up to being willing to try something new :-)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Why Some Write

It's my last day of freedom before the semester begins. I am spending it in an odd state--I'm recovering from a cold, mulling over this short but tumultuous and wonderful break, and thinking about writing.

I've mentioned before that I teach writing. At the beginning of each semester, I spend a few days reviewing and updating syllabi. I think about assignments and readings that I might tweak or change entirely. I amp myself up, telling myself that this will be the semester where I reach them all. Repeatedly, I come back to the question, why write?

Woman journaling
Each semester, as I look out at the sea of mostly-new faces, my self-consciousness rears its little head. I imagine the wheels turning in the students' minds, churning out questions like, "Who do you think you are? Why do I need to be here? Why do I need to write?" Those are good questions for students to be asking. Especially the last one. In part, I think we all need to answer it for ourselves. If you can't find your own reasons for writing and are doing so only to earn a grade or please your boss, what you come up with is likely to be forced and a little empty. (Bloggers who feel pressured to post a certain amount of posts per week/month probably know a thing or two about that ;-)

Famous writers have pondered the question, too. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner said that we write "to help [a person] endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past." Yikes, Bill. Them's some lofty aims. David Mamet: "to lessen the unbearable disparity between the conscious and unconscious mind and so to achieve peace." OK, Dave. Wordy, but slightly more comprehensible.

After I began blogging and reading others' blogs, I noticed that I felt better about everything. Maybe we write to comfort each other.

The reasons for writing are probably limitless. Earlier in the week, while on vacation, I was reading Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis (a great book--though not a quick read--for those interested in the science behind happiness). In it, he refers to Dr. James Pennebaker, who has devoted his life to proving that writing has the ability to improve both emotional and physical health. For 20 years, he has been completing studies in which he asks people to write for 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days about an emotionally painful experience. He then follows these individuals for two and six months, and some for up to 1.4 years. Compared to the control group, they have less depression, fewer doctor visits and physical problems, as well as positive behavioral indicators like increases in grades.

In a sense, the study suggests, the participants write to heal themselves.

What a powerful tool, this writing! Interesting stuff. I just thought I'd share that with you!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

More Questions. Few Answers. On the NYT's "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" article and more

I'm sure most of you have already read/been irked by the NYT's critique of yoga, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body." It definitely ruffled a few of my feathers, largely because most of the author's "evidence" for the evils of yoga is anecdotal. I've no doubt that there are already many good responses published, such as that of The Reluctant Ashtangi, so I'll leave the rebuttals to others.

(I do feel I must point out that although the author lumps Bikram Yoga in with other yoga series, none of the postures demonized in the article are done in Bikram (I don't think Cobra referred to in the article is the one done in Bikram; the description evokes Upward Dog, often labeled Cobra in non-Bikram classes.).)

What I am more interested in is where the glimmer of truth lies (and I think there's a glimmer of it in all arguments advanced!). Bikram has long touted the safety of his series, claiming that it is a beginners series. Teachers of his yoga are trained to give extensive description of the postures--how to enter and exit, as well as the benefits received from each one. Because you simply stand between each posture instead of moving into a sun salutation or flowing rapidly to another posture, there's less the chance of "getting behind" and injuring yourself in a rush to catch up. I would think that the series is as safe as humanly possible, even for those who don't happen to have much body/self-awareness. Despite the anti-Bikram sentiment that one might interpret in my previous post, I am a Bikramite through and through and recognize the many benefits of this series.

Chapel Hill, Sedona, at sunset
The timing of this anti-yoga article is coincidental, however, considering only two days ago I took a class that left me wondering about the safety factor. I just returned from a trip to Sedona, AZ, where I enjoyed a few days of its rejuvenating, warm red rocks. There is no Bikram studio in Sedona, so after a couple of days, I tried the local "hot yoga" studio to loosen up my hiking-tight hamstrings and shoulders.

I went in with an open mind--pretty easy to do, considering how burned up I've been lately about what I perceive as arrogance on Bikram's part for his insistence on TM-ing, R-ing, and Copyrighting his series. I asked the instructor what type of yoga class she taught and that I was familiar with Bikram. She said her studio offered a style of yoga taught by Bikram's nephew, Sumit, who has apparently made a small name for himself in the hot yoga world. She said it combined Vinyasa with some Bikram poses.

And... that's exactly what it was. The room was lovely--juicy, just uncomfortably warm at first, and it reached a pleasantly toasty temperature midway through the series due to the heater, humidifier, and the many packed bodies who showed up for that weekday morning class.  I was initially trained in Ashtanga, and I would characterize most of the class as being "flow" Ashtanga--postures like Warrior series, Triangle, etc were held momentarily as we "flowed" through sun salutations. This was almost randomly interspersed with postures from the Bikram series--all of a sudden, we'd stop, do Half-moon/Awkward/Eagle, go back to flowing, then do the balancing series, go back to flowing, etc.

I was able to retain my non-judgmental mind for most of the class. The flow-y stuff was initially fun. Then, however,  I realized we really weren't holding the postures very long. The energy I was exerting was going not into a posture. It seemed to evaporate as I moved--quickly! as if we were running out of time!--from one posture to the next. The teacher talked a lot, though it was mostly motivational/hippie-spiritual and less about how to get into and out of the postures, or what to do if I got tired. If I hadn't had a lot of Ashtanga experience, I wouldn't have known what I was doing. I would be looking around and struggling to catch up, much less get a sense of what I was supposed to be getting out of the postures! Talk about an injury-inviting experience.

Talk, also, about an eye-opening experience. On one level, it was kinda fun! My hamstrings got stretched as they haven't in years. The part-Vinyasa, part-Bikram series kept my attention. In that sense, though, it was very American--no chance to get bored, as there was always something to occupy the mind; the poses weren't held long all. And, there wasn't much depth to it.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. If you are an experienced yogi, I'm sure you'd do fine in the class. For some reason, I feel compelled to make a tenuous connection between the article, my time at the hot yoga studio, and my previous post on Bikram's insistence on going after studio owners who teach too close to his series. The NYT article would seem to bolster Bikram practitioners' justification for the series and why it needs to be kept pure, taught/sold only by trained teachers.

Different strokes for different folks... or is it that some folks, afraid of being slapped with a lawsuit, feel the need to modify classes from Bikram's style so much that they lose much of the benefit and increase risk of injury?

No answers here in my first post of 2012. Is that going to be a theme for this year? No answers, just more questions? :-) Can't wait to get back into the hot (Bikram) room and find out.