The power of befriending the mind (and occasionally, chocolate.)

It was just one of those mornings when nothing could fix it. Whiny and tearful over every little thing, the little Acorn Scout had been moping and pouting since he woke up. It became clear that no matter how much I tried to help, whatever process was taking place in his two and a half year old world was going to take it’s own time to work out. I pulled him into my lap.

“You sound so sad today, buddy. What’s going on? What’s making you so sad?”

“My buh-wain, Mama!” Pressing his face into my shirt. “My buh-wain is making me be sad.” (Buh-wain = brain, in toddler-speak)

“Your brain?” I asked, charmed and bemused.

“Yeah.” He sniffed into my chest. 

“What do you think you need to help your brain not be sad?” I asked.

“Anudder one! I need anudder (another) one BUH-WAIN!” His voice started up and his anguish was palpable.

Oh, my son. How many times in my life have I felt betrayed, encaged, even tyrannized by my own mind? Few of us have escaped the tormented idea at some point: There is simply something wrong with my brain. This one is defective. I am broken and I need fixing. 

Om nama shivaya. I honor the teacher within. 

“Well, there are ways that we can help our brain to feel better. First, we can take some deep breaths, right?”

We did some deep breaths. Spontaneously, he added a big “OOoooooooomMMM” at the end which us made us both smile and we chanted OOooooooommmmm together a few times.

“Now let’s try and think of all the things you love the most.” I said. “Let’s fill up your brain with all the things that make you feel happy! If we fill up your brain with all the happy things there won’t be any more room left for the sad. What are some things you love?”

He thought.

“Do you love… Papa?”

“YEAH!”

“Do you love….Dixie and Kitty?”

“YEAH! I love Dixie and Kitty!”

“Do you love….going to the beach?”

“YEAH!”

“What else?”

“I wuuuuv…….bunnies!”

Pirates. Bananas. His friends at school. Going on adventures. Going camping. His cousin. Doing art projects. Helping Mama cook. Trumpets. Popsicles. His train set. Birthday parties. Grandma and grandpa. Picking tomatoes. Tigers.

The list kept going. And it worked. His mood lightened. Whew. I thought, I think I really might have aced that one. 

And for a moment I glimpsed how far I had come in my own journey of mind. I have a history of depression and anxiety dating back to my teens.  There were moments in my twenties I felt so tormented by my own thoughts and that if life meant fighting that kind of oppression then I did not wish to continue. The path to peace with myself and my mind began with being still. Turning to face the shadows instead of running from them.

I began meditating in 2009. It did not solve all of my problems but it opened something. Even with an irregular practice, the universe saw it’s opportunity. That opening is what allowed healing to take place and transformation process to begin. It brought teachers into my life: people and books and experiences and ….miracles. I wasn’t afraid anymore. It didn’t happen overnight it happened through incremental shifts, big leaps and foolish ones, breaking through, backpedaling, testing the limits of grace (there are none), friendship and dignity (there are some),  and stepping in some dog shit along the way. And some days are still a struggle. But goddamn  it, if I can’t stand here today and say,
“Wow. I am so glad I didn’t give up back there.”

It occurred to me then and I have wondered since, “Is befriending our mind the whole purpose of our lives?”

Suddenly in that moment with my son, I was aware that the most valuable gift to come from those years of darkness and suffering is the ability for me now to teach my son at so early an age the power he can have over his own mind and with reverence and profound gratitude my heart beats out, Thank you.

A long winding road stretches ahead and there will be many more moments. I will not ace them all. But we have made a good beginning.

“Mama?”

“Hmmm?”

“I thiiiink…. if I can have a wittle tw-eat (little treat) and my bwain will feel SO HAPPY!!”

And then, of course, there are always chocolate chips.

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Check this great article: How to Teach a Child Emotional Intelligence.

“…I showed her that it is okay to experience emotions. Sadness and frustration are normal emotions to feel. By not offering her any tactics to stuff them down or any distraction, she was able to fully experience the emotion and feel what it is like to move completely through it. This is strengthening her ability to navigate strong feelings on her own…” (Read more)

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Yoga has changed my life. More accurately, I feel like it gave me my life because it gave (and continues to give) me myself. Through the shifting sands of motherhood, it has remained a faithful anchor.

Since attending my first yoga class in 2001, yoga offered me something my that both my body and spirit craved. Though my practice remained on and off for ten or so years before I became serious about making it a daily habit, I attribute the principles and tools of yoga with healing and transforming my relationship with my body, giving me mastery over my mind I didn’t know was possible, drawing me deeper into relationship with myself and sparking in me a romance with meditation.

Now, fourteen years after my first yoga class, I am enrolled in a training course to become a certified yoga instructor. The more I study, the more awe struck I am at the never-ending-ness of the learning process. Suddenly I feel like I need multiple lifetimes (ha.)

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The word yoga means “to come together”, to unite mind and body. The breath is the most expedient and powerful way to draw into unison the wayward meanderings of our thoughts with the sensations of our physical bodies. Another interpretation of the word yoga is to “be one with the divine.” In yoga, we honor the divine nature that is already present within each one of us, that is higher than us and that connects us all. You can call it God or Shakti or Spirit or whatever you like. The postures of yoga are just one manifestation of the practice of yoga, which is truly a path of self-discovery. It is attentiveness to our actions and their effect on the world. Therefore anything we do with mindfulness can be yoga. When we practice non-violence in our speech and actions we practice yoga. When we practice truthfulness with ourselves and others, when we find contentment with what we have instead of looking at what others have, when we practice moderation and strive for balance in our lifestyle, in our effort, diet or relationships – this is yoga also.  Yoga is not something you only do on a mat or in a class or in downward facing dog.  Any time we release attachment and settle into what is this very moment is the essence of yoga. 

My daily practice looks different every day. Every day I strive to find time to sit in meditation and most days I find at least a few postures to help me begin or close the day, but there are days when neither of those two things happen. Luckily, the opportunities to practice yoga throughout my day are endless.

It is as simple as 1, 2, 3.

No matter who you are, you can make this your daily practice. It can be done anywhere, at any time.  Here it is: pause in whatever you are doing and take 3 deep mindful breaths.

The first breath is to remind yourself that you are here and now.

The second breath is to wake up every cell of your body. 

With the third breath, extend compassion toward yourself. 

Practicing self-compassion even for one moment is a powerful practice. Don’t wait until you think you’ve earned it. You can’t afford that kind of time.

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If you can breathe, you can practice yoga. If you can fully engage in life with all of your senses for just even one moment, you are practicing mindful awareness, you are really present, you are really alive. Sister Simone Campbell, laywer, lobbysist, author, poet and Zen practitioner says her most important prayer is , “Please God, wake me up.”

We wander through the world, leaving behind a footprint here, a whispered prayer, a fingerprint or an indentation there, an imprint where we sat with a friend for awhile, a reverberation, a note. Those relics of our presence, some dissolving instantaneously, others becoming fossilized in time –

it is not entirely our business what it is all for.

It is just for us to being paying attention.

So I too say, “Wake me up! Don’t let my mind get in the way of the holy work I have to do today. The work of living (wholly.)”

Amen. Namaste. Aho.

Stop. Look. Listen.

“There is no enlightenment outside of daily life.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

There are countless ways we try and escape from the present moment, our daily lives never serve us short on distractions, but we (I) do plenty a good job on my own coming up with ways to comfort or decompress or put off processing what’s happening. Another cup of coffee, a “quick” skim of the Facebook feed, an article on how to solve all my family’s health problems with garlic (of course I need this information, it cannot wait!) Especially in times of high stress, before I even can name my stressors, I notice my habits of seeking extra comfort, a way to decompress. The surefire sign I need to slow down and check in is when I catch myself for the fifth time foraging mindlessly for non-existent treats in the kitchen cupboards.
calvin-klein-escape-perfumeThere may be a swami or two out there that would come up against Calvin Klein on the benefit of occasional healthy escape. But losing track of time with a good book or an engaging film/TV show, dancing to a great song, being carried away by daydreams, a sexy rendezvous or an afternoon nap can all be cathartic in shifting our focus especially if we are really working through something physically, spiritually or emotionally taxing. I believe a cookie can be a totally valid form of therapy. We can all attest to the necessity and helpfulness of getting out of our own heads for a little bit, indulging, disconnecting from constant analysis and mental pandering. When escapism becomes habitual however, when I notice myself itching for the next “fix”, then I can call avoidance by its real name. Just the noticing, the awareness that I am avoiding, maybe that’s as far as I get today. But it’s something. “I’m not ready to deal with these feelings, they are too big, I want a treat.” Awareness. 

Meditation is often misperceived as another escape, a way to tune out the world and achieve some sort of “above it all” Zen serenity. In fact, it is the opposite. It is the way IN to the present experience. Never has this lesson been more tangible that sitting in a room with a toddler. (If you don’t have a baby, you could try it with a puppy.)

To escape is to believe that peace can be found in someplace other than here. Meditation teaches me to find it where I am.

Here is an experiment: Stop, be completely still and try and expand your awareness to touch every inch and corner of the moment you are in. Start with the physical room or space. See if you can fill it up like water into a reservoir, reaching even the dusty crannies behind the furniture and in the back of the closet. See the colors and textures, the feel of what physically surrounds you most of which we pay no attention to. Freeze frame it like a snapshot and explore it like a detective taking in all the details as if each held equal significance.

Now let your awareness seep out under the door and into the wide world outside. What does the air feel like? The sky? What sounds do you hear, what does the light look like?

Zoom out to see your neighborhood, the area beyond, as far as you can go. Life is happening all around in this tiny moment. Did you know?

Now bring your attention back to your own body. What messages is speaking? Is it cold, warm, stiff, at ease? Are specific areas asking for care?

Be an investigator of your own heart. What is happening there? What does it say? Don’t silence it, don’t judge it. Give it a chance to say whatever is there.

By fully embodying the moment I am in, I open myself up to unexpected joy I might not have seen before in what appeared mundane or tedious or unexceptional. Suddenly, my awareness lends a beam of sunlight to fall over the scene, illuminating and shading it differently.

Just now, I realized it is a tremendously beautiful day. I have been at my computer for two hours and had not noticed that the clouds have finally acquiesced to let the sun to share part of the afternoon. My body says it needs to move and my heart says suddenly there is nothing more pressing than to go be out of doors in the sun.

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” ~ Frederick Buechner (seriously, this guy.)

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(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

Somehow I’ve shifted tracks. Like a train headed in one direction but that somewhere along the way began the subtle veer toward the right until on a different track completely. It’s so easy to do. And when I finally notice, it seems I’ve traveled so far off course that some drastic action is needed to catch up, to jump the tracks and get back on schedule and muscle back through to where I was, to make up for lost time. Like overcompensating with exercise after a weekend binge. Like everything else, the answer is always to do the opposite of trying to compensate or re-prove.

The action is non-action. It is still just to stop. Breathe. Notice where I am.

Sitting with myself gives me the chance to listen to hear out the story.

Much of my time is spent answering other people’s needs, listening to their stories and solving their problems. Sometimes my own gets stifled and it takes awhile to turn up the volume on those subtle messages. Sometimes our own story gets tangled up with the narrative of the people we brush up against or come head to head with. The web gets tangled. Sometimes it takes quite awhile to unknot the emotional threads of who is who.

But sitting with my story gives me the opportunity to observe the things I have been telling myself about what is, to see the course that I’ve been on and redirect if needed. I imagine sometimes that if my brain were an actual person I was having a conversation with I would think,“Woah, this person really needs some help. Yeeesh, this conversation is a real energy drain.”

I think of it as checking my vital signs, especially when I’ve been in overdrive. “Survival mode” is simply encoded into the parent experience. We all know what it feels like to running on fumes, to be hanging on to our wits by a thread for days at a time, being forced to waive our individual needs or comforts on behalf of the whole. Though the most primitive dangers have been eradicated from modern society, we have created some new ones in their place: isolation, impossible expectations, imbalanced workloads, incongruent messages about roles, identity and the value of family. I mean, really — a lot of the time managing myself feels like a full time job, much less anything or anyone else. But most parents are familiar with pressing the “mute” button on our own ongoing drama, needs, concerns for awhile in order for things to keep running. We might disconnect but the storyline, the inward drama, is still playing out while we’re attending everyone else’s.

Meanwhile, the inner child who is whining, what about ME??? is the one that gets shut in the closet for awhile in order for me to just think straight and attend to what taking priority at the moment.  What matters I guess is that I don’t shut her up in the dark and silence too often or for too long. And that I bring her dessert later and apologize and tell her I love her and listen to her tell her story. (Actually when I think about it in these terms, this totally would not fly with Child Protection Services so I wonder how we get away with doing it to ourselves??)

The most important thing is that we keep coming back to listen. And that we always try and hear out the inner storyline withholding judgement. Let her whine and tantrum, let her mope, let her be angry, let her be too tired to feel anything, let her feel empty. And then ask her what she needs.

Sitting gives me the chance to listen to my own story. To hear myself out. Be curious. Withhold judgement. Be compassionate with myself while I sit in my own skin, right where I am.

Quietly shift gears.

Remind myself of what I want.
And just be grateful to myself for remembering.

today

(True shit, man.)

xo

What You Seek.

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Several months into my pregnancy with my son, I was fighting what I rightfully ascertained as the slow and steady ebbing away of any sense of control I had over my life. I had not planned to become a parent. From all angles, it did not appear that it was even a responsible thing to do. I was seized with worry.

Then I remember the day the grand epiphany came to me that this experience had the capacity to transform me into a stronger, wiser, gentler and more compassionate version of myself. And the letting go of control is what would allow this transformation to unfold. I felt like a like a door was thrown open and I felt the breeze on my face. It was a moment of metaphorically falling to my knees. (Which I would inevitably do again and again and again.)

I knew as much this experience was not going to be some magical metamorphosis, despite images of parenthood depicted in the media, with soft lighting and coos and sighs, all moments precious and touched with fairy dust, but I hadn’t an idea of how permanently inside-turned-out my world would become. That no, it isn’t an “event” along the trajectory of life and there is no going back.

Precious moments, yes. But fairy dust? Not here. I didn’t get the Disney version.

Parenthood is mental, emotional, physical and spiritual fucking bootcamp. There is no fairy dust in bootcamp.

Keeping a baby alive as it turns out, is relatively easy.  Billions of people are doing it all over the world every single day. You can do it well or poorly but generally, we animals are wired to meet the basic needs of our offspring. Feeding and changing are the easy parts. It is everything else in between.

To say that early parenthood is “hard work” is like saying building a Trans-Atlantic railroad while the train is motion is “strenuous”. The amount of strain still depends on many factors: how fast the train is going, what the weather conditions are, whether you are doing it alone or have a team and work in shifts, and if you have regular food and water while you work. It makes a difference if the train whistle is blasting in your ear continuously for a good portion of the day, a great matter if you are struggling with significant physical or mental health limitations and a whole lot whether you get to break to rest for the night (most us don’t for a good while).

I’ve never shied away from “hard work”. But that’s not a good way to describe this.

I had an idea, and I imagine I am not alone, that through parenthood I would finally shed some of these layers of insecurity, fear, and self-centeredness and my most light-filled, authentic self would finally be revealed.

OOOoooooohhhhmmmmmm.

Ah, but instead of those rough and unbecoming layers gracefully falling and drifting away with the breeze as I emerged in my swan-like transfiguration, finally embodying the woman and mother I had always wished to be, I arrive day after day to face head on the wearisome shadows that have followed me for too long. How disappointing.

And what a miracle. Now that there is no escape, I see that the shadows are not enemies after all.

I began today with the intention of just noticing, meeting the feelings and thoughts that arise without judgment, without feeding them or pushing them away.

I watched my mind as it lept forward and back, my body restless, my mind unsteady.  I was acutely aware of the increased sense of urgency to be DOING something, which is exactly the reason I am choosing to practice stillness. “To be” – to combat the doing. The constant nagging of tasks still undone and the allure of squeezing in more and more into each hour is the very thing that has brought me to my mat.  At the very top of my endless to-do list and the even longer, intangible “should be doing” list exists one most important thing: Practice doing nothing. Practice what it feels like to breathe in a moment where nothing is asked or demanded of you…except when you hear your toddler getting into the bathroom trash because you forgot to close the door…okay, but now come back. Practice coming back again and again and again.

 “The mind rambles, complains, and thinks about anything else except for what’s actually happening. So what do we do? We let the thoughts go, without further engaging them, without believing them. As we become aware of our minds and let them relax, as we stay aware of the moment, of our breath, and of sensations, purification just happens. The mind releases.

This is how transformation happens—through conscious presence in the moment. Through awareness and acceptance of exactly what is happening, the bodymind adjusts itself and opens up with perfection and grace.”

Transformation Happens: The Yoga of Change, Aruni Nan Futuronsky 

Begin where you are.

Prior to the birth of my child, I had a semi-regular meditation practice. Fifteen months later, emerging out of the primitive trenches of early motherhood I stepped blinking back into the rest of the world and I felt a little unsure of where I had left myself along the way. How does a parent find the time for a meditation practice? I have yet to figure out how to shower regularly and only recently mastering the art of feeding myself three full meals a day (conceding that scraps from the highchair tray don’t count). With a part-time job, a full time toddler and a partner working long hours away from home, there are days when it seems like I am attempting the impossible – trying to find balance when the scales are hopelessly awry.

But the signposts in my inner life were clear. Somehow, somewhere, something had to shift. I didn’t have time for a new hobby or a project. It did not feel like there was a single spare minute in 24 hours to squeeze in anything extra at all. I was running an obstacle course from 4 am until I crashed into bed at 10 or 11, my mind racing with anxiety and recounting the moments I could have used more wisely: what more could have been accomplished, how I could have been a better mom, partner, friend, employee, enlightened being. With the restriction in my throat and tightness in my chest I was visited nightly by the familiar berceuse, “I can’t keep doing this.” I was in a terrible trap. While for the time being, there were practical factors in our life as a family that simply were not changeable …my task was to work from the inside.

A Google search on “Mediation for mothers with small children” and like wording yielded only one article I could find that that delved into the subject: Ten Tricks to Meditating with a Baby or Toddler. Kara-Leah Grant’s inspiring appeal to: establish the possibility in your mind, be open to the experience and letting go of expectations became the catalyst for my renewed commitment to a daily sitting mediation practice WITH my toddler.

I probably need not recount the boundless evidence of the benefits of meditation. Recent studies report that in just 8 weeks, a daily meditation practice has the power to alter brain waves. (It is fascinating how much “proof” modern society demands before it will accept a thousand year time-tested remedy or practice as valid or beneficial, yet yields little apprehension to the scores of new grocery, beauty and pharmaceutical and “health” products hitting the market daily, usually with a much, much narrower margin of study.) However, one need not delve into scientific research to discover for themselves that just 5 minutes spent quieting the activity of mind and body can create immediate notable shifts in the way we feel, think and react for the rest of the day…all it takes is five minutes.

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I decided to commit to 60 days of sitting meditation practice, aiming for 30 minutes a day and journal my progress along the way.

As parents we know (we know! we know!) but may still tire of the mantra self care. Because frankly it is just so damn hard. We know that taking care of ourselves makes us better parents to our children…but on a fundamental level, it makes us healthier, more balanced people and everything else follows. While attending to our own needs for the sake of our children is a worthy quest, it is still just what it is – for others.  Sometimes this can feel like another task on the “should” list, which left undone just leaves more guilt in its wake.

Maybe, like me, you find it pretty easy to get lost even on the good days in the land of laundry, 4am wake ups, endless meal prep/clean up, negotiating unpredictable toddler meltdowns, the unanswered emails and voicemails, pending/abandoned projects not to mention endless Huffpost Parenting articles aimed at giving you that little bit of wisdom or perspective you are lacking (somebody, please?) but leave you at best feeling much the same as you were before, but with 5 minutes less that you could have used to do something actually productive … oh but now the baby is up from nap and you’ve used up all your break time and haven’t even thought about dinner.

Soon I am the one feeling like a toddler. What about me??

What about you?

It took me awhile to realize that no one else can answer that question. It is taking me longer to learn that I am worth my time. I am worth a few (or more) of those 1440 minutes I get every day that I desperately try to maximize efficiently and yet mostly slip away like beach sand. Here was my biggest hurdle and most days still is: No one is going to give you more time but you.

By default my parenting skills and ability to be more present for everyone else in my life improve because I have found a more comfortable home within myself. I have found amidst a wild and strange terrain, it is possible to find a bit more peace with what is unknown. What do I have to teach my son about spiritual health if mine is indefinitely “on hold” because life demands are too much?

It is true that our children are our greatest teachers. They teach us to see things differently, they push us past our perceived limitations, they show us how much we can love, how exhausted we can be and still keep going. Our kids show us how to maximize every spare moment to full efficiency and the benefit of time spent not looking at the clock or multi-tasking. They shift our priorities indefinitely. They show us clearly the things that are most important and the freedom that comes with letting go of things that once carried such great weight in our lives. Our kids make it easier to say NO to the things and people in our lives that do not serve us and to say YES to what will ultimately bring about the kind of person you want to be, the kind of life you want for your family.

Unfortunately, we don’t master all this by the time they learn to walk or sing the alphabet. My kid is growing up fast but I feel like my growth is slow and tedious. I see clearly enough to know that there isn’t a destination but an ever-unfolding process of small but significant moments, some hard and some victorious, but all equally beautiful. I am just grateful to be on the path.