What I Learned in 2014

I learned that love is like cotton candy. It stretches with you, it sticks to you, it’s messy and delicious and makes life more fun. I learned to tread softer on my heart and in my life. I learned the cleanest line can be found not only on a wave or on a rock but in life as well. I learned how it feels to say no to myself because I’m saying yes to someone else. I learned how selfish I really am. I learned how generous I can be. I learned that I didn’t know who I married until I had a child with him and found out how lucky I really am. And that I didn’t really know who I was until I had a child. I learned that a little bit of silence can go a long way {same thing with yoga}. I learned the reason everyone loves babies, even old grumpy men, is because we see ourselves reflected in their eyes {our truest, purest self without our labels and habits and scars}. I learned my best friends are the butterflies and the bees and the trees and the leaves. I learned gratitude is a state of being {not doing}. I learned this being human is the hardest work in the world if we’re doing it right. I learned endings are the box beginnings come wrapped in. I learned to be a little more courageous and a little less controlling. I learned to ask the hard questions and listen to the hard answers. I learned to trust the universe and myself. I learned if I stretch my heart a little wider it won’t break. It will just hold a little more love.

What did you learn in 2014?

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A New Year’s Resolution

As this year is winding down the phrase New Year’s Resolution has been skipping through my mind.

It occurred to me that there is one approach to new year’s resolutions that most of us don’t take. That being to adjust our resolution. Not as in I resolve to be healthier. Resolution as in the ability to sharpen our focus and adjust our vision so as to see a clearer, more accurate picture of our lives and ourselves just like the resolution on a new computer or TV would be crystal clear.

My 11-month-old baby has been great at guiding me in my effort to enhance my resolution. His face often looks at something and lights up in a fall magicsmile as if he’s just seen the most magical, amazing thing. I turn to see what he’s looking at and I see nothing. It’s a box or a corner of the wall or the ceiling.

However, when I look closer I see that my adult eyes have missed the magic. On closer examination I find a tiny bug crawling on the wall or a swath of light on the floor. A small dancing monkey on the otherwise boring box of diapers. His mind is so in the present that he sees exactly what’s in front of him.

I stopped making new year’s resolutions years ago. They remind me a lot of diets that people start and give up on when they don’t see quick results. I prefer slow, long-lasting growth to quick fixes. Goals are wonderful tools, but I find it’s easy to get so focused on where I want to go that I forget to start where I am. When I step into my present body and mind I can take legitimate steps in my direction of choice because I can see where I’m actually going.

Enhancing the resolution on our life does not happen overnight. It takes continuous effort, consistent focus, honest introspection, and an ability to readjust over and over again. It is not a quick fix and things may get blurrier before they get clearer.

This time of year I renew my resolve to stick with my process, to keep removing the veil of judgement that often obscures my perspective, to step back on the path of presence when I lose my way and to look for the light that transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary and allows me to see clearly what is right in front of me.

A Lesson in Letting Go

Going up.
Going up.

On a recent trip to Lake Mead my rock-climbing nephews invited me to go climbing while the baby was napping. I turned them down immediately because I’m afraid of heights. I’d much rather do yoga or write or nap or anything that’s on the ground level.

Twenty minutes later I was hooked up to ropes and pulleys, climbing up the face of a rock and terrified of falling. I clung to the rock on the outside, but quickly realized dropping into my senses was the only way I would be able to get up the wall. I had to feel with my feet for the next spot to step on sometimes without seeing it. I had to trust that the rock would support me and I had to trust my body in a way I’ve never had to trust it before.

I thought reaching the top was the hard part until I asked how I was to get down. Just lean back, my nephew said, which translated to me as let go of the rock I’d been clinging to the whole way up. The only thing scarier than holding on to a rock 30 feet up was letting go of it.

He repeated what he said and explained that they were going to lower me down, but I had to let go in order to be lowered down without hitting the rock en route.

I fearfully leaned back and let go of the rock. Halfway down I got more comfortable with it and actually kind of enjoyed the ride.

Coming down.
Coming down.

I often think of holding on and letting go as polar opposites, black and white, either-or. I’m either holding on or I’m letting go. My climbing adventure allowed me to explore on a physical plane the seeming polarity of holding on and letting go.

Normally we experience these years apart in our lives, such as getting attached to a partner or child and then having to let them go through a breakup, death, or off to college. In the time it took me to climb up the rock and get back down I saw how graceful, complementary, and fluidly one concept gave way to the next, much like how one season gives way to another. Gracefully, graciously, respectfully.

This experience reinforced something I’ve been trying to welcome into my life as a new mother, which is embracing paradox.

In his book The Courage to Teach, J. Parker Palmer explains it like this:

“The poles of a paradox are like the poles of a battery: hold them together, and they generate the energy of life; pull them apart, and the current stops flowing. When we separate any of the profound truths in our lives, both poles become lifeless specters of themselves-and we become lifeless as well.”

Throughout our lives we often have to switch from holding on to letting go without much notice. My transitions have historically been less than graceful, mostly because I am terrified of the letting go part and have a hard time trusting the unknown.

In reality the letting go we do in life is not the standalone experience we like to paint it as. It’s the other end of holding on and is essential to a complete and deep experience of life.

Taking it a step further one could say the same is true of life and death. When we isolate the less-pleasurable parts of life – the letting go, the death, the loss – we cut ourselves off from the full experience of the part we’re trying desperately to preserve.

Instead of fighting a lifelong battle with letting go as if it was an enemy to conquer, I now try to step into its flow, honor its cycle, and respect its place in the natural rhythm of life.

This week I’m faced with letting go of something I’ve been holding onto for the past 12 years: a great job. As I struggle with the fear of leaning back, away from the rock I’ve clung to for support all these years, I remind myself of Palmer’s words:

view from the top
View from the top.

“The tension that comes when I try to hold a paradox together is not hell-bent on tearing me apart. Instead, it is a power that wants to pull my heart open to something larger than myself… if I can collaborate with the work it is trying to do rather than resist it, the tension will not break my heart- it will make my heart larger.”

As I lean back into the unknown and begin to trust life on a level I’ve never had to before, I realize the time for clinging is over. In my rock-climbing experience if I continued to cling instead of letting go I would hinder my descent, increase my chances of injury and prevent myself from enjoying the ride. In real life if I insist on clinging I hinder what is a natural transition, make the process harder on myself and prevent myself from enjoying the ride.

I don’t know about you, but my life’s too short to not enjoy the ride.

Originally published on elephantjournal.

Navigating the Landscape of Limitation

blacksMy 6-month-old recently figured out how to roll. He can’t get enough of it and rolls everywhere.

It didn’t take him too long to start rolling into things, like the side of our blue couches.

I would see him run into the couch and I’d think. Okay, now roll the other way! You’re not going to get anywhere rolling into the couch.

But he wouldn’t roll the other way. He’d back off and roll into the couch again.

Over and over again. He didn’t appear to be frustrated or angry about it, just kind of exploring his new territory.

I’ve been trying to bring some of his childlike curiosity to my yoga lately because it occurred to me there’s a lot of similarities between his practice and my practice.

I visit the same territory of my body and mind over and over in yoga, and there are a lot of limitations and barriers I roll up against in my practice.

It can be a physical limitation like my tight hamstrings lately or a mental block like judging how I’m doing on any given day.

I like to practice these concepts in yoga because it makes it easier to practice them in life. It’s a starting place for me.

Here in the home of my body, working with my own skin and bones, can I soften a little right where I want to harden.
Can I open a little more right where I feel myself closing.
Can I create a little more space in the most contracted, uncomfortable poses.

Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. Either way is okay if I remember to bring my curiosity and consciousness to the process.

If he keeps at it my little one is going to realize he can’t go through the couch, but he can crawl around it and he can climb over it.

If I approach my limitations respectfully and curiously, I’ll probably find a treasure buried in this terrain I think I know so well and a new way to navigate the landscape of my life.

 

This Too Shall Pass

rose shadowThis is the phrase we all hear when we’re going through a difficult time.

It’s supposed to remind us of the big picture of life.
It’s supposed to remind us our current situation is temporary, no matter how dire it seems at the time.
It’s supposed to remind us to hang in there.

But I’ve been thinking.

It also applies to our great times. Those precious moments, those successes, those accomplishments, those unforgettable memories.

This too shall pass.

Since the good moments are just as fleeting and temporary as what we like to call the bad ones, doesn’t that also remind us of the fragility, the fleetingness, and the brevity of life?

It does for me.

I came to this sobering analysis while nursing my six-month-old. This indescribable mother-baby bond just blows me away. It humbles me, it honors me, and I just want to capture it somehow.

I don’t want to remember it. I want to hold on to it.

In response to my desire to hold on, I remind myself I need to let go. Not just of this, but of every other amazing moment in my life.

This too shall pass.

I know there is no holding on. There is just showing up.

All I can do is show up. All I can do is dig deeper than I’ve ever dug and become radically present for these precious moments, because when they’re gone they’re gone.

And I will rest more peacefully at the end of my life knowing I showed up for my life than if I have a mind full of memories that I was never fully present for.

There’s a poem by Mary Oliver that I love called In Blackwater Woods.

The portion that speaks to me is this:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

That is my work in this lifetime.

Hold it close.
And let it go.

The Art of Shedding Our Shell

lobsterEcdysis is a Greek term used to describe “the art of escaping from the old shell.”

A shedding, if you will.

It’s specifically used in reference to lobsters, who undergo a fascinating transformation process throughout their lives so that they can continue to grow.

Because their shells are hard, in order for the lobster to grow its current shell must be broken open and abandoned.

Throughout their lifetime lobsters are continually preparing for or recovering from this molting process because they have unlimited potential for growth.

Not unlike humans, no?

To prepare for this transformation the lobster prepares a new soft shell that will replace the old one. It withdraws blood supply from certain appendages that will be lost in the molting process and any heretofore lost limbs begin to recreate themselves.

The lobster’s water intake just prior to molting causes the new shell to swell, breaking open and pushing away the old one.

Without its old shell the lobster is soft, vulnerable, and exposed. It hides itself while its new shell hardens, allowing transformation and growth to take place in safety.

The last 10 months have felt like a kind of ecdysis for me, as I’ve prepared for the transformation to motherhood. It is one of many transformations we humans are privileged to encounter during our lifetimes. Although an experience unique to women, the process of transformation is common to us all.

We all possess an exoskeleton; a shell, both literal and figurative, from which we engage with our worlds.

In animals their shell is used for protection, allows for sensation, supports and frames their musculature, and provides defense from predators.

This is much the same for us humans. Our shells protect us, create healthy boundaries and structure, and can be used as a defense.

What often happens is that as adults we are still wearing the shells from our childhood. Our emotional scars or losses we experienced in our younger years have never been allowed to regenerate.

We engage with the world from a place of lack or longing, when really what needs to happen is a healing from within.

We humans are unimaginably resilient. Like our lobster friend we can regrow parts of ourselves that were injured or lost: a broken heart, low self-esteem, fear of failure, or losing a loved one.

In order for us to heal and grow we must be willing to change. We must be willing to break out of our old shell, expose our soft, unprotected insides, and through this process grow into a new shape, a new shell, and a new stage of life.

We lose a part of ourselves in this process. We are never the same again because we are transformed from the inside out.

Honoring this process means we honor whatever stage we are in and whatever stage we witness our fellow human beings in, whether that be grieving, growing, or shedding.

Whenever the opportunity for growth presents itself to us, may we courageously rise to this occasion in our lives. May our transformations allow us to explore our unlimited potential for growth and authenticity and our true capacity for love and life.

photo credit: The Ernst Mayr Library

A Return to Wholeness

When life presents themes to me over and over again, I try to take the hint.

I’ve been witnessing friends returning to their roots both literally and symbolically, as well as navigating a “return” of sorts of myself .

This concept of revisiting a place, emotion, or relationship as the conscious, aware, and present person we now embody can present a unique challenge as we attempt to introduce the new to the old.

The process of integrating what was with what is and what can be requires a tremendous amount of softening, surrendering, and strength.

I find it interesting that the words integrate and integrity both stem from the Latin integer, meaning whole, complete, untainted, undamaged.

It’s as if when we act, decide, or live from a place of integrity, we are proceeding from a place of complete unity and thus optimal strength. A unified mind-body-spirit allows us to better navigate life situations that require a grounded strength to heal, release, or integrate.

When wandering through the labyrinth of life, may we keep our eyes and hearts open, choosing to walk an old path in a new way.

The Return

sometimes we must find our own legs
before we can return to our roots
and stand over them with enough strength to kneel
and rise again

you reach your hands into that soil
that sprouted you and suffocated you
and ask yourself
can I forgive and embrace
the land from which I came

until you are strong enough you keep your distance
remembering the ground as unstable
as treacherous, barren, and powerful as quicksand

today you return
to stand your own ground
with your strong legs
and your open heart
and your deep gratitude
for your truth
for your past
for your beautiful scars
for your gnarled, twisted, nourishing, clinging, wild roots

that both held you back
and set you free

today you plant new seeds
in the old soil
whose roots will accept your invitation of life
and stretch wildly in ways you never imagined,
becoming the tree you’ve had in you all along
just waiting for the right time to grow.

What It Means to Be Fearless

“Fearlessness is not a state of being without fear. Rather, it is the experience of fully feeling the fear, naming it, getting to know it, taking it by the hand, and even making friends with it.” -excerpt by John Milton in Be The Change

Over the years I’ve noticed that the more I attempt to live my fullest life, the more fear seems to sneak in the back door.

It whispers questions I’d rather not answer.

What if I lose it all?
What if I lose the best parts?

I watch my mind somersault through fear and joy and back again. I remind myself there’s nothing to fear. I will never lose it all because I never had it all. Even when I hold it in my arms, it is not mine. It is not mine to lose.

Our lives are simultaneously meaningful and meaningless.

They hold at once everything and nothing. I’ve seen how the sea of life closes quickly over loved ones who pass and I know it will close quickly over me when I pass.

This simple truth demands that I live fully and fearlessly while I am privileged to walk this earth. It reminds me to fear neither failure nor success, but to marinate in the lessons they offer me.

We are only held back by our mental limitations. We are only limited by our fear that arises from the misconception that we are something or that we are nothing.

We are neither. We just are. Briefly we are. Briefly we hold it all in our arms.

Quickly it is gone, so Love from the bottom of your heart and Speak from the bottom of your heart.

Embrace your fear, examine it, and learn it as you would an old friend that offers you deep wisdom if you are willing to sit with it.

I find facing my fears to be a simultaneously terrifying and liberating experience, allowing me to emerge from the darkness softened, courageous, and more grateful for this life than ever before.

Hearts of Stone

stone

A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream.

The next day, she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation.

The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime.

But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.”I’ve been thinking,” he said, “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”

This story is called “The Wise Woman’s Stone.”

I think the stone in this story is our heart. More particularly, the love we hold in our heart. It is our most valuable possession, and we are daily given opportunities to give it to someone in need or to hold it back.

I see love being withheld everywhere. I hold it back myself at times. When I hold it back it’s always out of fear or some part of my small self trying to protect itself or defend itself by putting up a wall, a shield, or a protective barrier.

Seeing this blockage pains me, both when I see it in myself and when I see it in others, because I know that when we hold back our hearts or withhold our love we are not just blocking love from exiting.

We are blocking love from entering.

There are so many great reasons to blockade our hearts. I’m sure you can think of instances or people in your life that you’d rather not love or let in for one reason or another.

Feel the hardness that creeps through your body when you bring them to mind. I can actually feel a physical hardening happen in my body at times. My muscles tense up, my jaw tightens.

Every time I feel that hardening I remind myself to soften. Not to open right away, or perhaps ever, but just to soften. Soften the tiniest bit to that old grudge, that old wound, that old judgement.

And it’s not for the other person’s benefit so much as it is for my benefit.

Softening my heart allows me to receive more and to give more.

It does wonders for my inner and outer world. It does wonders for my state of mind and my state of being.

Just as the ocean can wear down boulders over time, I am always surprised at the miracles positive reinforcement, repetition, and even the smallest doses of love can effect over time.

It takes radical courage to put down our guard, to forgive, and to expose both our need for love and our true capacity to love.

It is a wise human being that can love unconditionally, without exception, and without judgement.

I am so grateful to the wise beings I have crossed paths with that have shared their precious stones with me when I was in need.

I endeavor to pass it on every day.

photo credit: kittykatfish

The Truth About Yoga Teachers

IMG_1071Not so long ago two of my longtime yoga teachers moved away within months of each other. I felt strangely lost and began looking for a replacement teacher to attach myself to. As I searched I started to practice at home more. I tried a variety of yoga studios and classes. I took a yoga teacher training.

After a while I realized that instead of finding a new teacher, I had found myself. Being “on my own” forced me to trust myself more. There was no one leading the way, so I had to find my own way. I had to learn to be my own cheerleader, my own coach, and my own compass.

Practicing on my own allowed me to spread my wings, listen more deeply to my own body, and connect with my inner teacher. This is challenging because sometimes I go to yoga to get out of my body or to get out of my mind. At times my goal is to get out of my current state of discomfort, disease, or distress, and into an easeful, blissful, serene body and mind.

While these are often wonderful side-effects of yoga, they’re not always present. In the words of Richard Freeman:

“Yoga is almost a way of looking for trouble. You may be feeling pretty good, but then you start doing postures and all of a sudden you discover there is a holding pattern that goes way deeper into your very being. You have to breathe into it and observe it as it is. The postures and the breathing, or pranayama, are like a fine-tooth comb that take out all the buried stuff you don’t need anymore.”

Not long into my practice of yoga I saw this happening. There were poses I liked and poses I didn’t like. In general, I liked the ones I was good at and disliked the ones that made me feel uncomfortable, trapped, or physically inadequate.

I sometimes choose faster classes because I get into a rhythm with my breath and my body and it just feels so good. I feel really accomplished afterwards because I release tension in my body, increase my strength, and feel balanced energetically.

YogaIn contrast, when I do a deep hip-opening practice at home, holding pigeon for three or four minutes with the intention to observe and release deep-seated tension or judgement, the experience is very different. I notice the effect of my practice less in a yoga “high” and more in the way I relate to myself and the people in my life.

One of my teachers would often say, “You know your practice is working when your relationships improve.” This was a philosophical stretch for me early in my practice because I couldn’t grasp how an hour of yoga a few times a week could transform my life.

Thankfully, I just kept practicing. And it did transform my life. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga, said “Do your practice and all is coming.” I find this reminder especially relevant when I don’t feel like practicing.

Like any transformation or growth process, sometimes it’s beautiful and spacious and sometimes it’s uncomfortable and hard-going.

This is the deeper potential of yoga that all of us experience at some point in our practice.

Whether your yoga is clearing up your life or clearing out your life, trust your practice and trust your process. Trust that, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Don’t be surprised if that teacher turns out to be you. At times our teachers are our injuries or some other limitation. Perhaps your teacher shows up on your doorstep instead of your yoga mat, in the form of a life experience instead of as a yoga teacher.

I like to think of my yoga practice as a path with detours, alleys, and bridges. Sometimes I follow a certain teacher down one path until we reach a fork in the road. When the detour takes me to what seems to be a dead end, I realize it’s not a dead end at all.

It’s time to build a bridge or learn to spread my wings and fly.

May we all travel our unique yogic paths that lead us home to ourselves, connected in our common journey from who we think we are to who we really are.

*Originally published on YogaOneBlog