Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The One You Feed

I just celebrated my birthday the other day, and can I tell you what?

It was so fun.

Felt connected and loved and alive. Went out to a hip twinkly restaurant and drank bubbly and ate good food with people I love and wore homemade birthday crowns and baked chocolate cake and licked the frosting bowl with my kid.

(You know, compared to even ten years ago, in those ancient pre-Facebook days, this newfangled technology thing lends a whole new lovely and strangely-intimate-but-not energy to birthdays. All day long, I discovered sweet little messages from long-distance friends from so many different eras of my life, and felt touched and sentimental and open and light.)

It was kinda great.

Back in my twenties, when I was studying a lot of social theory and everything was socially constructed and nothing had meaning so why don't we all just give up already, I went through a long phase of being too cool for birthdays. They were depressing opportunities to get cynical and drink heavily; reminders of all that I felt I hadn't yet accomplished, ticking existentialist time-bombs warning me that I was one year closer to death without having any real achievements to my name.

But then two years ago my son was born on my birthday (crazy, yes; that's another story), and since then, late February is kind of like Second Christmas in our house. Big parties and lots of celebrating and wrapping paper and snail mail and candles and so much sparkle. It's certainly more fun with a little guy running around lifting his sippy cup and yelling "Cheers!"

As I imagine they do for most of us, birthdays always make me think about big topics like Life and Meaning and What's My Purpose and How can I seriously be 37 years old because isn't that someone's mom or mine or my elementary school teacher's age, but definitely not me? And isn't that awfully close to forty? And decidedly middle-aged? 

But then I think: damn, girl. You're still alive. You can still tie your shoes. You can still walk down the street. You can even still do the splits. You've birthed a baby and written a masters thesis and paid your taxes every year since college and you're really doing ok. Even if you're not President of the United States or a multimillionaire tech entrepreneur or Mother Teresa.

It's all about how you look at it, right? 

Birthdays changed for me after my father died at age 58.

I was only 23 when he got sick, and 26 when he died. It was hard to feel hopeful about my ever seeing retirement age. I wondered how anyone could be so foolish as to count on living to see her grandchildren, or what the point was of funneling money into an IRA if you were never going to get to use it.

A sobering revelation hit when I turned 29. I realized that, had I been my father, my life would already be half over. That we never know how many years we get. That, no matter how many chia seeds and kale salads we consume, we can't count on 80 years, or 90, or more. So I should savor these birthdays, these wide-open new years, and never be ashamed as the number grew higher and more wrinkly and grey-haired.

Because some people don't get the pleasure of seeing middle-age.

So now, these days, 37 feels like a gift, a grace, something I want to shout from the rooftops, like, hey, look what I got! Look what I did! Look what I get to wake up to and celebrate!

Holy amazing remarkable 37.

It makes me think of the Gayatri Mantra, a beloved devotional chant sung for thousands of years by Hindus, bowing to the morning sun. The Gayatri Mantra reminds us to look to the light, to meditate upon that luminescence, to turn our faces to that in our lives which is graceful and bright and life-giving.

Now, I have always been deeply suspicious of positive thinking movements a la The Secret. They make me throw up in my mouth. I can't bear the cheery forced positivity of much of the New Age and yoga worlds. My heart beats for sad music and melancholy literature and the real stuff of suffering. This shadow-side feels honest to me, human; rich.

But I also know that you've got to feed your good wolf.

Have you heard this parable before? It's so good.

Ahhhhh! Yes. The one you feed.

Lately, when I practice at home, I'll dial up a philosophy podcast to keep my mind focused and sharp and to prevent it from wandering and ruminating on politics and where I'll move after Trump wins the election and appoints Judge Judy to the Supreme Court and strikes down the Bill of Rights.

I discovered this one several months ago and have been really digging it. The One You Feed explores the parable of the two wolves. The creator-slash-host strikes me as down-to-earth and equally suspicious of simplistic positive thinking. But he also embraces and highlights many fantastic and multi-disciplinary techniques for feeding your good wolf.

I highly recommend his diverse array of interviews. They usually range from 40 minutes to an hour in length, and feature a wonderfully interesting variety of thinkers, activists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, coaches, writers, and more.

Here are a few personal favorites:
  • Rainn Wilson (aka Dwight from The Office)
  • Lodro Rinzler, Buddhist author and meditation teacher
  • Sharon Salzberg, Buddhist author and meditation teacher
  • Rich Roll, vegan endurance athlete
  • Lama Surya Das, Buddhist teacher
  • Susan Piver, Buddhist teacher and writer
  • Glennon Doyle Melton, writer and creator of Momastery
  • Monk Yunrou, Taoist teacher
  • Maria Popova, creator of Brain Pickings
  • Kino MacGregor, Ashtanga yogi and teacher
  • Dan Harris, ABC News anchor and meditator
  • Noah Levine, Buddhist teacher, author, and founder of Against The Stream

Give it a listen. Whether you're someone who has a little downtime in the car during your commute, or at the gym on the treadmill, or at home nursing a baby, or at work procrastinating, or up early to walk your dog, there's always a little time to build in an opportunity to feed your good wolf.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

You Are Not Broken and You Do Not Need To Be Fixed

My laptop is back after a week in the ER.

It's past midnight and my kid is asleep and I should be, too, because he'll be up like a lark in about six hours. But I'm so damn excited to have my hands back on this new shiny-glossy-sparkly-fast machine of mine that I can't wind down enough to get to bed.

(It's either that or the 50%-off post-Valentine's Day chocolate I slammed after teaching tonight. Sugar rush! No crash yet, three hours later. I'll take it.)

I'm consumed by the news cycle surrounding Supreme Court Justice Scalia's death. Fascinated and intrigued by all the political posturing that's resulted. I was lying in bed Saturday afternoon having just put the little guy down for his nap, scrolling through Twitter as I usually do in those first few moments after he's dropped into slumber and I'm waiting til I can pry myself away.

Shocked, like most of us were, to see the news. Voraciously reading every wonky analysis about which brilliant lawyer Obama will nominate and what the Republicans will do to stop it and whether Kamala Harris might be the Chosen One or whether it might in fact be Loretta Lynch and loving every word Elizabeth Warren has to say about the constitutionality of Republican obstructionists acting like jackasses in trying to block the confirmation process til after the Presidential election.

(I say jackasses with the most kindness and gentleness and lovingkindness possible. Naturally. Well, trying.)

Valentine's Day has come and gone.

We stuck sparkly heart stickers on every possible surface. I entertained making pink pancakes for breakfast, and failed to score the necessary beet juice so as not to poison my kid with Red Dye 40. Thanks to a sweet reminder from an old student and friend, I unwittingly revisited an old self from a Valentine's Day spent behind the bar five years ago, and felt some unexpected fondness and nostalgia. We've stashed the glittery frog and hamster cards away in the closet to recycle next February. I've read Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown a thousand times now, and accidentally torn off the pop-out chocolates that Linus bought to give Miss Othmar.

Duke and I tromped to the library today to return our 15 or so children's books and check out 15 more thick philosophical tomes featuring Mickey and Donald and Elmo and Grover. And monkeys and elephants and lions and giraffes. And fire trucks and bulldozers and tractors.

Just the kind of heart-rending literature I've always loved.

They were closed. Presidents' Day. D'oh.

In the event that you're doing a little light reading not involving Oscar the Grouch, here are a few recent favorites not to be missed:

Death, The Prosperity Gospel, and Me: An incredibly powerful piece from the Sunday NYT. A professor of Christian history finds herself diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at age 35. With a husband and a toddler. Gulp. She's just published a book analyzing positive thinking and the Prosperity Gospel and our contemporary American obsession with proclaiming ourselves "blessed." Please read it.
In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.
Next up: I am digging everything this new site puts out. Check out Embodied Philosophy for seriously good yoga shit. And I say that with the highest regard. Excellent podcasts with intelligent thinkers. Fantastic articles. Listen to this interview with Buddhist teacher and author Michael Stone first. Follow it up with this saucy one with yoga teacher Alex Auder. She calls out everything about the contemporary yoga "scene" that I'd like to say but am afraid to. Then dive into their archives and learn more than you ever wanted to about yoga philosophy. I can't wait to read further myself.

After that, for a little gendered reality check, hit up Having It All Kinda Sucks. Amy Westervelt nails the shitty and impossible conundrum of trying to "have it all" as a mother with a family and a career. Nails it. (I think of badass grandma Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who famously acknowledged some variation of: "I've had it all in my life, just not at the same time.") A must-read for anyone who knows how hard it is to both raise a child and maintain your professional passions. And a definite must-read for anyone who doesn't yet know that.
I do think, though, that we should cut it out with the fairy tales already. Stop telling women they can have everything without sacrificing anything. Here's the truth: You want to have a career and kids? You totally can, but both will suffer. You will never feel like you are devoting enough time to either. You will never feel like you are good enough at either. You will never get time off (at least for the first several years). You will always be choosing between things that need your attention, and you will almost never choose yourself. You will be judged for nearly every move you make and you will never measure up to anyone else's expectations.
I'm not talking about crazy special treatment here. I don't think we need to get all Oprah about it and coo on and on about how being a mom is the toughest job in the world. Nor am I saying, as one men's rights advocate put it to me recently on Twitter: "Give me money and special treatment. Because, vagina."
I'm saying let's make it okay for women to admit they're pregnant, or take a little bit of time off to recuperate from having a baby without having to worry about tanking their careers.
Let's redefine "having it all," or better yet let each woman define for herself what the best version of her life might look like. Because when you think about it, reflecting back on the first month of my son's life and reveling in what a good job I'd done at covering up the fact that he exists is pretty fucking sad.

On a more, er, meditative note, check out Omid Safi's beautiful recent On Being column on The Microclimates Of Life. So often when we teach meditation, we describe feeling-states and sensations as being like weather patterns: thoughts and feelings as being like clouds moving through the clear blue sky of our minds, staying for a moment or three, and then blowing by again. I love how Safi mirrors this metaphor here:
I wonder how often I have thought of life as something that happens in perfect, sunshine conditions, instead of thinking of life as the whole thing: the rain and the sunshine, the soaking and the drying, the puddles and the umbrella, the rain gear and the cap, the boots and the water soaked inside the boot....
I wonder how it would change our own relationship with the microclimates of life if we thought of life as being all of it: the tenderness and the anger, the love and the heartache, the hurting and the healing. What if we thought of all of the “climates” and “weathers” of life as necessitating different “clothing choices,” choices that are not permanent, but ones that we put on and take off? What if we thought of these clothing choices not as ultimately who we are, and more as “guests of our guest house?”
Lovely. Do read the whole thing.

Finally (finally!): I follow Susan Piver's Open Heart Project, and in so doing, receive a couple of email meditation practices throughout the week. This particular one, an old February meditation from a few years ago that I happened upon the other day, struck me anew. It speaks about meditation as a practice not of fumbling, desperate self-improvement, but as a practice of learning to allow, to relax, to stop the perpetually churning desire-to-achieve and to rest exactly where we are.
Maybe it’s my objective in meditation that is the problem. As I’ve been taught, the aim is not peace, nor is it bliss. It is to wake up. Another way of saying this is that the aim is to have no aim whatsoever but to relax completely. Absolutely. At this point, awakening is discovered rather than manufactured and suffering ends. The advice to stop, slow down, look within, and allow for both your brilliance and your brokenness flies in the face of conventional self-help. Self-help is not about relaxing with yourself exactly as you are. Meditation is.

Somehow, though, the idea of relaxation has become synonymous with spacing out. This is not what is meant. In my experience as a meditation teacher, basically every student I encounter has to be taught how to relax. It does not come easily to anyone, myself included.

What most of us do to relax is some version of corpse pose on the couch, remote in hand, staring, clicking, clicking, staring. There’s nothing wrong with this–until you try some alternate form of relaxation (say, going on vacation or lying on the couch to read) and you find it impossible. You’re too antsy. You start thinking about dinner and jump up to begin chopping vegetables. Or you think, let me put in one more load of laundry or answer that email that’s been bugging me or wipe down the outside of the refrigerator or take out the recycling or revise the last chapter of my book or find a cure for cancer. (You get the idea.) Hey, we should all chop our veggies in a timely manner and have smudge-free fridges and cures for cancer and whatnot. But let me suggest that we have become so egregiously task-oriented that we are in danger of forgetting how to relax altogether.

Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that we are so broken that a full-on 24/7 surge of endless, repetitive, and unflagging attention to our failings–or, if not our failings, to our “opportunities”– is called for. I would like to tell you something my friend Patti Digh says: You are not broken and you do not need to be fixed. ....

I ask my students, “What do you think would happen if just for one hour, you stopped trying so hard?” What they say is so recognizable to me and also so sad. They say, “I’m afraid everything would fall apart.” As if our lives were held together by spit and yellowing tape. We walk around with the sense that the whole situation is just so tenuous and, if we rest even for a moment, it will break apart. ....

In a very real sense, meditation is the practice of relaxing, nothing more and nothing less. From this relaxation springs joy, creativity, and clarity. It arises with cessation of effort which, after all, is the very definition of relaxation to begin with.

You are not broken and you do not need to be fixed. 

Roll around in that one for a minute or two. Imagine how different your life would look if you walked around knowing that was true, oh-so-deep in your bones.

Then, really, read the whole thing. I found Piver's writing to be incredibly powerful, and deeply radical. Counter-cultural, in the truest sense of the word.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Hello, February

Here we are: February. One month into 2016.

Have you blown your resolutions yet?

Yoga studios always have such a great buzz right around the New Year. Classes are packed and energy's high and people are fired up to get back into their practices, many after a few months away. There's a thrumming hopefulness in the air. 

But I've always liked that late January/early February time a little better: the period some pseudoscientific studies argue is the most depressing time of the year, when the holidays have faded, resolutions have lost their glow, and credit card bills are coming due. It's that grey, cold time when winter sets in and the crowds thin out and some people are already wondering if they should just resign themselves to another year of sweatpants and Netflix, their yoga mats collecting dust in the closet.

Back when I was bartending in grad school, this time of year always amused me, and made me a little sad, all at once. Folks would roll in on January 1st and order iced teas (no sugar) and salads (dressing on the side, no croutons, please). I'd smile and nod and say, "Ok, sure; you got it." By about the third week of January, people were dragging in hungry and exhausted, saying "Ohhh, screw it" and ordering dry martinis and enormous platters of french fries. The strange beast that was Resolution Time faded away, and life behind the bar settled back into its familiar beer-battered rhythm, until the next January circled around.

It was tough to witness people struggling; tough to witness the inevitable crash and burn of such high expectations. Made me feel so tender; so human; so connected.

(And really, who wants to live on iceberg lettuce, anyway?)

Yoga philosophy reminds us that we're brand new every time we take a breath. That in every moment, we get a fresh start, a chance to begin again, to drop all our stories. (You know the ones: I'm schlumpy, I'm a failure, I'm not an athlete, I'll never be able to put my foot behind my head, I'll never fall in love, I'll never get the job I really want, I'll never be able to do an arm balance. You get my drift).

Every inhale, a new beginning.

Every exhale, a chance to let go of what was.

So if you spent the first half of January rocking your resolutions and the second half sprawled on the couch shoving nachos into your face watching Grease Live, then hey. Ok. No big deal. That was then. This is now. And in this breath, in this moment, you get to begin again. Whether it's the new calendar year or the first day of school or some unremarkable morning in June, it's all the same: the first day of the rest of your life.

That said, there are two key instructions you wanna put in your pocket and carry around with you this time of year (and every time of year, to be honest). And they're both totally rooted in your yoga practice.
The first? Be gentle. Treat yourself like you would a small child. When you fall out of natarajasana for the 50th time, or you sleep through morning practice after another late night, or wind up at happy hour instead of at the studio unrolling your mat: be gentle. Nobody ever made good, healthy, lasting change by beating himself up. Nobody ever laid the path to consistent success by flogging herself. So be a little kinder. Trust that you're doing the best you can. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. And just get up, take a deep breath, and get back on the horse. Or the mat. Or the bike.

The second? Be curious. Rather than judging your creaky body or your too-tight pants or your half-assed push-ups, think to yourself: "Isn't that interesting?" These three words can change your life. "Isn't that interesting? I was stressed out and exhausted so I skipped class, went home, slammed a pint of Ben and Jerry's, drank a bottle of wine, and passed out in front of the TV." It's not good. It's not bad. It just IS. You were probably just trying to take care of yourself in the only way you knew how. And when you can look at your life with the lovingkindness and compassion that you'd offer a small child, you're better able to step back from some of your, erm, uglier moments, and say, "Huh, isn't that interesting. I was really trying to take care of myself by (getting bombed) or (avoiding my family) or (staying in bed all day) or (fill-in-the-blank)." 

There's a reason we roll onto our sides after savasana and rest, curled up in the fetal position like little children. It's an embodied reminder that we're starting over. We're childlike, open, light, unburdened, having let go of our old stories, last year's baggage, having unraveled the lifetime of knots in our shoulders and hips with a good, soul-shakin' yoga practice or two.

All those places in your life where you might find a whole lot of harsh self-talk and judgment? Try substituting gentleness and curiosity instead. And remember: you're inherently good. You're inherently whole. It's true! You are. Sometimes we just need one another around to remind ourselves.