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A Mindful Journey: Joyful Resilience

The word ’mindful’ appears now more than ever; mindful eating, mindful life, mindful shopping, almost 2 million hits on google alone. When I think of the word mindful- I think of awareness. A mindful moment isn’t necessarily filled with comfy zen calm, when I stub my toe I am suddenly and powerfully awake and aware of the throbbing in my foot and the immediacy of the pain. I am experiencing a definite moment of mindful awareness of my present time experience. Yow!

But then, my stress response fight or flight mechanism kicks in to ‘protect’ me, and I might spin off into reactivity, anger, fear, judgement for my ‘perceived’ clumsy movement to the ‘apparent’ negligence of street cleaners or dump trucks, who knows. I could fester on this particular event for years. Maybe.

This is mindlessness, a habitual pattern of chronic mind wandering that keeps you and I in reactivity, judgement, fear, wanting things to be different, the places most of us spend most of our time and energy. Research finds that up to 90% of our thoughts are repeats. All just as the mind was designed to do, to help us remember tasks, protect us from harm, and keep us going day to day in our stressful lives. While our ancient animal brain loves patterns and habits, and is designed to keep us alive into the next moment, it doesn’t care about our long term wellness, vitality, and joy. So, while we are marinating in our culture of stress response, increasing our overall ill health as we move about our days, how do we evolve our ancient systems to help us find wellness, avoid chronic issues like disease, addiction, discomfort in mind, body, and soul? Can we?

I believe the answer is yes. We can build our resilience, deepen our compassion for ourselves and others, and increase our confidence, hope and joy all while enjoying better health, wellness in body, mind and soul. With a deeper calm, peace and ease, our creativity blooms, our passion, joy of life and desire to serve humanity grows too. Sounds like a world I want to live in.

I created Mindful Journeys as an embodied healing practice to bring mindfulness in body, mind, and spirit with ease for everyone. There are thousands of ways to achieve a mindful, awake and aware consciousness, all designed to help us move through life with more ease, vitality and clarity, and I have tried most of them. I remember in my 40’s after a painful divorce crying in my therapist’s office and asking if my life would ever stop the roller coaster ride, and would I ever find some calm. She just nodded, sympathetically, I guess, and I went home and took my antidepressants. I started an intense yoga practice in a hot yoga studio, attempting to sweat away my misery, and it did empty me out, but I didn’t feel joy.

I tried meditation too, many kinds, and mostly felt like a failure. I couldn’t find anything that seemed to work for me, that I could stick with. I knew I needed something, desperately. I’ve done the gamut of panic attacks, mental and physical break downs, a horrible menopause, and lots of pharmaceuticals. A few years ago I met a wonderful compassionate counselor who truly understands embodied healing, and with her care I felt my body and brain reset. I can’t stress the importance of support on any wellness journey, I am so grateful to family and friends for their support in my journey.

During Covid lockdown, I learned qi gong, an ancient healing practice designed to bring health and wellness to targeted organs and systems, a sometimes strong and powerful practice, sometimes very simple movement. I gained an advanced yoga certification from a wonderful wise woman, a Buddhist teacher and master yogi who showed me the connection of mindful awareness, buddhist dharma teachings, and the purposeful movement of yoga— not the exercise-y Yoga Fit I learned years ago.

All this learning and support began to coalesce in my head. I began training in the use of energy medicine (think acupressure points) tools and techniques as well, and began to weave together a practice that is both accessible and valuable to everyone. My students are all ages, and tell me they feel empowered by this practice, just as I feel. It is an experience of building joyful resilience.

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

I know that many people are intimidated by yoga— and honestly, most of us find common yoga poses like Downward Facing Dog or even a Forward Fold pretty extreme. My hubbie has been doing yoga with me for years and he still groans a bit when we do a forward fold.

But yoga is not just physical poses to put a body into, it is purposeful movement developed over thousands of years to stretch, expand and impact our subtle energy system, calming and centering our nervous system— and all the organs of the body. And stretch any tight or tense muscles and tendons! Other ancient practices like qi gong and tai chi provide similar health benefits.

Energy wants to move, and needs space to move. When we store ’stuck’ energy—anything negative really—like all that chronic stress we live with day to day, it settles in our tissues, organs, all the way to our cells. Scientists say 90% of our current health concerns come from our response to stress. If that is true, then mindful movement, woven with a purposeful breath practice, and a focused mind can literally save our lives.

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Remember the light.

When I was a kid, I stood at the doorway of my bedroom, took a deep breath, flicked the light switch and leapt to my bed. To avoid the bed monster’s snatching claws, right? I lay still as the dead, listening to my own breathing, the pounding of my heart, not daring to move. 

I don’t know how long it took for sleep to take over, sometimes I lay there for hours, staring at the patterns in the wood of my bed’s headboard, or the shifting shadows on the ceiling. I lay there watching the shadows morph into devil horns, twisted trees, and hunched backs of the undead until I finally gave in to sleep. 

In my defense, we owned three cats who chased my feet from under the bed, embedding those tiny claws in whatever flesh they could snag. Some monsters are real.

I don’t leap from my doorway anymore, but I sleep curled on my side, my face to the door. Habit. I don’t analyze it, I just fall asleep that way.

I take my dog for a walk around my neighborhood in the dark early morning. Holiday lights twinkle from many houses, framing buildings in pink, red, green, blue. I love those little twinkly lights, little stars we put on strings and trundle out, winding around our homes when the skies get darker and colder. Reminding us that the light is returning, as it does. That darkness isn’t permanent. 

My heart pounds a bit as we walk into the small wooded area between homes, the young me takes a big breath with the older/wiser me as we walk confidently into the dark. Some monsters are real, so I wouldn’t take this walk without a noisy barker on the leash. And I am careful, these woods are framed with porch lights, and neighbors. Also, furry Emma would defend me to the death.  Or we would both run away, more likely.

Confidence grows with perspective, wisdom, experience, and generally I am able to breath with fear, feel it in my body, allow it to make it’s journey through me unfettered.  Mostly. When I can’t release the grip of fear, I breathe, and breathe and watch the sky.

A friend said the other day, “Have you noticed the skies are darker now? I mean, than ever?” I nodded. A collective darkness of worry, fear and anxiety about our future on this planet colors our perspective, infecting the air with fear. So much more insidious than a virus.

 So, yes, the skies are darker now. What do I do? I breathe. I feel my feet on the solid ground. Allow my own earthiness to meld with the strength and surety of muscle, bone, dirt. Just in this moment, I am ok. I remember things I love. My dog. Walking. Morning coffee. And if I am not convinced, I tap my forehead, my chest, my arms, my legs— sending a rhythm of movement through me like the morning winds.

Waking up.

 Even on a morning when the clouds are thick grey blankets squashing the light, if I really focus, I see them move. There is no solid. Not in the sky, not in me. I know there is always blue above the grey, and this perspective helps fear to move. Remembering that all weather arises, abides for a time, and dissolves is freeing. I don’t have to attach to any of it.

The dog is eating now, I am drinking tea, looking up every few moments to see the progress of the sky’s light show. In these few moments, the space out my window has changed and changed and changed again. Those first slits of grey light widened into whitish lines slicing the clouds to pieces that drift away on the winds. A flock of dark birds, backlit, flit across the horizon in a messy V. The blush of sunrise lifts, coloring the spaces a baby pink. The masses of heavy whale clouds have lumbered on, the earth warms with the light, and now the flush of morning inks the wide horizon and the blue grows intense, as if the world was blinking, stretching, sun tapping on sky’s shoulder, “Wake up.”

Photo by brenoanp on Pexels.com

I sip my tea, Emma circles the rug, sniffing, and settles into a small ball to snooze. Now the pink, orange and white light dances, showing off in a saucy firework show. There is still a stubborn grey fog settled around the land, we live in a wet place, and fog is persistent, only lifting when the earth is warmer. I busy myself with syntax and editing, a few minutes to refill my cup.

I look up, now a dark blanket is spread across the sky, skinny edges closest to the horizon silvery white. Another cloud of birds wing across my vision. Arise, abide, dissolve. Arise again. Clouds, seasons, days, lives, moments.

Emma has moved to the couch, resting her head on a cushion. In her vision, she can keep a watchful eye on me as I sit at the counter, typing. A longer walk is most likely in her future, so keeping an eye on my movements is paramount. She knows, I will stretch, move, get up, and put on my shoes. We will walk into the shifting light, maybe with rain boots, (me, not the dog) maybe not. 

And tonight, when the darkness settles, the outside lights will blink on, Emma will settle back to rug, a candle will be lit— a little bit of sun in the night— and a sigh will form as we breathe with it’s glow. 

Off the mat; into the world

The morning fog embraced the land, sun rays slowly colored the horizon  a stripe of orange just above the mist as I drove eastward. My car gently swerved along the curling river road as I moved toward the sunrise. My eyes were drawn to the ever changing light show while my mind circled, organizing a sequence for my upcoming yoga class this early Thursday morning. As my plan coalesced, occasionally I lifted my eyes  to the changing sky, each moment the color merging, shifting, now more red, more pink, a slice of gold just above the misty mountain ridge east of me. I drove, window down, breathing in the bracing early fall air. I love teaching morning yoga, the flow of the class moving with the morning light, and to offer this class felt like a blessing. Nestled among twining maple trees on a quaint historic downtown street in a small valley town north of Seattle, the Mariposa Day Spa was my destination for Yoga Bliss: Yin yoga and Yoga Nidra, one of my favorite classes to teach.

scenic view of mountains during dawn
Photo by Stephan Seeber on Pexels.com

Arriving in town, I gathered my supplies, locked the car, and quickly hustled down the sidewalk, then down the concrete stairs to the lower level of the hundred year old brick building hulking on the corner of First and Maple. 

The mist hung low and full around this lower level, and as I got to the end of the stairwell I jumped a bit, startled by the soft snoring of a homeless man asleep on the concrete just at the end of the stairs. I looked toward the doorway of the Spa, encircled by beautiful ceramic pots, a large fountain gently bubbling, inviting lounge chairs facing the trees at the end of a long patio. My heart pounded in my chest with a primal body fear of lone woman in the dark with a possibly  unpredictable male. I hurried to the door, shoved the key in the lock, pushed my way in, locked the door behind me.  I am the first one here, alone in a dark  room where no one will hear my scream. Possible crackhead 50 feet away. As this drama thought zipped through my head, it was quickly followed by a flood of guilt at my lack of compassion. All my Zen-like qualities of Yoga Teacher failed me now, I was just a woman terrified, anxious, and now as I quickly set up my class, angry. 

Should I call the police?  Call the owner? Pretend he isn’t there? Yell at him to leave?

I hated the police sweeps of the homeless in my town, so calling the cops was a no-go. Funding disappeared for mental health advocacy in our county, so there were no other numbers to call. This is the pain of a broken system. Here I was, right at the frontlines of inequity, inside a beautiful place of ease and privilege, outside cold concrete and suffering. 

Its so hard to stand in this place. My heart hurt, and anger at everything flooded my body.  I stepped outside, clapped my hands, calling, “Hey, excuse me, can you leave please?” The man lay there, deep asleep. I stood there for a second or two, breathing heavily, my hands gripping the doorframe. His shoes were lined up beside him, a blanket folded neatly under him. I turned quick  and went back inside, locking the door again. 

Well, this isn’t working. Maybe I will text the owner. 

I did, explaining the situation, ending with ‘just thought I would let you know.” Feeling a little relieved of responsibility, I turned back to get ready for my class, laying out mats, blocks, blankets, supplies to help my students release, let go, expand joints, muscles and bodies. The irony of what I was doing juxtaposed with the irritation and anger in my head was not lost on me. I felt adrift in my own anxiety, judgement, and guilt. Who to blame? How to help? What to do? What not to do? 

I started my playlist of meditative flute music, and my body softened. A little. I stood by the front door, staring out through the glass, intent on the stairs, so I could quickly unlock and open the door when students arrived. I still hoped the man would leave before anyone arrived, but that looked doubtful. As I stood, looking out through the large windows at the man sleeping on the concrete, I swayed a little with the music, thinking how he was in the same position we purposefully choose at the end of a yoga class— Savasana, corpse pose. A reminder of the transitory nature of our human existence, that each day we rise, changing with every moment, just as the light changes in a sunrise, and then we lay ourselves down, resting, bringing rejuvenation to bodies, minds, and hearts as we ‘sleep’ in this yoga shape. 

The grip of anxiety loosened as I focused on my breath. Slowly, I felt my mind shift, as it does with a mindful breath. A slow rise of my own inner sunrise. The words of a loving kindness meditation called Metta practice began to flow, “may you be free from suffering, and the causes of suffering, may you be at ease, peace, feel safe, and protected.” Over and over the words flowed out of me, in time with the lilting flute. My body continued to soften, and now I realized that as this man had so carefully placed his belongings around him, he had only one sock on, and his blanket was up around his middle. I stared at that bare foot. I looked down at my own bare feet. My feet were bare on purpose, to help me connect energetically with the healing power of the Earth. Every class I talk about active compassion, that the authentic purpose of self-care is to care for ourselves first, so that we have the capacity to serve others; integrating love at a cellular level. When we are grounded in compassion,  loved hearts and hands move more easily into truly compassionate action. Not just fixing something to make our own discomfort go away, or ignoring—pretending we just don’t see.

In that moment, my awareness shifted again, a flood filled my chest, an ease and spaciousness. I walked back into the yoga studio and picked up one of my warm Mexican blankets and quietly took it outside, draping it over his feet. All the while, I continued the blessing; may you be well, may you be free, may you be safe and at ease.

 He continued to snore.

I felt more ease, less anxiety, more kindness, but still I hoped my students wouldn’t notice him as they entered the Spa. I still felt like a hypocrite.

Students claimed their spots, I locked the door, and we started class. We flowed, we moved, breathed, and relaxed, but I wasn’t feeling bliss, all I could think about was the man outside. He was still there when the students left, and the owner arrived. He said the man had been there a few nights, and was told he needed to leave by morning, but how do you keep track of time when you live on the street? As I loaded my supplies in my car, I considered the possibility of just going home, letting this  be someone else’s problem. There are many ways to extend compassion, and finding the way in any particular moment that feels truest, for the greatest good—means having a conversation with my heart. Sometimes I can trust a quick intuition, but sometimes it takes a conversation. So, I sat, in my car, a hand on my heart, closed my eyes, turned inward, and asked.

What is my deepest heartfelt desire in this moment? What serves my path of compassion?

 It takes courage to face discomfort, lean into it, cradle it kindly. Just about no one wants to feel uncomfortable, and needing to fix, manage, blame, or judge ourselves or others is the first response to inner or outer conflict and turmoil. I sat with my heart, and rejected the need to ride my own fight or flight reactions. That dance takes effort.

 As I watched the morning traffic, I sighed. I couldn’t sit there forever. True self care has a trajectory; I lean in, so I can extend out. Love is, as Eric Fromm wrote,  “the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing own’s one or another’s spiritual growth.” Each time I face my patterns of fear and judgement, I claim the opportunity to love myself a bit better, so that I can reach outward in active compassion. 

The owner of the Spa came into my head, a wonderful man trying to offer varied healing modalities, over burdened with a new business, running it himself. I realized the triad of need in this moment was too much for one person to equitably meet; this is the suffering of living in an unbalanced, painful system that does not support the business and the house less man equally. 

The street was waking up, now filling with dogwalkers, moms and strollers, business owners. I got out of the car, quickly walked to a coffee shop down the street, purchased a breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee, and headed back with determination in every step. I could do this. I have been chased and screamed at by unstable people before, and  survived, I would survive today. As I walked down the steps I gathered my composure in deep, full breaths. Coming back to my center, over and over, was what kept me from drowning. As I exhaled, I remembered the many positive interactions with houseless people I have had through the years.

My heart pounded as I stepped down the stairs, my breath fast too. I held the coffee and sandwich out in front of me, as I leaned down. I spoke clearly, a bit loud— “Excuse me, good morning, I have coffee here for you.”

He shook his head as he rose up, confused, and only partly awake. “Good morning,” I said, “My name is Terra, I have breakfast for you? Do you like breakfast sandwiches with sausage and egg?” I could hear my rambling as he slowly sat up, gathered the blanket closer with one hand and took the coffee from me. I placed the bakery bag beside him, he looked at me over the coffee cup. I smiled hopefully. 

“You can’t stay here, friend. This is a business for many women, so you need to find another place to rest. Can I help you move your things?”

He sighed, ran his hand through his tousled hair, scratched his chin. He looked at me again while I continued to chat about the Spa, how much I loved working there,  the wonderful people. He reached into a pocket, pulled out a hearing aid and wiggled it into place.

As I watched him adjust, my resolve to be a ‘sweeper’, even a kind one, began melting.  I repeated myself, “My name is Terra, what’s your name?” 

He opened the bag, “Carl.” He pointed to his ear,  “I’m deaf. My truck died, I think it needs an alternator, or something…” His voice trailed off as he bit into and  chewed the sandwich. 

I nodded, “That’s frustrating, when cars break down. Do you have bus fare? Is there someone who you can see about your truck?” I felt like such a fraud. A few threads of thought in my head; maybe I could call a repair shop? Give him a ride? Do I know a mechanic?

He answered, his voice soft and muffled by the food, I leaned in a little closer to hear, focused on his face, but distracted by my thoughts. I nodded, not quite sure what he was saying, not wanting to hurry him, hoping he felt heard. 

Carl chewed his sandwich and sipped his coffee. I looked around the patio. “This is a lovely place, isn’t it?” 

He nodded and looked up at the patio roof. “Dry place to sleep. Be great with a hot tub over there maybe,” he pointed to the edge of the covered patio, near the trees. We sat for a moment on the cold concrete together, imagining a beautiful bubbling hot tub, friends gathered. Sadness started creeping in with cat feet, scratching at the edges of my heart.

“Carl,” I stood up, “please let me help you, I can get bus fare for you if that will help.” He nodded, pointing at two small plastic bags, “I need a larger bag.” 

“Ok,” I said, slightly relieved  to be able to meet this smaller need, “ I will be right back, anything else?” He shook his head, I hurried up the stairs to my car. I rustled around to find whatever change and loose bills I could find, grabbed a shopping bag from the back seat and ran back down the stairs. 

Carl was standing, now with shoes on, folding up blankets. I noticed trash beside him. “Can I get that for you?” 

“No, I got it.” He took the bag, stuffed the blankets in.  I handed him the change, “For a few bus rides?” 

He nodded. I felt a wash of sick in my belly that I couldn’t offer more than this, but I needed a healthy boundary, I would offer what I could, I would release what I couldn’t. 

I shifted foot to foot, feeling awkward and helpless. I talked fast, “Thank you, Carl, thank you for moving. I hope you find the support you need.” Not wanting to stand over him, I smiled weakly and started up the stairs, hoping he would follow soon. I got into my comfortable, warm car and held the steering wheel. My mind felt a little numb from this encounter that could have gone sideways, I sat and breathed. Sometimes I just want to crawl into bed and not come out. I called into my head the serene faces of the women in my class, the grateful look in the spa owner’s eyes, but Carl’s furrowed brow was there too.  I looked at my rear view window, Carl came up the stairs and turned right. I watched him move down the street, my shopping bag banging against his leg.

May you be well, may you be free, may you feel comfort and ease. 

My head wasn’t convinced, but I repeated this over and over on repeat, imagining waves of light flowing from my heart to his, to the whole street now lit with morning, with all it’s stories of anguish, delight, frustrations, love, guilt, remorse, gratitude—all of it. I turned my car to the left, and drove home.  

Maidenhead Railway Bridge from River Road
Maidenhead Railway Bridge from River Road by Marathon is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Ready to crack the cocoon?

I realize that people sign up for one of my yoga classes not because they are doing great, but because they are hurting. Maybe some sign up because they know the blessings that come from this ancient body wisdom, and want community and accountability. But mostly, people come to relieve tightness, pain, and recover from disease or injury. Some feel hopeless, helpless, worried, and afraid. Some aren’t sure this is for them, they were encouraged by friends, family, or health professionals. The ‘shoulds’ dragged them here, but they most likely won’t be back, I can tell before the yoga class is over, usually. Some spend the whole class afraid this movement will make things worse, or not be enough.

Fear and worry aren’t motivators for change. We think in our driven culture— the birthplace of Just Do It, we can work harder, force ourselves to be better with the jackhammer of our will. Overcome our flaws with more hard work. But the old paradigm of work, work, work has failed, and continues to crumble— what we need culturally, publicly, and privately can be summed up in one word. 

REST. Just to BE. That’s it.

Makes most people twitchy just reading that, I bet. Doing more doesn’t work when we are riven with the stress of collective hurt, collective loss, collective anxiety. More meds, more trips, more shows, more content, more stuff—- doesn’t work either. 

What does work is so simple, so accessible, and ridiculed in the face of a multiple billion dollar wellness industry. No app or membership needed. Could it be that I have this incredible tool— the union of movement/breath/intention— or in a shorter version: yoga— at my fingertips? Can this change my world?

What if it was easy? What if we do have the tools individually and collectively to heal? To feel peace, ease, resilience, even joy in a world of chaos? What if? 

Can we rest in the possibility that this could be true? 

So, dear friend, for everyone is a friend I don’t know yet— rub your palms together, get some heat going, fresh energy. With fingers warm, place the heels of your palms on your cheekbones, cupping your eyes, let your fingers gently rest on your head and temples. Go ahead, take a few minutes to feel the warmth of your own hands, breathe, and breathe again, I’ll be here when you get back.

There, you did it. You moved with intention, focused on the breath. That was yoga. Thousands of years ago, yogis experimented with the union of movement, breath and mind focus and discovered the true power to change our human experience. A pathway for ease, peace, hope, and joy, no matter what surrounds us. 

Try another movement; bring your middle finger of each hand to just below your ear, in the groove between jawbone and neck muscles, just behind the earlobe, allowing your other fingers to rest along the neck and jaw. Notice any sensations of ease, release, or nothing. Just rest the mind on the sensations of your body, the breath. Breathe in and out a few times, then massage downward towards the collarbones a few times. Rest your hands just under the collarbones, top of the chest, one hand over the other. Let your chin rest on your hands and breathe. Maybe close your eyes. 

How was it? Strange? Feel the need to hop up and DO something? Brain commanded you to GET BUSY? That right there is evidence of an overstressed nervous system. If a few moments of quiet, still, rest feels just the opposite; we are in a stress reaction fight/flight/freeze state. This is most of us these days, most of the time, and we are convincing ourselves this is normal. It isn’t. We deserve rest. It is time to demand rest, claim ways to heal, claim radical kindness for ourselves and each other. 

Maybe try palming the face again, this time armed with the knowledge that I am more than my nervous system response. I can breathe through anxiety. Let it be there, not trying to ignore it, stuff it down, or pretend it’s not with me,  but draw my anxious mind to the focus of the body breathing, the warmth of the hands, just this place of being. Not doing. Just for now.

Humans have been in an imposed cocoon for too long, it is time to stretch, time to expand, time to claim our wellness in body, mind and heart with truth. Say yes to everything we are experiencing; the loss, the love, the worry, the hope, the fear, the ease, all of it. And we don’t do it alone, we share our experience of our very real inward and outward lives, claiming our connection to each other, to grow in the resilience of being life—-together. The students in my yoga class today laughed as they wiggled into an awkward shape, and the room lightened. We forgave ourselves and forgot our pain in that moment. We claimed our humanity and our resilience grew.

The butterfly cannot fly if it doesn’t test the boundaries of its cocoon over and over, expanding in new ways with patience, fortitude and hope. By the time the Monarch butterfly emerges, it is resilient enough to fly through storms, more than 3,000 miles in the only butterfly migration on the planet. Then they do it again. We have the Monarch to remind us, resilience is our living birthright. It is ours to build, one loving, restful breath at a time.

Danaus plexippus (monarch butterfly)

What do I see in the blood red sun?

red sun above night sea water
Photo by Yura Forrat on Pexels.com

As I walked down the hall, a surprising light shone in the window, staining the floors with a streak of orange. I went to the window to investigate; the sun hung just above a bank of cloudy mist, a blood orange ball. I remember the sun appearing this way in the polluted skies of China, rising through the dust and dirt like an angry beacon of warning. We had no choice but to breathe and live the best we could with our international work contract. So many of us couldn’t adjust, coughing fits rang out daily in the halls of our building. As I walk away from my window, I know this warning sun speaks of desperate fires east of us, destroying miles of forestland by the minute.

Later in a coffee shop,  a woman exclaimed, “Oh, did you see the beautiful sun this morning?” I was taken aback. Filled with dread and sorrow, I rejected her joyful tones and held onto my feelings of anxiety and grief, and now added strong judgement at her naïveté. Did she not know about the suffering that red sun heralds?

I went about my day, chores, errands, often spinning back to my judgey thoughts about the woman in the cafe, adding more fear and anxiety to my mucky mind soup. It was hard to focus on the tasks at hand with the tiny tornadoes in my head. By evening, I was exhausted and not sure why.

As I washed the dishes after dinner, I looked up at a full moon rising in the same window. Harvest Moon, we call it. I took a deep breath, and another. My mind settled as I took in the dark sky, mountain fringe at the horizon, twinkles of stars.

blood moon
Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

I could have turned that orange moon into fear too. But I didn’t. I took another breath, and chose to see, really see the golden sphere rise. Tinged with a similar glow, I felt no sorrow, or grief, now I chose gratitude for the idea of release this moon signifies. The world is as it is; and while I do want to work for positive change; anxiety and judgement about who is to blame is so seductive, and I choose to refuse to put my attention and my intention there. If my attention is limited; and surely it is, then I just don’t have time for that nonsense. I can’t choose what surrounds me, but I can choose what to focus on, what to rest my attention on, to remember over and over my intention, of love. Open handed gratitude and grace. 

The trees know too, the light has shifted, it is time to release what is no longer necessary, sink inwards, store root food for new life to come. It is time to make friends with the dark, nestle in her arms, and rest. Release to rest. 

Can I be more like the tree, I wonder; the water in the sink flows over my hands as I turn the soapy dish. The moon rises over my head, now silvery, silent, a benediction. Yes, the moon seemed to say, we can hold grief and joy in the same hand, we can hold everything—the red sun, the orange moon, the darkness, judgement, fear— in the flow of compassion, love, light. I placed the dish in the drainer as the moon continues to rise, blissful in the sky.

full moon on a daybreak

Photo by David Besh on Pexels.com

What is yoga?

Photo by Sindre Stru00f8m on Pexels.com

Nearly 20 years ago, I taught creative movement at an arts focused magnet school within a public school district. While I was amazed and delighted at the creativity and openness of staff, families, and students, the place I felt resistance was when I used the dread word—- yoga.

One afternoon, after the buses left, the principal walked into my room and said, ”So, I am wondering about how you use yoga in your classes.”

”Well,” I said, wondering what was coming next, “it is part of what I do as mindfulness training. For focus, centered-ness, compassion for self and others.”

Feeling defensive, as I often did when approaching the topic of yoga with non practicing folks, I could feel the heat rising around my ears as I busied myself with organizing supplies.

“I had a parent call today, and she said her daughter told her that everyone laid down in your class, and you said to empty your mind, and she feels that is cult behavior.” She folded her arms, and my heart sank to my feet. I never told anyone to empty their minds, and I resist any teaching that sounds ’cult-like,’ so more than anything, my feelings were hurt.

“Oh, wow. We sometimes do a floor meditation, so they can watch their bellies rise and fall with the breath. I never told anyone to empty their minds. She thinks I am brainwashing her kid? For what end?”

Now a little edge crept into my Principal’s voice, a little defensiveness of her own. “I know you are doing your best, and you know that, but parents can be triggered by anything that sounds religious. We just need to be careful, can you not use the word meditation or yoga? Can we call it stretch and breathe time?”

I nodded, and she left, relieved I am sure to have that conversation over with. Mind you, this was 20 years ago, and I am happy to hear the word meditation and mindfulness as regular vocabulary in many classrooms, and in fact throughout our culture now.

And yet, I talk to so many people who say, ”Oh, I should do yoga”, or ”really, you teach yoga?” (with a glance down my body- clearly not a dancer body and probably considered too old to be a yoga teacher), or “I just can’t do that contortion stuff.”

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

And yet, this woman above, is in a yogic posture. But, you say, she’s just standing there!

Exactly! The word ’yoga’ is an ancient Indian sanskrit word with multiple meanings. The definition we hear the most in the west is union- of breath, movement, intention. On the same continent, nearly 5,000 years ago, the esteemed Yellow Emperor of China recorded the use of qi gong— a union of breath, purposeful movement and focused intention to create healing in the internal systems. So many ancient peoples recorded, shared and used similar methods to align body, mind and heart, and many were recorded meticulously — we have the benefit of those records, and use many of those methods today. While yoga, Ayurveda, qi gong, wu-shu and others have a rich and varied history, things got watered down for the average American.

In the West, we love ’a brand’, and teachers and studios want to create a living doing something they love, so a simple way of teaching/learning yoga movement is shared, eager yoginis do a month of learning this fairly simple ’routine’, then start teaching ‘yoga’. That was me 20 years ago, training in gym yoga briefly, then teaching at a local gym. No one asked to see my credentials, (I didn’t have any) no one asked if I had training in anatomy, physiology, safe movement for ligaments and tendons— it was yoga, yoga is good for everything, and the active Vinyasa flow yoga I shared was all I knew.

All the people who came to my class had injured shoulders, tight necks, low back pain— and all I knew was the circular up and down movement of Sun Salutations, which we did over and over. Then a few floor asanas, and lay down for Savasana rest.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Some in my class complained of more pain. Some came a few times and didn’t return. I never talked about mindfulness, of deep body awareness, of tuning in to what is floating around in your head or heart. We never just stood. And felt our feet on the earth.

Now I know there are plenty of wonderful yoga teachers who teach Vinyasa style flow yoga or ’yang’ yoga, with mindful intention, but I have a sneaking feeling based on classes I have taken or others have described, that mindless yoga, or— ‘general yoga’ I saw in a class schedule, whatever that is— are still happening, even with the cultural focus of presence, mindful awareness.

Yoga isn’t exercise. Yoga is meditation in action. My question during a practice might be; how can I connect more deeply with my own body sensation? Can I rest and breathe, really feel without thinking or judging? How can I connect more deeply and listen to my own heart? Can I notice where fear resides in my body, what it feels like?Can I watch thoughts, feelings, opinions, judgements float across the sky of my mind and not get snagged by them? Stay in the movement of the breath as I come to the edge of resistance? Can I ask my sweet body what is wants? What is needed for more connection, health, wellbeing?

You may notice that all of that compassionate curiosity can happen on a neighborhood walk, while cooking dinner, drinking water, rocking a child. You are right. We can all do yoga everyday in small ways throughout our days, or we can go to a gym or studio, but whatever our choice, please, let’s not make this a ’oh, I need to do that,” or ”I know my chiropractor said I should do yoga’, can we agree to drop the judgement, the guilt, the self blame?

Instead, let’s find a union of focused breath— breathing in, I know I am breathing in— breathing out, I am grateful for my breath. Mindful intention, encouraging our spinning minds to rest on the sensation of the body, and slow easy movements that we bring all our focused attention, and intention. And love. First to ourselves, so we have enough for others.

Can we hold space for ourselves? And when ego mind churns things up, as it will, can we question those judgements, opinions, reactions with a little light heartedness?

It takes a mindful teacher to create a mindful class. A teacher who tunes in themselves with honesty, grace, stillness. Find those teachers that inspire you, that help open your awareness to our interconnectedness.

Thich Nhat Hanh, beloved Buddhist teacher wrote, “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

May we all be the teachers and students we wish the world was full of; those who tune in, over and over and over to the beat of our hearts, the flow in our brains, the stillness in our bodies. May our classes and our lives be places of gratitude and connection, to ourselves, to each other, to the world.

Dear Breather, This is easier than you think.

It was the first big family gathering for my husband and I in more than 2 years, and I escaped into a quiet hallway to breathe. For a highly sensitive introvert, these breaks from social energy is necessary. It gives me the quiet I need to relax and get back in there. To me, being in a gathering—any gathering— is like entering unmapped energetic river rapids, and sometimes—especially in family groups— I am clinging to the edge of a leaky boat with a broken paddle. 

Families have patterns of reacting and responding to each other that is sometimes predictable, sometimes not. Our families of origin settle into grooves of exchanges with each other, which may be nourishing, or may be injuring, and often it all happens without anyone’s planning— most of it ancient habits, without conscious thought that maybe there is another way. The easiest way for humans to connect is over bitching about something; weather, family, politics. Me too, we say, I think, feel, believe the same! Or maybe I don’t, and that gives us something else to bitch about. 

What if we bonded over sweet memories, loving remembrances, wonderment and joy? 

Maybe Grandma isn’t a bitch, maybe she is just reacting from ancient habits of self protection. Maybe she is saying things not from her heart, but from a deep base of fear or loss, feelings that never integrated, healed. I wonder how much of the patterns of things we say in families are exactly not who we are. 

Or they are. 

We just slide into those old grooves, too fearful of the seemingly gigantic effort it would take to change. And if you have ever confronted a family member with a boundary that you require, like “I know you have called me by this name for my whole life, but I want to be called (new name), and I am asking you to respect me in this way.” We all know there might be backlash in a scenario like this— “What? Your family given name isn’t good enough for you? Who do you think you are?” This is all so exhausting to contemplate, so we just let those ancient family records of speech and behavior play over and over, and then we go home and take a nap.

My favorite brother-in-law, another introvert, caught me in the hall and grinned, “Taking a meditation break?” I laughed, “Yep.” We have chatted about how introverts survive in family groups, and he is right, it always helps to feel you are not alone. I used to avoid gatherings as much as possible, and drink to relax. Now I am hoping to make healthier choices, and when I escape for a quiet moment, I am getting my feet on the ground, letting go of whatever records are playing in my head, and when I have that clarity, stability and strength, i am ready to return to the group. While I used to put up walls to protect myself, now I raise and lower those walls so I can connect with people within my own safe boundaries. So how do you develop the resilience, hope and patience to find that space for yourself and others?

If someone says to me, “Just BREATHE!”, it probably doesn’t calm me down, most likely I get a little pissed off.  I admit, I say this phrase to myself sometimes, in the midst of a stress tornado, as I doom-scroll about the state of the world. If you are like me, a gentle reminder to breathe mindfully maybe helps you slow down and breathe for a minute or so, but does it get you to a place of healing, where you feel the effects days or weeks later?

No?

Patience with a simple practice like mindful breathing goes against everything we’ve been taught— that you can ‘figure it out,’ or just ‘work harder,’ or ‘stay busy,’ or ‘just don’t think about it’, and all those things can certainly keep a mind occupied. Maybe even feel soothing in the moment. 

But they do nothing to heal us. And we—irritable hurting humans that we are, need that healing, now more than ever.

So whadddya say? Ready to start a regular mindful breath practice?

Mental/emotional/spirit hygiene? Just as it wouldn’t do much good to only brush your teeth once a year before you go the dentist, occasional dips into  meditation do some good, but the high stress/PTSD world we live in requires something more. We can’t just ‘not think about it’ when it comes to world as we know it. We swim in a marinade of loss, grief, worry, negativity, and fatalism.

As Einstein so wisely shared, “the thinking that created a problem can’t be the thinking that solves a problem.” A daily meditation practice just might be the thing- no side effects, free, and no tools required. So simple it is easy to dismiss, but powerful.

According to Psychology Today, medical researcher Howard Benson found,  “individuals who practiced regular meditation had changes in 172 genes that regulate everything from inflammation and glucose metabolism to blood pressure and even circadian rhythms.”   

Breathing in a mindful way causes your genes to change. Let that sink in. The New York Times reported on Dr. Kris Streater, a neurobiologist, who ran a daily meditative breath practice study and found, “After 12 weeks of daily yoga and coherent breathing, the subjects’ depressive symptoms significantly decreased and their levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a brain chemical that has calming and anti-anxiety effects, had increased.” 

So a mindful breath practice can change your genes, alter your brain chemistry, build mental and emotional resilience, and promote body and mind healing. 

It can literally save your life.  

I remember a counselor years ago suggesting a daily 15 minute mindful breath practice. I was struggling with depression and anxiety, and hoping to embrace non-pharmaceutical solutions. I was raised in a conservative religion that equated daily individual and family prayer as a measure of  righteousness, so my counselor’s suggestion caused that queasy feeling in my gut, just a tad of ancient shame/blame. When you reject a religion, it’s a tough thing to accept the power of a quiet meditative turning in, and not see it as Me, The Sinner, in Need of Salvation. I realize I may have just alienated readers, so forgive me—and if you are still reading, you may agree that we all find our path to mental, physical and emotional health, in whatever way we can.

 I met with this counselor weekly, we spent a few minutes breathing quietly together. During the meditation, a few times  I snuck a peek at him, to see if he was focused on breathing,  and sure enough, every time I looked up, he always had that still, still way of being, never looking up to see my peeking. I felt a little weird breathing with just one other person in the room, especially when the three ring circus in my head—“Did I lock the car? Where is the duct tape? If the garage was clean, I’d know where the duct tape was….Oh, geez, there I go again. I am a terrible meditator. Why am I here?” 

And so on and so on, so loud in my head I was afraid my counselor could hear all that racket. No still mind for me, and my body was having a hard time sitting still as well. Finally, after a painful 5 minutes, he looked up, and smiled, “Don’t worry if it seems difficult at first, everyone struggles with still meditation, that’s why there are so many guided voice and music meditations out there. This simple practice, as you increase the time each week, does more for the healing of your mind and nervous system than a bucketful of pills. Just keep turning your attention to your breath, to the center of your gut, to sensation. Trust me.” 

I wanted to trust him, but it felt really impossible.

He asked me a few questions about my week,  listened to my grievances, and as our time was up, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “no music, no candles, no incense—just focus on your breath, every day. This is the way to bring healing to your mind. You want more peace, right?” 

I nodded, who didn’t want more peace? 

“Ok, then, keep at it. Especially the days you don’t want to.” He opened the door for me, and as I headed down the stairs, I sighed, thinking, I stink at breathing, I can’t even focus  with my therapist breathing with me, how am I supposed to sit still at home with a TV in the room and ice cream in the fridge?”

If you feel like I did; that to just sit and do nothing but breathe for any length of time sounds impossible—dear, dear, reader, let me offer 3 tips to make this do-able for anyone, really, absolutely everyone. Including you.

  1. Make friends with your nervous system.

Your survival instincts, that deep instinctual part of you, wants patterns. Craves them! It demands that basically, when you are living in stress, (every day now) you keep to the same patterns all the time— less threat that way. It’s that—devil that you know is better than the devil that you don’t—mindset. In fact, as you read this, you may already have entertained a dozen thoughts of why a breath practice doesn’t work for you. Be kind to yourself, and remember, that’s your stress response talking.

Anything new, even  a healthy habit, will kick up a feeling of threat. When it does, you will feel a bit panicky, you might think—“Oh  God no, I can’t start up something else! I am so busy now, how can I? I don’t have enough (time, money, ability—fill in the blank) to do this!”

 Then we go back to our daily habits of coffee, insta-scrolling, getting booked and busy with stuff— and forget all about the breathing. The stress response quiets down, because our survival brain doesn’t give a fig about  long term health and wellbeing, it only cares that you survive the next heart beat. 

So, take a deep breath, slowly exhale, try a little acupressure to calm your nervous system. Cup one hand’s fingers around your ear, touching the sides of your head, allow your pinkie finger to rest at your temple, maybe your thumb is under your ear along your neck or jaw line. You are touching acupressure points to calm the stress response. Bring your other thumb, first, and second fingers together in a triad, and gently touch the notch at the center of your throat, where your collarbones meet. Breathe for 1-3 minutes in this gentle acupressure hold, all designed to calm your brain. Relax your hands, notice how you feel.

 If thoughts are still racing, use all four fingers of each hand to tap on your cheekbones, just under your eyes, breathe, then just below your collarbones on your upper chest, keep breathing, as you tap down your sides, all the way down the sides of your thighs. Notice if your stress feels lessened. Rub your palms together, and place your warm palms over your eyes, fingers gently resting on your forehead, thumbs at your temples, breathe, and try to keep those stressed thoughts in your brain. Chances are, as blood is attracted by your hands to your forebrain, energy to the survival brain will continue to melt away. Then, when you start to feel a bit more relaxed, commit to a daily breath practice. Be your own cheerleader. You got this!

2. Baby step it.

Habit stacking is adding a new habit into an already existing habit, to make it more acceptable and easier to integrate. Stretch a new habit too far by taking a giant step, like an unreachable, “I will meditate 3 hours a day, every day!” is destined to fail. The ego wants to achieve, to succeed, to move on to the next goal. Baby steps, like starting a daily breath practice with 5 minutes a day, maybe just as you sit up in bed each morning, then 10-12 minutes the next week, etc, invites this new habit to become an integral part of life. This slow and steady approach is also making friends with our stress response, helping us to build resilience in the face of difficulty. And difficulty will come, or sickness, or not sleeping well one night, so you decide not to get up and breathe. Remember, the stress response with its instantaneous fight/flight/freeze mechanism, in kahoots with the ego that doesn’t want to fail— are working against us. 

But your health, wellbeing, ease and peace are at stake here. More than ever. And, there is always the opportunity for a fresh start. Five minutes as you sit, spine long, belly soft, eyes softly open, gaze toward the floor, or closed eyes, hands on thighs, or heart or belly- what feels most safe, most grounding to you? 

Once you have an upright posture that works for you, take a deep breath, and let your focus keep returning to the sensations in the body. Find that space between loneliness and boredom, between wishing and wanting, between irritation and fear, and give the gift of spaciousness, grace, healing. It won’t be easy at first, a million thoughts will dive in, but we can have a refreshing attitude of patience,  and treat ourselves with kindness. That brings us to step 3.

3. Make it a ritual.

We are more likely to keep at a habit if we make it special. Whatever that is. You may create a whole altar to help you focus, or you may just sit in the same corner of the room each morning, I do suggest morning mindful breath, before starting up your cellphone or computer to build up your calm and ease before the news of the world takes it away. Maybe have a candle you light, or a cup of tea you sit down with each time. If you have something to focus your gaze, you are more likely to return to the breath and not be distracted. Some practitioners suggest eyes open, to train the mind to be centered in the world, others suggest closing the eyes. 

Sometimes I close my eyes, some times focus on the candle, I pay attention to the state of my thinking when I sit down, notice what might help me to center, and stay grounded. I get a drink of water, stretch a bit, maybe step outside for a big breath of air, then I sit. If I really have trouble returning to the feel of the breath, I might do some yoga or go for a mindful walk. Maybe fewer minutes, just for today. Tomorrow, I will resume my goal. Be kind, be patient. This is subtle but powerful work you are doing. 

As you build this practice, you will find ways to deepen your awareness, and let go of judgement. This is not about getting rid of thoughts, it is about changing our relationship to our thoughts, reactions and feelings.

There is no perfect or right way to mindfully breathe, and remembering that each time you notice your wandering mind has gone off again, and with gentle patience return your focus to your breath, feeling the rise and fall of your body, you are creating healing conditions in your mind, body, and heart.

This resilience training teaches the brain new rhythms, so when we encounter a new rock in the road of life, it isn’t a catastrophe, its just a rock, and we begin to feel, more and more, the ease, peace and space to respond mindfully.  

Thich Nhat Hanh, beloved writer and Buddhist teacher wrote,  “Gather those mindful healing moments drop by drop, building a sea of loving compassion for ourselves, flowing with greater health, vitality, and peace.”

We are in this boat of life together, we can help each other respond to life with grace, breath by breath.

Excuse me, is this kale on my pizza?

I didn’t actually ask the waiter that, because I knew there were would be kale on my pizza.  I ordered it anyway. 

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

So, as I munch a slice of vegan kale mushroom pizza— which tastes better than it sounds, at least it isn’t gluten free—I ponder the strange relationship I have with this tenacious vegetable. 

I kind of hate the 90’s nutritionist who decided this tough, stringy, bitter leaf was a grand way to pump up iron, calcium, fiber, and some other important minerals, like spinach, only better, so the health blogs write— and besides, no one every gets E. coli from kale, do they? 

At one point, my husband ate kale smoothies for days, then got diverticulitis and blamed the kale. You know, that logic where A, and B, so therefore C. Now he says he is preserving the health of his gut by avoiding kale, unless I sneak it in without him knowing. I do, because, well, green stuff.

Sometimes I love it, eating bowls of massaged kale leaves with gusto, or polishing off an expensive bag of kale chips smothered in ground sunflower seeds, oil, and salt. Yum. I throw a handful in a nice minestrone, and sometimes green up our morning smoothies with a leaf or two. And, order in up on pizza. Not bad, actually, crispy.

The only vegetable that grows with stubborn resilience in my tiny potted garden is, you guessed it, kale. I think there may be a plant or two out there that is older than my dog. I just keep yanking off leaves and the ever present kale pops out another leaf, no matter how many slugs or birds yank chunks away. I wonder if kale will be the post apocalyptic veg of choice. Little ground roasted cockroach on your artisanal kale chips, my dear?

I searched kale recipes on Elephant Journal, and the most popular did not include the word kale until the end — starting with the words ‘vegan’ and ‘kale’ is death to a recipe apparently. It’s like a nice mom offering you an ugly casserole, with a shrug saying, “Well, at least it’s healthy!” The most popular recipes start with the word, “Delicious” and “Quinoa”. That made my husband laugh— “Really?” He shook his head, “How can anyone use the word delicious and kale in the same breath? Is that like saying “Arnold Schwarzennegar” and ‘tender” in the same sentence?” 

Sorry, I shuddered a little bit too. Back to kale.

Indulging in a $7 dollar bag of kale chips hurts my heart, so I have decided to give making my own kale chips a try. I buy a bunch of organic kale at the neighborhood co op, since I only have about 10 holey leaves out in my winter garden. I pick up bulk sunflower seeds, almond meal, olive oil, garlic and salt. That’s it. Massage those leaves with all the strength I can muster,  dust with the seeds, nuts, garlic, salt, (grind up the seeds with the garlic and salt) roast 40 minutes at 325, and voila, chips! Ok, that’s stretching it. Crunchy slightly nutty leaves! Not bad. And I only spent about $10.00. Upside, this pan of roasted vegetable matter will last 2-3 days.

 I will eat all of it to protect my husband from diverticulitis. I’m just that kind of gal.

Photo by alleksana on Pexels.com

Go gentle.

The first time I watched the movie, My Octopus Teacher, I admit I made fun of it. Called it—The Octopus Lover— and turned it off. I realize now I was uncomfortable with male gentleness with a marine creature. Instead of investigating my reaction/opinion, and wondering why I felt this way when I watched  obvious and pervasive male tenderness—  I just forgot about it.

Then a friend told me how much she loved the movie, and we watched part of it together. I began to truly see, which is what happens when we approach subjects with openness and willingness to stop cherishing our opinions, no matter how strongly we thought we held those ideas. I found myself mesmerized by the mystery, the beauty, and drama of the relationship between man and animal. 

To feel gentle and tender requires being in awe, wonderment, appreciation, for the transitory nature of things, inviting a sense of soft delight at the events of this moment, and no other.

Photo by Wings Of Freedom on Pexels.com

 To be truly tender, I understand at a deep spiritual level that this event, relationship, person, or animal will not always be here and neither will I. Can I bring this gentleness to myself? Will it change how I see tenderness in others?

Elvis crooned it sweetly, “Love me tender….love me sweet…” What if instead of imagining a thirst trap sexypants man singing, I imagine singing this in the mirror. To myself. About myself. 

Geez. That sounds so weird and silly. 

 I found Elvis and his guitar gently singing online and I stood in front of a mirror, hands on my heart. Swaying, in my slightly off key voice, I sang away. It felt silly at first, uncomfortable, but then, I felt a surprising tingle down my spine, a little tear forming in my eye, lump in my throat, and the sweet slipped down to my bones.

I totally see why all those women in the 60s screamed, sobbed, and tossed panties at Elvis. Tender is powerful.

I pause.

The next singer in the playlist slides into another version and I sway, hugging my sides, feeling self conscious even though I am alone at home— but now also writing so you can see me too, maybe, swaying all alone in my room. I try not to think about that, and instead, I listen, and I notice, every tiny and exquisite detail in the mirror, the curve of my jaw, the deep dimple in my cheek. I see with new eyes, like I have never seen this human before, been here before, and perhaps never will be again. This only a second or two, then the song fades, and I go check the screen, curious about the singer. There are so many renditions of this sweet lullaby, and this songwriter, a bilingual, pansexual activist, recorded this version just five years ago. We still need us some Love Me Tender.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

My friend and I talked about gentleness, about how strange it is to see this in public— what seems such a private thing, something reserved for caring for the very young or the very old. And yet, so many philosophers and poets write about the power and strength required for gentleness, the active cousin of compassion. I looked at poetry on the subject of gentleness, and while there were so many— most of them talked of gentleness toward others. Just when I was about to give up my google search for gentleness for self, there it was, a quote from my beloved writer/teacher Pema Chodron. 

“There’s nothing more important on our spiritual path than developing gentleness to oneself.” – Pema Chodron

Nothing more important. Whew. So how do I develop this tenderness that Pema says is so important? Self love and self care are becoming ubiquitously meaningless online, synonymous with bubble baths and breakfast wine. Maybe we confuse soothing or addictive behaviors with deep care, true gentleness and kindness for ourselves because it makes us uncomfortable. Like me turning away from the gently caressing of man and octopus.

Nothing wrong with a little chocolate ice cream, but the path to spiritual growth, authenticity, and conscious compassion isn’t paved with bubbles—alcoholic or bath variety.

So its about to get real down here. 

If I want to open myself to more gentle tenderness, maybe I investigate how I am not gentle?

I scratch my side while I think about this, and touch a roll of fat above my waist. “Yuck.You should work out more, lazy.” Yep, that was the voice in my head. She could bitch slap the tender right out of you. 

I start wondering how many negative/judgey thoughts zip through my head on a daily basis. I starting keeping track and lost count after about 50 judgey thoughts. That was before lunch.

The voice in my head uses the words—-should, need, must, all the time. Always and never are huge in her vocabulary too. Why can’t you, and You Used to be able to… also fairly constant in her stream. Name calling too. I would be astounded and horrified if this shit stream was out loud to friends and family. 

I realize all of this negative, judgey language colors everything I do and makes real change— real tenderness— beyond my reach. That old nugget, “love all as you love yourself, treat others as you treat yourself” never really got me in the gut. Nice platitude, but really?

I believe Pema— that true love starts with my own dear heart. So if I truly challenge all this negative judging as poison to my soul, body and heart, and demand a new path for myself, I deserve it, so can you.

I can alter the course of my life. So can you.

I can, as Pema says, deepen my spiritual path— and no app, guru or religious structure can do it for me. 

So, I put one hand on the back of my head, cradling it, belovedly, and one palm on my forehead, warm and tender. And I breathe. I imagine the energy flowing through my head, sweeping the nasty voice along in the current, right out to sea. 

And whenever she manages to swim back and whisper mean things in my ear, I will channel a little Elvis, and dance around the living room.

Love me tender

Love me sweet

Never let me go

You have made my life complete

And I love you so.

Love me tender

Love me true

All my dreams fulfill.

For my darling,

I love you.

And I always will.

Coach Lasso and Buddhist Pema Chodron Agree: Be a Goldfish.

In one of the first episodes of Ted Lasso, Coach Lasso takes aside a despondent player —who just missed a great shot—and says, “Do you know what the happiest animal is?” 

The player looks perplexed, “No.” 

Coach says, “The goldfish. Wanna know why?” The player stares at him. Coach smiles, “Cuz goldfish have a ten second memory,” he winks, leans in and pats the player’s shoulder, “Be a goldfish.” The player stands there, nonplussed, but Coach just pats him, and says, “Yah, he’ll get it.” Coach keeps smiling, as he does, throughout, and off this Emmy nominated  series goes, weaving comedy, yearning, kindness and heartbreak in my new favorite show. 

The main character, Ted, is set up to fail. He  is doing an impossible job— asked to coach a B league soccer team in England, when all he has ever coached—or played, for that matter, is American junior college football. He isn’t dull or incompetent, he is bravely making a choice to keep his positive outlook. This is no Pollyanna, this is a brave man that is humiliated publicly over and over and over, who could easily  slide into murderous mayhem and we might have expected his snap to violence. It doesn’t happen, and while you might think this is a recipe for pablum— a boring show about boring, smiley caricatures, it grows on you slowly, choice by brave choice. 

In Ted Lasso’s hate filled world, he resists— not with stubbornness, meanness or by reigning down revenge (like one character does), he resists with kindness. To himself, to others, friends and enemies. Ted shows the real toll this ever-present-kindness-in-the- face -of-hate takes on his soul. We see just how deep his bravery goes, and how much he must find  the support of others to keep navigating the raging rivers of his world where all the rocks are stacked in his path and his oar is broken.  Be a goldfish, the same player later tells others. Those words caught me, maybe they will catch you.

Photo by Khoa Vu00f5 on Pexels.com

Life right now seems like an impossible job IRL. I am so bone tired, how are you holding up? Tired of wishing everyone would just do the kind thing, say the kind thing, get together and stop hating and judging? Whew. Life now in the second half of 2021 is an angry river, and with this second wave or twelfth wave of Covid, who can keep track anymore, we need help, support, a kind shoulder to lean on. How do we navigate this mean, angry world and find joy? Hope? Peace? Are those still a thing?

The quiet news is— what Resistance fighters in WWII knew, that every activist against hate and division throughout history knows, is this;  we are more resilient than we know. Let that deep historical truth sink into your bones.

They whisper to us; we were born for this time, and the resilience and kindness we can stitch together will be, can be, must be— powerful. 

Please forgive my not giving credit, a wise writer wrote that kindness is an act of resistance. So how do we ‘be like that goldfish’, when everything around us is shit that hit the fan and just keeps flying,  and it gets shittier every day? We are all living in 24/7 fight or flight mode, our stress responding sympathetic nervous system on high alert. We may look like we are moving through our lives with some degree of normalcy, but maybe we find ourselves multitasking into brain oblivion, tossing and turning at night, healthy habits becoming obsessive, we might snap at our kids out of the blue, scroll Instagram/YouTube/Tiktok  for hours, or maybe just never put the phone down, sharing dog dancing videos late into the night, (this is sounding very personal isn’t it?) A little forgiveness for me and you, please. 

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We participate in whatever addictive patterns help us not deal with life, because our survival brain says so. When we are stressed, we can’t help but listen to this ancient animal brain; it has been doing that survival thing for millenia. It takes a commitment to be a goldfish, to let go, and let go, and let go again. It takes a determination to come back to what Pema Chodron, American Buddhist leader and author writes, is our warrior commitment. She writes, 

  “It is only to the degree that we become willing to face our own feelings that we can really help others. So we make a commitment that for the rest of our lives, we’ll train in freeing ourselves form the tyranny of our own reactivity, our own survival mechanisms, our own propensities to be hooked.” 

So if I acknowledge my many triggers, stay present with my own discomfort, return to my commitment to my values, develops my friendliness toward myself. No judging, I just keep pivoting like the wise goldfish, breathing big bubbles, and letting go. 

What I do want to remember is that humans developed a fabulous frontal brain/the prefrontal cortex designed for insight, creativity, compassion, resilience, confidence, and hope. Bring your fingers to your forehead, gently rest there. Know that this is the human brain that built Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, add your favorite activist to the list. Awareness is the first step! I want my thinking brain, full of compassion, creativity, and drive to be in charge.

Our stress response brain has a negativity bias. Its a survival instinct, with a good intention, to remember the bad things that happen so we can respond differently, but we are charting new scary waters every day, aren’t we? Raise your hand if you survived a global pandemic at some other time in your life? Global climate crisis? Anyone?

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Ok, so instead of flapping fins in place, gasping and twirling in the murky deep, if I can choose to breathe, return to my vision, my values, resist the urge to hang out in the muddy waters of blame, shame, victimhood, and ask myself a question or two about what I am actually feeling.  “Thanks for asking, I’m feeling desperate because the world is ending!” 

Next question for my inner self; “Is that absolutely true?” 

A pause. 

Let my own sweet goodness deeply assess my feelings; finding fears, sadness, grief, anger, a little shame hiding down there. Ok. 

Pema writes, that we will be triggered again, we will fall into self judgement and anger  again, but we can bring awareness to that with these simple goldfishey steps:

1. Come into the present. Quick and gentle, notice what’s happening with you right now. Avoid the narrative if possible, rest in sensation.

2. Hands to your heart, for a little self care, coming home, take a lovely big breath and lift your eyebrows (try it, see what happens). This simple movement quickly brings us out of survival brain, rests our fears for a moment. It is a moment of acceptance. We can’t love what we don’t first accept and respect.

3. Maybe saying words in your mind to deepen that acceptance, “This is my experience right now, and it is okay. I am safe, in this moment.” Breathe. 

We can swim into clear waters of our authentic, true, selves where we don’t have to create or maintain empathy, it just naturally lives there. In the water. Where we are all goldfish, breathing together, choosing to keep swimming, to pivot in our swim, letting go of our attachment to The Yuck, every 10 seconds or so, remembering that we are swirling around in the reverie and ecstasy of our own loving warrior lives.

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