Rewriting The Story of More

This month I had to choose between my life and my livelihood.

The details don’t matter anymore, but in the end I had to choose between keeping a job that would require me to work 50 to 60 hours a week or losing that job.

I chose my life over my livelihood because if I fast-forward 40 years and ask my 80-year-old self which choice I should have made, I know the 80-year-old me will put more value on the hours I spent with my loved ones than the hours I spent making money.

The hard part wasn’t making my decision. The hard part was standing up and saying no to a society that routinely asks us to choose making a living over living our life; that gives greater weight to money and things than it does our health, our families, and our well-being; that values how we look over how we are, how we function over how we feel, and insinuates that those should be our values as well by praising us when we spend more, buy more, do more, achieve more, and subscribe to The Story of More.

We’re told this story our whole lives and often don’t realize we are fully capable of writing our own story and our own happy ending.

The Story of More undercuts our inherent enoughness. It tells us we are empty without more. More things, more activities, more money. It’s not enough to have enough. We must have more than enough. When we buy into The Story of More we slowly lose touch with our true needs because we are up to our heads in our wants.

I ask myself and I ask you, how much is enough? If commercials, magazines, and friends didn’t tell us we needed that bigger house, that new car, that better job, that new outfit, would we think we were lacking anything?

After getting to know indigenous people in sync with their habitat, photographer Cristina Mlttermeier distills it down to this:

“If you have clean water, a net full of fish, and a warm fire, that’s basically all people need to be quite content.”

We make a mistake thinking we have a lifetime when the reality is we only have this moment. We only have Now. Hopefully we’ll have 80 years of Now if we’re lucky, but it often happens that we only have 20 years of Now or 40 years of Now or even less.

The Story of More keeps gaining momentum and it’s hard not to get swept along with it. I experienced how difficult it is to swim against the stream in my work situation, but how can I teach my son to stand up for what he believes in if I don’t stand up for what I believe in? How can I ask him to walk his talk if I don’t walk my talk? How can I expect him to follow an example I don’t set? If I only stand on principle when it’s convenient how can I say I stand for anything at all?

At some point in our lifetime we will all be asked if we’re ready to walk our talk. The question might come from an employer as mine did or it might come through an illness or loss or some other radical life circumstance that sobers us up to the brevity and fragility of our lives.

I believe if we’re asked the question it’s because we’re ready to answer YES.

If I’m lucky, in 40 years when I look in the mirror at my 80-year-old self we will smile at each other knowing we wrote our own life story one precious moment at a time.

 

Originally published on elephantjournal.

Still.

IMG_2143If I sit very still
(as still as a stone)
I can almost see the growth happening
in me, in the soil around me

as the first green stems push up
un-earthing

Such is growth.
un-earthing what is possible
what is unknown
what is to be

I can almost sense the earth’s rotation
and my rotation
around my heart,
my axis

If I sit alone
(for longer than I like)
I can almost hear my voice
small and uncertain
daring to speak up and break the silence

like a bird’s song at dawn
rousing me from sleep
inviting me to listen
to the silence that follows
to the beat of the universe

If I walk slowly
(as slow as the sun sets)
I can almost hear my blood swishing through my veins
and my heart pumping
thump thump thump
and my breath swooshing
inandout inandout inandout inandout

The symphony of Life
I am the conductor
and I am the spectator

So here I sit very still
(as still as the moon)
watching it all
being it all
allowing it all
remembering it all

So that even when I move
(quicker than I should)
and break the spell
some of the magic lingers

like morning dew
or the smell of rain

proof of what was
and what is
and what will be.

A New Year’s Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lesson in Letting Go

Going up.

Going up.

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

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

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

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

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

Coming down.

Coming down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

view from the top

View from the top.

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

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

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

Originally published on elephantjournal.

The Practice of Remembering

I spend a lot of time focusing my senses on external things. It’s the nature of the mind to think, to get distracted, to stay busy. I often find myself mindlessly clicking through social media with a vague sense that I’m looking for something.

I never find it, whatever I’m looking for. An answer, a connection, a direction, a purpose.

I don’t find it because it’s not out there. It’s in here.

It’s in here, in the deep dark chambers of my heart where love and fear sleep side by side.

garudasanaIt’s in here, buried in my muscles that hug my bones where tissues and issues embrace.

It’s in here, behind my ribs where my inbreath and outbreath dance cheek to cheek.

It’s in here, hiding in the space behind my eyes where seeing gives way to knowing.

It’s in here, in the attic of my soul and the basement of my body.

It’s in here, in my throat that swells with song and wails with weeping.

It’s in here, in my chest that rises in love and bows in gratitude.

It’s in me, the answer I seek, the connection I seek, the company I seek, the purpose I seek.

I don’t have to find it. I have to remember it. When I do everything falls into place. Everything falls into the place it’s always been in, I just become present enough to see it, to stay with it, to appreciate it, to inhabit it.

This is my practice. Remembering.

Wild Things

wild thingIt takes a brave soul to love a wild thing.

A wild animal, a wild heart, a wild spirit… they all require the same courage.

I didn’t start out brave, but I’m ending up brave because loving a wild thing cracks your heart open one day at a time, not all at once. I didn’t decide when I took my first wild thing home, I’m going to love deeper than I’ve ever known. I just committed to owning something. I called it an animal, but really I was committing to owning my own heart.

Yes, I thought I owned my heart before, but not like this. I didn’t realize this 5-pound animal was stretching my heart strings ever so gradually until one day I saw my heart had opened to her more than it had to any human being.

This kind of open I only trusted to an animal because only she could understand the primal rawness of my heart and how I wasn’t as tough as I seemed on the outside.

Getting to know her introduced me to another wild thing I hadn’t met formally, my heart, and taught me that all wild things need the same stuff: to be seen, to be loved, and to be free.

All my wild things have one thing in common. They understand the natural cycle of high and low, rest and intensity, life and death. They need no explanation for my tears, no definition of my mood, no justification of my worth. They are content to just be with me here, one life sitting with another.

I take them for granted, I love them more than I admit, I hold them close, and I will lose them one day. When their cycle of life is over I will find another wild thing to love. Not because they can be replaced, but because that’s what they taught me: how to love and be loved and that it’s the only way to stay truly alive.

This is the cycle of life that all wild things accept. It’s why they are content with just being, why they’re so shamelessly alive and why they forgive so easily.

They know the secret to life: This is it.

Let’s spend it together.

3 Ways to Redefine Your Relationship with Failure

Have you ever heard anyone praise failing?

What a great job you did failing! I wish I could fail like that. Or, I heard you failed, congratulations!

Failure and me have a long and troubled relationship. I keep trying to ditch it and it keeps chasing me. It makes me feel less than and not good enough. It holds me back from trying new things (because I failed the first time) and keeps me from living freely, authentically, and whole-heartedly (because I’m afraid of failing.)

As it turns out, I owe failure an apology. One of those It’s not you, it’s me apologies, because it actually turns out the problem in the relationship is not failure. It’s me.

I know it’s counterintuitive to think failure can help you succeed, but here’s 3 ways to turn your relationship with failure around:

1. Try to fail.

Steve Levitt, professor of economic at the University of Chicago says, “I always tell my students — fail quickly. The quicker you fail the more chances you have to fail at something else before you eventually maybe find the thing that you don’t fail at.”

At first glance it seems Levitt is a posterchild for success. He was listed as one of Time magazine’s “100 People Who Shape Our World” in 2006 and is co-author of the best-selling books Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics. However, in a recent interview on failure he states, “I’ve mostly failed at everything I’ve ever done.”

Failure has a profound and powerful stigma associated with it. Developing a healthy relationship with failure is challenging. What I’m finding is the more I fail the more comfortable I’m getting with it, the less attached I am to the label and the idea that it defines me somehow. By putting myself out there to fail or succeed I’m having to dig deep for that nugget of self-confidence that can withstand both failure and success.

Thanks to Levitt, these days I can’t fail fast enough. What a relief. I get to throw myself into everything I love because I’m actually trying to fail.

2. Do a pre-mortem.

A pre-mortem is like a post-mortem, where a medical examiner figures out what killed a patient, except it’s done before. Before the patient theoretically dies, but for our purposes before your project fails, before your big effort disappoints, before your product falls flat.

Pre-mortem is a phrase coined by Gary Klein, a cognitive psychologist practicing since 1969 who studies decision-making. Klein illustrates this by having listeners envision a hypothetical failure of a six-month effort at the beginning of the project. The project doesn’t just fail, it’s an outright disaster. He then has participants spend two minutes writing down all the reasons this project failed.

By doing this at the beginning of a project we get clarity that hindsight provides before it’s over. Instead of focusing on all the ways our project (yours, mine) is destined to succeed, he’d have us reverse that process and see all the ways it can fail. He calls this “prospective hindsight,” imagining that an event has already occurred, and says it reduces over-confidence, something most of us have too much of at the beginning of a good idea.

Klein asks participants to come up with one thing that would help the project, which drums up helpful ideas that would have never come to the surface otherwise.

Doing a pre-mortem on a company level takes away the fear of individuals not looking like a team player because everyone is being asked to assume failure instead of one person trying to find the courage to speak up. It also reduces the likelihood that a postmortem will have to be done on a failed project.

3. Celebrate failure.

Our economist mentioned above, Steve Levitt, suggests that celebrating failure is the only way to make it acceptable and shift the stigma.

Yes, celebrate as in throw a party. Tell your friends. Post it on Facebook. I failed!

If that’s too much too fast, try exploring the feelings failure draws up for you from a nonjudgemental perspective or making a list of the positives that come from failure, such as an opportunity to improve the next time.

If we allow for Levitt’s concept that “failing gets something out of the way that keeps you from finding the thing that you’re actually going to be good at,” that’s definitely a reason to celebrate if you ask me.

(As a sidenote I failed miserably in trying to publish this article. I submitted it to two major online sites and was rejected by both. Thankfully it helped me revise it about ten times to make it a piece I’m really proud of. Cheers to that!)

3 Steps to Transition Mindfully

the pathWhen going through transition it can sometimes feel like we bring all of our old stuff into a new place. Kind of like moving houses. Our surroundings change, but we don’t.

I often feel resistant to change because it requires me to get uncomfortable. I sort of grin and bear it until I’m through the ickyness and back in my comfort zone.

When I approach change and transitions this way it feels as if I’m trying to walk through a door carrying five bags with me. Cumbersome, difficult, and frustrating. It’s much easier to walk through the door with one bag or no bags.

To truly transition is to “passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another.”

It is to transform.

When I find myself at the doorway of change, internal or external, I ask myself these three questions:

1) Where are you now?

Grounding into the present moment and into our reality, whatever that may be, is essential in order to move forward.

Transitions are uncomfortable, awkward, and make us feel vulnerable. Often all we want to do is get away from the discomfort. Yet sitting with our discomfort is one of the most courageous and transformational steps we can take.

David Whyte simplifies it in his poem Start Close In: “Start close in. Don’t take the second step or the third. Start with the first thing close in, the step you don’t want to take.”

2) What do you need here? 

In a process of transition and change everything is in flux, including you. What serves you here, where you are now, may be very different from what served you a month ago or a year ago. Relationships that nourished you before may be draining now. This is your opportunity to mindfully clean house internally and create space for new opportunities and experiences to take root.

If it’s one of those five bags holding you back from crossing the threshold, leave it behind. If your glass is already overflowing there will be no room for you to receive more.

3) Where do you want to go?

In yoga there’s something called a drishti. It’s a gazing point one focuses on to stay grounded externally and aware internally. Sometimes it’s external, such as focusing on a spot on the ground in tree pose, and sometimes it’s internal. An internal drishti is when we draw our awareness inward so that we aren’t disturbed by external stimuli.

In order to stay balanced when moving in new and unknown directions the focus has to be internal because everything external is changing. Setting a soft focus on where we want to go while staying grounded in our reality enables us to step clearly in the direction of our choice.

Any transition we may be going through is fertile space to transform. Don’t just endure it. Don’t just survive it. Let it transform you. Let it ignite you. Let it deliver you to a new, unexplored place and a new, unexplored you.

The Secret to Staying Free

Rachel's skeleton

the spine

My chiropractor once shared with me that he took part in a study that observed what happened to the bones after a chiropractic adjustment.

What he saw was that 30 minutes after being adjusted the muscles pulled the bones back into their old, incorrect spot. Then 30 minutes later the muscles moved the bones back into the correct position.

It’s as if they were reminded of where they were supposed to be and then the body corrected itself.

This reminded me of what happens through yoga. We go to yoga for a metaphorical adjustment. We intentionally adjust our bodies and minds to realign them and we leave feeling great.

But our ingrained habits and traits are very strong. Yogis call these habits samskaras. They’re like the muscle that pulls what we’ve just aligned back into its old patterning over time.

Years of reacting in a certain way can reach out and grab us just when we think we’ve left them behind for good.

Longtime yoga teacher Christina Sell puts it this way: “One fun (and humbling) thing about growing up is seeing how many times I thought I was changed only to realize what I thought was lasting change was simply a moment of freedom.”

Years of practicing yoga, instituting good habits and cleaning house internally can improve our lives externally so much that we sometimes think we’ve been cured. We’re past whatever it was we wanted to get past. We’re free of whatever it was that had us in its grip.

Life has a way of testing the new-and-improved us to see if we’re really walking our talk. How we respond when life meets our expectations is not as revealing as how we respond when it doesn’t.

The practice of yoga is a unifying one, not one of disunity. Through yoga we begin to unveil the inherent unity of our mind and spirit, of our head and heart, of our body and soul.

It’s not that we create the union, it’s that we become present and still enough to observe what’s already there, thumping in our hearts and rushing through our veins.

We are already whole. We are already complete. We are already free.

The more we remind ourselves how to stay aligned, the easier it is to return there when our samskaras pull us out of alignment. This is how we find the freedom hidden in the most compressed situations and how we maintain that freedom when life becomes challenging and intense.

We keep reminding ourselves. We keep creating healthy samskaras. We keep holding space for our self to grow in, whether that means digging through dirt or blossoming in the sunlight.

When our old habits show up we allow for them, we forgive them, and we learn from them. We bathe in the freedom of being ourselves.

Tap into Your Life Force to Re-Energize

“A yogini is a professional of the interior landscape, an expert conservationist of the vital life force, Prana.” -Tenzin Palmo

Maha Prana, or the “great Prana,” is that vital life force.

I think of it as my raw aliveness.

Many of us first experience Maha Prana on our yoga mats. If you’ve ever been unable to sleep after an intense backbend class, found your body shaking midway through a powerful Vinyasa flow, or experienced a strength you didn’t know you had after holding standing poses longer than you thought possible, that’s the pranic energy flowing through you.

As Tenzin Palmo advises, the longer we practice yoga the better we get at containing, conserving, and managing this magnificent force within us.

Although we often feel great after a yoga practice, in the rest of our lives we might find our energy waxing and waning and seemingly out of our control or feel out of touch with our Prana.

When we reclaim our Prana, we reclaim our life. We tap into that great energy within us and guide it where it is most nourishing, most sustaining, and most beneficial for us and the world we live in.

wind powerMaha Prana can be broken down into 5 principle energetic functions. These are called vayus, which translates to “wind.”

If you think about the power of the literal wind when it’s wild and free versus when it’s contained, funneled or focused, you can start to get an idea how powerful these vayus can be.

Cultivating awareness of these vayus can help us stay in touch with our Prana off our mats and in our lives.

The vayus govern, not only our physical energy, but also our emotional and mental energy. Without getting into too much detail, here is a brief summary of the energetic qualities of each vayu:

  • prana-vayu is a receptive, receiving energy that moves inward, towards the center of the body. Think Inhale.
  • apana-vayu is an energy of elimination that moves downward and outward. Think Exhale.
  • samana-vayu is a unifying energy that moves from our periphery to our core.
  • udana-vayu is an expressive energy that moves upward from the throat.
  • vyana-vayu is a coordinating, connecting energy that integrates the whole body and extends from our core to our periphery.

Getting sensitive to the energy we experience in our bodies allows us to then find ways to redirect energy that’s not serving us or unblock energy that is stuck.

I see these vayus most clearly at work in yoga poses. For example, in Warrior 2 apana-vayu grounds my legs and pelvis while prana-vayu lifts and expands my torso and arms. When I hug into my core I tap into samana-vayu and when my head is balanced on my spine and my eyes softly focused over my fingertips I sense udana-vayu. Through vyana-vayu I feel the energy radiating from my core to my fingertips.

Knowing the names and details of the vayus is not the important thing. Sensing them at work in your body is what matters.

How do certain yoga poses and sequences make you feel and how do they affect your mental and physical energy? How does your body feel when you’re depressed or when you’re joyful? What happens to your breath?

Becoming sensitive but not judgmental is the balance we strive for when stepping into our skin.

I’ve found the sequencing of yoga poses and the quality of my breath has a major effect on my overall energy after my practice and through the rest of my day, sometimes even the rest of my week.

To that end I try to first listen to what my body actually needs on any given day and respect that by choosing a practice that will balance my energetic body as well as my physical body.

Sometimes that means just breathing without additional movement; sometimes that means a strong moving practice; and sometimes that means an evening of restorative yoga. (Two online resources I love for balanced energetic practices are here and here.)

Reclaiming our Prana is not a matter of charging in and demanding it obey us.

Reclaiming our Prana is a matter of stepping into our body with awareness so we can hear the quiet wind that blows through every cell of our being and gracefully and gratefully navigate the river of life that flows through each of us.

 

photo credit: Chuck Coker