Presence Under the Tree

Merry Christmas, Dear Friends!

This past year I interviewed for a few different jobs with our school district. During this process, I was given a compliment by my current principal. He told me he’s never seen me rattled. Ever.  

Now, my work as a teacher aide (currently in my fourth year) is admittedly not stressful in that I have no deadlines, no one reporting to me and nothing to bring home at night. However, I am required to wear many hats and be able to change them at the drop of a… you get the picture. This is accomplished surrounded by hundreds of children under the age of ten who are under our care, with the expectation they will be taught the three R’s, along with manners, self-respect and respect for others. Things happen. It’s unpredictable. And it’s loud. But Ron is right. I rarely do get rattled.

My meditation practice has grown since I began two-plus years ago. I have been practicing yoga for over ten years now and have been teaching a little over two. Still a beginner in many ways. I have a morning routine that gets me up at 5:30 during the week and helps me to ease into my day. My meditation practice is a key element of this routine. While this may sound admirable, you must know that many mornings I go through an entire laundry list of what I need to accomplish (usually it IS laundry) when the chime goes off and I realize I did not meditate at all.  

I do not berate myself or judge how “good” my practice was. I accept it as it is. I practice presence. And this is what meditation does. It teaches you not to stop your thoughts, but train your mind to be present and still. It is not easy. The beauty of it is, however, if you practice quieting your mind in silence at 6AM on a cushion with the scent of bergamot diffusing in the air, you will slowly learn to be present and still when it’s 2PM in a classroom full of third graders a half-hour before their Halloween party in a room that smells like, well, third graders.  

This past year, we went on several college tours and trips with our oldest, to North Carolina, Virginia, Washington D.C., Gettysburg, Bethlehem, and Chicago. Yes, next fall we will be sending him off to begin this new chapter of his, and our, lives. Some trips involved the four of us and a few were just he and I. Precious, precious time.  

My goal is to be present. Not nostalgize the past and worry about the future, but be here now. So often I find myself reeling myself in. When I start spinning, thinking about how I will get through the transition of having one less spot at the dinner table, or being fearful of some event in the future, I stop and “return to my cushion.”  

When I find myself rushing, arms full of bags and papers, holding a hot cup of coffee with two fingers while I search for my keys, and feeling like I just can’t…do…one…more…thing, I recognize that I am spinning, that I am not present. I remind myself to notice my breath. I ask myself, “What can I do now?” Then I do it if I can. If I can’t, I can be comforted knowing I am practicing living in a way that is compassionate and accepting. Remember, the only people finished with everything are dead. Truth.

Presence can also be practiced with your interactions with others. Lord knows, we need it now more than ever. We are a culture bombarded with information, texts, tweets, posts, emails and voicemails, all demanding our response. Release the vice grip on your phone, put the internal dialogue aside and focus, really focus on the one you’re with. Listen and respond, whether it’s your first-born who will be leaving your home in a few months, the harried cashier at the grocery store or a seven-year old (who seriously needs a tissue) telling you about her loose tooth.

Be where you are. Wherever you are. Feel the warm water on your hands when you do dishes. Notice the steam rising from your coffee, dancing in thin air. Feel your feet gently touching the Earth when you walk. Feel your feelings, whether they are comfortable or not. Listen to what they are telling you. Slow. Down.

This all takes practice. Sometimes years of it. But keep practicing. Most importantly, be forgiving with yourself when it’s hard.

Pema Chodron, one of my most favorite people, says it best:  

“Being present is not something that happens once and then you achieve it; it’s being awake to the ebb and flow and movement and creation of life, being alive to the process of life itself.”  

I never did get those jobs that I interviewed for, but all is still well. We are all healthy, riding the waves together.

May you receive the gift of presence this Christmas and in the coming year, and may you be awake to its ebb and flow, accepting all as part of your own personal journey.

Peace.

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The Choice

Fear:  defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear these past few weeks. Many agree that the months leading up to last week’s election were centered on it.  Indeed, the candidates were counting on it, leveraging it for their own particular party.  Fear of losing jobs and the right to bear arms from one side, fear of taking steps back for human rights and the environment from the other, just to name a few.

Now that it’s decided who will be leading our country, the fear has unfortunately not subsided.  We are all still consumed by it.  And if you look at your newsfeed, we are all raw, even if our candidate won.  Fear is still winning.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who authored “Death and Dying,” asserts that there are only two primary emotions:  love and fear, “…for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear…We have to make a decision to be in one place or the other. There is no neutrality in this.”

The bible endorses the same idea.  “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” ~1 John 4:18.

One can presume, then, that all emotions can be traced back to either love or fear.  Anger, jealousy, envy, hate all stem from fear, if you dig deeply enough.  

Much of yoga involves working with students around the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.  One of my many goals as an instructor is building awareness of these two systems and increasing students’ abilities to activate the parasympathetic.  The sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” response.  Its purpose is to assist us when we sense danger.  Our blood vessels open, sending much needed blood to the extremities from the center, giving us the adrenalin to flee from the perceived attack.  The heart races and the breath becomes more rapid.  Activating the parasympathetic nervous system brings the blood back to the gut, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and activates the “rest and digest” response.  If you see a cougar on the trail when you are taking a morning jog, the former is helpful and potentially life-saving.  However, when we perceive “danger” in the form of a deadline, too many commitments, too many self-imposed expectations, a family gathering (Hello, Thanksgiving), or even a presidential candidate we do not like, this creates trouble, in our bodies and minds.  

Many of us are, sadly, in a perpetual “fight or flight” state.  Not only is this incredibly detrimental to our physical health, causing disease (and dis-ease), it also necessitates that we react as though anything outside of us is a threat.  If we think we are under attack, we will react accordingly.

In the case of our newsfeed, our words have become our weapons.  And how we wield them is in direct proportion to perceived size of the threat.  Remember, fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous.  That someone or something may not be dangerous until our mind believes it.  So, so many of our brothers and sisters believe they are under attack, that their families are under attack, that their very lives are at stake.  

So what to do?

Practice being a yogi.  I’m not suggesting that touching your toes or sitting cross-legged chanting “Om” will take away your fears.  I’m talking about self-awareness, noticing sensations in the body, and recognizing how emotions and the body are connected.  When you feel threatened, either by words, or ideas, stop and notice where you feel it in the body.  Does your gut tighten?  Does your jaw clench?  Do your hands squeeze into fists?  Begin to notice where you feel the fear.  You may not even be aware that your body is reacting.  Start there.  And breathe into that sensation, where you’re feeling it.  Feel the breath in the belly, allow the jaw to relax, open your hands and feel the breath at the tips of your fingers.  

Next, see if you can tap into what is specifically creating this fear, and recognize that it is probably perceived. It does not need to be a part of you and you have a choice, always, of how you will react to it.  

Consider this:  “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.” ~ Rick Warren

Choose love.  Recognize that we are all afraid.  Of something.  We all want what’s best for ourselves, our children, our families.  Remember that hate and bigotry almost always stem from fear.  When you consider responding to someone whose views are different from yours or offend you, stop and check in.  Choose love.  

Once again, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:  “If you don’t actively choose love, you will find yourself in a place of either fear or one of its component feelings. Every moment offers the choice to choose one or the other. And we must continually make these choices, especially in difficult circumstances when our commitment to love, instead of fear, is challenged.”

This is a challenge, folks.  Our country is being, and no doubt, will continue to be, challenged.  Half of us didn’t want to go in the direction we are going.  But how we rise above this challenge starts with us, in our own hearts, with our ability to recognize our fears and make the choice to respond with love.  

Let Go

let go 2

My dear reader,

I hope this writing finds you happy and healthy, reflecting on the past year with joy and contentment.  If I were to pick  a “theme” for my past year, it would be hard to narrow it down to just one thing, but, one phrase that does stand out is “Let go.”  This can mean a lot of things, and has.

Perhaps this is fresh in my mind due to a yoga retreat I attended in October.  The subject was compassion.  Now, I consider myself a pretty compassionate person, so I figured the weekend would be a breeze.  You know:  do some yoga, meditate, hear some interesting lectures, sleep, eat some good vegetarian food, and come home refreshed.  It was a great weekend, but what I didn’t count on was work.  On myself.  I learned that in order to be compassionate towards others, really compassionate, you must be compassionate towards yourself.  Forgive, drop the negative self-talk, and let go.  Let go of whatever doesn’t serve you fully and bring you joy.

In June, my oldest son left for a three-week life-changing trip to Malawi, Africa, with our church youth group.  He was sixteen.  We were apprehensive.  We knew he was in good hands, but would he be okay?  Would he eat well?  Would he be sad and overwhelmed by what he would experience?  Would he sleep? In the end, he was more than fine, he loved every moment and, despite a few rough weeks of re-adjustment, he has returned to us a more introspective, grateful, open-minded and faith-filled young man.  We can now breathe a sigh of relief.

I have continued to teach yoga (this past June marked my one-year anniversary as an instructor) and, having summers off, I decided to take advantage and teach as much as I could.  However, the timing and location of classes didn’t work out as planned and I ended up scrapping a few, using my extra time to enjoy taking classes instead of teaching them, which, I discovered, helped to make me a better teacher in the end.

I have also continued to develop and nurture a solid meditation practice.  I began meditation in the Spring of 2014 (part of my teaching certification) and have not stopped since.  It has opened a window for me, spiritual and deep.  It is my prayer and my connection with God every day.  But to connect, to allow the stillness to let God in, I’ve had to let go.  Let go of the incessant to-do lists, the “shoulds,” the racing thoughts.

Approaching 50, I’m letting go of a great many other things:  the ability to do the things I used to do physically, my appearance (just who IS that person in the mirror?) and being able to adjust that changing appearance at will, the career I have (or lack of it), the friends I’ve lost (by choice or not), and, heartbreakingly, the knowledge that many people who have influenced my life in so many ways are leaving me, one by one.

As sad as all this sounds, letting go has been incredibly freeing and uplifting, but only because I’ve welcomed it and try very hard to look for the lesson, always.  By letting go of something, you are opening space for something greater.  By having faith in the universe, or God, or Jesus Christ, or whatever you believe, you open yourself up to possibilities greater than yourself.  You give yourself a break.  You let someone (or something) else take over.  You let go.

“Let go of something, somewhere.  Become aware, to touch what lies beneath the surface of the skin.  Is there tension longing for release; a knot of fear so deep and familiar that you believe it’s part of who you are?  Ease into dark corners, locked rooms, unexplored hallways.  Gain entry not by force or will but only by softness.  Enter by wings of breath, and turn the key of self-acceptance to let go of something, somewhere.”  ~ Danna Faulds

Is there something you are holding on to too tightly?  Something longing for release?  We all have something:  anger, perfection, the need for approval, addiction to any number of things, even the pressure of writing an entertaining and inspiring blog post.

Sometimes it’s scary to acknowledge and it can be damn uncomfortable.

Pause.

Soften, slow down, breathe deeply, focus on the breath and the miraculous flow of the inhale and the exhale.

From this place, you begin creating space.  If whatever isn’t serving you is deeply ingrained, it will take practice, patience and persistence.  It’s scary, it’s uncomfortable, and it is work, but the gifts can be immeasurable.

Wishing you all the joys and gifts of the new year, especially the gift of letting go.  May it create a space of love, peace and light within your heart.

Blessings…

Dinner for One

“We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, and private; and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” ~C.S. Lewis.

If you want peace and rest, you need look no further than yourself. All you need for rejuvenation is within. The trick is to be quiet enough to hear.

I was granted the opportunity to spend the past four days completely alone in our home away from home; the cards just fell that way with schedules. I balked at the opportunity at first, mostly because I felt a sense of guilt. Not for leaving my kids or husband, but, sadly, for actually being able to do it. I know it’s something most people can’t have, and it felt so selfish. I thought about inviting a friend for a day or two, but in my heart of hearts I knew solitude was needed.

My days were spent doing various things needed when running a home and getting it back to order after renters: cleaning, rearranging, restocking, and organizing. A labor of love, really.

But I also meditated. I slept (a lot), spent time on the water, did some yoga, rode my bike, watched movies, and read. I ate when I was hungry (one dinner consisted of pretzels and cheese, toll house cookies, and a cold IPA), I moved when I needed to, and stayed put when my body told me to stop. I listened to the rhythm of my body and responded to its needs. I looked back and reflected on what’s brought me here, now. I expressed gratitude.

During this time of quiet, I remembered a sermon delivered by our minister several weeks ago, the topic of which was the importance of a day of rest. The Fourth Commandment, he suggested, is the Rodney Dangerfield of commandments, because it’s the one that most of us, in this crazy, open-24-hour world, tend to ignore: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” His lesson was not chiding, not one of you-must-attend-church-every-Sunday. It was to remind us of the importance of stopping, of reflecting, of being grateful.

For my time away, I brought a stack of old magazines with me from the studio where I teach yoga.  As providence would have it, one of the articles I came across was titled, “The Forgotten Pleasures of a Day of Rest.” Someone is clearly trying to tell me something. The author of the article grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood and her family, although not stringent Jews, observed the Shabbat every Friday. It is a tradition that she still savors, not solely for the religious observance but also the opportunity to stop, slow down, and just be, alone or with family.

Now, I realize, most of us aren’t able to take several days to ourselves (we have had our home for over ten years and this was a first for me), but we can regularly carve out a day or even some finite chunk of time from our busy lives for solitude. It’s that important. And it shouldn’t be something you reserve for your summer vacation, once a year. You need to make me-time a priority, regularly and often.  And no guilt for being “selfish.”

Set a time on your schedule to unplug the phone, step away from the keyboard, and give yourself the gift of reflection. The laundry, the worries, the pressure will be there when you return, but you will be rejuvenated, approaching them from a state of gratitude and energy. Look back and ask, “For what am I grateful this week?” “When did I feel most alive?” Most importantly, create a distinctly separate time for “Being” and “Doing.” Treat it as sacred. Because it is.

The yoga tradition teaches that we are all endowed with our own inner light and inner teacher. We simply need to stop and listen. You can call it God or Jesus or divine spirit or whatever resonates with your heart. The key is to pay full attention. Treat it like a friend. Sit down for coffee and talk. Once a day or once a week. For an hour or for an afternoon. Even ten minutes of paying attention to your own breath will do. Feed, nourish and discover yourself.   Toll House cookies optional.

Pieces of the Puzzle

This past weekend I attended the commencement of my nephew, celebrating with family members I haven’t been able to see in years. The joy was intoxicating (other things were, as well, but I won’t go into that here…).

We attended three separate ceremonies for the occasion, so we undoubtedly heard a number of addresses about endings, beginnings, growing, change, and the swiftness of time.

Rabbi Jeffrey Summit’s benediction really resonated with me, however. In it he compared the graduates, and all of us, to puzzles. He suggested that the people whom we meet along life’s journey, whether for a moment or a lifetime, are the pieces to each of our particular puzzles, that they ultimately create who we are.

According the the dictionary, a puzzle is “a toy, problem, or other contrivance designed to amuse by presenting difficulties to be solved by ingenuity or patient effort.”

Tomorrow I will be turning 49. I am well aware that I would not be the person I am today without those critical puzzle pieces. I’m not sure my life has always been “amusing,” but I can say that “ingenuity and patient effort” have been crucial. 

Some of the pieces of my personal puzzle are rounded and smooth, and are significant to the overall picture, the foreground. They fit easily. Others are jagged, don’t always seem like they’ll fit, and only contribute to the background or the edges.

I am now old enough to be grateful for them all, as well as the ones to come that will complete the picture. I appreciate that they are all critical, foreground and background, smooth or jagged. It’s not always easy, and often frustrating, but I am fully expecting that in the end, my puzzle will be colorful and pleasing to Him and all the pieces that created it. 

Peace.

Speed Limit Zero

Since the weekend before Thanksgiving, I have been battling a virus of some sort which yesterday turned into an infection.  One of the hazards of working in an elementary school, I suppose. In those twenty days, I missed most of Thanksgiving, teaching four yoga classes, practicing yoga, five days of work, two holiday parties, Christmas traditions like sending cards and baking, and spending precious time with my husband, boys (two of whom became sick, as well) and friends.

When someone I know gets sick, my classic response, whether stated or not, is, “Someone is telling you you need to slow down.”  Yeah, I get all pedantic with my bad self.  Funny to hear your own words when your head feels like it’s going to explode. Clearly someone really wanted me to slow down.  As I always do, however, I am trying to find the good, and have had plenty of time to reflect.

I’ve thought about my mom, who, nine years ago, this very day, was in a hospital fighting for her life (she lost less than a week before Christmas) and I was fighting through losing her and getting through the holiday season. I always think of that terrible time when the Christmas carols start playing, mind you, but who doesn’t want their mom when they feel lousy?

I’ve also been thinking about how blessed I am to have people who care, who help and wish me well, to have medical care, and a cozy, clean bed, and books, and movies, and tissues. My Lord, the tissues. And hot toddies.  Mostly, though, I’m grateful because I know I’ll get better.  A sinus infection isn’t terminal, even though when you’re in it, it feels like you will never feel better.  I will eventually get out of bed, get outside, and resume my crazy life.  Some people aren’t so lucky.

It’s funny how things do get pared down when you’re sick. You do only what’s essential. Sleep. Eat. Care for yourself. When simply being able to get a shower and put on clean clothes is a small feat; something you do every day, but, when you’re sick, is a luxury that leaves you feeling grateful.

Maybe I did need to slow down. We all do. The trick is to do it before you get sick. Take time to sleep. Enjoy a meal. Dream. Meditate. Pray. Read a book. Enjoy a luxuriating shower.  Do absolutely nothing. It’s so much more enjoyable when your head doesn’t feel like it’s going to explode. Trust me on this.

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”  ~Mohandas K. Gandhi

Wrestling with Chance

Today Kris left for his freshman year of college.  It was a bittersweet day, and he will be missed.  We had our last meal together last night, his choice of my “famous ribs” (according to my family), and hugs were shared today.

Kris isn’t our son, but a young man we met a little over a year ago.  He moved here from Kenya when he was five years old and started wrestling at an early age as an act of defiance towards his mom, who wouldn’t let him play football.  As a senior, Kris surpassed even his own expectations and ended his high school career as a state qualifier and place winner in wrestling.  He heads to college with a near full scholarship because of his academic and wrestling achievements.

We’ve gotten to know Kris over the past year through, yes, wrestling.  He and my oldest were on the varsity team together, and, always wanting to improve, Kris would come to any and all practices with our boys.  We would pick him up and take him, with never a word from his parents.  Polite and respectful, we didn’t mind.  He started “coaching” our youngest, going to his matches and tournaments with Chip, my husband (some overnight), and coming over for one-on-one practices in our basement.

Then, about a month ago, Chip got a message from Kris: “Mr. G, I need to talk to you about something important.”  Problems at home were making it difficult for him to stay.  Could he move in with us until he started school?  He would work, do whatever, to earn his keep….

For Chip, the decision was instantaneous.  Of course he would move in.  I, however, was a bit more cautious.  What if he gets hurt in our care?  How will we afford to house and feed another boy?  Are we really ready for the enormous responsibility of another person?  What about our kids? I talked to a friend, talked to Chip, talked to the boys, but in the end, I knew I had to do it.  How could I not?  I almost felt as if he was sent to us.

So…Kris became a part of our family a few weeks ago.  He did chores without being asked, he entertained my youngest (not an easy task), he never failed to say “Thank you for the food,” when I prepared a meal.  He always called or texted if he was out, letting us know when he would be home.  And the day before he left, we found our dog, the dog that Kris feared whenever he came over, asleep on the floor by Kris’ bed in the basement.  He truly had become “part of the pack.”

Last night at dinner I said a prayer thanking God for bringing Kris to us, and asking Him to look over him.  Although I am thrilled for him and the opportunities that await him, my heart breaks for him:  a boy who wants nothing to do with his own family, and who leaves for college without a “home” to return to.

I am beyond grateful and in awe of the serendipitous nature of life.  Had Kris not made the rebellious decision to wrestle, years ago, had my husband not been so involved with wrestling, had we not built the basement addition ten years ago which made it so convenient for Kris to stay here, and had Kris not had the courage to make that call, this never would have happened.  Sure, it may have happened to someone else, but it didn’t.  God has a plan and we don’t know what it is until we look back.

And Chip was a part of it.

He made the connection with Kris.  He nurtured the relationship and made him feel like family, enough that Kris had the courage to make that call.  He knew it would work.  He made a difference.  Thanks to him, Kris has a fighting chance, not just to succeed in wrestling, but in life.

Looking back, like everything in life, the events of the past few weeks have been temporary and fleeting.  And what a difference they made.  The increased water bill (Kris, we discovered, really liked showers), the tri-weekly trips to the grocery store – all over.  And look what we’ve gained.  Another “son.”  A person who might now have a chance.  Who feels loved.  Who feels like he belongs.  Somewhere.  We won this match.