Paying Relaxed Attention

The closer I get to birthing another baby, the more drawn I am to the practice of relaxed attention.

But what on earth is relaxed attention?

It means to be fully alert and awake to our present experience, and simultaneously totally at ease in our bodies and minds, and unencumbered by whatever happens to be arising.

Believe me, no small feat!

What I’ve witnessed over and over again in myself, clients, and friends is this sort of overwhelming hyper-vigilance that often descends once we’ve committed to a more mindful way of being. It’s as if we imagine that being conscious, more alert humans also translates as being edgier and tenser than the average bear.

Yet, in my psychic preparation for labor and beyond, I am continually reminding myself to find relaxation in the middle of heightened presence, while I sit, do yoga, and frankly do anything. It may seem sort of off the cuff and obvious now, but when the pain of labor begins, wow will this be the most poignant of tools!

Today, I entreat you, even if things are flowing beautifully, practice relaxing yourself from head to toe in the midst of your intense on-the-ball focus, and consciously melt deeper into gentle ease with each breath.

This sort of softening and receptivity will not in any way dampen your smooth-rolling acuity in the grandest of times, nor will it somehow eclipse your efficiency when things get rougher and tougher. In fact, quiet surrender is essential to the awakened state.

Go out there and see for yourself. Your job description is clear and simple: Inhale in steady relaxed attention, exhale in breezy mindfulness. Now do it, heck, live it again and again and again. Wake up and relax. Stay alert and be chill.

Need I say more?

This is my quintessential labor project. I am now less than five weeks from my due date and only a couple weeks from official maternity leave, so let’s all practice this softened awareness together while we have the chance.

I am so here, so ready, so open. Are you?

In sweet and relaxed attention,

Maggie

Essential Self

How do you fundamentally describe your deepest self, the essence of who you really are? In other words, if you had to distill yourself down to a very select, concentrated, potent, and emphatic group of phrases or adjectives, what would they be?

In my meditation practice over the years, and through my study of the chakras and energy medicine, I now actually have a near life-size drawn diagram of myself with the most accurate-in-this-moment phrases that “characterize” my essential, or what I also call my “being” self. I am not talking about the things that define me to the outside world, i.e. the roles I play or what I do, but rather the far more profound, essential trademarks (or better yet!) birthmarks that make me feel most resonantly me: safe, wise, and utterly capable of intuitively, smoothly, and quite spiritually guiding myself through the maze of my unique existence.

What I am hoping to inspire in you today is a willingness to tap, gaze at, sit with and integrate your own essential you. Interested?

Here’s an exercise that will hopefully get you going, and please if at all possible, keep a journal close by:

1. To begin with, sit quietly, close your eyes, and experience a few cycles of natural breath.

2. Let your breath sink down into your root, and really anchor you.

3. From here, note how you feel, both obviously and more subtly.

4. What adjectives or phrases might you use to qualify this experience of yourself sitting so beautifully and quietly in this moment?

5. Really saturate yourself with the feeling of these essential attributes. Allow for the relief and appreciation that arise from this sense of anchoring yourself in you.

6. Stay in this place for as long as you can. You’ll know when you’re ready to open your eyes and step back into the activities of your day.

Trust that by honoring who you essentially are, you put yourself in profound alignment with the universal flow of spirit and consciousness all around you. Know too that however distanced or blocked off from your essential self you may get, you can always conjure her or him back in a snap! Literally.

Give it a try, would you? Honestly, what have you got to lose, other than all the surface noise and distraction that is so totally genius at keeping you disconnected from and resistant to this mysterious, crazy, sometimes painful, often magical thing called life.

In essential sweetness,

Maggie

4 Steps to Connecting with Spirit

Sometimes in this great wide world, it is hard to keep alive in our minds our connection to spirit. So mired are we in the chaos, the demands, and desires that lay claim to the bulk of our fixative thoughts, that our divinity, yes, our own true sacredness, appears lost.

Let me be one more supportive soul to tell you (and me) that no matter how far away or blunted our lives feel from the emanation and presence of a deeper consciousness and energy, spirit is always at work and play within us. What is blunted is not at all its holy presence, but our trust that it is still or ever there, especially when things feel icky, horrible, stressful beyond imagination, or just so busy we can’t get a breath in edgewise.

This has never felt more extreme than when I was intensely sick in 2007 and 2008. It seems strange now to be writing this, but day after day for those entire two years I felt such a blanket of burden from what my body was going through, and such a profound soul loneliness, that my will to live was basically gone. What’s also uncanny about my illness was that I inaccurately thought that I was being punished, that there must be no divinity at all, when in fact, spirit was doing everything it could, using all its glorious power to get me to actually wake up, pay attention, and to finally heal and transform my life.

Guess what? I eventually, blessedly did.

One great exercise to practice cultivating your connection to spirit can happen before you get out bed in the mornings. This is actually a prime time to connect with your divinity, when you are still not yet fully consumed by the small, limiting, ego-driven mind that embroils us in suffering so much of the time.

1. Stay horizontal, and with your eyes closed, experience yourself breathing in bed. Feel the calming and elemental nature of the rise and fall of your breath. Either out loud or within yourself, send out a soft hello. Literally send out a greeting to the essence of spirit in and around you.

2. Acknowledge—and this has nothing to do with whether you are single or not—that you are not (and in fact) never alone. Appreciate that you can always live supported by, and if you allow yourself to be, guided by the presence of spirit in everything you do.

3. Reinforce your commitment to living as fulfilled and as authentically as you can, without trying to control the journey. In understanding that it is often best to give up the reins, and in putting your trust in something bigger than you, the space is cleared for a much stronger, more outright emergence of spirit.

4. Thank yourself and the spirit within you for the precious time you have initiated at the start of your day. Open your eyes and begin to really wake up, more conscious, more secure, more at ease than is typically the case. Repeat the next morning.

I know there are some mornings where it feels close to impossible to give yourself an extra split second, between alarms going off, kids needing attending to, better yet, sick kids needing attention, and all the strains of what might have happened the night before adding to your urgency about what hasn’t yet gotten done.

But try, just try to give yourself this sweet little sliver a few times a week, and then, perhaps this pattern will stick. Perhaps it will become the norm, where this quiet, simple connection to the divine marks the beginning of a long, deep, slow, and beautifully unfolding interior relationship.

In sweetness and spirit,

ML

The Quiet Inside

There’s nothing quite like getting sick, and being forced to rest with a capital R, to remind us of the power of quiet. I am coming off 10 days of this exactly, sparked by—thanks to my two sick kids—an intensely sore throat, massive congestion, and a full-fledged bout of laryngitis.

But, and believe me when I tell you how much I loathe being sick, this taking to my bed has been a blessing. Besides seizing every possible opportunity to nap, I’ve also spent a great deal of time staring out the window at the trees in the park outside, experiencing the whimsy of each singular breath, and steeping myself in hour upon hour of lovely quiet.

When we pay attention, the magic of imposed quiet is that what is happening in the external world begins to deeply impact and shape our willingness and ability to tune into the infinite silence of our internal worlds. In other words, getting quiet on the outside enables us to experience the meaty depths of the quiet inside.

This might sound weird or even threatening, and this is so totally understandable given the fast-paced high-volume tempo of our modern lives. At first stepping inside quiet might indeed prove uncomfortable, with our wild minds scampering for anything to drown out the loom and mystery of what lies beneath the surface.

Yet, once we open to the possibility of living sans iPhone, sans video, sans chatter and barrage, if even for 5 minutes, the peace and sense of knowing that arises is incomparable.

Shall we try it now?

  1. Stop whatever it is you are doing. Unplug, turn off, and disconnect all the noisemakers in your immediate distracting world. Now close your eyes.
  2. Take a moment to connect with your breath. Notice it. Whether shallow or slow, simply accept it and allow your observation to draw you into the present moment.
  3. Appreciate this sensation of now, and let your ears accustom to the quiet you have created on the outside. Experience this outer silence.
  4. Let the quiet on the outside enable you to sink deeper into your essential self. Appreciate the quiet and serenity here, within you. Stay for as long as you like.
  5. When you are ready, bring your awareness back to your breath and the subtleties of the room around you. Open your eyes and absorb what’s just happened.

Well? How was it? There’s not much more to say, other than that I am a huge fan of practicing quiet. You’ll be amazed by the questions answered, the malaises put to rest, and the fears that are tamed in this enveloping space.

More than anything, add this simple quieting exercise to your daily toolkit. Awakening to the wonder of silence in you is like hitting the jackpot, and I promise you, a whole lot more valuable.

In sweet quiet,

ML

Making Room for Spiritual Practice

What is spiritual practice? Furthermore, do you have one?

Simply put, I define spiritual practice as something you do every single day that draws you deeper into who you really are, by connecting you with your divine self.

Please don’t be put off by the word spiritual here! Spiritual doesn’t have to entail–though it often does–meditation cushions, prayer beads, chant books, yoga mats, or any other such paraphernalia. A spiritual practice might be baking, gardening, running, knitting, playing piano, painting, hiking, meditating, golfing, doing yoga, tai chi, or calligraphy. It is not so much about the form but about the profound and connective quality of the time spent within it.

The practice part means just that: you do it daily, over and over, not in a gross way, but rather in a this-is-what-makes-me-who-I-am way. Without the aim of ever stopping with it, you practice as contribution to your ever-unfolding life on this earth. It can feel beautiful and compelling, harrowing and agonizing, annoying, vexing, boring as hell, or as ordinary and routine as brushing your teeth. Above all it is your rock, the ultimate placating pillar, steady and reliable as they come.

There have been times when, driven by such desperation, my yoga, pranayama, meditation, and journaling practices served as literal life preservers, day by grueling day. In these pockets, practice translates directly as necessity. In the coasting phases of our lives however, or during the highly celebratory ones, spiritual practice feels as joyous as the spread of a bright authentic smile, or as easy to fall into as a hammock under the stars, in the perfect climate, and between the two most exquisite trees.

This is all great you say, but how do I actually do it? First you have to admit that practice is essential, and something you must do. Next, you must designate, carve out, and stick to the time for it, often letting go of something else in order to keep it alive. Many people find it easiest to maintain practice first thing in the morning. But what does that mean you give up? Sleep? Or is it the extra hour on the computer before bed the night before so that you don’t lose the time in bed? There are choices here. It is up to you.

In short, and for you to take as inspiration or affirmation, here are my top ten benefits of spiritual practice:

  1. It provides clarity in the midst of our overflowing and demanding days.
  2. It cultivates the attention required to complete our tasks.
  3. It lifts our mood.
  4. It creates a sense of steadiness and grounding in change.
  5. It keeps us afloat and even-keeled in even the most riotous emotional storms.
  6. It helps us see our lives on a macro level.
  7. It helps us understand our lives on a micro level.
  8. It draws us into the simplicity of the moment.
  9. It touches us so deeply that without it we would feel lost or downright not right.
  10. It connects us to and reveals true spirit.

Ultimately, we must summon the courage to make room for spiritual practice, and the experiment that it is, as instigator at any given time of peace, elation, chill out, aha, tears, or evocative reflection. We must be willing to face whatever arises within this uncanny vehicle and to touch the sacred in ourselves every precious day.

How do you feel about that?

In sweet practice,

ML

 

 

Let Nature Be Your Teacher

This past weekend my husband and I went up to the Adirondacks, and wow was it magical. The landscape was powerful, beautiful, and gentle all at once. I spent the days staring out a huge window overlooking snowy fir trees and the lake, still not frozen, undulating rhythmically beyond them. I took long morning walks on trails half covered by snow and branches, smelling the pinecones, appreciating the green, stopping along the water, breathing the crisp air, and looking up into that clear open sky.

To be surrounded by such noble largesse at all times, in yoga, sitting, and writing practices even, was inordinately soothing. Over and over, I was reassured by the voluminous presence of those ancient trees of just how small my hang-ups and me actually are.

An old literature mentor used to advise me that when things got really rough to simply look out the window at the wind rustling through the branches of a tree. She felt that this elemental vision was enough to bring anyone back to their roots, or more succinctly, to the root of all living things, namely movement, energy, and pulse.

That tree, those branches, that wind, those leaves are never in great debate over better or worse, or in anguish over their incessant disruption. No, that tree, those branches, that wind, those leaves, are just that, exactly who and what they are meant to be. They are simply their divine, revelatory, real, and unfussy selves.

Whether you are struck by a lone shoot pushing through the cracks in city pavement, the runt tree on your block, the intermittent flow of sweet rain, the seeming forest of the park, the night or early morning sky, or the fallen leaves, please let nature be your teacher and think deliberately on these things:

  • Let nature be a part of your every day.
  • Let nature fill you with joy and overwhelming peace.
  • Let nature mirror your own elemental and affectionate nature.
  • Let nature remind you to accept your own organic shape.
  • Let nature lead you into an authentic expression of you.
  • Let nature always ground you.

Though my husband and I had to say goodbye to all that rugged upstate beauty, I have a new little pinecone sitting on my altar. It harkens from one of those early mornings hikes, and is here as talisman and anchor, to remind me, and hopefully now you, of all these substantial and essential things.

In natural sweetness,

ML

How Do You Relate to Fear?

In a blog I wrote last spring, I described fear as sweet and empty. I still believe that if we look into the face of it, fear has essentially these same qualities, like a wispy, conniving puff. Though it feels hulking when in action, it doesn’t actually maintain the stature of a super tough, body builder type. Instead, fear is more evaporative, disguisable, and smothering, like a crafty magician. Still, fear does one heck of a number on us.

For reasons beyond rationale, I’ve had intense and hefty doses of fear in my life—starting with my terrifying mother, severe teenage acne, unsafe drug experiences, and adult illness followed by post traumatic stress—to the point where I haven’t on multiple occasions wanted to live. When I think back to only a couple of years ago, and my old style of waging mighty wars with fear, just to keep my head above its tormenting waters, it all seems so extreme.

But there really was a time when I virtually couldn’t move, so paralyzed was I with terror. The only way to get through the day was to sit on my meditation cushion, see the body of all my fear, scream and yell at it, quake and sob, sometimes collapse, but sometimes triumph after the fight. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

Today, it’s more like, “Oh hey, I know you. Here you are. You’re back trying to freak me out, make me stop breathing, send me into a loony spin.” Certainly not so gripping, and at least I can say I am learning! I catch myself before I get totally unseated by it. And at the risk of sounding totally boring, meditation, breathing, walking, and yoga practice help an awful lot.

The next time you’re in a scary place, here’s one exercise that helps:

1. Ask, What is making me so afraid right now?

2. Separate out that thing from the feeling of fear. Whatever the thing, put it aside for the moment. It is simply being itself. What’s truly frightening is the fear.

3. Breathe consciously and root into your body. Make room for you to also be separate from the fear. However overwhelming, the fear is not you.

4. Now, look right into the center of the feeling.

5. If you have to yell at it, do. If you can talk to it, do. If you want to write about it, do. Just open up a dialogue and hold your ground. In other words, stay with it.

6. Your bravery actually dissolves the fear. Even if you feel beaten down or shaken up, not shrinking away is really what it takes.

7. Breathe consciously again. Get up, stretch, move. Release whatever dregs are left.

8. Check in with yourself. See how you are feeling. Know that you are OK, and re-enter the world.

Remember, fear is human. It has a place, and will on some level always be a royal drag—or maybe not? Still, just as in any difficult relationship, the more we come to understand its challenges, the less threatening it becomes. Sure fear is superlatively slippery, but it is also flimsy and missing heart, so way less courageous than you. What a relief!

In sweetness,

ML

Beauty of Breath

What’s your relationship to your breath? Do you have one?

There are days that go by when I take about two full breaths. Sound familiar? I have a magnet on my vision board that reminds me to BREATHE and a huge Inhale, Exhale card obviously doing the same. But it’s still not enough. I mean, how many reminders do we need?

We’re basically lazy when it comes to breathing, don’t you think? We are so used to the breath always being with us, that we unequivocally take it for granted. Additionally, we’re often so checked out of our bodies that we actually believe we breathe with our brains.

More than 7 years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, this was made abundantly clear. I had a random and terrifying panic attack. I literally couldn’t find my breath—it was so shallow and constricted—and my mind went crazy searching for it. Only when I dropped out of my head, and re-inhabited my body, did breathing kick in and my lungs soften to receive it.

Seriously, we shouldn’t have to wait around for something acute like this to happen to get us to pay attention to our breathing. If you’re not convinced, here are five of my favorite reasons, and things we can do, to be more conscious of the breath:

1. CLEANSE—Inhale the fresh and the vibrant. Exhale the toxic and the un-necessary.

2. CONDUCT—Send healing breath into sore parts of your body, and help to alleviate physical pain.

3. CALM—Take slow attentive breaths to quiet you down when you are aggravated and on edge.

4. CENTER—With each inhale and exhale, draw inwards and awaken deeper awareness of you.

5. CONNECT—Synchronize body and mind, and link with spirit.

In meditation, we are often encouraged to count our breath. Maybe this sounds incredibly dull to you, like counting sheep to put you to sleep. Yet in my son’s bedtime book, Russell the Sheep, Russell is a sheep who tries desperately hard to fall asleep but he just can’t settle down. He tries counting everything, until he finally decides to count sheep or essentially count on himself. Guess what? It works. Finally, relaxed enough, he dozes off.

Breathing is like this too. When we count our breath, we count on our breath. We discover it is the ticket back to ourselves. The breath both coaches and coaxes us into self-reliance, not only for relaxation into sleeping states, but also for profound letting go in superlatively chaotic and awake states. What a tool!

The beauty of breath is that it is, for most of us, always available. It is after all what makes living in these blessed and temperamental bodies possible, right? So please, if nothing else, honor your breathing. Believe in it. Really value it. Consciously BREATHE.

In sweetness,

ML

Sweetness In Pain

What do you do when it feels like your life is coming undone? How do you handle pain?

Crises happen. When life gets messy, and it most reliably does, it is sometimes harder than hard to keep ourselves upright and unified in the middle of the craziness. Our bodies do weird things. Our brains do even weirder things in response. We get swallowed up by traumas from the past, engulfed by something that has happened, is happening, or that we’re terrified won’t ever stop happening.

Furthermore, the daily mix of worldly and personal woes is endless: kids struggling, marriages exploding, businesses collapsing, people dying, friends hurting, countries starving, contingencies battling, and bodies ailing.

Culturally we are indeed fascinated by suffering, not only because it moves us, but also because it reminds us that we are not alone in our struggles. Though we often skulk away from poignant feelings, we are also drawn to them, as they make us experience deeply our humanity. Still, dealing with the feelings is at times unbearable. We believe they will crush us and that we won’t be able to move through their heaviness, their viscosity.

Life has uncannily provided some serious opportunities for me to re-investigate the wounds from my chaotic childhood. Knowing however that I have a tool kit when stuff starts brewing is huge. The question becomes not how to keep from ever feeling this way—pain is inevitable—but rather how I am in the middle of the pain.

When everything seems to be unhinging, here are the five things I like to do, and that you can, in your own way, do too:

1. LET GO: I drop my resistance and realize that I just don’t have control.

2. ACCEPT: I stop wishing that things were different.

3. EXPRESS: I let everything pour out in my journal, in lists, diagrams, or whatever.

4. SIT: I sit, breathe, and sometimes cry on my meditation cushion, and watch the feelings come.

5. MOVE: I walk, do yoga, dance, or anything to decompress after the thrashing waves break.

As I work through these steps, the intensity of the giant cloud bomb overhead changes. I no longer feel like I am breaking apart. Instead, the bomb itself—of overwhelming feelings that make me want to freeze, hide, wail, give up, escape, die, you name it—is what begins to break up. The emotional threads reveal themselves. Then I can see where I am terrified, mortified, angry, anxious, nervous, or sad. I can even find little slivers of space between the tough stuff.

Rather than falling apart in these moments, we instead crack open, in a wonderfully vulnerable and true way. Please hear this: The cracking is not a terrible thing. From it, we become privy to an indescribable sweetness, yes the sweetness in pain that rises up from our bravery. To taste it though, we must paradoxically look into our suffering, and let the pain play itself out.

Right here is where we meet sweetness and behold the remarkable human spirit. Right here is where our words fail us and the jaw drops in wonder.

In sweetness,

ML

One Mindful Moment

What is all the hype about mindfulness? What does it actually mean? How can we practice it and how does this practice inform and improve our lives?

I like to think of mindfulness, or careful attention, as a process of clarification, where the muddy veil of residual habit lifts off of and separates from the essence of who we are. Sounds great, right? But how to begin? We start with becoming intensely aware of the body. By becoming aware, I mean we recognize through and through the sensations of being embodied here on earth, within these formidable structures of bone, blood, and tissue.

Too often however, our bodies serve as our biggest aggravators, the tethers that bind, disappoint, and make us feel lousy and unsure of ourselves. True, we are a body-conscious society, but this type of consciousness is more fixation than awareness, and has little to do with experiencing the depths of the body as host to the spirit. Here is where mindfulness practice comes in. When we stop and give our astute attention to the body and the breath—and we do this over and over again—we cultivate subtle awareness, and awaken joy.

This is much more difficult than it sounds. Stranger still is that given our cultural preoccupation with body betterment, we so consistently check out of them. In the past 4 months I have had to put on close to 20 pounds to get my body back in balance after more than a year of nursing my second child. There’s been tremendous discomfort in this for me, and many moments when I’ve wanted to jump ship. I’ve also recognized the process as ripe for sitting down, burrowing in, and directing sensitive attention to my body and my breath in the midst of changing shape.

Still, it takes tremendous courage to trust in the resonant calm that paying a different sort of attention, wiser and more endearing, lends itself to. Sitting meditation both hones and is an excellent way to invite this attentiveness in. Yet the beauty of mindfulness is that it can be applied anywhere, to all that is, in every action.

We can mindfully eat an apple, mindfully walk to work, and mindfully wash our hair. In fact, if meditation cushions scare you, the simplest everyday tasks are some of the most reliable places to practice. The sage yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar says, “Consciousness is everywhere in the body…[it] is as long as your body is tall. But awareness is small. …The yogis say that by practicing asanas, you can bring your awareness to an extension equal to that of consciousness. This is total awareness.”  In other words, this practice of body awareness, or mindfulness, can be exercised in yoga postures too, giving all the more credence to mindfulness in motion.

Whether in action or in stillness, mindfulness invites deep acceptance, deep spaciousness and understanding. Through our bodies, we behold with quiet focus the beauty beyond the threadbare patterns of our thoughts. We learn to meet life with less strain, less angst, less resistance. Attentively, we step towards expressing more whole, realized ways of being, one mindful moment at a time.