Thaw Out!

Our lives are predicated on choice. The freedom to choose just about anything is truly our blessed right, however we are so often enslaved to the process of deciding, and caught up in there being a hierarchy amongst the potential answers—the best, the worst, the mediocre—that the liberation bit gets lost.

What adds to the trickiness is that embedded in this hierarchy, and pounded into us from early on, is not only the best/worst classification, but too, and even more problematic, the right/wrong one. In mathematics, this is true; there is one right answer, one right choice. Yet when it comes to life decisions, like where to live, where to work, whom to date, where to raise children, how to nourish our whole selves, the right/wrong, black/white thing is pretty unreasonable, or more pointedly pretty artificial. We grow so afraid of choosing “wrongly” that we go crazy in the process, presuming that we are potentially on the brink of ruining our lives.

I have notoriously struggled with making decisions. When I was living at Zen center so many years ago, there came a time at the end of the practice period where I had to decide if I was going to continue my leave of absence by staying on, or go back to school. I agonized. I lost sleep. I had formal and informal meetings with Norman Fischer, the abbot and leader of the practice period at the time. He even gave me a Japanese calligraphy of the word Decision, as he had been made so intimately privy to my struggle. You know what I ended up doing? Neither, but that’s another story.

What was once deep agony has with practice been downgraded to moderate stress, which obviously still stirs the pot. A couple months ago, I got anxious in deciding which multi-vitamin to take. I chose one that in my mind sounded really great, pure, and was food-based, so was by far, I convinced myself, the most fantastic of the bunch. Well, I took it and had a horrible allergic reaction. And for one or two days I got really upset with myself for my choice. Why did I do it, if I had only chosen differently, you get the drift. I mean, seriously, how was I supposed to know? The main thing, when we make one not-so-fortuitous decision, is to absorb it, drop our fear, and of course act wiser when food-based is an option in the next supplement showdown.

There is also the sense with decisions, that someone, anyone, everyone out there, knows better than we do, as if they were the ultimate experts on us. It’s silly, honestly. But if you have a hard time deciding like I do, let me be the first to tell you, you truly are your own supreme expert. You truly do know what is the best choice for you. You just have to give yourself a chance to be quiet, and intuit out what feels true, not from a reactionary frenzied wild place, but from a deep delicious in-touch place.

Here’s my final plea: How about you set as your base intention taking the pressure off of making decisions, and let yourself be guided more organically instead, so that the next time you freeze in the cereal aisle, you smile and know it is symptomatic of being frozen about the bigger forks in the road. You smile too because you know that this classic moment is the perfect clue—and cue—for you to seriously thaw out and relax.

In 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

Slow Down!

We all know how exhausted, burnt out, and depleted we feel when we do too much, too quickly. What would our days look like if were we to slow down, not once in a while, but more consistently and just plain more often?

This doesn’t mean making our lives less exciting. It does however mean that we actually show up for them. It also means we take time to smell the proverbial roses, to taste our food, to listen to our partners and children, and to absorb what is happening when it is happening, and not in the play-by-play later that night or the next morning.

I would of course love us all to take naps, lie over yoga bolsters, and sip nourishing mineral broths every day. But hey, I’m also a realist. It historically has taken me feeling pretty lousy to make this triad mandatory, and your go-to remedies for mellowing out are probably different than mine. Still, dare I say I am improving? I’m catching myself a little quicker within the dizzying spiral of depletion. I also have my arsenal of things to do—see above—plus a few others up my sleeve to put into play right away.

What’s in your toolkit when you are burnt out? What helps you slow down?

We should probably first figure out if you believe in the spirit of slow—not lazy, stupid, or behind like the word has sadly come to imply—but rather deep, present, aware, and sound. It’s not like slow hasn’t already caught on. There are after all slow movements everywhere: Slow food! Slow love!

Still, the heart of living slow for me is most winningly embodied by slow dance. Picture it: You hold your partner close, maybe rest your head on their shoulder, wrap your arms around them or keep your hand on their low back or hip, whisper a little, and act intimate and loving.

Imagine holding your overtaxed body with that same sentiment! Imagine giving yourself that much care! Here’s what I propose: Swap out dance for down, and with the lights dimmed, make a point to weave slow downs into your life, better yet, into your every day.

Not only is slowing down restful, restorative, and recharging. It is VITAL. And, it feels really good to boot. Slow downs also prep you for the high tempo, crazy fast, fluorescent and pumping number that is surely cued up as the very next song in your life.

I can’t help but think of Bob Marley’s “Turn Your Lights Down,” a classic love song but also perfect to sing to ourselves to get us in the slow down mood: ‘Turn your lights down low, and a pull your window curtains.’ He tells us oh so softly, come on, quiet down, get slow. It’s not only super seductive, it is super necessary to our wellbeing.

True, we want our bodies to rock it for us 24-7. But how about we slow down, hold them steady, and let them and our wild minds chill out once in a while? Consider it, would you? I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

In slowness,

ML

Staying Put

How, when struck by disenchantment, do we keep our spirits up? How can we make room to uncover what the malaise is all about?

Call it what you will–demoralization, discomfort, disillusionment, or unease—but the sentiment of disenchantment is essentially one of UGGH. That’s the quality at least, especially when we want to scream it. This sort of dejectedness is a feeling of being compromised, unsettled, of limping along, nothing sugar coated about it. Whatever the reason for disenchantment’s arrival, everything seems off, vague and out of focus. Everyone else becomes bothersome. There is a sense of lag, the days and minutes utterly devoid of verve or jubilation. The miserable disappointment of this strangeness also makes it easy for challenging auxiliary emotions to cluster around it. Anxiety, stress, anger, despair, and frustration glom on and spiral up.

The past month has been rife with disenchantment. From the end of February until now, I have had pinkeye, laryngitis, a stomach bug, the flu, post-infectious inflammation of the eyes, swollen glands, a sore throat, and allergies; and my eyes still aren’t quite back to normal. Needless to say, I have felt incredibly derailed at moments, in bleak limbo and out of sorts, my mood anything but smooth, as I’ve waited for my body to heal. I have even had a couple of sleepless pockets where my disillusionment was so gnarled and potent, like the dry rocks in my infected eyes, that I wanted to give up. But give up on what, I asked one night?

From the instant this question arose, my bleary heart lifted, and a series of more profound questions dawned: Might I treat this terrible discombobulation as a verging moment of growth? Might I dig beneath the discomfort of my body and mind’s woes and tune into something deeper?

Quickly, I got out of bed, and went to my meditation cushion. Instead of resisting my disenchantment, I plunged into it. I sat right in the middle of all its grossness. I abandoned my whining aversion. I simply stayed put. What I came to understand is that for all of March I had been given one chance after the next to slow down, go inside, and connect with a subtler intelligence. My emotional malady had in fact created wonderful opportunity for quiet exploration.

The trouble with emotions however, is that when things get rough, we always so immediately want to feel differently than we do. How fast we run from our raucous discontent! Our wild minds behave like crabs, scampering sideways across the arid sand, on frenzied irritable legs, desperate for escape. Yet the hardest, most valuable practice is to not dart off. Existing peacefully in the thick of the ugly, weird, and intolerable gunk, and letting our minds move freely from our need to react—this is the real work.

When we choose to pay attention to all this action, and to not riot against our ills, our astonishingly malleable minds change dismay into spaciousness. Here, within these very intimate places of breath and observation, the infinitesimal calendar turns. Resistance drains. Malaise breaks up. The disabling dis- falls off, and enchantment is revealed.

Spiraling In

Who doesn’t get anxious when they feel out of control?

Recently my old email address was infected with a spam virus, where unbeknownst to me an embarrassing advertisement was sent out from my account in the middle of the night.

When I realized what had happened I felt incredibly helpless, like I had no control. I knew I had a crucial choice to make: to stress or not to stress. But stress is tough and sly. Sadly, most of us have come to believe that it is inevitable. We get spun out, too often and too easily. More and more we exist completely withdrawn from the possibility of living in quiet buoyancy.

In this instance though, I decided not to engage the stress. Instead of spinning out, I spiraled in.

Spiraling in when something unfortunate happens doesn’t mean being passive, or not responding. It simply means not reacting. Instead, we go to where we are staunchly rooted in ourselves. Calm, present, unperturbed. This gives us the space to respond with grace in lieu of reacting rashly, to our detriment.

It also saves our bodies the strain of a stress reaction–shoulders tightening, breath stiffening, face flushing–and our nervous systems from getting jarred. The more we cultivate this inward movement, the less stress is on speed dial. We can actually pause to think about whether we want to call up this aggression, and be overtaken by such insidious suffering.

Picture yourself sitting under an apple tree, filled with lush bursting bright red apples. But, these apples aren’t a friendly or nourishing kind. They are each composed of a visceral negative feeling. Now, imagine yourself being rushed with that very first sense of being out of control and the immediate desire to reflexively grab hold of some kind of feeling about it, ranging from mild annoyance to outright rage. Sitting in your garden, you might start reaching frantically for an apple of one kind or another. Not only will these apples expel you from your edenic center, but they will also catapult you into full-blown stress.

Before reaching for a victimized apple, or a nervous, aggravated, irked, or irate one, ask yourself, can you sit this particular apple-grab out? Try taking a minute to breathe beneath that tree. Feel the breeze, and the ground where you’re sitting. Spiral in. Absorb the expanse of fresh verdant grass around you. Experience the absence of need.

Buddhism calls this non-reaching, non-attachment; I call it, a blessing.

The next time you feel out of control, don’t attach. Just sit for a while. Smile even. Then go ahead. Act clearly and deliberately. Do what you need to do. You’ll be surprised. It should feel pretty wonderful.

Touching Stillness

Who doesn’t need to calm down? We are all so wound up. We are becoming increasingly engulfed by and washed away in our stress. Because of this, there is also a deep cultural plea for learning to slow down and unwind from the incessant and punishing pace of our lives.

Still, most of the time, it feels incredibly hard to access any inkling of a state of calm, and this assumed difficulty means that most of us have given calm up for impossible. We simply don’t know how to make the space for another way of being.

No matter how hectic your life is, there are accessible moments in every day to tap into a place of soft and imperturbable peace. The conflict is that we often think of this state of peacefulness as a treasure residing somewhere outside of ourselves, which requires archaic maps and circuitous routes to reach, or designated vacation time. But the most profound oases of stillness are within you.

First, we must open to the idea that we are all filled with an innate quiet, one that we can touch, if and when we give ourselves a sliver of a window to experience it.

Try this: Very first thing in the morning, when you are still suspended between sleep and wakefulness, can you focus solely on breathing into your abdomen once or twice, and feel yourself riding on that lull, before letting your eyes softly open? Can you simply acknowledge the peace that is inherent to that experience? Before the crushing stresses, plans, burdens, duties, and your necessary coffee become fixations upon which the mind seizes?

It doesn’t mean you will have less time to check emails, shower or exercise, make breakfast for your kids or make your morning meeting. It does however mean that you have given yourself a precious pocket of calm that can be conjured during the rest of the day. To have that single point of quiet to refer back to is in itself a huge step.

Though it may seem absurd, it is through this sort of minute and precise adjustment that life begins to change. You will also start to notice other tiny opportunities in your day to take mindful pause, and to re-experience your inner peace. When you begin to allow yourself to do this practice daily, and to honor your personal stillness, the quality of each day will grow.

You will be filled with a deeper sense of everything being OK. Because isn’t that really what we are all so stressed about? The fear that if we don’t act, don’t rush, don’t move, don’t work harder, things won’t be all right? Touching stillness merely reminds you that no matter what, you are always, truly OK.