Finding my inner compass

I’m writing because writing has been a solace to me for most of my life.  When I feel lost, tired, unmotivated or unsure, I return to the blank canvas of my journal or this blog to understand myself a bit better.

I was studying the Enneagram, an interesting, albeit non-scientific way of assessing how certain personality types regress or progress in terms of their emotional and spiritual growth.  I am a classic 4 with a 3 wing, the title for which is the ‘enthusiast’- a pretty good descriptor of how all-in and passionate I am with the things I love.  They say, and I can attest, that when I’m healthiest as a 4, I gravitate towards 1 behaviours: altruism, discipline, service.  When unhealthy, I get caught up in 2 behaviours: people-pleasing, anticipating, constantly assessing and obsessing. The orientation inwards can cause me great stress because in that place of stewing, I’m no longer present or in my power.  Thankfully, the altruistic and idealistic side of my personality drives me towards service, supporting others and remembering that I am part of a bigger whole.

When I can pull away from the labyrinth of my feelings and set my feet concretely on the earth- through teaching, through showing up in a steady way, my actions line up more and more with my values and I am returned to what is most important.

If I wait for the moment that I feel like doing something, I can wait a very long time.  Feelings come and go. This is why I’m making certain pacts with myself: to limit checking behaviours- like checking how much I weigh everyday (I ditched my Fitbit), while committing to showing up to my movement practice in community at least 3 times a week – not for the gold star, but because these things keep me oriented towards my deepest values while connecting with others.

Through pause, commitment to clarity and perspective – via therapy, mindful movement, journaling and honest self-reflection, I’m endeavouring to create a life that is not based only on external metrics for success.  Being more interested in the process is frustrating and painful, but also deeply illuminating.   I’m asking myself, what am I learning right now in this moment?  What am I leaning into that is forcing me to step up and be clearer in my values or expressing what truly matters to me? What is giving me pause to become a better listener and move through the world with more humility and more awareness of my privilege?

I recently finished Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, We Are the Weather in which he argues for regular self-reflection.  This practice forces you to face all the defences you have for not dealing with reality.  In the book he was advocating for honest self-reflection about the things you CAN do that can make a difference, without having to radically dismantle your life as you know it.  Something as simple as not eating meat until dinner can have a huge impact on future consumption trends, that hugely impacts the planet and the climate.

If this seems a tad reductionist, maybe it is.  Clearly, systems need to change in order to bring about the health and healing that is needed on the planet.  At the same time, we do not have to be passively at the affect of these systems. This process is kind and compassionate straight-talk with yourself, when you clear out the excuses you have for not doing or facing what you must do or face.  As Jean Vanier says in Becoming Human, “We are freed when we begin to put justice, heartfelt relationships, and the service of others and of truth over and above our own needs for love and success or our fears of failure and of relationships.”

I struggle sometimes with how to be brave with my life.  I watched Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, and though I cringed at some of her millenial-isms, I saw something in her that I could relate to: the deep need for validation and approval mixed with a deeper desire to find her own voice and stand in what she believed.  Like her and so many women, especially, I have struggled all my life to be ‘good’ or ‘good enough.’

What I want now is to approve of myself- to believe and stand by myself, regardless of the deluge of feedback that will come at any given time when I share my truth or stand in my power. Practicing being brave in small and big ways gives my life meaning and orients me towards others and the common humanity we all share, because if my life matters enough to me to fight for, I will have the will and the drive to fight for others.

Between finding love and acceptance through conforming or people pleasing, or pushing away and totally doing my own thing, what is emerging is a clearer more mature path that is allowing me to be myself while serving others.  By breaking free of denial and co-dependence and by cultivating healthy self-esteem and coping mechanisms, I am learning what it feels like to show up fully and authentically in my relationships (pretty vulnerable).  Balancing the ‘me’ with with the ‘we’ is no small feat, but I can see no better or meaningful use of my time. I believe the greater whole depends on our individual acts of clarity and bravery, and that culture is changed through these actions that remind us of who we are: interconnected.

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We are Buddhas Becoming Human

I came to learn recently that the esteemed therapist and psycho-spiritual teacher John Welwood  passed away.   I was listening to a Sounds True podcast and when I heard this I was instantly flooded with memories of a talk/workshop that he did in 2007 called “Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships.”  It was poignant, funny, deeply process-based and totally reflective of a man who was not journeying away from the messiness of being alive, but rather finding a way to meet that messiness with curiosity and unconditional presence.

In memoriam of his life, Sounds True aired the last interview they did with him in which he stated that we are all Buddhas becoming human. I was so struck by that.  In the interview, you could hear in his voice that he was struggling- that his body was failing, yet what came through loud and clear was if we do not move towards our shadow material- the places that make us feel vulnerable and unlovable, we will never know the freedom and possibility that is on the other side of that impasse.

In “Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships,” he gave steps for moving gently towards the things that trigger us:  firstly, turn towards what is uncomfortable, acknowledge what is, allow the feelings, open the heart and finally, and finally enter into the experience fully all while allowing whatever resistance is there to be there.  This all sounds pretty easy on paper but it is probably the hardest work there is and work that requires a strong, supportive holding space, especially if we are dealing with deeply entrenched wounds/patterns that go counter to these practices.

Part of John’s message was that while a lot of us turn to spirituality for relief from our relational wounds, spiritual practice alone cannot solve our human struggles.  While meditation and yoga can provide a reprieve from over-thinking or the over-identification with the mind, if used unskilfully, these practices can become ways of bypassing the work that is necessary in creating and maintaining healthy relationships and communities.  In other words, we cannot expect spiritual practice alone to heal our relational wounds because it is only in/through relationship that we can learn how to relate!

This is where psychological practice becomes instrumental – finding healthy containers and healthy mirrors (therapy!) that can help us to work through our blind spots.  It is also where community becomes vital – a place where everyone is equal, where we practice relating to people who are different than ourselves all while understanding how our language and behaviour affect each other. While the student-teacher relationship can be helpful in certain settings, many hierarchical structures prove problematic as too often everything becomes about pleasing the teacher and then the teacher is shielded from their own work.  In light of all the abuses that have been exposed in spiritual circles, what feels necessary, if we are to come together honestly, is to do it on our own terms with healthy boundaries that help everyone feel empowered and autonomous.

In the podcast, John talked about the crux of healing as a balance of psychological work and spiritual work.  His metaphor for love was a combination of warmth and space: letting the warmth of the sun shine on your face while feeling the vastness of the sky  – the warmth being what we get through connection and the space what we get from remembering our uprightness, or vertical connection to source.  Often, when we are looking to relationship to fulfill these two needs, we are disappointed, because no one outside of ourselves and spiritual practice can give us a sense of peace with who we are- flaws and all. Conversely, spiritual practice doesn’t always provide the warmth and human connection needed to soften our edges and perfectionistic/idealistic tendencies.

To truly thrive, we really need both spiritual and psychological practices and a veritable  treasure chest of tools that could include yoga, meditation, therapy, creativity and play in which to explore healing and wholeness. This means that being hell-bent on a vertical trajectory towards getting better or becoming enlightened is misguided. We are Buddhas becoming human and the way out is not to just rise above but also to move through experience with humility and curiosity.  Instead of regarding the body or human experience as petty or shameful, we can be touched by the messiness of life and opened by it so that we become larger more compassionate containers for the highs and lows to which none of us are immune.

Instrumental to this way of healing is self-awareness and self-love – qualities we cultivate through spiritual practice and therapeutic relationship.  The degree to which we can see what’s happening clearly and be kind with ourselves in the process is the degree to which we can grapple with our own shortcomings without losing ourselves in denial or self-flagellation.  It is also how we cultivate resilience; understanding our stumbling blocks and working with them in order to have a more expanded understanding of how things are.  By looking squarely at the things we’ve swept under the rug, we open to the true source of our awakening and come home to ourselves in the process.

This is why I appreciate teachers who are transparent.  By owning their humanity, they invite others to do the same and while many talk a good talk about ‘getting real’, it is rare to see people in positions of power who have courage to own their shadows.  Instead, spiritual bypassing, a term coined by John Welwood, allows them to avoid staying with whats uncomfortable in order to shift to some transcendent state.  Disassociation and splitting become strategies that favour magical thinking over getting down to the brass tacks of unpacking pain and suffering and while we all need hope, clinging to positivity mantras or simply pushing things away is often emblematic of being lost in delusion.

The question is why do we look outside of ourselves for the magic bullet that will solve all our woes?  Probably for the same reason that a child reaches out to a parent – to feel soothed, to feel met, to feel taken care of.  While these are all human needs, and totally normal, no person outside of ourselves can provide all the answers for us and at the end of the day, as adults, it is our responsibility to be discerning and both ask for help and learn to take care of ourselves.  I know that when I am looking to one thing as a fix-it-all for my own discomfort, I am creating more suffering for myself in the long run because eventually, all coping mechanisms break down because they are only that – ways of soothing or coping, not necessarily ways of addressing the real root of our pain.

Being with the whole uncertain, messy thing is teaching me not to try to wrap everything in a bow and to remember that things are changing all the time.  I am a mystery and so is life.  I can find the tools I need like meditation and therapy to help address the relational and spiritual challenges I have but nothing is going to take me away from the work of facing what is here and now.  The most important thing I can cultivate is compassion in the face of adversity while building a strong container for my experience so that I am able to weather the storms of life without being completely swept away.  If I can remember to love ‘the soft animal of (my) body,’ as Mary Oliver says in her poem, The Wild Geese, I can remember I am a Buddha learning to be human and relax into full-spectrum living with no parts left out.

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Saying no for the bigger yes

They say that the happiest people in the world are the people who can delay gratification.  That is to say, when the child-like part of ourselves feels we need something and we need it now and we get this feeling that we will die if we don’t have it- more often than not, that is the wounded part of ourselves that is sabotaging us.  The need for love or compassion that we never learned to have for ourselves and our present circumstances becomes addiction when left unmet and this addiction takes on many overt as well as subtle forms.  For me, over my life, it has taken the form of over-spending and over-working.  I never used to be able to pass up a shoe or great dress and for better or worse, I have invested a small fortune on teacher trainings that I’ve then over-worked to pay off.

While I don’t think debt makes you a bad person, I know that at the root of living beyond my means has been my story of lack.  While I know the deeply entrenched story of ‘not-enough’ does not fade with the latest movement diploma or investment in the right jeans, for a few moments it can trick me into feeling I’m on track.  Social media and the feed-back loops around having more and being more can trick me into feeling I’m living my ‘best’ life.  And what is a best life except to live according to one’s own feeling of what is right and good in any given moment?

There is no judgement in any of this, just thinking out loud because I think a lot of us struggle with this.  Recently, I was invited to be part of something that from the outside seemed so progressive, but from the inside felt more cult-like and undermining.  The pay and the benefits did not add up to the heavy demands on my time and resources.  I suppose part of the pay-off was the feeling of having ‘made it,’ to have been asked, but I feel some of that excitement about being ‘special’ has faded.  I don’t care to be part of anything if it means I have to leave my self-respect and critical thinking at the front door.

While saying some of these things out loud may seem taboo, I think we do need to talk about them, particularly renumeration because for yoga teachers or those of us who are self-employed, money is tied to so many things – not least of all a feeling of agency in the world.  Pretending that a behaviour or system is working when it is deeply broken only leads to more denial, harm, and ultimately a feeling of powerlessness.

Thankfully, I have carved a place for myself in my work (due in small or large part to privilege!) where I can earn enough to keep my head above the water.  I make decent money for a yoga/movement teacher but that being said it is still REALLY hard to make ends meet in a city this expensive and I don’t know how single mothers earning minimum wage do it. I really don’t.

While I’ve been able to turn my ship around over the last few years by reigning in my spending and finding opportunities that feel like fair compensations for my time, I’m aware of what a privilege that is.  I’ve been able to cut back on my work schedule because I’m being more savvy about where my money and energy goes, but also because, let’s be honest, I have a partner that is also helping (big time) to pay the bills.

I can make this all about how I have gotten clear about exactly what my time is worth, where I want to put my energy and the things that really matter to me, like spending time with my family, having time to take care of myself, and having a growth mindset which is about seeing beyond survival, but it’s deeper than that. I’m talking about doing that within a system that favours you if you look a certain way (white) and come from a certain background (educated or affluent), so though I’ve worked hard, I’ve been largely privileged.

Because I don’t have to bust my ass making just enough to scrape by, I can expound on things like the importance of the investment in children.  I know that if we want to stop the cycle of addiction, we need to have the time and energy to be present to our kids, to really listen and empathize with them. But how do we do that when we feel like we’re barely getting by let alone thriving?

I think it starts with slowing down – at least for a few moments of your day to start to appreciate what you do have- even if you’re in a tight spot.  It also has to do with finding the resources that remind you of what matters – community centres, yoga studios, therapy offices or movement sanctuaries where you can actually start to feel what’s been buried in your body.  I think that can become the catalyst for unpacking some of that raw material in a loving way so that we are truly investing  in the people and things that lift us up and remind us of our worth.

I am starting to understand that if I don’t see my own worth, not only will it be hard for others to do that, but I will likely attract people who will abuse my low self-esteem and feed off (consciously or unconsciously) my willingness to sell myself short and not stand up for myself. Part of turning that around is knowing my value, seeking fair compensation and having really healthy boundaries with regard to my time and energy.

Moving out of child-parent relationship dynamics and becoming the adult I wished I always had steering the ship, is the movement toward autonomy and freedom  from cults, from co-dependence, from debt, from abusive relationships.  It starts with the ability to say no to the dangling carrot that seems to contain all the answers and trust that deep down I know what’s really good for me and to stay firm in that.  Though it may feel like all is lost in that moment of choosing what is truly wholesome and connected to my deepest values, I know all is gained: the doorway to my best life.

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Starting over in any moment

A piece of wisdom that has always come as a deep relief to me is that it’s never too late to start again.  This does not even mean in grand, life-changing ways – though that too is possible.  This truth reminds me that simple yet profound shifts in attitude and perspective can be tapped into – even within a single breath.

In classes, I will sometimes say that the breath cycle mimics the life cycle.  If we rush or hold any part of it, the fullness and benefits we get from allowing the ebb and flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations are lost.  We end up creating tension and restrictions in our body; We dam up the life force that wants to flow through us more freely.

So what is the antidote to all the grasping that is largely unconscious and habitual?  I think it’s gently bringing conscious attention to the ways we hold – with great compassion, curiosity and patience – first physically and then maybe also mentally so that the body and mind can start to relax into their natural states of resilience and wholeness.  In real and practical ways, we also need external structures and support in place so that we feel safe enough for this healing process to even begin.

Safe places in which to heal are sometimes hard to come by, but they exist.  For me, they exist in my therapist’s office, they exist on my mat and they exist wherever I feel free to think, write and express myself freely without fear of being shut down, shunned or shamed. Turning on the ‘tap’ of self-expression, though scary, feels like returning to a river or a source of flow and rejuvenation that moves me out of rigidity and into kind, permissive possibility.

In Pilates, which I’ve been studying a lot lately, they say you should mobilize your joints before you stabilize them.  In other words, before we can build a new foundation, we need to be able to let go of rigidity so that the foundation we are actually building is based on what really supports a thriving, breathing, moving organism.  Then, as the Buddhists say, we can do the work of calibrating so that we’re ‘not too tight, not too loose’ which must be cultivated moment by moment as each moment requires a different response.  Optimally, there is a balanced pull of forces on our system so that we are not pulled or collapsed in any one direction. While gravity can have the effect of wearing us down if we collapse to it, it can also have the effect of making us strong if we learn to work with it to grow upright in ourselves.

Working with all the pulls around us is a real art.  Like most people, I have a hard time not playing to the extremes.  I either want to throw myself whole-heartedly into discipline and self-sacrifice or I want to bathe in a hedonistic pool of decadence and oblivion. Finding ways to inform my effort with ease while keeping a little self-awareness even in my more restful states, has been a huge step toward becoming more conscious in my choices.

It has moved me from a state of hyper-vigilance or collapse to a place of more relaxed effort which I continue to refine, allowing me to trust myself and the process more and more fully.  This Middle Way, though seemingly ‘soft’ or slower than the lightening speed of continually producing and grasping in the effort to feel ‘enough,’ for me, is truly where lasting change and happiness live-  that place between extremes that happens when we move out of being at the affect of things and start to reclaim our agency and start working skillfully with the forces surrounding us.

Recently, Moksha, the community I’ve been part of for a long time became Modo which means ‘a Place for All.’  I love that definition in the literal collective sense that all are welcome, but I also love that from an individual psycho-somatic perspective, where all parts of ourselves are allowed.  Regardless of what is showing up, if we work with it skillfully, whatever feels like the block can actually become the doorway to greater self-love, empowerment and freedom when we have the courage to keep looking with kind eyes and a courageous heart.

As I near the end of a big year of growth and look towards another massive year of possibility and change, I am trusting the skill of finding the Middle Way – out of rigidity and the extremes of pushing or collapse, into the gracious space of a strong and open heart that has the capacity to have desires and vision while holding the need for nurturing and introspection.  The capacity to stand in myself without being overwhelmed or shut down by external forces is the movement toward sovereignty and true freedom.  It means I can go anywhere and do anything while staying true to who I am – and it all begins with knowing I can start over any given moment.

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Transformation: turning the shit into rich soil

I am just back from a pretty powerful time away in Costa Rica.  I was co-leading my 7th annual yoga retreat at Blue Spirit with two friends and awesome yoga teachers and as always, was cracked open to a veritable treasure chest of wisdom and deep nourishment.

To give you an idea of the contrast, we went from sub-zero Toronto temperatures- frenetic, busy energy to landing in a tropical wonderland where the oxygen-rich air hits you like a drug and the most stressful part of your day is waiting in line to get through customs, or more typically, waiting in line for your next delicious meal lovingly prepared by the wonderful staff of Blue Spirit.  The air is so moist there, my cells felt bathed in nutrients and my eyes felt sparkly and awake- able to see and take in all the wonder around me.  Everything from my digestion to my perception of myself and the world felt better, because what I was taking in was reflecting back to me my own inherent beauty and wholeness.

To be clear, I realize traveling to Costa Rica is a massive privilege and luxury that most people do not experience, but instead of feeling guilty about that, I used that understanding to tune me into profound gratitude and stress the importance of taking in  every drop of sunshine and nourishment that I received in order to pay-it-forward by coming home with a full cup.

This trip was particularly heightened by the book I was reading there: Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown.  In it, Brené talks about the willingness to step outside of what is comfortable and expected of you (in tight, limiting circles) to what is your brith right, which is owning your wild, free heart. Essentially, it is about belonging so completely to yourself that you’re able to show up fully in the world in your vulnerability without fear of being ostracized or rejected because you realize that you are the wilderness and that your belonging to this bigger human-animal family is non-negotiable; it is simply the truth of who you are.  In other worlds, while at a micro level, there are tensions and real threats of rejection at work or in social circles, at the macro level, no one can strip you of your membership from the human race- and knowing your part in the larger human struggle can be a healing balm when you feel utterly alone or disconnected.

Just before leading this retreat, I took a Vinyasa yoga intensive in which the teacher was talking about the difference between change and transformation.  A lot of us ruminated on the question and what surfaced was the idea that like compost that has changed from one material into another, once we are truly transformed, we cannot go back to the way we once were.  Once we realize, for example that are enough- fully and completely, just as we are, we can’t go back to jumping through hoops for love or approval.

This encapsulates how I feel right now in my life: clearer than I have ever been that I don’t need to shut myself down or play small to make other people feel comfortable ; That belonging to myself and showing up fully is not selfish or arrogant, but deeply inspiring because it reminds others of their own capacity to do the same.  At the same time, I am comforted in knowing that standing with myself does not mean rejecting others or not hearing feedback, it simply means not being so caught up in fitting in or being liked, that I abandon myself.

Another part of the book that deeply resonated with me was the idea that when you haven’t really worked with your own pain you do one of two things:  deny it’s there at all, which ultimately leads to your body breaking down (because the body always takes score) or you inflict your pain on others.  The only healthy alternative is to own your story- to be real about the pain that you have felt and decide how you want to move forward.  This is the essence of transformation – it’s integrative, with no parts left out.  Everything gets a place and in moving forward and you decide the shit you no longer want to carry, because it was never yours to begin with.

This is definitely a process and it doesn’t come easily, but as Brené quotes Maya Angelou:

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high.  The reward is great.”

On this wild, human journey full of twists and turns, I feel so grateful and deeply privileged to have had the opportunity to travel, to have had my eyes re-calibrated to the mystery and the wonder and to have had some of my feed-back loops disrupted in order to remember my wholeness.   Instead of believing in the false dichotomy that I can’t be myself and truly loved, I am choosing a love that is fiercer and more inclusive, that celebrates uniqueness and rejects the need to prove or perform in order to be enough.  I am learning that to “feed the wolf of love” in my heart is to trust in myself, embrace my struggles and transform them by owning a new narrative that acknowledges the light and the shadows- the paradoxes inherent in the human journey.  In opening to all the joys, the sorrows and the mystery I am realizing as Brené says, “no one belongs here more than you.”

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What will you do with this one wild and precious life?

I’m in Spain, so I suppose that I have answered one part of my question fairly adequately.  I have created quite the life for myself- one of travel and access to a wild and wonderful variety of experiences complete with a pretty vast and interesting cast of characters that enrich the journey at every turn.  The thing is, it doesn’t really matter what it looks like on the outside if you feel scared, lost, or closed on the inside.

I recently heard Liz Gilbert say, “I have not met a single person who said they were bored that were not also boring.” That is to say that what matters most is the eyes that see, not what is seen. When we have our eyes calibrated to the mystery, the magic, the bullshit, and the deep humanity, there is a fullness, a power and a lesson in everything.

I don’t think there’s ever a time when you’re really ‘ready’ to jump in and do the wild, wonderful and outrageous things you want to do.  You just show up.  What looks pretty blissy and beautiful from the outside still has pain and uncertainty in it.  It’s just that that doesn’t become the main focus.  I think that the idea is to enjoy the process of doing the thing you love so much, that that is its own reward.  You just focus on staying open- to actually getting to the heart of it, which is that this whole beautiful, painful, messy ride is ephemeral-  we’re going to lose it sooner or later, so we might as well soak up every drop.

I’m reminded of when I was young and there seemed to be two kinds of kids: the ones who would be given a present and would keep that present -sometimes wrapped so that nothing would happen to their precious gift/toy or the ones (like me) who would rip the wrapping away to be able to use the shit out of that toy as soon as possible.

I want to use the shit out of this life.  I want to play and enjoy at a maximum level. I am a little derailed by a sense of responsibility towards others, but then I think, my greatest responsibility is to live my truest life- which also involves being a care-giver, but is not excluded to that realm of service and self-sacrifice.

Women have spent millenia taking care of everybody else’s shit while being treated as property and we now live at a time when we have a lot more opportunity.  Not only do we not need to buy into that (though there will always be critics), we have support systems – podcasts, communities, groups, programs that can help us to free ourselves and remember what lights us up.  Now, our whole lives do not have to revolve around procreation. We can live on our own terms and be creators for our own pleasure. Paradoxically, being in our power is when we are of the greatest service to others, not when we’re playing small.

I know all this, yet I struggle, as most of us do, with old conditioning – a feedback loop inside that says, who do you think you are?  The answer is child of God and if God is love, forgiveness, non-judgement, creativity, grace, transformation, then I am on quite the journey, indeed. Let us use all our brushes, let us use all the ways we can share and honour ourselves and others through art, which is the communication of the soul.  This is the deepest nourishment and sacrament.  Life’s too precious not to soak up every last drop.

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Trusting the fading part of the moon

**This is a blog I wrote around Easter and didn’t publish because it didn’t feel polished enough. I’m publishing anyway, because perfectionism is the enemy of progress.**

It is Easter and it has not failed to dawn on me the parallels between the story of Christ’s resurrection and the myriad stories of death and renewal that appear in fictional and mystical texts the world over that have to do maintaining faith when we have all but given up.   Three days and three nights in the tomb, three days and three nights in the belly of the whale; David Whyte enumerates these examples and others in his powerful recorded talk, The Poetry of Self Compassion in which he reads from incredibly brave and life-affirming poets like Mary Oliver to illustrate the struggle we have with the fading aspects of ourselves.  He argues that the part of us that feels like it’s dying is not only normal, it’s necessary for growth and maturation and has its own power, just as the moon’s fading is part of its great allure and mystery.

And yet we don’t trust these natural rhythms in ourselves.  We can’t imagine in this time of needing to be constantly validated through social media that an introspective moment or period in our lives might actually serve our souls – that in the slowing down and turning inward there is a kind of gestation that occurs that allows us to evolve; Cocooning or turning inwards can be part of a recalibration process that allows us to emerge as a truer more integrated version of ourselves.

While it sounds self-indulgent, this important respect for the down times can be seen as a kind of tuning in to the ebbs and flows of life that allow us to find true resilience and happiness long-term.  In slowing down and learning to listen to and tend to our own hearts, bodies and minds, not only does our sensitivity and understanding towards our own psyches increase, we become more compassionate with other people’s processes as well.  I think real spiritual maturity begins when we can appreciate the valleys of our lives because the greatest source of our growth and awakening is there.   While it doesn’t look as powerful or exciting from the outside, these dark or quiet places are often the beginning of profound transformation.

It all seems to come back to trusting the process.

I was wearing one of my favourite shirts that illustrates the various phases of the moon at a yoga studio the other day and someone noted how pretty it was.  I said, “I love this shirt because it reminds me to appreciate all stages of the moon and all aspects of myself.” Just when I think I’m dying, that the light inside feels dim and will not return, sooner or later, that vanishing leads to a renewal.  Someone else said, “And sometimes what is not OK is the moon shining brightly.”  “Yes,” I said, “if it’s not OK when the moon is at a sliver we can equally take issue with the fullness of the moon. From critical mind, nothing is ever enough.”

Shifting the lens through which we see ourselves and everything around us allows us to acknowledge the miraculous and transient nature of everything.  Things are coming and going constantly and we can’t stop that.  No amount of exercise or will power will change the fact that sometimes the sun won’t come out, relationships will end, things and people will die.  At these times we will experience great pain and a feeling of being lost in the wilderness and that has its own information and wisdom to share with us, if we are humble enough to open to it.  It doesn’t mean that we are bad or that something is wrong.

A flower blossoms and that is beautiful, but that is just one part of its journey.  I wonder what it would be like to be curious about and truly appreciate the valleys, the shadows, the mystery as opposed to always striving for the mountain top.  It is something I am endeavouring to lean into every day-  not shaming myself for any part of the ‘cycle,’ so to speak. I am endeavouring to embrace the messier aspects of my growth, not as a sign of my unworthiness, but as proof of a life richly lived- of a deepening wisdom that wants to take root, that wants to let something die in order for something more authentic to truly live.

Instead of pushing away or grasping, I can witness this great river of change within me and all around me with a sense of wonder and gratitude. There is no end – though some things feel final.  Every breath is a chance to start again.  Life and death are just two sides of the same coin.

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You are always one decision away from a completely different life

I was recently struck by the words of a guest on Millennial’s Digest who was talking about how motivation is bullshit – that you never feel ready to do the things that will expand you and take you to the next level of your development.  This woman was saying that the most important thing to learn to do is manage the part of your brain that shuts down in fear – that blocks the good idea, the creative impulse, or the urge to  share or connect for fear of essentially (ego) death/annihilation.  In the end, this mechanism which was designed to protect us from harm is actually killing us slowly because it inhibits us from exploring the edges and new frontiers that make life both interesting and meaningful. It is only through resistance of habit energy that we grow and evolve.

This means the most important thing we can do is make decisions based on how we intentionally want to show up to life.  We may never feel like doing things outside of the realm of what feels safe or familiar, but that’s exactly what is required to live courageously – that we start saying and doing the difficult things we need to do (or not do) in order to create the kinds of relationships and dynamics that are most empowering and rewarding. She argued that you are always just one decision away from a totally different marriage, a different job, a different life for better or for worse.  We rarely see how close we are to powerful change and growth, but that possibility is always there when we get out of our grooves of fear and scarcity and put the reptilian brain on hold long enough to do something different. This is how we carve out new neural pathways and literally rewire our brains. It is also how we awaken from the slumber of habit energy and self-fulfilling feed-back loops of drama and suffering.

Any spiritual practice that has staying power points to the importance of slowing down habit energy enough to see what’s really going on with 100% honesty and compassion.  Pema Chödrön describes such a process in her new book Living Beautifully with Change, when she describes the “one and a half minute rule.”  Essentially, she says, if we do not add a story line onto our experience – if we are willing to feel the raw emotions that are coursing through us for a minute and a half, they dissipate and change and don’t snowball into narratives that become divisive and destructive.  The key is being able to ride out that initial reaction without adding fuel to the fire.

While taking up a practice that interrupts your habit energy certainly takes effort- when we start to tether the effort to the feeling of having taken care of ourselves or shown up for ourselves, the action starts to feel like nourishment. The action, while empty in itself, starts to take on the quality of service- serving the body or spirit, serving the moment, serving what needs tending to when we forfeit constantly gratifying the small ‘s’ or egoic self, and start feeding the big “S” self that is connected to the bigger picture and that finds greatest fulfillment and satisfaction when it is in harmony with the life that surrounds it.  When we are coming from this place, we are in flow, we feel alive and awake and connected because we know we are not separate from anything or anyone but that everything is dependently co-arising – nothing happens in a bubble.

Recently, I ran into a student with whom I’ve discussed writing blocks and the snares to the creative process.  I told him that I’ve been showing up to my practice much more consistently and while I have an ambivalent side that can rob me of life force at times, I am learning to be more decisive and to “put my body” where I am in my integrity and truth more and more.  Instead of simply wishing and hoping for the best, I am saying quite consciously, I want this, so I’m choosing this– I’m choosing love right now, I’m choosing to come from openness and transparency. This practice, while uncomfortable, lends itself to a kind of confidence that spills into all areas of my life and enables me to handle things with much more ease and grace.  By saying yes (or no) and taking the bull by the horns, I am becoming the author of my own story, empowered by my own boldness.

What has helped me with this ‘showing up’ practice – which feels critically important in both the personal and the political arena of my life is staying connected to others who are willing to ‘put their bodies there’ and to start a practice journal which includes any practice that interrupts habit energy – a meditation, a yoga practice, some new neural muscular training using resistance as a way of taking me way out of my comfort zone.  This work is deeply humbling and tiring in a new way, but it is also feels like the way forward – into what is possible, not just what feels inevitable.  Through resistance and persistence we become the architects of our own lives and open to our true heart’s desire.

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“Getting the Body Back”

 

Before I write further, I feel I should explain the title of this blog that seems to suggest (like many women’s magazine) that there is an easy retrieval system for your ‘pre-baby’ body. The truth is, having a baby changes everything irrevocably – including your body. I am annoyed and suspect of anything that tells me there is a magic pill or formula for achieving a fantasy because I don’t think life works that way. Wisdom and results are often hard-won and some things are worth their cost –for example, it is 100% worth it to me that I now have smaller and less perky breasts because I gave birth to an incredible human who breast-fed for two years. While I can’t retrieve the body I once had, what I can do is take care of the body I have now while being gentle with my heart and mind as I continue to go through the great metamorphosis that is being a mother on top of the already monumental task of being a human.

One thing I will say about having a baby vaginally is that it made me worlds more aware of my pelvic floor and its functions in ways that I had up until that point taken for granted. Going to see a pelvic floor physiotherapist shed a light on an area that was likely already weak and under-active, even though I was/am a very active person. Because I am not interested in having prolapse or continence issues as I get older, I was naturally motivated to do muscle stimulation therapy to connect to sensation and strength where I felt disconnected. I was also interested in making a connection physically to a place I knew a lot about, theoretically; I’m a yoga instructor and understand the concept of Mula Bandha (engaging the pelvic floor to increase the pranic (upward-rising) flow of energy) that supports good posture, organ function and overall vitality. However, I assumed (incorrectly) that because I do yoga I was strong there, when likely that pelvic floor weakness on top of hyper-mobility was at the root of my back and knee issues.

I first went to a pelvic floor physiotherapist on the advice of another long-time PT who had been helping me with my knees issues years earlier. She herself had just had a baby and strongly recommended I see someone. I remember going to the office of this new therapist and smugly thinking that I would not have to do much rehab as I had not had any tearing in my natural birth. You can imagine how humbled I was to learn that on a scale of 0-5 I was maybe a .5 or a 1 in pelvic floor strength. To give you an idea of what those numbers mean, this therapist had suggested that exercises like running should only be attempted when the pelvic floor was at least at a 3.5 or 4. Interestingly, though I continued to work with muscle stimulation, I plateaued doing this therapy and never gained strength beyond a 2 or 2.5. It was only when I supplemented these sessions with some one-on-one therapeutic Pilates with a good friend and incredible Pilates teacher, Kearsten Lyon, that my physiotherapist really started to take note of my progress. When I left our sessions she said, whatever you’re doing (in reference to the new Pilates sessions) it’s working. I took that encouragement and ran with it.

Along with working with my Pilates teacher, I started doing more group Pilates classes and came to love the strong, connected feeling I would walk away with that left my muscles and nervous system buzzing with new information and clarity. Completely inspired by this new way of working so mindfully with the body, a year and a half later, I decided to become a certified Pilates instructor and did my training with Body Harmonics. Along with yoga, it has become an integral part of my physical practice and something I am now honored to share with my students.

Though my body is not the same as it was before I had a child, I actually think it is a stronger, more connected body. It’s certainly a body I have come to appreciate much more for all its countless functions and capacities. Never again will I see it as merely a shape. I recognize it now as the awe-inspiring vessel that gave birth to my son and sustained life. That seems like a small/fair trade-off for this weathered body or as Fleur Adcock says so beautifully, “what my soul may wear over its new complexion.”

Here is her transcendent poem, Weathering, in its entirety:

Literally thin-skinned, I suppose, my face
catches the wind off the snow-line and flushes
with a flush that will never wholly settle. Well:
that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young for ever, to pass.

I was never a pre-Raphaelite beauty
nor anything but pretty enough to satisfy
men who need to be seen with passable women.
But now that I am in love with a place
which doesn’t care how I look, or if I’m happy,

happy is how I look, and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake, my waist thicken,
and the years work all their usual changes.
If my face is to be weather-beaten as well

that’s little enough lost, a fair bargain
for a year among the lakes and fells, when simply
to look out of my window at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors and to what
my soul may wear over its new complexion.

 

 

 

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Meeting my appointment with life

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it is that holds us back from sharing ourselves honestly.  After reading the ground-breaking memoir, Love Warrior – which I adored – I wondered why more women don’t open up about the things that would lead them to greater connection, personal empowerment and freedom.  And so I turned the question on  myself and I’m finding what’s coming up to be pretty illuminating. I’ve been talking a lot in yoga about not compartmentalizing- that we get into trouble when push away or hide pain or discomfort – aspects of ourselves that actually need more attention, care and acknowledgment. So instead of pushing aside these musings, I’m going to take my own advice and unpack them openly.

It occurred to me recently that I’ve had a pretty heavy split between my inner life and what I feel I need to show on the outside. There is quite a lot of pressure in the field of health and wellness to appear happy all the time and put together.  This sometimes blocks the very real and healthy need to move through difficulty without feeling ashamed or like a burden to other people.  What tips me off to this conflict of ‘selves’ is the recurring dream I have had for years that I am supposed to be getting on a bus or a plane, but before I can leave and ‘get onboard’ with everyone else I have to desperately gather all my things that are scattered everywhere and are even hidden from my view.  There’s this panicky feeling as I scramble to get it all together that a) I will miss my appointment with life – not get where I want to go b) that someone might find me in my mess and find it repulsive c) and this is only recent- I am resentful that I have to rush in the first place and so instead, I’m just letting that plane take off without me, offering my middle fingers to the sky.

A couple things come up as I work through this- first, I recognize the myth that other people have it all together and that I am alone in my ‘mess.’ The other thing I am understanding is that as I relax with my humanness, the world is not ending. Others are confirming that they have their own piles of stuff to sort through and this train or plane that seems to be speeding ahead might not be going where we want to go anyway.  My frustration about being pressured is just my anger that I ever bought into the idea that somewhere else was more worthy than where I am. Additionally, all the the things I’ve been gathering in preparation for this ‘better’ place – all these clothes – are actually mostly outdated and unnecessary. I don’t need three different winter coats – or 500 teacher training certificates and 1000 likes or pats on the back in order to live the life I want to live: fierce, free and open-hearted. I am getting/learning what I need along the way as I show up honestly to my work and to my life.

So instead of accumulating, I’m currently endeavoring to let go of things I don’t need as well as the check marks of validation I am seeking from the outside.  Partially inspired by the book  Spark Joy, which talks about “the life-changing magic of tidying up”- I am becoming aware of how the stuff I have accumulated out of anxiety- trying to fill a void- or the things I have collected to be ‘enough’ are actually barriers between me and true intimacy. Instead of guarding myself against the unknown with proof of legitimacy, the permission slips of strangers or even people I know and love, I am starting to step into my life in a more naked way and simply say, “I don’t know,  but this is what I’m feeling,” so that the space that is created from that offering can be a place of true connection. Instead of masking my very human feelings of insecurity, loneliness or confusion,  I’m going to lean in and say, yes, this is what it is right now and it is OK.  It is actually so full and powerful and it is pointing to something worthy of attention if only I have the courage to look with curiosity and compassion.

I guess this is why dream journals are so powerful, or writing in general.  As I articulate these deeper themes around fear, the unknown and ways of coping, ‘messiness’ feels less scary and more endearing.  It’s just human.  Tidying up to me no longer means hiding or ‘erasing’ myself by sweeping things under the rug, but instead it looks like a reckoning – a means of looking at things squarely and honestly and asking does this truly serve me, or is it just weighing me down?  What I am learning is that I can get where I want to go without needing so much stuff/so much armoring and protection.  Gaining confidence in my nakedness is the next leap of faith. Trusting I can get where I need without rushing or skipping over any part of my journey allows me to relax and enjoy the ride. How and when I “get there” is a mystery that cannot be dictated by someone else’s agenda.  In the meantime, I am trusting I am exactly where I need to be and meeting all my appointments with life when I offer myself fully and honestly in any given moment.

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