Barely Breathing

When I stepped out of the shower this morning my head was swirling with anticipation of the day. I was setting off on an adventure of semi-epic proportions. I was about to take part in something much bigger than myself.

…But was it bigger than I could handle? For just a brief moment, as I toweled myself dry, I felt my entire body filling with a mild sense of dread. The monkey in my mind was trying to convince me to cancel my plans.

You can’t do this. It’s going to be awful.
Cancel. Just send a text. Say you can’t make it.

Apologize. Say you’ve changed your mind.
Lie. Say you have the flu.

I caught my breath and I gave myself a pep talk. Be bold! I told myself. Live fully. Step out of your comfort zone. Take the leap!

So I summoned up some courage, and I moved through the moments. I brushed my teeth while I fought with my reflection. ‘You just be quiet.’ I told her. ‘We are doing this.’

Sitting on the darkened bus, with my Johnny right beside me, the lights of the Lincoln Tunnel flashed and flickered like some futuristic film. I could feel the anticipation building. I was teetering on the line between excitement and deep, restless regret.

Every breath brought me back to balance.

And soon, I found myself standing in the middle of a room full of strangers, completely naked. I was in front of a wall of windows with a wide open view of Weehawken. A woman I never met before began draping fabric around my midsection. Several indistinguishable conversations were going on in the room and in the adjacent room. The voices bounced off of the high ceilings. She told me to close my eyes and breathe and ground myself into the earth as she got her camera ready.

She told me to lay a hand on my scars. Time seemed to stand still. Tears began to stream down my checks. My body filled with a deep sense of gratitude and awe. I cannot believe I am here right now. I am so happy to be alive. Each click of her camera was more cathartic than the last. I was naked. Cracked open. Fully exposed.

I bare my soul on a regular basis when I write. Today, I also bared my body. My intention was to show others who have to go through mastectomy surgeries that there is life on the other side of it. There is still beauty on the other side of it. And there is grace.

There is grace, and I am breathing it in. I am living fully. I am acting boldly. I am moving through each moment. And I will never ever give in to the little voice of doubt and dread.

…..

To learn more about The Grace Project, or to make a donation click here.

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Caffeine-free Clarity

For the short month of February I gave up coffee, and I took on extended periods of seated meditation. Today is day 7 without coffee. All of the physical withdrawal has passed. Gone is the dull headache, and the desire to do absolutely nothing but sleep all day. The craving for coffee is gone too, mostly.

Yesterday, I was driving from my morning classes, and I found myself thinking that when I got home I’d brew a pot and enjoy a cup or two, or four. Then I remembered that I wasn’t going to do that.

Then I wondered why the thought even came up? Why did I want it? Addiction. Habit. Comfort.

We all have comfort seeking behaviors. In fact, the majority of our lives are spent pursuing these types of behaviors. We do all we can to keep ourselves comfortable at all times. To make things around us safe, right, okay, just-so. So that we can feel safe, right, okay, just-so. Controlled comfort. Comfort and control.

And whenever things aren’t right, or just-so, whenever we are stressed, we reach for the behaviors that comfort us the most. Some are good, some are bad. We reach for nicotine, alcohol, exercise, carbs, company, isolation, social media, intimacy, sex, sedatives, books, music, meditation, Netflix.

We attach these behaviors to relaxation.
‘I’ll have a cup of tea, and relax.
‘I’ll just watch some TV and relax.’

When people see that we are stressed, they tell us to relax by engaging in these behaviors.
Relaaaax. Have a beer.’
‘You really need to relax. Take a xanax!’

These are obvious examples of comfort seeking behaviors. But many things we do are less obvious. Like the ritual of brewing coffee, holding the warm mug in our hands, sipping. It’s not until we give them up that we realize how comforting they are. We mindlessly move through our rituals without even questioning the behaviors.

We choose to eat comfort foods instead of healthy foods. We choose passive activities over active ones. We choose social media over social interaction. We choose avoidance of life over engagement.

We fall into a comfortable cycle of moving mindlessly through our days, putting off, or completely avoiding anything that we deem as too much work, like washing and putting the coffee cup away immediately after we drink it. Or making a phone call instead of sending a text. Or dealing with our issues instead of escaping into the ethernet.

We seek out our comfortable patterns of behavior when we deal with other people. We ‘yes’ some people to death. We argue incessantly with others. We live comfortably in the same groove fulfilling our assumed roles, even if they are actually uncomfortable, painful, and toxic.

What are your comfort seeking behaviors? What do you think you might be seeking comfort from?

Meditation brings it all to the forefront. Every single uncomfortable, discomforting thing can and will come up when you sit perfectly still for prolonged periods of time. But you sit with those things, and you breathe through them, and you let them pass. Over and over and over again, you let them pass. Like a craving for a cigarette, a second cookie, a third beer… You simply say not now and you let it pass.

These thoughts that you believe you must continue to think, thoughts you believe are necessary, thoughts you believe are real and true, they are only thoughts. like clouds, they appear and they vanish.

But they don’t just materialize from thin air. They come from inside of you. You are the thinker. And you are the thoughts.

When you meditate you become the observer. And you realize that you are in control of your thoughts. You have the ability to choose which thoughts will be entertained or ignored. You are the thinker and all of the thoughts belong to you.

They belong only to you. They are yours to do with as you see fit. Just like the plate of food in front of you, the drink, the screen. You decide how much you will ingest, how much you will indulge, how much you will allow.

The more comfortable you become with yourself and your thoughts, the less you will seek the comfort of objects, habits, activities, other people. Your thoughts and your comfort is yours to control.

————–

Try it.
Sit comfortably.
On the floor, or a cushion, or in a chair.
Breathe in and out of your nose.
Let your breaths get longer and slower.
Think to yourself

I am sitting and I am breathing.
My breath grounds me to this moment.
I am comfortable in this moment.

Do this for 1 minute, or 2, or 3…

The more you practice grounding yourself in the present moment, the more mindful your entire life will become. The more comfortable you become in silence and stillness, the more comfortable you will be in the world.

———–

My earworm:

Creature Comfort

——-

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Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

We all have buttons. Those buttons that get pushed on a regular basis.

What pushes yours? Traffic? Weather? Injustice? Noises? Rudeness? Smells?

Whose behavior pushes your buttons? Your coworkers’? Kids’? Parents’? Newscasters’? Random strangers’?

Whose mere presence pushes your buttons? The guy eating egg salad on the bus? The slowly ambling pedestrian in the middle of the road? The person hovering over you in the grocery line with no sense of personal space?

What things set you off? The rain? The lingering smell of fried food on your clothes after leaving a restaurant? A messy room? An unexpected change in routine?

There are so many things that push our buttons.
The little annoying things.
The big annoying things.
Huge inconvenient things.
The little annoying people
The big annoying people.
Hugely annoying people.
So very annoying. They push our buttons.

Once a button is pushed, the body reacts. We tighten up. We hold our breath. We release audible sighs of exasperation. We complain, whine, vent. We get louder, more aggressive, more sarcastic, or more apathetic. We attack. We withdraw. We react. Habitually, we react.

These annoyances stay with us. And the reactions are programmed into us. If you try to sit and meditate all sorts of annoying thoughts will pop into your head. Because all of the annoying things live there in your head. All of the annoying people live there in your head too. The annoyances are all yours! After all, you are the one who is annoyed.

This is what makes the meditation practice so difficult. It’s annoying. But, with practice, you learn to sit with each annoyance and let it pass. You let it pass without getting up and walking away, without checking the timer to see how much time has passed, without scratching that itch on your nose.

You sit and breathe and let it pass. And pass it does. Then another annoyance will find its way into your mind and body and you will let that pass. You will start to notice repeat annoyances. Repetitive thoughts or itches or twinges that keep popping up over and over. You will let them pass.

Then, you will start to notice moments with no annoyances at all. Then more of those moments. Then more.

Then, one day you will realize that the practice has started to wear your buttons down. One day you will realize that someone cut you off in traffic and you just kept driving, and breathing and singing Copa Cabana. One day you will realize that after your father/mother/coworker said the same snarky thing they’ve been saying for 15 years, the same thing that usually starts the argument, you haven’t taken the bait. You just sat and breathed and smiled on the inside, and waited for the moment to pass.

Because of your practice, you are in complete control of your buttons. You know that you are responsible for your reactions. You know that you can let your reactions pass.

Meditation at first magnifies all of your buttons, then it slowly wears each one down. Eventually, no one will be able to push them. Nothing will be able to push them.

You are in complete control of your buttons. It’s an awesome responsibility, to wield such power. And it all starts with one controlled breath.

—————–

Practice.

Set a timer for 1 minute

Sit. Close your eyes. Breathe slowly and deeply.

Don’t move. Notice what comes up. Notice what passes.

When the timer goes off, carry on…

———–

Button, Button, whose got the button?

—————–

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‘I Know Words, I Have the Best Words’

Today I drove my shiny new car
down the weary worn out highway,
to the shithole of a city
that I call my heart.
I navigated the labyrinth of numbered trash
cans and dingy snow drifts and double parked cars.
I stopped to let a junkie cross the street.
She was shaky on her feet, strung out,
skinny, mumbling to herself.
She was white,
but maybe you already knew that?
Because I said junkie, and not crackhead.
Because I didn’t say that she was black…
Words are so important

Today I met a boy whose name was Emotion.
This is not a metaphor.
He was three and a half feet tall,
wearing a polo shirt and khaki pants and sneakers.
He had light brown skin
and dark brown eyes.
His nose and cheeks were flecked with freckles, and he was missing a tooth.
There was a long white
scar along the line of his jaw.
He looked up at me and said hello.
He wasn’t smiling.
But he didn’t seem sad, sitting there, at his tiny desk,
in the shithole
of a city
that I call my heart.
When I told him to stand tall
like a mountain, he was unmoved…
Words are so important.

Today was unseasonably mild, a January surprise,
A change of climate. A thaw.
On the ride home it was raining up.
The holey highway runs
along the broad majestic Passaic,
which has been frozen for weeks.
I could see the raincloud rising up off of the river,
Creeping over the guardrails
and spilling onto the road.
A white waft of water washing over my windshield.
These new wiper blades are sharp and smooth
and the daytime running lights slice through the scud.
The road ahead of me is clear,
as I move further and further from the fog
that hangs over
the shithole
of a city
that I call my heart.
My shitty city. My heart.
I can’t be heading home then, can I…?
Words are so important.

(…shithead)

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New Year’s Wish

My New Year’s wish is that we may find deep within us, peace, clarity, compassion, and courage.

May we be at peace with whatever arises. May we accept what actually is, and come to make peace with the reality of things, quickly and easily. May we ride on whatever wave takes us, instead of fighting against it, understanding that it will eventually lead us all to the same shore anyway. May we continually find gratitude for all that comes our way, no matter whether we judge those things as good or bad. And may we have the truest sense of contentment that comes along with practicing gratitude.

May we find the clarity that comes from making peace with what is. Clarity that comes from acceptance, flexibility, and a deep sense of gratitude. The clarity that is needed to make the necessary changes, to take the necessary steps, to hold on to that peace and acceptance and contentment. And may we begin to take those steps and make those changes in our own selves and our own lives.

May we find the compassion that begins to grow for all other people, once we have taken the time to find peace within, and compassion for, ourselves. Compassion that fills us with a deep sense of love and kindness and obligation to our fellow humans. Compassion that sparks a desire for service. A desire for real change.

And then, may we find the courage to take the actions necessary to go out change our world. May we peacefully, compassionately, courageously, go out and change the world.

We can change our world. May this be the year.

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Maybe Just This Year…?

In movies, snow falls softly as the choir of children sings.
In movies, when the bell rings an angel gets its wings.
In movies, there is joy and peace, glad tidings of good cheer.
But I haven’t been able to sit through a single Christmas movie this year.

Years ago I wrote out cards, stamped envelopes by the dozens,
Addressed to old coworkers, uncles, aunts and long lost cousins.
Personal salutations, talk of parties, talk of beer.
But I didn’t even send one single Christmas card this year.

There was a time when I believed in the spirit of the day,
The hopeful-joy-come-manifest, all swaddled in the hay.
I felt the promise of the star shining brightly, shining clear.
But I haven’t felt that spirit in my heart. No, not this year.

The children’s laughter, claims, requests, would raise my spirits high.
I’d smile and shout Happy Holidays to all the passers-by.
I’d talk about the joy of it all to whomever was near.
But I haven’t been feeling very sociable. Nope, not at all this year.

Once, the world was all abuzz with hope and change and light.
Our momentum seemed so steady, our direction just felt right.
But now it seems the world is full of hatred, lies and fear.
How can anyone truly believe in the spirit of Christmas this year?

Once the world was full of Dreamers
Who were tearing down the walls
But now the dreams lay dying, in the hollow hallowed halls.
The past is past. It’s over. And the future’s so unclear.
…I just can’t get myself to believe in all that Christmas stuff this year.

I’ve tried to muster up the joy, to dig for Yuletide cheer.
I really did look everywhere and now it’s pretty clear
There are so many reasons, but the biggest one, my dear…
…there simply can’t be Christmas, now that you’re no longer here.

I just won’t believe in Christmas this year.
No, I won’t believe in Christmas, this year.

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How Can You Forgive Yourself? (The answer is not meditation)

A dear friend of mine spent the morning grieving the loss of her father. He died 17 years ago, and she hasn’t yet forgiven herself for not having that one big conversation with him before he passed. She said that she wants to forgive herself, but she doesn’t know how.

How do you forgive yourself?

Forgiveness is a complicated enough thing on its own. But when it’s wrapped up with other things like loss and grief and guilt and shame and a few Greek myths, it’s so much more complicated.

Everyone’s story of forgiveness is different. Everyone’s reasons for not forgiving themselves or others are also different. But it all boils down the the same basic thing for everyone: slowly loosening your grip on the past so that you can eventually release it, and move forward.

Most people don’t walk around all day every day actively not forgiving themselves. It’s just once in a while, when things get really quiet and the old thoughts creep in. When the calendar turns to a certain page, or a particular song comes on the radio, or a sentence somewhere reminds us… Even then, we don’t always run with those thoughts. It’s only when we allow ourselves the room to run that those thoughts and feelings get momentum. The moment we tighten our grip on the past is the moment the pity party starts!

The only way to end that sad party is to invite mindfulness in. Slow deep breaths, releasing the past with every exhale and coming back to the present moment. Yes, I’m talking about meditation. Forcing yourself to have those quiet moments, and allowing the past to briefly run wild, so you can learn to tame it.

I’m not saying that meditation is the answer to every question you have. But I am emphatically(!) saying that meditation will give you the space to find the answer to every question you have. (If you really want the answers.)

If you’re having trouble forgiving yourself, you can start by sitting and breathing. But before you sit, ask yourself some questions about the other patterns in your life.

Is it difficult for you to stay in the present moment?

Will sitting quietly in silence and stillness make you uncomfortable? Anxious? Upset?

Can you stop being busy for a few moments?

Do you often replay conversations in your brain, wishing they had gone differently?

Do you hold grudges?

Are there other people in your life you can’t forgive?

Do you have a hard time letting go of physical things you no longer need?

Do other people often fail to meet your expectations?

Are you a bit of a control freak?

Do you fill your days with some sort of activity and leave no time for open space?

Do you find yourself stuck in the same situations over and over?

Are you a hoarder? Of objects? Of regrets? Of patterns?

Think about any other places in your life where you are not able to let go. What else are you holding on to that no longer serves you?

Forgiveness is all about releasing your grip. It doesn’t necessarily mean approval. It doesn’t mean it was okay. It just means it’s over. Past. Done. It just means you allow yourself to let go of the reins. You can’t control it. You can’t change it. It cannot be different than it is. Accept what happened as a fact, and move on now, to this moment. Release your grip on the past, and move to the present moment.

How can you personally forgive yourself for what you did or didn’t do? What is the answer for you? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure you do. The answer is inside of you, and you will find it if you give yourself the time and space to find it.

Here is how: Meditate on forgiveness.

Set your timer for 2 minutes (or 5, or 7, or 10, or…)

Close your eyes and focus on your breath. Slow inhales. Slow exhales. Begin counting down.
Inhale 99
Exhale 98
Inhale 97
Exhale 96
Inhale 95
All the way to Zero.
Then back to 99.

Try not to think of anything else but the breath and the counting.

Notice that other thoughts will come in.

Notice you will lose count.

How do you react to the intruding thoughts? How do you respond when you can’t do it? Did you get mad at yourself? Do you think, I’m no good at this? I suck at meditating?

Forgive yourself for losing count and start again at 99.

Forgive yourself for the intrusive thoughts and start again at 99.

Forgive yourself over and over and over again.

You will have a lot of opportunities to forgive yourself when you first try to sit and count. Over time, it will become a habit. You will start to forgive yourself in your meditation practice, and then in your life.

Eventually you will realize you have learned to forgive yourself. If you really want to.

……

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