writing

on being human

I spent yesterday afternoon sweating and writing my way through Jennifer Pastiloff’s Atlanta workshop titled On Being Human, and I was still humming a little on the inside this morning as I sat down with my coffee in a quiet house to flip through my journal and put all the pieces together.

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Jen at Form Yoga here in Atlanta, photo cred @nadenoughyoga on Instagram

This is the second time I’ve attended one of Jen’s workshops, and the last was two years ago when I was in the midst of such major and difficult transitions. It was enlightening to be there again in this next chapter of my life where I feel so different than I did in August of 2015, so much stronger.

I managed to recruit two friends to join me because I’ve bragged on Jen so much and explained the transformation that happens when you attend one of her workshops. But even so, I find it hard to really explain the alchemy that happens in the room. 76 women in attendance yesterday, yoga mats laid parallel and touching one another. Jen explains the rules when she walks in — only two things: tell the truth and listen. And somehow it works and people do just that.

Though she is a yoga teacher and it was held at a yoga studio, there is pretty minimal yoga involved. She uses the poses (and the warm room) to break through the shell of the body, so to speak, and come back to ourselves so that we can write the truth instead of the buttoned up version of the “truth” we carry when we are dressed in our finest and sitting comfortably in an air conditioned space. Before you know it, the magic comes along and it’s 76 of us laughing and crying and sharing and nodding in that way you do when real resonance happens and you can say yes, me too. The thing that astonishes me as I sit here putting the pieces together is that it is such a simple formula and yet so transformative because we never get this in our daily lives. You shed every last bit of your ego and look someone in the eye – a stranger no less – and tell the truth and listen. That is all. And it is somehow so terrifying at first, but unbelievably liberating when you drop into your body and out of your head and get out of your own way.

Some of her journaling prompts were the same as when I took the class in 2015 and some were different. I used the same little journal I’d carried to her 2015 workshop, so I can flip back a few pages today and compare my lists when she asked us to write what we were afraid of. Some things ring that bell both times, then and now. But I also see ways my life has expanded and some things that were overwhelmingly terrifying to me then have completely fallen away. I can see it so clearly in my scribbled handwriting.

What I fear (2015)

  • love
  • men
  • judgment
  • failing my kids

 

What I fear (2017)

  • messing up
  • not making the time to focus on the big things because I am always drowning in the little things
  • waiting too late
  • not finishing the work I know I am meant to do, the book I know I’m meant to write

 

What a shift that is, right? I think sometimes we change in huge, monumental ways, but they happen so incrementally that we don’t feel it in real time. It’s only when we look back that we see that staring back at us in undeniable ways. It’s one reason I love writing and one reason this blog has become one of the most cherished things I’ve created in my life. I can get caught up in my own bullshit stories, as Jen calls them, and I can neglect to see what is actually written in the beautiful details of my own life. You know the bullshit stories; we all have them. The ones that say You should already have this figured out. You are always failing. You’ll never get where you want to be. You’re just a ___ (fill in the blank – just a mom, just a teacher, just a woman.) But as I look at what I’ve written and recorded here and in scribbled notes from Jen’s workshops and other raw journaling I’ve done, I can see these stories for the lies they are.

I left feeling so full and inspired and curious about the faces I encounter everyday. Everyone in that room had a story, and everyone in that room echoed the fears or worries of someone else. Here we all are, slogging through the difficulties of our daily lives and feeling alone in our struggles, and as it turns out, so many of us have the same things tumbling in our hearts all day long – the same fears and bullshit stories on repeat. We all need friends who will tell us our stories are false, and I’m lucky enough to have a few people like that – one of whom came with me yesterday. Both of us left feeling full and happy and ready for whatever comes next. (Also ready to stuff our faces with Indian food at a local favorite spot.)

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One of Jen’s prompts yesterday asked us to write what we are saying yes to. Mine is a list I think I need to read every morning in this season of my life, a daily charge to do what I am here to do. Today I say yes to sweating, listening, feeling, dropping judgments, letting go of expectations (and of my bullshit stories), working harder than ever, new pages, better chapters, what I sometimes think I should have been doing all along, but it took there to get here. And here is good.

What is it about a pen and paper that offers something so magical? I don’t know. All I know is that when I lie to myself in my own head and offer these untrue assessments of my life or untrue evaluations of what is in my heart, I can sometimes take them to be the truth. But the second you write something that is not the truth of the matter, you can tell. It literally jumps off the page for me and feels stiff. When you write that truth inside, it feels soft and real and puts all the pieces together. It clarifies my intentions and my feelings every time. That’s the power of the pen in getting to the heart of the matter for all of us.

 

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I’m opening registration in October for my online writing workshop designed for women who want more insight and clarity and offering some guidance patterned after my own journey as I’ve written through my life’s challenges. I’m so excited to get started with this new project! Details here, and get on the email list for upcoming news and free journaling prompts by signing up here.

 

 

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gratitude, Life and Randomness

creating, sustaining, transforming

I’ve been home for six days now, yet I’ve hardly caught my breath. I’m grateful I have summers off to spend time with the kids, but it always takes me by surprise how quickly our days go. Neighbors have been in and out all week, water hoses and bathing suits in the backyard, a puppet show Thursday, and lake time yesterday. It’s always something.

Last Sunday afternoon had me driving home through the Carolinas. Billboards advertising fresh peaches were taunting me the whole way, but the farm stands weren’t open on Sundays. I listened to podcasts – this one and this one were especially great – and thought a lot about my experience at the retreat center and the ways I could take it home with me.

We talked a lot about prana and the power of breath to direct your energy. I spent just as much time learning pranayama techniques as I did doing yoga, and I left feeling ten times lighter than when I came. The food was vegan and Ayurvedic which I don’t think is feasible for me on a regular basis certainly, but as a cleanse, it was really effective.

Yoga poses were called in Sanskrit which threw me off at first. They’d call Bhujangasana, and I’d feel confused until I realized it was just cobra. Or Utkatasana when it’s just the same chair pose I’ve always known. I’ll never tire of learning something new though. There’s so much to be said for unplugging from everything you know and going alone to learn something you didn’t know before.

Saturday night, there was a Kirtan (the Indian tradition of call-and-response Sanskrit music) held near the main ashram. I was on the fence about going as the tradition seemed so foreign to me, but a couple of the people in my group decided we’d go together and see what it was.

I wish I could accurately describe what that room was like, but I will never be able to capture that in words. I sat on the floor for an hour listening to Sanskrit chants with a hundred other people, and I have no idea what they were saying, but I could feel it. Songs about sadness and about yearning and about joy. It’s all the same, isn’t it? Every human culture and tradition around the world is encountering the same thing – joy and heartbreak and all the stuff in between. About halfway through the Kirtan, the soloist broke from Sanskrit and began singing “Amazing Grace.” The entire room – mostly Indians who knew Sanskrit well and a few others like myself who didn’t – began to sing along. It was community magnified.

And it was my grandmother’s favorite hymn. One I cried through while a southern baptist choir sang it at her funeral three days prior.

Some people might roll their eyes while reading this and say I am too much of a mystic. That it was only a coincidence. But it was in that second that I saw so clearly that the people we love never really leave us. They show up again and again and even in the places we least expect it. When I think about that moment for a minute, really think about it, it astounds me. How did I get there? At that second? Think of all the experiences in my life – big and little – that had me driving alone through the mountains to find my way to this specific place in this specific moment as I sat on the floor and listened through tears to this specific song. Life is incredible.

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In the first class, we talked a lot about the “om” chant that opens most yoga classes. I’ve said it before, many times, and I knew that it referenced the soul and the entirety of the universe and how they connect. But we discussed how it is really a blend of three sounds when done as intended – ah, oh, and mmm. As you do those slowly, my instructor explained, you can feel them moving through you to vibrate different parts of you. The ah in your belly, the oh in your chest, and the hum at the end in your head. The belly, he explained is the place of creating life (womb); the chest the place of sustaining life (breath); and the head the place of transforming life (thoughts).

He said everything in the world is either being created, sustained, or transformed. But here’s the thing I’m seeing — sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. I will think I am in sustaining mode (breathe in, breathe out, one foot in front of the other, pay the bills, do the laundry, just keep swimming), and I will look back and see that I was actually transforming the whole time.

I thought I was done transforming for a little while, done creating something new. I was ready to coast with a little more ease. But my grandmother’s passing was a clear sign that I’m not done yet. Sometimes I feel tired, but when I remain open to these gifts as they fall, even in the hard season, they somehow feel sweeter than before.

My daily meditations from Richard Rohr struck a chord again yesterday, and I had to pass it along:

“…We often remain trapped in what we call normalcy–‘the way things are.’ Life then revolves around problem-solving, fixing, explaining, and taking sides with winners and losers. It can be a pretty circular and even nonsensical existence.
 
To get out of this unending cycle, we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place here. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of “business as usual” and remain patiently on the “threshold” (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.
 
A good therapist and a good minister will always open up larger vistas for you, which are by definition risky, instead of just ‘rearranging the deck chairs’ on a sinking Titanic.”

I’ve been itchy this past few months, wondering if it’s “okay” that I am still in a space of in-between. (Who says what is okay anyway? Why do we think in those terms?) I’m trying to forget old ideas of “idealizing normalcy” as Rohr calls it. There is no normal. And as I look around me at the people who are the least genuine and the most hollow, I see a desperate quest for “normal” and for perfection. But the sinking Titanic is a heavy force, and it’s going down anyway – even with all the trappings of what you think is a life that somehow proves your worthiness.

Life is not a series of check boxes, and that is a concept that echoes back to the very beginning of this season for me as I wrote about before. Back then, I was consumed with the idea that someone I cared for saw me as unable to fill some imaginary list of “check boxes,” but now I see that looking at your entire life and all the people in it as a series of boxes to fill is so limiting and just setting you up for the sinking Titanic anyhow. You are just rearranging the chairs, but it’s still going down.

I have no boxes anymore, no shape. It’s morphing and changing all the time. The less I look to some definitive list of what life should be, the more it opens up for me in ways I never expected.

Between the whirlwind of the past few weeks, my stay away for a while, and the disheartening news events this week, I’ve been craving home and family. We packed up yesterday for a picnic and an afternoon at the lake.

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The kids tried their hardest to catch the minnows swimming beneath the surface and collected feathers and rocks along the shore. The simplest of rituals always work to bring us back home to ourselves, I think.

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I truly believe, with everything in me, that the world works in your favor when you ride along with the current. Creating, sustaining, transforming all the time.

gratitude, travel

same as ever, but different

Months ago, I booked a solo trip to a wellness retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains. With the stress of the past few weeks, I was unsure if it would work out or not, so I’ve been in touch with the reception office to explain that my grandmother was with hospice and I might need to postpone. They were unbelievably accommodating and said I could wait until the very last minute to decide if I wanted to go now or later. I didn’t want to miss time with her.

As it turned out, we buried her on Wednesday with a service that was sweet and sincere and sad. I was dreading the funeral so much, and at the end of the day, my eyes were swollen with tears. But I was also astounded at how such a simple life can be the most beautiful. I loved her because she was mine. But so many others came to grieve with us because they loved her for who she was and the countless ways she touched the lives of everyone who met her. The one and only request she ever made about her final arrangements was to drape one of her mother’s old handmade quilts across her casket, and so we did.
We laid her to rest in the piercing June sun, and it is always such a surreal feeling when someone you loved and knew so well is lying in the ground. You feel aimless and unsteady and unsure for a while. It’s a new way of life you have to somehow figure out, how to exist without the person you were once so close to.

As life would have it, though I had no idea this would be the case, I threw my things in my car the very next day to drive across the Appalachian mountains alone. The retreat center’s directions warned against GPS leading you astray and included details like “go straight under the stone bridge,” “drive until the road turns to gravel,” and “turn left and proceed to the top of the mountain.”

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When I finally reached my destination and checked in with the reception office, I found my room on the other side of the property. It was raining a steady drizzle and something like 6pm. I opened the door to find a small room with a bathroom, a simple bed, one sheet, one blanket, no television, open windows, and the most glorious view of the North Carolina mountains. I forget that stillness has a sound, a hum you can almost hear.

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I have a total of 68 hours to spend here, and I can feel layers lifting as the hours pass. The food is light, and the others here are mostly quiet but kind. I’m in yoga & meditation classes about 5 hours a day. We rose with the sun today and began class without coffee which normally would hardly be possible, but it was brisk outside and the sun greeted me in a way I couldn’t refuse.

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We’ve been talking a lot about some foundational elements of yoga which we tend to forget, and I can’t help but hear it as life advice as well. “Work hard but don’t struggle. When you feel the struggle, ease out of it a bit.” And “go to the edge of your comfort, and then just gently push forward the tiniest bit.”

My life has been loss after loss this past eighteen months, I am so ready to work hard but tired of struggling. I can feel myself, even now when the grief feels fresh and heavy, finding my place a little more everyday. My voice is growing steadier, not louder. I am ready to work hard for the things that are important to me, but I’m also growing more confident in my own ability to know when to ease off and recognize a struggle when I feel one. If you have to force it, (whatever it is) it’s no good.

I have so much more to say later and more to think about and still time left here. As I’m writing this on the tiny bed, I can hear birds out my open window. My muscles are sore and my eyes are heavy. My grandmother’s last weeks taught me the value of surrender, and I am feeling it now in this place, even in a physical sense.

I indulged in a Shirodhara treatment this morning, an Ayurvedic therapy when you lie on a table and allow warm oil to be poured on your forehead in a continuous stream. It’s said to soothe the nervous system and awaken the “third eye” of spiritual understanding and intuition. I think it does accomplish that, but only because it makes you melt into the present moment and feel what is really there. Me, same as ever but different. Still here, still breathing.

 

gratitude, Life and Randomness

Manifestation

The kids are away this weekend, and I’m mostly using the time to be certain everything is ready for the first full week of the school year. Clothes washed, lunches packed, house clean.  Come November, I’ll be drowning in term papers and laundry and ready for a break, but I love the clean-slate feeling of August. For a few shining weeks, everything is new and organization is apparent.

I registered long ago for a Jen Pastiloff workshop that took place yesterday, and the timing couldn’t have been better.  Her workshops are so hard to describe – a combination of journaling and yoga and sharing and dancing.  It was a bit outside of my comfort zone as I knew it would be, but I’m convinced that all the very best things lie just beyond our comfort level.  I persuaded my friend Tally to join me, and it was the most amazing afternoon. An incredible experience.

UntitledI would describe myself as an inconsistent yogi.  I’ve dabbled in yoga at various times of my life – some Svaroopa yoga before kids, prenatal yoga regularly during my first pregnancy, a month-long Bikram yoga challenge a couple years ago, meditation here and there to help with specific anxieties and challenges.  But I am certainly not an advanced yogi by any stretch of the imagination.  It’s something I’d love to make time for, but it can be a challenge to find the time among the rest of my life tasks and events.  Jen doesn’t really demand a lot of challenging yoga in her workshops though. She simply uses the poses to get you out of your own head and into the body to strip away the ego.  You are also much more likely to share with strangers if the room is sweaty and you are moving or chanting in unison.

This idea was echoed in something I was reading recently on Melanie Tonia Evans‘s blog which has been a healing balm for me in many ways.  She discusses ways that we disconnect from our bodies and the reason that “coming home” to your body is necessary to self-fulfillment, especially when healing from past hurts.  Our culture always encourages us to reach outside for fulfillment, and she explains, “No-one taught the value of coming home to ourselves in our bodies. Rather than our [culture] guiding us with, ‘Sit with your bad feelings, take your attention lovingly with full self-devotion inside your body, ask yourself what is this really about and heal yourself,’ they would have been more likely to tell you, ‘Don’t dwell on it – get up and do something else.’ … Because of being unplugged from our connection to ourselves we have been easily trained into a model of ‘getting’ and ‘doing.’ The trying to secure something from outside of self in order to feel at peace within oneself…. The reason why any of us wanted ANYTHING was to try to feel content and at peace – not realizing it had nothing to do with getting or doing – it is always to do with coming home to self-partnering and addressing our own state of consciousness….We also need to understand this: emotional peace has NOTHING to do what Life and others have delivered you – it is to do with your own state of consciousness.” 

This resonated with me so much.  It’s only been a few months since my divorce happened, and I’ve already been torn between a desire to sit with my own grief and use that to heal myself and the loud voices of some people who say that reflecting on your pain is simply bitterness and that you should “move on” and busy yourself with something else. The glory of Jen’s workshop is that you have to be in your body and commit fully to the self-exploration she is asking of you.  Her journaling prompts cut through all of the false ego and get straight to what’s real: What would you be if nobody told you what you had to be? What do you fear?  To be where I want to be, I have to be rid of… It is nothing short of a spiritual experience to be in a room with strangers, move your body in a way that mirrors everyone else in the room, and then answer these questions and share your reflections with others.  

My recent essay on bodhichitta describes what I mean by this, and it was the first time in my life when I sat in a room and could feel that human compassion tangibly with people I didn’t know at all.  As one person stood up to share, she commented that so many people in the room looked familiar to her and she couldn’t explain why, just some comfortable familiarity that she felt and saw in our faces.  I think the answer for why she felt that way lies in bodhichitta.  For a few hours we were stripped of the ego or judgment that normally guides each of us and we saw others with a lens of common compassion.  You could hear in the conversation and what was shared that each of us is fighting our own battle, all so different yet exactly the same.

So many yoga or meditation instructors speak in these lofty terms and metaphors that are not always accessible to many of us. But Jen’s approach is different.  She speaks in terms that we understand and she is “real” in every way.  Her workshops are coined Manifestation Yoga, and you begin the workshop by writing down on a post-it a short list of things that you want to see unfold in your life. Meditating on, praying for, and visualizing those things each day can bring you closer to them, yes.  But she also acknowledges that if that’s all we had to do, life would be pretty easy and predictable.  Obviously it’s not that simple.  Manifestation in her words is to “Make shit happen.” You have to identify what it is you want, give some intent and clarity to that goal, and then identify what stands between you and the life you want.

I found when I sat down to write what stands between myself and my goals, I heard so many others share what I’d written: fear, uncertainty, feelings of inadequacy, and allowing others judgments or opinions to restrict me. These answers were the same for so many of us. She spoke a bit about the “1 in 100” scenario – meaning if you are in a room with 100 people, and 99 of them love you and 1 doesn’t, whom do you focus on? The one that doesn’t.  I know for certain that my recent months have allowed me to come so far in refusing to let others’ judgment affect me.  I at least don’t let it sink in as deeply or for along as I did before. But I’m only human, and I can’t help but be somewhat affected by it.  

And to be honest, when I reflect on the things said to me and about me in the past nine months or so, it’s enough to break anyone’s spirit.  You don’t measure up. You were a bad wife. Your own actions are what led to pain and disappointment. You need to stop writing and you should be ashamed of showing your pain and sharing it with others. Everyone perceives you as bitter and angry. People tell me your writing is terrible and nobody believes any of it. You are a terrible mother. You are selfish. On my best days, I can rest in the love and acceptance of people I value, but on the worst days, these comments sink in and cast a shadow where I don’t want them to dwell. Jen’s workshop yesterday was a safe place to work through these things and cast them out of my consciousness.

It’s hard though, right?  The mind is a powerful thing.  On the one hand, thoughts can enlighten us and guide us, and there is tons of research to support the power of positive thinking. On the other hand, if I believed everything that my mind tells me in regard to my own self-worth, I’d be in trouble.  It’s human nature. Fear and uncertainty is natural. Not only that, but I’m realizing that the only people who feel no fear at all and don’t care about others’ opinions of their actions in the least are defined as sociopaths and narcissists.  (Jen Pastiloff touched on that briefly yesterday as well.)  But to use her metaphor, when 99 people in the room see love and authenticity in you and recognize your gifts, to focus on the one who doesn’t see your worth serves you in no way at all.  And I’m realizing that is precisely what is standing in the way of myself and my big goals: the criticism I still hear far too loudly. I ran across this recently online somewhere, and it made me smile.  I need to tape it on my mirror.  

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It’s not as simple as placing glasses on my face. (I wish it were!) But I can drown out the influences that leave me feeling doubtful and unsettled if I’m very careful about what I let sink in and if I devote time everyday to focus on aspects of myself that are worthy of appreciation and value. I left the workshop feeling energized and ready to start a new academic year with a clearer purpose and more mindfulness to combat the outside voices that feed feelings of inadequacy.  When we unrolled our mats and were preparing for the workshop, we were given temporary tattoos from Conscious Ink as a little favor.  It will be gone in a couple days, but it’s on my forearm as a reminder to me as I begin the school year.

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It’s impossible to recognize the sacred value of the present moment when you have a constant soundtrack in your mind of the million things wrong with you or the million reasons some people dislike you. I’m vowing this week to push those voices away as much as I can and listen to my own compass instead. And right now, my own compass says I am strong and capable and loving and exactly where I should be.