Working Out My Change Muscle

Everybody wants to be enlightened but nobody wants to change.” – Andrew Cohen

Last Monday when my mom was over, my 6-year-old daughter asked her if she wanted to get the stem out of a strawberry. Thinking that Miss O meant for her to do it, my mom grabbed a paring knife and reached for the strawberry. Then Miss O explained that she was going to show her how to do it.

Grabbing a straw, she pushed it up from the bottom of the strawberry until it popped out of the top, taking the stem with it. A pretty neat hack she learned from a You Tube video.

This makes me think of the quote from Andrew Cohen at the top of this post, “Everybody wants to be enlightened but nobody wants to change.” For me, I take that to mean at this phase of life that change is more about attitude than substance. That is to say, an openness to change is more important than what exactly it is that I will change.

I can name a half a dozen reasons why I wouldn’t stem a strawberry with a straw without even trying it. But that leaves me in a position of only trying change when I deem it to be important. How can I believe I’ll have the spiritual wherewithal to recognize and accept the one change I may need for enlightenment if I’m out of practice of changing at all?

So this week for Miss O’s school lunches, I’ve been popping the stem out with a straw all week. A change I’m not committing to stick to because I usually have knives more readily available than straws. But I consider it a workout for my flexibility.

What does change look like for you in your stage of life? Have you ever tried to stem a strawberry with a straw?

The Beauty of Failure

Don’t let the internet rush you, no one is posting their failures.” – Wesley Snipes

The other day I failed for the second time to guess a Wordle and learned another life lesson as exemplified by this word game. By the way, no knowledge or affinity for Wordle is necessary to understand this life lesson but for anyone who hasn’t tried Wordle and is curious, here are the basics:

You have six tries to guess a five letter word. You are not given any information to start with but when you enter a guess, you are told if you have any right letters and they are green if correct in the right spot and yellow if they are used on the word but in the wrong spot. There is one word per day.

By the third guess I’d figured out the pattern was _ O _ E R

There were too many possible combinations – LOWER, MOVER, CODER, JOKER so I didn’t work out FOYER within the allotted 6 guesses.

But here’s what I noticed – it was WAY easier to fail the second time. The first time ended my 50 win streak and I was pierced, more than felt reasonable for a silly word game.

Noticing this, I think failing helps me shake the belief that I can be perfect. The longer streak that I had, the more brittle I became about not failing. It felt like there’s a longer way to fall, even if it’s just a silly word game.

It reminded me of a definition of perfection that Brené Brown provides in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. “Perfection is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it is the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.”

I’m not advocating practicing failing. But I am suggesting talking about it and laughing about it when we do. For me, it doesn’t change the impression of anyone around me who are well aware I’m not perfect. But it does penetrate my illusion that I think I can or have to maintain some persona that is impervious to failure. Even the fact that I have an ego still after years of meditating to find the Unity in life needs piercing.

So, thank you, Wordle. Not only for the two minutes of daily entertainment but a few good life lessons too!

(featured photo by Pexels)

Pain and Suffering

The greatest miracle is to be alive. We can put an end to our suffering just by realizing that our suffering is not worth suffering for!” – Thich Nhat Hanh

This weekend my son wanted to be like his sister and asked me “Can I have a pony?” Which is his shorthand for a ponytail, but before I’d even touched his hair to make a teeny-tiny ponytail, he said, “I’m going to say ‘Ow’”!

That little snippet of interaction so clearly illustrated the idea of pain versus suffering. I was fascinated by this idea when I first read about it in Temple Grandin’s book Animals in Translation. In the book, she discusses her work as an animal scientist from her unique perspective as an autistic person. Her fascinating work brings together so many different perspectives.

Dr. Grandin talks about all the tests and observations they’ve done to study whether animals experience pain. Because animals, especially prey animals, mask pain so that they don’t stand out in the flock, in the case of sheep, it’s sometimes hard to observe whether they are in pain.

But then she moves on to talk about suffering. Looking at humans who have chronic pain, she cites studies that show that chronic pain patients have a great deal of pre-frontal lobe activity which suggests something other than pain which is a lower-down brain function. In cases where a patient with intense pain had a leucotomy, which disconnected the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain, the patient still had pain but didn’t care about it.

Pain and suffering are two different things. Whereas I can address pain with a bandaid, ice or other treatment, taking on suffering for me is a spiritual practice. It is best treated by bringing light and breath to it and then having faith that it will not only move on through but also usually inform some enlightenment. As the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says in the quote for this post, “The greatest miracle is to be alive. We can put an end to our suffering just by realizing that our suffering is not worth suffering for!

The most prominent of this for me was my divorce a dozen years ago. After my marriage fell apart, it was so easy to stay stuck in the storyline of my husband’s infidelities that I mucked around for a couple of years without owning my part of the story and acknowledging that I wanted out. Until I found meditation and faith as a tool to empty those pockets of stale dead air, I suffered from lack of perspective and inability to listen to the larger chorus of the Universe inviting me out of the pain and onward.

When I started to make the pony for my son, he said, “Ow” and decided he didn’t really want it. I guess he know it wasn’t worth suffering for.  

(featured photo from Pexels)

Spiritual Leaders

Gaining knowledge is the first step to wisdom. Sharing it, is the first step to humanity.” – unknown

Several years ago I had a friend who was struggling to keep his marriage together after it was revealed that his wife was having a long-term affair. From time to time he’d recount some of the help and advice they were getting as they tried to heal – from therapists, friends and books. One of the most insightful pieces of advice he got was from his pastor who sagely counseled, “You are going to have to say ‘good-bye’ to that marriage. If you two are going to go forward, you will have to build a new marriage together.”

It takes a special role to be able to drop truth bombs and still be heard. Friends might be able to do it, but often have a vested interest in offering up advice. More often than not, they offer idiot compassion as therapist and author Lori Gottlieb calls it. “Idiot compassion is where you want to make somebody feel better, and so you don’t necessarily tell them the truth. And wise compassion is where you really hold up the mirror to them in a compassionate way, but you also deliver a very important truth bomb.”

Therapists can deliver truth bombs but I think we often forget that our spiritual leaders have that capacity too. Given that church affiliation in the US has dropped below 50% for the first time ever, I wonder if we are losing touch with a unique group of people who want to help and also celebrate with us.

Twelve years ago when I was in crisis going through a divorce, I was lucky enough to find my way to a meditation teacher that helped guide me into that practice that has changed my life in many ways. And often when I have a spiritual question or even a lapse in understanding, I will go to my meditation teacher.

I also have the added benefit of relationships with a number of pastors since my dad was in the profession. They teach me again and again that our spiritual leaders whether they be pastors, rabbis or yogis have deep wisdom and history to access whether or not you agree with every bullet point of their theology.

When I asked my dad about that job/role/life calling as a Presbyterian pastor in the years before he died he said,

“I never would have imagined, at 20 years old when I finally made the decision to go in to ministry, I never would have thought that this is what my life would be like. I am so grateful to God for what that has meant, the number of lives that I’ve been able to be a part of. One of the unique things about ministry is that you are able to be with people in some of the most precious, important, holy moments of their life . . . birth, death, baptism, marriage, funeral, crisis. A pastor steps in to the middle of someone’s life at those unique times and that is pretty rare.”

So on this day that is Good Friday for Christians and the start of Passover for Jews, I dedicate the post to all our spiritual leaders that are willing to help us through the important moments of our lives. May we all find ways to support and honor them.

(featured photo is one of my favorite pictures of my dad)

The Unified Theory of Breathing

Sometimes it’s okay if the only thing you remembered to do today was breathe.” – unknown

Long before I learned to meditate, I learned a breath practice while climbing mountains. Guides call it the “pressure breath” and it involves intentionally breathing out all the air in our lungs so we can take a full inhale. They explained the reason for the pressure breath because we often don’t exhale all the air in the lungs. Without consciously thinking about it, our bodies can short cut a full exhalation. But at altitude, the air is thinner so we need a full inhale.

If you climb to Camp Muir on at 10,000 feet on Mt. Rainier where I learned the practice, you will be taking in only 2/3 the amount of oxygen that you would at sea-level. For every 1,000 feet you climb, it decreases by about 3% so at 18,200 feet (my personal high point), it is about 45% of the oxygen at sea-level.

So the pressure breath helps to counter the effect of thinner air by forcing a breath that takes in more air and therefore more oxygen. (For anyone who is interested, the reason there’s less oxygen is that there’s less pressure at altitude so that there are fewer oxygen molecules in the same volume of air).

Twenty years after I learned to pressure breathe on a mountain, I’ve stumbled on the science of other reasons to fully exhale. It feels like a moment of a unified theory – understanding why something I learned in one context is so healthy for many other reasons.

The book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor inspires me to try to reform everything about my breathing. It is so well-written, researched and told through personal anecdotes and other living examples. In his chapter, Exhale, he cites two studies that set out to measure lung capacity as it related to longevity. They both found “that the greatest indicator of life span wasn’t genetics, diet, or the amount of daily exercise, as many had suspected. It was lung capacity.”

And the way to bigger lung capacity? James Nestor provides a couple of different examples but they involve extending the range of the diaphragm (the typical adult only uses about 10% of the range) by practicing exhaling fully. In short, Nestor said we need to take as few breaths as we can to sustain our metabolic rate. Take fewer breaths and get more oxygen and then the diaphragm moves up and down and helps with circulation and moving lymph fluid. The perfect breath is 5-6 breaths/minute. Cite the Ava Maria or Om Mani Padme Om or the Sa Ta Ma Na (Kundalini Chant) – they all take about the same amount of time of 5.5 seconds.

Adding to this science, I also recently heard Ten Percent Happier podcast with therapist and author, Deb Dana. In it she explained poly-vagal theory and the three states for our nervous system:  ventral state which is calm and regulated, sympathetic which the fight or flight response and dorsal which is when the nervous system has been so overstimulated that it shuts down. And while all three states work to help us navigate particular circumstances of life. But when we need to get back to a ventral or calm and regulated space, there are breathing practices that help us do so. A longer exhale is one of them.

So there it is – the unified theory of the full exhale. I thought living at sea-level made pressure breathing unnecessary for me. Until I realized that I’ve been doing it in different ways all this time – the exasperated sigh, the mindful breath practices and everything in-between that continues to teach me that the things we learn in one context continue to be effective everywhere else, helping me climb all sorts of metaphorical mountains one step at a time.

(featured photo is mine of a team of climbers leaving the summit of Mt. Ixtacchuatl, 17,600 feet)

Curiosity and Judgment

There is a wisdom of the head…and a wisdom of the heart.” – Charles Dickens

I came around the corner the other day to find my 6-year-old daughter lifting her 2-year-old brother and telling him, “If you want down, say ‘Down please.’“ Because there’s only about a 10 pound difference in weight between the two of them, it looked a little precarious.

The moment I gave birth to my second child, my oldest all of a sudden seemed so grown up. But every time I think of her as the “One who should know better” or my son as the “One who is too young to stick up for himself” I suffer from that lapse into judgment.

My meditation teacher once led a beautiful meditation about gratitude. In it she suggested that there are some things we can’t feel at the same time – like gratitude and greed. I think another pairing for me is judgment and curiosity. When I’m sitting in judgment, my curiosity is not available to me.

Of course my brain is just trying to make a fast assessment about what I need to do in a situation and so judgment serves the purpose of quick analysis. And my brain doesn’t only do this my kids but jumps to scan a homeless person for danger or to dismiss an apparently wealthy person as too busy to help.

Once I get past that quick assessment to check if anyone is in danger, I can remember to breathe in curiosity and compassion. Those two tools that almost always come up with a better and more creative response to whatever situation I find myself in.

 My compassion tells me my daughter is trying to figure out how to use her strength and knowledge to help her brother and that my son likes the attention most of the time. Once I figure out no one is getting hurt, I can sidestep my judgment and let them figure it out.

In my daughter’s quest to teach her brother some manners, she hasn’t quite thought to ask if he would like to be picked up before holding him hostage until he asks politely to get down. I’m curious how long it’s going to be until he figures that out.

Celebrating the Messy Middle

Half the trouble in life comes from pretending there isn’t any.” – Edith Wharton

On Monday, I was practicing a short mindfulness break in the middle of the day to create more awareness of the middle of my life as I wrote in this post. What I noticed was that my day was kinda awful.

On the carpool to school, our neighbor and my daughter’s best friend broke the news that in three months they are moving 1200 miles away.

I’d just set aside all the gratitude and grief that arose as I thought of this big change in my daughter’s first real friendship so that I could work. Then the phone rang and it was my son’s daycare and they’d had an outbreak of Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease and needed me to come pick him up right away and get a note from the doctor before he could return.

I canceled all the rest of my work appointments for the day while I was driving to school to retrieve him, scheduled a doctors appointment for him in the afternoon. Then I asked the neighbors if my daughter could stay with them after school until I returned from the doctor which brought another wistful realization of how much I’ll miss them when they move in three months.

In short, the day was reactive, unsettling and bumpy. As I mindfully checked in with this, I had to chuckle because it reminded me of something I learned from Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. That meditation and mindfulness are not ways to always be feeling good – in fact, it often brings more irritation because we are aware.

Aware and irritated by it fit how I felt during that check-in perfectly. However, the awareness brought the ability to move through it instead of just locking it up in a box. And that is always a gift I appreciate because I learn that I can handle it. I’ve come to think of meditation as my way of irrigating the irritations so I can flow past.

Sitting with this, I could touch the powerfully poignant moment when my daughter’s first friendship changed. More than that, I was able to notice it before my optimism overwrote it with dreams of new neighbors, a new carpool and the next friend. And I suppose that’s exactly the point of focusing the spotlight of awareness.

It seems perfectly fitting to write about this in the middle of the week. 🙂

(featured photo from Pexels)

In The Middle

The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

A little while ago my 6-year-old daughter went to a friend’s house to watch a movie. When she came home that night and for the couple weeks afterwards, she was so much more solicitous of me. “Mom, do you want a glass of water?” or “I’m sorry you banged your hand.” So I dug deeper into the storyline of the Netflix family movie Over the Moon. Not surprisingly, it’s about a little girl whose mom died from cancer.

I don’t want my kids operating from a space of worry about me. But I was fascinated about the noticeable change of behavior. It suggested how much our awareness is influenced by our focus.

So I was listening carefully when I heard author Susan Cain describe the research of Dr. Laura Carstensen on Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast. Dr. Carstensen is a professor of psychology at Stanford specializing in the psychology of older people. Here’s Susan Cain’s description of the research:

“[The] elderly tend to be happier and more full of gratitude, more invested in depth relationships, more prone to states of well-being. She has linked all of that with the fact… not as we might think that we get older and have acquired all this wisdom from the years we’ve lived. It has nothing to do with that, it only has to do with the fact that when you are older you have a sense of life’s fragility. You know it’s coming to an end.

“Younger people who for other reasons are in fragile situations [also exhibit this]. She studied students in Hong Kong who were worried about Chinese rule at the end of the 20th century. They have the exact same psychological profile as older people did. Because the constant was the fragility.”

Susan Cain describing the research of Dr. Laura Carstensen

Since at 52-years-old I’m closer to the middle of my life (hopefully) rather than the end, it begs the question of how to cultivate an appreciation for relationships, health and the good times. Especially to enjoy them without the sense of fragility that I understand but don’t quite viscerally get yet.

This made me ponder the nature of the middle and I realize I couldn’t name a middle of something that I really savored – the middle of the day, the middle of a meal, the middle of a relationship, the middle of a project, the middle of my body. (That is, other than being in the middle of my children, as shown in the featured photo.) Especially when it comes to projects (and maybe even days), I’m always in a rush to get to the end so that I can celebrate and then start a new one.

Someone wisely pointed out that we can’t remember things we don’t pay attention to. So I’ve started taking a brief pause in the middle of the day to just notice how things are going. It’s a small practice that I hope will help me appreciate the middle of my life more.

I was thinking about what to say to my daughter about the movie and death when one night she said, “I’d be kinda sad to die but also a little interested. I have to see the way the rest of my life works out and I’d miss you. But it’ll probably be your turn first.” And then all the solicitousness was gone. Which is fine. I want my kids’ memories and mine to be defined by not what we worry about but what we pay attention to.

What about you? Do you rush right past the middle or do you have a way to mark the middle of a journey?

The Best Kept Secrets are Boring

I find meditation hard to write about. Even as a cornerstone of my life and day, it seems so hard to describe sitting still in an engaging manner. So I’m feeling gratified that I managed to write a post about meditation for my Pointless Overthinking post this week. Here’s how it starts:

At a meditation retreat I attended a few years ago, the leader off-handedly told a story about a moment when she was doing a large group meditation practice with the renowned meditation teacher Jack Kornfield.  The six of us sitting around laughed politely at her description of 500 people doing a slow walking meditation practice at the Seattle Center while a group of kids right next to them were playing a dodge ball game so that the meditators were occasionally getting beaned by rubber balls. But the truth of the matter is that meditation stories aren’t very interesting – even to other meditators.

More of this post at Pointless Overthinking

Gifts

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – Mark Twain

I saw the results of a new survey that found that kids will watch a favorite movie on average 244 times. It certainly feels like we are well on our way to that number of viewings of Encanto, one of the more recent releases from Disney.

Which isn’t an entirely bad thing. In addition to some great songs written by Lin Manuel Miranda, it’s a really compelling story about a family of gifted individuals. It’s centered around the story told by the grandmother that they were granted a miracle which has manifested through a candle that always burns, a magical house where they all live and gifts that they are bestowed at a certain age.

One makes food that heals other people, another controls the weather, one sister is incredibly strong while the other sister is beautiful and graceful. But the character at the center of the movie didn’t get a gift when it was her turn.

My 6-year-old daughter and I have had great conversations about the premise of the movie. About what it would feel like to be the one person in a family of talented people who didn’t get her gift. And also does everyone in this world get a gift? Finally, a lot of discussion of that fact that most gifts are given over time, not at a ceremony at age 7, 8 or 9 but through a lot of hard work and practice.

But it certainly has made me think of my own gifts – whether I can recognize them or even value them. I grew up with a natural talent for mathematics. I never thought you had to take notes in a math class because it always just made sense to me and that carried all the way through all the upper level math I took in college.

However I’m not all that crazy about that gift now. 😊 What’s the practical application of that? In fact, it wasn’t until Swinged Cat admitted that he sees in rhyme that I remembered my gift. Sure it was the foundation of my computer consulting career that now supports my family but it isn’t all that warm and sexy.

But I have some traits that I’ve worked hard to develop. I’m a good and empathetic listener. Hiking, mountain climbing and parenting have helped me build a lot of endurance. Meditation has given me the gift of patience and calm. Do any of those things I cultivated count?

Here’s where I came down on this when talking to my daughter:

Some gifts are natural and others you will have to work harder for.

We will only see the gifts we’ve been given if we have the confidence to look and the commitment to grow them.

Whatever they are, when we use those gifts on behalf of other people it makes them matter the most.

When we can combine our gifts with the direction of the Divine, it magnifies their usefulness many times over.

My mathematical brain tells me we have about 111 more times watching Encanto to go. There are many more thought-provoking themes like being authentic, family pressure and being more than your gift so for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I’d say it’s worth watching at least once.

How about you? What are your gifts?

(featured photo from Pexels)