not special

 

He was not special

For three days last spring, I was enrolled in a workshop of the Psychology of Yoga and Mindfulness with Michael Stone, a psychotherapist, Buddhist teacher and social activist. Despite having read his books and listening to his podcasts for years, this was the first time I had studied with him, in person.

I thought he was special.

When he learned that I was there for some professional development as a high school guidance counsellor on the cusp of launching a mindfulness program at my school, he elegantly wove helpful suggestions like “this would be great to use with students” into his lessons.

He made time during his breaks to meet with workshop participants. He made no outrageous claims to having all the answers and freely admitted his fears.
He had a great sense of humour.  He was as present with us as he could have been.

He invited us to not consider anything or anyone to be special.

As soon as we consider something to be special, we cling to it, try to capture it and recreate it in the future. But clinging only leads to sorrow.  Because everything passes. It all passes away.

Only a month or so after this workshop, Michael passed away.

He was not special. Only a set of conditions. Like us, he had his triumphs and his challenges, his fears and his acts of outrageous courage and he did the best he could with what he had. Through my clinging and deep mourning of the loss of my teacher, I was invited to learn once again to let go of what I think of as special.

Everything passes. It all passes away.

 

She is not special

Like me, she was one of the first to arrive on the Friday morning.  Arriving early is a trait I instantly admire in a person. Clearly eager to learn , we set up our mats and cushions at the front, close to the mat set out for the teacher and introduced ourselves to each other. We quickly partnered up for activities which is how we found ourselves sitting face to face for a powerful guided activity. As we sat cross-legged with our knees touching, we followed Michael’s direction to look closely, deeply at the other person while staying completely present in our bodies for what seemed like a very long time.

I thought she was special.

She is a set of conditions. Like you, she has her triumphs and her challenges, her fears and her acts of outrageous courage and is doing the best she can with what she has. Can you give her the gift of being completely present for her right now knowing that one day she will pass away? Not off in your head thinking about something else. But right here. Now. Coming back always to looking deeply into her face without judgment.

As the minutes on the clock ticked by so slowly, her face changed. It went from determination, to discomfort, to curiosity before it softened. I felt my face soften after moving through similar experiences. By staying right there, my breath began to soften in my body and my body felt at rest. I felt a gratitude for the present moment. For her. For him. For me.

Despite my gratitude for her in that moment, clinging to her and our shared experience is folly. The moment has passed. It no longer exists.

Everything passes. It all passes away.

 

I am not special

Nothing to see here. I am merely a set of conditions. And doing the best I can. Nothing to cling to. I too will pass.

 

You are not special

 

 

friend request sent

Some creepy Big-Brother-Bot from Facebook sent me a notice the other day letting me know that it was aware that I had recently un-friended someone.

Trying to ease my discomfort with its unwelcome vigilance of my online activity, it assured me that it wouldn’t tell the un-friended party.  Big-Brother-Bot even gave me some unhelpful tips on how to reconcile my cyber relationship.  Yup, I’ll get right on that!

Nowhere in the list of tips was how mend this friendship that began when I got a new phone and wasn’t aware of how the combination of my clumsy, tech-resistant thumbs and the heightened sensitivity of my new phone screen found me sending several friend requests completely unaware.

 A few minutes of innocent scrolling and suddenly, I’m a social media butterfly! 

This got me thinking about friendship and the basis for befriending and un-friending. Others and ourselves.

Recently, someone told me that she developed a month-long practice of vocalizing her self-talk. She finished the month by asking herself if she would be friends with anyone who spoke to her the way she spoke to herself. And the heart-opening impact from her discoveries made me consider the ongoing saga of my own self-talk once again.

Would I be friends with anyone who spoke to me that way I speak to myself?

So I decided to send a Friend Request to myself and see if I could invite in a deeper awareness of my own readiness to truly befriend myself.

My Body
I appreciate your strength and overall wellness that allows me to work hard, rest deeply and move freely each day. I love the power and mobility you have in even simple yoga poses. Although I falter almost daily with negative self-talk I do not always think you are overweight. Yes, you have curves, rolls and jiggles that come with age and your fondness for indulgence. But you can also take a set of stairs two at a time and are growing in upper body strength daily. You are source of wisdom and truth.

My Mind
I love how you are always keen to learn and how you process information slowly and thoughtfully. I am grateful for how you make connections in challenging situations and support me when solving problems. I admire that you continue to work hard even when I occasionally dull you with binge-watching Netflix and trolling social media sites. At some point you rebel with deep callings to pick up a book of fiction or poetry. I like how you find the oddest moments to create. You are a source of inspiration to me.

My Emotions
Where do I begin with you? All of you! You can go from thoughtful to reckless in the blink of an eye. You express yourself robustly and frequently but not always publicly. When you come in difficult forms, you remind me pause and reflect. You are the colour and the black and white and sepia tones of my days. You incite, soothe, exhaust and encourage me and others. You are a wall I run into to learn more about myself and I am grateful that the range of your expressions has grown and not diminished as I age.

Self-talk is the longest conversation I will ever have.  

So will be the time needed to consider what it will take to maintain a whole and lasting friendship with myself.

ten days of waking up with a dog

By saying “I am not a dog person” doesn’t mean that I don’t like dogs any more than saying “I am an introvert” means that I don’t like people. It’s all about what drains my batteries and what recharges them.

Historically, dogs and certain breeds of humans have depleted my energy so much more quickly than say, cats, being alone or reading a books in solitude.

Recently, I had a chance to reconsider my position on the detailed story of “me, my and mine” up close and personal-like when Oz, my less-than-year-old grandpuppy, came to stay for ten days while my son travelled.

 

What I learned in 10 days:

I still have preferences.
I like to sleep in, a bit, especially on my summer holidays. And I like to wake up naturally, not to whining about having to go pee. I also like my furniture and yoga mat to be free of fur and drool accents. I like to eat at least one meal a day that doesn’t include taking the pup out for a ‘stoop and scoop’ session in the middle of it. I like to do yoga without a doe-eyed dog with a ball in his mouth begging for me to play with him. I like to walk down the street and not have to have a conversation with every single person I pass, especially those with their own dogs in tow.

I am still possessive.
I heard myself repeating the phrase “No, that’s mine” every time Oz picked up something that wasn’t one of his chew toys. He had them and I wanted them back. My sofa pillows. My kleenex. My sleeves. My fingers. My blankets. My yoga props.  My chair.  My energy levels.  My moment of silence.  My solitude.

 

I still over-effort.
I felt a serious pull to do this puppy-sitting “right”. I found it challenging to leave the little puppers on his own to go off and do my own thing. Suddenly, I was a new mother again who was resistant to leaving my toddlers with a baby-sitter. The responsibility for the job was mine and I intended to take it seriously. The encouragement from others to see Oz as just a dog fell on deaf ears. All I could see what neglect, if I left him alone and whining for attention.

 

I am still a cat person.
Only minutes after Oz had gone home, I missed him terribly. The house had one less heartbeat in it. The cuteness factor was now non-existent! But I know that the energy required to have a dog full-time is beyond my ability to sustain in the long-term. I had a cat for 16 years once and my energy levels were much more compatible with her self-sufficient, introverted nature. Another preference.

 

I am still learning.
As a highly sensitive person who still clings strongly to what is “mine”, I was stretched during Oz’s visit. Stretched to let go of the concrete story about who I am and what is mine. Me, my and mine are only constructs of my own creation. I noticed very quickly when I reacted instead of responded. I noticed when I resented having to give energy rather than preserve it.

I noticed that the only issues that were raised about Oz were in my own mind. Problems of my own creation like having unreasonable expectations.  Oz became the wall I ran into to continue learning about my patterns and preferences.

 

Interestingly enough, I noticed how Oz seemed to be the polar opposite of me when he:

  • was always energized by any interaction, he always had energy for me!
  • gave affection and attention so easily
  • made 98% of the people we encountered on our daily walks, smile
  • would be affectionate with me only seconds after I reprimanded him for digging a hole in my backyard
  • would play tug of war with his toys but not with intent of claiming it as his own, but rather as a way to interact with me
  • didn’t complain once because I did things differently than the way it was usually done for him

I may not be a dog person but I am definitely now an Oz person!

practice as real life

 

On the mat.

 

On the cushion.

 

In the kitchen.

 

In relationships.

 

Everything is a path.

 

These paths are an education in how to be:

 

  • responsive instead of being reactive
  • open to what’s really happening
  • less fearful of how things might turn out
  • less clingy to how you wish things were
  • more skillful in communicating
  • more compassionate to self and others

 

Diligence in one area impacts the others like ripples on a pond.   From downward dog to doing the dishes, each path is a route that can lead to deep awakening with awareness and intention.

 

 

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ideal conditions

 

It was an unseasonably warm February.

 

A clear sky gently sheltered a light dusting of snow on a path in a secluded wooded area. Under these ideal conditions, a fellow introvert and I dressed lightly and put on our cross-country skis to enjoy the solitude, together.

 

It seemed as if nothing could make the experience any better. Gratitude was abundant. Relating to each other was easy and the mood was light and carefree.

 

 

Two weeks later on a different ski trail, in a distant place, the conditions were much less than ideal. The groomed, high-traffic path was icy as a result of several days of warm temperatures that then plummeted to below freezing overnight,  This meant that the track was smoothed down by the multitude of skiers.

 

With the ice as smooth as a newly-Zambonied skating rink beneath our skis, there was next to no control. Our slip-sliding, wobbly, shuffle skiing brought to mind the adage ‘three steps forward, two steps back’.

 

There was nothing carefree about this experience and the edge in our voices was almost as sharp as the ones on our skis.  Patience was left back in the parking lot at the beginning of the trail.

 

What a difference a little grounding makes!

 

In ideal conditions, it was quite simple to be a calm. To recognize so many reasons for gratitude. To be present and not overthink.

 

When the conditions were characterized by a lack of solid grounding, there was a noticeable increase in thought loops that circled around how bad things were.  I focused on what was not working to the point that the surroundings were all but invisible to me.

 

It’s easy to be mindful when conditions are ideal.  

  • When people are behaving as we think they should behave
  • When situations are going exactly as we planned
  • When we get exactly what we wish for
  • When there are no unpleasant surprises or tragic events

 

 

 

Instead of giving into the wobbly, slip-sliding lack of balance, perhaps we could see these conditions as a chance dig deep to find our gratitude, courageously negotiate the aggravating groundlessness, keep our eyes open and

 

    practice accepting the fact that conditions are, most often, less than ideal.

 

So at least we know there’ll always be opportunities to grow in resilience!

 

 

 

withholding judgment revisited

Today I had an amazing opportunity to practice “withholding judgment”.  

 

In a small exam room, I was overseeing a group of students who, due to any number of physical or cognitive challenges, were being assessed in a smaller, quieter space away from the large auditorium of exam writers.

 

Some of the student behaviour I witnessed was completely expected and predictable for this demographic of students.  Forgetting pencils, rulers and calculators. Despite reminders, forgetting to turn off their phones, or not taking hats and jackets off. Forgetting that they were not to view their exam before formal instructions were given to do so.

 

All of these instances occurred even though this exam would have been their 10th or 11th exam written with precisely the same expectations and the same instructions given each and every single time.

 

When Judgment Comes

 

When one student began to spend a lot of time looking down at her hands in her lap, my mind jumped right to she’s “trying to get away with something” and I have an ethical obligation to stop her and then silently (or not so silently) judge her for her lack of a moral compass.

 

On the heels of an intense, two-day Threat & Risk Assessment Training Session, I learned more about the power of non-emotional, non-judgmental data collection so I put “withholding judgment” into practice in a concrete way that a detective might do.

 

But, also as a fan of the rule-of-thumb to “trust but verify”, I first asked the student to keep her hands and eyes on her desk and then, on a piece of paper in front me, I wrote down the following three words:

 

Curiosity
Context
Compassion

 

 

Curiosity

 

I watched, noticed and asked questions about each student in the room.

 

One student looked as white as a ghost and bleary-eyed. I wonder if he got any sleep at all last night?

 

Why, with so many questions to answer, is this other student writing on her shoe then looking blankly off into the distance for long periods of time?

How could this student come to an exam without a pencil, a ruler and without a calculator despite being instructed to arrive with those very items for two years in a row?

 

Context

 

A diagnosis is not prescriptive but can be helpful for educators to organize information about how a student learns and then implement appropriate support. And anxiety exacerbates symptoms.  Students with any challenges (learning, physical, behavioural or mental) will almost always see a rise in their symptoms when anxiety is added to the mix.  The behaviour of a student who is struggling with the learning expectations is, again, completely expected and predictable.

 

Compassion

 

With curiosity and context, compassion just naturally follows.
If a student’s list of strengths (academic or personal) is shorter that his or her list of lagging skills (academic or personal), then they will struggle. No question. And no surprise.

 

The student with a long list of lagging skills needs compassion, not discipline. They need understanding and side-by-side guidance, not condemnation.  Lagging skills is not a moral issues.  It’s a skills issues.

 

With these three simple steps in only a matter of minutes, I had travelled a long way down the road from seeing the students as “trying to get away with something” to students doing the best they have with the skills that they have already developed and despite the many that they have not yet developed.

 

Judgment was withheld for only a few short minutes while I collected data, most of which was already in the filing cabinets in my brain stored under the
heading of “You Know This Already!”.

 

The most significant difference I noticed was how the shift felt in my body.  I felt physically lighter.   Letting go of quick judgment and criticism, I felt an ease in my breathing and a release in overall tension.  I could let go of the moralizing and support their effort with more compassion.

 

One small step only, I know.  But this is how practice works.

 

I also know that the real challenge will be to translate this into my more intimate relationships because those people know where I’ve tied my goat.

 

But still, it is one small step in the direction of freedom from the tyranny of judgment.

 

And towards a practice of curiosity, context and compassion.

 

 

withholding judgment

This is, by far, the most challenging part of my practice, currently. And my life.  Since forever.

My reaction is often swift, heavy-handed and, in my own distorted mind, is completely justified because it is based solely on principle. The principle according to me.

 

 

My yoga/ meditation practice shines a glaring light on this ingrained, reactionary habit. When I sit, the judgments come. When I don’t sit, they also come. When I label my thoughts, the judgments come. When I watch my breath…well, you get it.

Then when I enter the world outside my practice space and interact with other humans, the judgments are there just as swiftly and cause discord and conflict in my relationships. And this is true whether or not the judgments are even spoken aloud. The mere thoughts of judgment can create waves of reaction that spread.

My ability to quickly evaluate people and situations is actually quite helpful in my work. Reading a student’s expressions or evaluating a possible motive for errant behaviour is beneficial to the method of problem-solving I choose to implement with a student.

But, as soon as I create a story based on a judgment, then comes my undeniable attachment to that story. And the defensiveness when the story is challenged.

I genuinely wish to nurture a non-judgmental mind because the majority of my moments and my relationships are NOT about solving problems. At all.  Nor are they about fixing what I see as the errant behaviour of others.

 

Oh to be soft and receptive enough to accept all beings I encounter with a touch of grace and humour.  To see their quirks and oddities with curiosity and compassion, not instant judgment.  To free myself from the tyranny of reaction.

 

Frustration, irritation and even some good old-fashioned anger are signs that I’m holding on to a story created by my judgement of how I think things are. This area needs sustained attention. Even if the judgment is based on principle. Even if I am right. Did I mention that I most often think I’m right?

I’m grateful for my practice.  It encourages me (with all my oddities) to pause, take a breath, withhold judgement and befriend myself as a work in progress again and again and again.  The “again and again and again” part IS the practice.

So today, I begin.  Again.  And again.

 

 

that’s why they call it practice

There are days that my practice happens on a yoga mat. Some days it exists on a meditation cushion. Some days it is simply moments of listening actively to another person who is standing right in front of me.

But every single minute of every single day, my practice is to see what is in front of me without passing declarative judgment. To see, notice, accept then make choices based on the reality of the situation, not on my judgment of what is in front of me.

 

 

2fall2016

This “resist the urge to judge” practice has been severely put to the test this week. News from many sources this week elicited responses that all reflected some sense that “this is good”, “this is bad” or “this is catastrophic”.

As soon as my judgment has been leveled and I’ve dispatched the labels “good”, “bad” or “catastrophic”, the situation in front of me now rises to the status I have given it.

And then my thoughts and emotions about it rise up alongside my judgment. And, as if from nowhere, it’s as if I’m in a blender with all aspects of the situation. No distance, no perspective and no escape.

My escalated emotional, reactional state lulls me into thinking I’m actually awake. But am I? Am I really awake?

The Taoist Farmer

A man named Sei Weng owned a beautiful mare which was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The people of his village offered sympathy to Sei Weng for his great misfortune. Sei Weng said simply, “That’s the way it is.” 

A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion. The village congratulated Sei Weng for his good fortune. He said, “That’s the way it is.”

Some time later, Sei Weng’s only son, while riding the stallion, fell off and broke his leg. The village people once again expressed their sympathy at Sei Weng’s misfortune. Sei Weng again said, “That’s the way it is.”

Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village except Sei Weng’s lame son were drafted and were killed in battle. The village people were amazed as Sei Weng’s good luck. His son was the only young man left alive in the village. But Sei Weng kept his same attitude: despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, “That’s the way it is.”

Our times call for a practiced measure of relaxed alertness. Be awake. Be aware. But don’t expect that escalation and reaction is the same as being awake.

If what is happening really is what it is, now what?

 

fallgarden1

Instead of asking what my reaction to injustice will be, I could be asking, what is my response to it going to be?

Without emotional escalation and obsession with the unfairness of it all, what can I do now? On my mat? On my cushion? While listening to others?

Today, right now, can I choose tolerance, peace and resist the urge to judge beyond the usefulness of it?

Honestly? I don’t know. I really don’t know.  I’m kind of attached to my judgment of this mess.  I’m kind of attached to the rage.

But that’s why it’s a practice.

making hills out of hills

leaf

Him:  “No wonder you’re tired. You worked much harder than I did.”

 

Me (thinking): I did? How? We both biked about 30 km on a gorgeous fall day. So how was I working any harder than you?

 

Me (speaking): “What do you mean?”

 

Him: “Your bike is heavier than mine. You had a backpack on adding more weight. And the mental hurdles you have to overcome are just not part of my experience.”

 

Dammit! He was right. I hate when he’s right. Right and insightful.  Even worse.

 

My mental hurdle shows up as soon as I see a hill even from a long distance away.

 

I call the hill names and tell it that it won’t get to me. Then, when my legs are burning about mid-hill, I bully myself the rest of the way. I grit my teeth and take the hill at a faster speed than when the ground is more level thinking that the pain will end quicker if I just get up and over.

 

Have you heard the one where a hill is just a hill?  It’s just another experience. I heard this philosophy when I was in labour. The pain of the contractions is just another experience. You don’t need to avoid it or give into it. It is what it is. Breathe through it. I didn’t fall for this philosophy back then either.

 

So what is it about the hills that gets my goat?  Why do I have to win?  To hurry through the pain?  To get to the other side?

 

What if a hill is just another experience? Nothing to gain victory over. Nothing to beat myself up over. No greener grass on the other side. No reason to over-effort. Just breathe and let what is, be.

 

What if hill is just a hill?

 

fall-bike-ride

 

expect less

Chances are, I would make an awful self-help guru. Tony Robbins and his contemporaries will likely hold a public shunning upon reading my new mantra for this upcoming school year.

My mantra is:

 

        ~ expect less ~

 

Brutal

Where’s the set-the-bar-high pep talk?

Where’s the you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to encouragement to help others over the 8 months of hump-days?

Where’s the return-on-investment for my employer?

What kind of educator are you?

Step to the back of the queue, Negative Ned’s and Nellie’s!   I have set my mind to ‘expecting less’ and it is my intention to experience more peace this year by doing just that.

Read on, MacDuff!  Just getting to the good part.

 

autumngarden2

 

Imagine it

What would it look like if I went through my work day of supporting students, collaborating with colleagues, problem-solving with parents and facilitating meditation classes all while ‘expecting less’?

 

I imagine it would look something like this…

 

Less wishful thinking that others can read my mind’s manifesto on how things ‘should’ be done.

More clear, direct requests for what I want.

 

Less personalizing when situations still don’t go my way even with clear, direct requests.

More acceptance of all outcomes whether or not they fall within my way of doing things.

 

Less soul-sucking over-efforting to drive up my number-of-people-pleased stats.

More doing the task in front of me with integrity and authentic presence regardless of who is watching.

 

Less compulsion to efficient task completion as if someone is literally waiting at my door for results.

More doing the task in front of me with integrity and authentic presence regardless of who is waiting.

 

Less obsession with results. And even less obsession with the mythical, perfect results.

More focus on making eye contact, taking a breath before speaking and listening, listening, listening. (Then way more self-care for balance!)

 

Less complaining.

More expecting less!

 

Less frantic, externally-driven movement.

More internally-driven, deep-breathed pacing.

 

Less reaction.

More response.

 

Less performing.

More presence.

 

autumngarden1
By the way, I will also be expecting less from you. Great news for you.

Bring on the busyness of a new year.  My mantra and I are ready for you!