Tuesday, November 22, 2011

We get to Choose!

We get to choose how we feel everyday about everything that happens. However, that decision is made so fast and so automatically that its made before we realize it. That truck cuts us off in traffic, our adrenalin spikes and we’re angry! How dare he cut me off like that? He could have caused an accident! We find ourselves irritated, angry, upset, confused, sad, or hurt. Sometimes those knee-jerk emotional reactions are nice like when we smell chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven and a warm sensation of contentment and pleasure washes over us. Our positive connotations with food are what tempt us over and over again to eat more than we need, by the way. Food gets all tangled up with comfort and, well, that’s why we call them “comfort foods”.

But how is that a choice? It just happens, right? We can’t help the way it makes us feel. The truth is we are choosing every moment of every day how to react and how to feel. The problem is we chose a long time ago, probably when we were children, before we could rationalize, before we could defend ourselves properly. We were so vulnerable as children. We came into the world trusting and open and defenseless. And somebody or some situation taught us to get angry when someone interfered with us. Or maybe we lived in an unsafe environment and had to constantly be on alert and our fear reaction was born. Yogic philosophy and modern developmental psychology teaches us that our ego develops sometime during the first 2 years of life and that’s when we realize we are a separate being and therefore its possible for “others” to get in our way or hurt us.

And because of the frustration and fear, we build our defenses over time and sometimes we have experiences that create in us knee-jerk defensive reactions that can stay with us all our lives. These “reactions” can become scripts that we play out over and over again with the right stimulus. In yoga we call these “samskaras”, and they are like well-walked trails. Sometimes they are so old and so deep, its like walking in a canyon with high walls on either side of us. We’ve forgotten that there is any other way to be, and from our vantage point, there is nothing else.

But there is something else and as overwhelming as it may seem to overcome these old groves in our brains, there is one very effective way. First, we have to abandon hope.


Yes, let go of whatever hope you have been holding onto. Just let it go. Let it float up into the sky, or drop with a sploosh into the amorphic abyss. Good. It wasn’t helping anyways, was it? If it was, you would be making progress already. Its usually something like, “If only. . .” or “When this happens, then I can be happy.” Am I right? Well, I can’t see into your heart right now, but I do know that we all hold out hope that things could be different. The fact is, it is what it is. Our lives are what they are. Let’s embrace our subjective reality as it is.

Whew! What a relief! You mean, I can't ever go back and make things different?! No. We can't. And thank goodness, too. Because that would just be way too much work and worry.

Now, we can get down to the real work. We can change ourselves. Notice I said we can change ourselves. We will not change anybody else. We can not change the world. (Good grief!!!!! How pessimistic does that sound?) The only thing we can change is ourselves. And as Dr. Phil likes to say, that’s the bad news. What’s the good news, Dr. Phil? We can change ourselves, and that’s the crux of the matter. Its not what anyone else is doing or what’s happening out in the world, it’s the way we perceive it that makes us unhappy. Your mother cannot make you unhappy. Your boyfriend cannot make you unhappy. Your past cannot make you unhappy. How you perceive those people and your past can make you unhappy.

So, back to those knee-jerk emotional reactions and scripts. Now that we’ve embraced our reality and acknowledged the power we have to change ourselves, we can start re-programming ourselves. But we have to do it one step at a time (Oh, I’m big on that cliché).

Here’s a simple way to start acknowledging your samskaras: Every time you feel offended or have a strong emotional reaction to anything, say to yourself “That’s my ego talking” or “there’s one of those samskara things Melissa talked about.” Just make yourself aware that its happening. Don’t judge it or yourself. Just be a witness to it. Then let the emotion burn itself out. The chemical process in your body takes roughly 90 seconds to flush an emotion. If it goes on longer than that, you are holding onto it and pushing your own buttons over and over.

Use your breath to let it go: Practice inhaling gently through the nose, then exhaling with a woosh out the mouth a couple times, then let your breath come softly and gently. Bring your awareness back to the present moment, the sounds, the smells, the colors, the breeze or lack of one. Are you hot? Cold? Holding your shoulders too tight? Clenching you jaw? Let it go. Let it go.

Practice that for a few days and then I’ll get back to you in on the next step in the next blog post.

Heyam duhkham anagatam
“Future suffering is to be avoided”

Monday, November 14, 2011

Be the change.

Instead of trying to change the world, which we won’t be able to do, let's try changing ourselves. If we see someone else ruining things for the rest of us, let's look to our own sins. We are none of us without sin. That’s what we have to be honest about.

The only way to change anything is to change ourselves first. Purge the greed out of ourselves before we rant about corporate greed. Cleanse our own souls before we judge another's. There’s no right in self-righteousness, only lynch mob mentality that has to burn itself out, and in its wake so many are irrevocably wounded, even destroyed. We are only projecting our own guilt onto others.

"Be the change you want to see in the world" Mahatma Ghandi urged us. This is truly the most profound statement I’ve ever heard. Look to our own well-being. Heal ourselves. Only then can we look at others with a truly objective eye. Only then can we see the truth.

We have to find the truth in ourselves.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I cry

I cry for the children.
I cry for their pain.
I cry for their innocence
And joy
And lightness of being
That has been stolen from them.
I cry for their parents and families,
Who are reeling with the unfathomable,
The unbearable pain of not being able to protect their own child at all times.
I cry for the players and the students,
Whose carefree college days have been forever stained.
I cry for the evil, twisted bastard
Who seems to have escaped the media’s onslaught.
I cry for Joe who has not.
I cry for the wrongs that have been done.
I cry for the pain I feel.
I cry for the alumni who are crying like me.

I can only claim my own pain,
so I claim it.
I am holding on to it for dear life.
I will grieve with my anger,
my tears,
my sadness,
my outrage.
No matter how much you yell at me,
deride me,
argue with me,
comfort me,
I claim my pain.

We are Penn State.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Buy Local: Another kind of American Revolution!

I got a message on facebook the other day about ditching the Chinese-produced gifts for a more “American” Christmas. And, okay, I couldn't resist forwarding it on, but I was uncomfortable with the “us against them” mentality. That's just not my style. You know, the whole "we are all connected" yogini thing doesn't mesh well with antagonism.

In its original form, the message denigrated Chinese products and factories, insinuating that what’s economically wrong with America is China’s fault. It also implied that Christmas had been hijacked by Chinese, mass-produced products. May I suggest that it is not anyone’s fault but our own? We make our own decisions about what we buy. Yes, Made in China is synonymous with inexpensive, or dare I say, cheap, but, who says we have to buy as much crap as our $20 can buy? Aren't we sick of tripping over all the stuff we don't have enough drawers to contain? Why not invest in a gift that is of local quality and non-cluttery?

And while we’re doing that, we can quietly start an American Revolution and economic recovery with our dollars. So, here's my spin on making our holidays a locally supportive affair.

“As the holidays approach, the giant Asian factories are kicking into high gear to provide Americans with monstrous piles of cheaply produced goods”, says our intrepid, anonymous facebooker. Frankly, I throw away so much of this stuff throughout the year that the thought of all those prettily wrapped plastic crippity-crap toys coming into my house makes me nauseous. I’ve been pondering the alternatives. I’ve contemplated the idea of donating money so a goat can be given to a family in Zimbabwe, but I believe in staying local, so, where does that leave me? I already buy most of my birthday presents from local businesses, so keeping my dollars local for the holidays is the logical leap. And, think about this, I will not only be buying a unique gift for someone, but also helping to keep someone employed and maybe even helping to create new jobs.

As our facebooker put it, “Who says a gift needs to fit in a shirt box?” Let’s think outside the box, and focus on services, rather than objects for a moment. Keep it local and here’s a quick list of gift certificate ideas to get your neurons firing:

Haircut, mani/pedi, car detailing, dining out, gym membership, personal training, massage, spa services, golf, bowling, oil change, local maid service, computer services/tune-up, lawn care/mowing, local nursery plants, drive-way sealing, and yoga classes

I am emphasizing LOCAL because supporting small businesses, owned and operated by local residents, supports your community, keeps it alive and economically stable. But, remember franchises are locally owned; just look into the business before you buy.

So, you just have to have something wrapped under the tree Christmas morning? No problem. You can still buy local and kick the economy into overdrive. Go to your town’s downtown district to buy something local. Maybe a nice gift basket from the local wine and cheese shop? Get even more local, make it local wine and cheese. Support your local artists - painters, musicians and craftsmen and buy their pottery, jewelry, textiles, paintings, and all manner of arts and crafts. Most churches have Christmas bazaars showcasing local craftsmen and artists. You’d be surprised at the wonderful things you can find there. Hey, and don't forget your local farmers: eggs, milk, cheese, and various other farm-raised goods. Maybe some local beef for the freezer?

Keep your holiday celebrations local, too. Our facebooker suggests, “Plan your holiday outings at local, owner operated restaurants and leave your server a nice tip. And, how about going out to see a play or ballet at your hometown theatre? Musicians need love, too, so make a point of going out to see the local bands.” Love this. In other words, whatever you can do to use a local service or buy a local product helps spread the revolution.

But, shhhhh, let’s not make Christmas too overtly political. Let’s keep it about spreading the love and the money, and let the revolution quietly take over.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

We all suffer. Despite our conviction that we alone are in pain, that no one else suffers the way we do, everyone suffers. Each of us has our own unique burden to bare at any one time, but don't think you are the only one.

When I was struggling with post-partum depression, I would go to my friends fitness studio and take the aerobics and yoga classes. I would look around the room at the other women and think, "I wish I was normal like them." Over the years, I've gotten to know quite a few of those women, and it turns out, they too thought they were abnormal or that they were alone in their anxiety, depression, worries, stress, you name it.

When my father-in-law passed away, my husband and I spent the next few months in a living nightmare as the extent of my mother-in-law's dementia and Parkinson's disease became undeniable. We had no idea how bad it was, and I believe her husband's passing sent her into a downward spiral. As her delusions took over, we received midnight calls from the police, the neighbors, social workers and family.

We desparately tried to get her help, only to be frustrated at every turn. She fought us and denied she needed help, then would turn around and accuse us of abandoning her. The police told us we couldn't compel her to get help and the social workers told us we needed to get her help. Family members called us asking why we weren't doing anything to help her and a neighbor actually called me to tell us how we were failing her and that we had a moral and ethical responsibility to get her the help she needed.

So, my husband quit his job to take care of her and for three months he would leave on Monday to commute to Northern Virginia and stay with her until Friday. On his way home, which could be anywhere from a two-hour commute to 6 hours, depending on the traffic, my mother-in-law would call me saying she couldn't get ahold of my husband on his cell phone and she had an emergency and needed him to come back immediately.

I was a single mother during the week and my husband was emotionally and physically exhausted when he was with us. Eventually, he ended up in the hospital himself. At my wits end, I came home from the hospital with my two children under the age of 5 and collapsed on the bed. The phone rang and I dragged myself across the bed to answer it. It was my mother-in-law asking for my husband.

She started yelling at my when I said he wasn't available, accusing me of keeping him from her and that he was her son first and that I had no right. Exhausted and completely shocked by the foul language she used (my mother-in-law NEVER cursed) I got angry. I had done everything possible to get this woman help and how dare she attack me. I told her she'd put her son in the hospital from all the stress she'd caused us and she broke down crying. We both cried for a few moments, then she asked quietly, "What can I do to help?" I told her to call her nephew and pack her bags and go to the assisted living facility. And to my utter amazement, she did.

I would love to say that all was well after that, but of course, it wasn't. But it gave me hope and I started sharing our story with those I thought would be kind, or with those I thought were going through a similar situation. I asked for advice and cried when I needed. The burden didn't seem so heavy when I shared it with someone. Just talking about it helped.

We are not alone. We all suffer.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

5% Heel, 95% Head

When we were thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, we used to say “Its 5% heel, 95% head.” We discovered after the first 6 weeks that we could hike all day if we figured out how to manage the terrain, our bodies, water and food. So why were some days so much harder than others? It was our heads, our attitude, our thoughts, our focus.

If I was chipper, the day was like a walk in the park. If I was glum or negative, it felt like wading through jell-o, uphill. I had rainy days that drove me into the nearest town for a hot shower and respite. I had sunny days that spurred me on to the next mountain top. But, I also had sunny days when it seemed impossible to go on and rainy days with hiker pals that I wished would never end. (you’re not imagining it; you’ve heard that in a song – just couldn’t resist).

I could get mad at the mountain, or the weather, and I did, but really? The clouds weren't acting maliciously. The rocks weren't trying to trip me up. That mountain didn't rise up just to intimidate me, and the lack of water wasn't intentional. All the emotions I experienced were about me. Just me. The terrain, the environment just was.

Life is like that. Its all in our heads, even when we think its what someone else is doing that’s driving us crazy. Just like the mountains and clouds, people simply are. Even if someone is intentionally trying to rile us, its never really about us. Remember, what we do is all about us? So, what options do we have left? Change our perception. Change our mind.

A very dear friend once told me about a candid camera episode where a sign was placed by a register at a convenience store that read “No Change Given”. Several people bought things and when the cashier didn’t give them any change, they got upset, yelling and carrying on. Then one guy didn’t. He paid for a newspaper and a drink with a twenty dollar bill and should have gotten most of it back in change. When the cashier slammed the drawer shut without counting out the change, the gentleman asked politely about it and the cashier pointed to the sign, “No Change Given.” After a pause, the guy smiled and said, “Have a nice day.”

Later on, the show’s host interviewed him outside the store, asking why he didn’t get upset about the event like all the others. His response?

“I don’t let anyone rent space in my brain.”