I took a yoga class today and the teacher talked about how we are each: an archer, aiming for what we want to become; an arrow, the thing that is moving towards the target; and the target, that which we are aiming at becoming. I’ve always found this idea beautiful. The tension between the three subjects and the unity of them feels true to my experience of transformation. In honor of this metaphor, I’m going to write three posts that will focus on how to embody each aspect of this classic spiritual triptych.
The holidays break up our routines and tug at our heartstrings. They have bring up old memories as well as old insecurities. For many people this season is a season of pitfalls and minefields for health vows. Here are 4 tips on how to navigate the holidays and maintain mindfulness around living a balanced and healthy life.
1. Cook more veggies: For thanksgiving many people have a CARB FEST. The problem with this is that carbs have tons of excess calories and they tend to make us sleepy and lethargic. You know all the stuff about tryptophan in the turkey? Bogus. They have done studies and the reason you get so sleepy is the massive intake of carbs. Instead try cooking more veggies. This year I sautéed kale with golden raisins and my uncle grilled fresh asparagus. Half of my thanksgiving plate was veggies and I didn’t have to take a nap after dinner. If you are going over to someone’s house, offer to bring some veggies along — you will likely be one of the few people touting leafy greens.
2. Make plans to exercise: If you can exercise with your family, great. If not, include your exercise in your plans with your family. Family stuff has a way of expanding to take up the time you have, so set clear intentions and tell your family what those plans are. You are more likely to follow through.
3. Don’t drink too much: I made this mistake. My family is not a big drinking family, but when everyone else is having a beer, it’s easy to go along. I rarely drink, but when I was home I had a cocktail almost every night. Because of this I tended to wake up later and a bit groggier. You can be festive without imbibing and you are much more likely to wake up early and go for a run. It’s OK to have a drink or two, but an every other day rule might be the best policy.
4. Get enough sleep: I know you want to see your friends, and your extended family probably wakes up earlier than you normally do. Going to bed early every other night will ensure that you get to stay up and enjoy that late night discussion of metaphysics with your cousin, or hear things you never knew about your uncle. It will also make sure you get enough sleep and thus have enough energy to exercise.
Take some time this week and create a plan for how you are going to get through the holidays mindfully. Don’t forget to give yourself more slack than normal. The goal is to maintain awareness more than any strict rules that will be hard to stick to. If nothing else remember this one simple rule: the holidays only last 1-2 months, just make it through ‘til January 2nd and then commit to starting back into your old routine.
So I haven’t posted in a few days 14 to be exact and I am working on a response to a great question asked of me, but it won’t be ready today so instead I give to you, one answer from my Yoga School application. I know it’s kind of cheating, but I think it was illuminating for me to read what I wrote here and I hope that it helps you as well. I think it applies to almost any situation we find ourselves in that asks us to be a student.
What are 3 aspects of being a student of yoga that are important, and why?
1. It’s important to watch the mind that grasps for achievement – The western mind can be, by virtue of the society in which it was raised, a bit competitive. I know that I have had the competition bug in me and that it can come out no matter what I do. This can happen in yoga just as much as anything else. I want to have perfect form, I want to be more flexible than others, etc. etc. There is nothing wrong with wanting to study and practice with skill, because without any determination I would drop any practice as soon as it got hard. What I have found is that I must expect to lose myself in the effort, rather than gain a new sense of self through it.
2. It is important to let go of preferences – I think this is true in all aspects of life, but especially when being a student. Each of us can get a certain idea in their head, about how things should happen. The mind believes that if it can think about something enough and set up a model it will prevent suffering and death. In truth these ideas are what lead to suffering in the first place. I know that when I set my preferences and opinions aside and become open to what is happening, that I learn more about myself and any practice I engage in. Holding my preferences lightly and also respecting my own boundaries allows me to stay in the realm of learning with my whole heart. This is a practice I engage in at all times, but I think is essential to keep in mind when studying yoga.
3. Remembering to be present in the body – Meditation, zazen, yoga and many other similar practices are often thought to practices of the mind, but they are practices primarily of the body, or more correctly the mind body. I have a tendency, born of my study of western philosophy, to think of the mind and body as separate. I often tend towards the superiority of the mind over the body, a sort of mind over matter attitude. This way of thinking is not right view. The mind and the body are not two things. To hold the mind and the body upright are holding one thing together. I think I always have to remind myself to be present in the body rather than to try to think my way through something.
So it happens to all of us. Work gets crazy busy, we don’t have enough time to exercise, we can’t see our friends, and things just won’t stop.
Stress can make any of us lose it a little bit and the long term health consequences are real. Stress causes all sorts of chronic illness and leads us to engage in unhealthy habits like overeating, drinking, and using drugs.
Hectic times can’t be avoided, but there are some. Here is one practice that is vital if you want to navigate these waters with as little stress as possible.
Hold your preferences and opinions lightly: Ok, so this is one of the toughest practices to develop as a habit, but it’s probably one of the most transformational.
Everyone, and I mean everyone has some perspective on everything that gets done. Even if that perspective is ‘I don’t care.’ Very often people think there way is the best way.
Usually there are several good ways to do something, but we start to identify with our way and then we get upset when things are done differently. Our way becomes us. An attack on our way, becomes an attack on us.
It’s Not All About You
Now the truth. Our way, maybe it’s the best, maybe not, but mostly it’s just one of many opinions in the universe. Also it’s probably not an especially important one.
Now an opinion on whether or not you should give birth to a child, or kill living beings, that is an important preference. Mostly though our preferences are for the way we put silverware in a dishwasher, or the proper way to put on a roll of TP.
I have learned to let go of many these types of preferences. They just don’t really matter that much in the long run and when they are challenged, I go, “You know this isn’t really worth getting upset about.”
It’s a relief to do it, because then I’m not holding up this big sense of self. I don’t have to lug around my silly ego manifested in 1000’s of little tiny preferences and opinions. Life becomes simpler, but I don’t lose my sense of power or self worth.
As Long As It Matter
When something really matters to me I speak up and I speak up loud. When this happens people listen, because I don’t speak up about just anything. When I speak up I know it’s important because I’ve let go of so many unimportant preferences go. Things that drove me up the wall and things I’ve fought about with ex-partners are no longer a big problem in my life.
So you may be wondering how to practice letting go of preferences. First, just notice when your preferences are coming up and pay attention to if they are really important or not. Next when something rubs you the wrong way learn to breath and let it go. Then repeat until you are getting really reactive then take a break. Finally, learn the difference between boundaries and preferences.
Boundaries keep you safe, but preferences keep you trapped in reactivity. While trying to let go of preferences notice those that make up your sense of integrity and well being. Part of the way you find you boundaries is by letting them get crossed. When I let go of preferences often I find that some preferences think are important, aren’t and some that I saw as silly, are actually important to me.
Experiment and don’t be afraid to talk to someone about getting reactive. It’s not the getting reactive that is the problem, it’s the stewing about it. Letting go of preferences isn’t the same as holding it all in. The key, as always, is paying close attention to the little tricks our mind plays.
Letting go of preferences and opinions is a hard practice, but now that I have done it for years I can stay calm and cool in many situations. People tell me that I’m such a calm person and I’m convinced the reason why is that I have learned to hold myself lightly.
Try letting go of preferences this week. Start with some silly ones and go from there. Put the silverware in the ‘wrong way,’ roll that TP from the underside, and mostly have fun with it. When we see how silly we have been all these years it’s less embarrassing, then hilarious.
Thanks for reading and Be Well
Sure sure I’ve heard it before RULES! RULES! RULES! THEY TOTALLY RULE! Except sometimes they sort of don’t. Rules are not a panacea ( panacea – n. A solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases).
They can be helpful in some situations, but very often they can actually impede the very thing that can create change in your life, AWARENESS!!! (oooo ahhh).
I love rules and who doesn’t, they make life so simple. I just listen to this set of parameters my mind determines and everything will be fine. I mean that’s what makes human beings so great, it’s our ability to blindly follow a set of instructions without question.
Ok ok so you have you have probably picked up on my sarcasm at this point, but maybe not. I don’t really think that following rules are what makes us unique animals.
Bee’s and Ants are great because they follow set rules well and in some ways humans ability to follow rules has helped us, but what really make us unique is our ability to adapt and reflect.
Humans are unique in our ability to problem solve, but even more so we are unique in our ability to be aware of our awareness. We can reflect on whether or not we are being present in a situation and what our motivations are.
The key to adapting successfully is awareness, but all to often we rely on rules instead of awareness to guide us. So let take the same situation and see what happens when we use rules instead of awareness to guide us.
Sally has lost alot of weight in the past, but has put some of it back on. She works out regularly, but feels like she has lost her way out of fitness. She notices she has some cheese in her fridge. She knows that if she has cheese, she will eat it, so she throws it out. She decides no more cheese, but then another voice arises in her, perhaps one of not wasting food or maybe a voice that is comforted by cheese when she feels anxiety.
She reconsiders takes the cheese out of the garbage, but then the rule voice reemerges, “NO CHEESE!” it says. So back in the trash with cheese. She feels better, but is not quite sure what happened. She wishes she could be stronger, that she was just a normal person.
In this example, we can see all the forces at play for Sally, but she doesn’t necessarily notice them. She is aware of only one kind of hunger: “Mind Hunger.”
Mind hunger is hunger based on rules and regulations set up by our mind. All the facts and figures that you have in your head about how you eat, all the ideas you have about nutrition, and all the articles you have ever read about food are what make up mind hunger.
The problem with mind hunger and the rules that it makes up, is that they can either be followed or broken. It’s a very black and white world, but this world only works we are feeling good and strong.
In the example above, there are all these other hungers and voices that Sally may not see. There is heart hunger, her need to be comforted. There is mouth hunger, her love of the taste of things like cheese. There is also likely some inner critic, Sally’s internal voice that tells her she will fail. There is an inner coach that is telling her how to get in shape. All of these factors are hidden behind a wall of rules and morality.
Now let’s imagine what might happen if Sally was aware of all of her hungers and the voices that created this internal struggle over weight and cheese.
The situation is the same Sally has lost a lot of weight, but put some back on. She works out, but feels like she has let herself down in the fitness department. She notices a block of cheese in her fridge, she knows if she has cheese she will likely eat it, but she wants to get into shape. The urge to throw it out arises.
This time Sally notices the urge to throw it out and gets curious. Why does she want the throw out a perfectly good block of cheese? She notices that some voices are arising in her.
One voice (the inner critic) is telling her she doesn’t have the will power to have cheese and not eat it. Another voice (the inner coach) tells her she better get with the program, which means throwing out the cheese, getting on a stricter work out schedule, etc. etc.
She notices these voices and first acknowledges that some of the things they are saying really hurt. She is feeling sad and scared that she won’t get her weight down to what she wants. Next she wonders if the voices are telling her the truth.
Does she have no will power? No that’s not true, she works out, she writes a blog, she has run long races before; so she must have will power.
She may be more likely to eat cheese if she has it in her house, but overall she doesn’t have a problem with will power. She can observe that she has a need for competency when it come to healthy eating habits, but she doesn’t judge herself for not always making the best choices.
Sally wonders, Is the inner coach voice helpful? Well it does seem to be motivating her to make healthier choices, but it’s technique is ignoring all of the complex needs that are coming up for her. It only see’s a world where there are rules and she better follow them or else. She sees this voice can be helpful, but if she listens to it, without considering her needs, she will likely burn out and not be able to sustain a life-long transformation.
Next she notices that when she is feeling stressed out or anxious about herself and her body she starts to feel empty inside. When she eats the cheese she is comforted by the flavor and how good it tastes. It feeds her heart hunger.
She realizes that though she may throw the cheese out, she won’t feel any better if she doesn’t also find a way to feed that empty part of herself that is comforted by eating yummy cheese.
She also notices she eats cheese as a reward. She needs to do something to celebrate her successes. Again she notes that she can throw the cheese out, but that she needs to find some other way to reward herself for a job good done. She brainstorms other healthier ways to reward herself.
Finally she notices that she loves the crap out of cheese. She can throw the cheese out, but she can’t throw her love of cheese out. Cheese satisfies her mouth hunger so much.
She realizes that she doesn’t want to stop eating cheese, but maybe she can just eat it less often. When she does buy it, maybe she just buys a bit less.
After all this reflection, Sally feels better, she may not understand everything that’s going on with her, but she has a much better idea. Sally acknowledges that these parts of her need to be honored, but that she does want to make healthier choices.
She decides to throw the cheese out to support her desire to be fit, but does so with the awareness that it’s just cheese she is throwing out, not all the things the get fed by eating cheese.
We can see in the second example how much more Sally was able to observe, by looking into all the motivations that lead to her inner conflict over the cheese. In the first example she wants cheese, but she is weak, so she must throw it out.
In the second example she sees she is strong, but that she needs to find some more awareness to meet the needs she has arising. She wants to be in shape, but she wants to honor all the parts of her that need to be fed.
The key to transformation is awareness. Until we see a bit of the internal show of our mind we are doomed to repeat our karmic patterns again and again. The world of fitness talks A LOT about will power, will power, will power, but that only takes you so far. The truth is will power is just one part of your mind and you have to honor all the parts of your being if you want to become a new person.
It’s like the difference between repainting a house versus rebuilding it’s foundations. Will power can change how you look on the outside, but awareness changes how you think and feel on the inside in a deep and fundamental way.
Take some time this week to notice a unhealthy pattern you want to change. Reflect on the voices, feelings, needs, and motivations that arise in you. Write down what you notice and try to find a way to honor all the parts of yourself while making healthy choices.
You don’t have to notice as much as Sally in our example. Even just a little small bit of awareness can make a big difference in your ability to transform your life.
Thanks for Reading and Be Well