Breathing Out Fear

IMG_4722I remember when I first started going to yoga classes – the teacher would say when to inhale and exhale – and I simply couldn’t do it. I actually disregarded her words and thought “there’s no way that’s going to happen”.

I never dreamed it would be possible. It was such a struggle as it was to get into the various postures without that whole breath part getting in the way. As I think back, I remember the heaviness in my body, the inflexibility, the lack of movement – I was basically a big ball of stagnant and held energy. Trapped. Contained.

Even in my yoga teacher training (with no intention of ever becoming a teacher) moving on the breath baffled me. Do I inhale on that part of the sun salute? Or exhale? How would I ever remember which? How could I ever instruct a class on when to breathe? Especially if it was too confusing to figure out how to do myself.

At some point that year the movement and the breath started to come together. I could at least start to inhale and exhale when instructed. The start of the breath at least started the movement into the posture some of the time even though I needed to take some extra breaths before reaching the next part of a flow.

Time passed. Practice continued along those lines and then the extra breaths started to disappear. I only needed one breath per movement most of the time unless holding a pose, and then could breathe more deeply into it most of the time.

So that was it, right? I had arrived at this “syncing up” after all those years. Which is when, of course, the practice started to deepen again and reveal even more to me.

A few weeks ago I was in a class where we started lengthening the breath – for me that day it was to a count of 8. While seated, I could inhale for a count of 8, hold for 8 and exhale for 8. A slight sensation of fear rose up when holding the exhale – a sensation that was tolerable and familiar to me so I could stay with it and continue to hold and lengthen the breath. Even seated, this practice has evolved so much – I used to have a hard time even being with my breath in meditation let alone lengthening it to this extent.

Only this time we kept the breath work practice while moving throughout the entire class.

No longer contained to the safety of a seated posture, now the rise and fall of a sun breath to 8 counts on each movement.  I had done this before without counting and it actually felt great – everything in me moving at a slow, luxurious pace. The sensations of fear that were there while seated seemed to dissipate and my mind could drop out and in. My mind started to quiet.

Then we started to move into a sun salutation. This was new for me to practice in this way and as we stepped back into a plank for the first time I lost the 8 counts of breath. The breath came out of me as my right leg extended back and I gasped for air – fear started to rise up again. I was astonished at the force of it and found it so interesting that I couldn’t keep the full count of the breath while also stepping back. Or onto the move down to the mat and up into cobra. I needed extra breaths – and here I thought I had been “moving on the breath” for a while. When I actually paid attention there were all sorts of things going on to prevent this and I realized I had been moving on the start of each breath but not sustaining the breath throughout each movement all the time.

Without judgment and with curiosity I continued to watch what happened – and by the end of the class the witnessing quieted and I became more practiced in allowing the full 8 counts of breath to move me through. My breath did eventually lengthen and I no longer needed the extra breath to get from one pose to the next.

I loved the practice and continued it on my own at home and in classes. As I kept practicing it started to take less effort and I had fewer sensations of fear rise up. My mind could become still while moving – at least sometimes.

I decided a few days later to practice at the park. There’s an area I love that is a little secluded and I’m always a little worried to go there by myself. As I arrived, already in my head about if I should be practicing there or not because there weren’t many people around, I assessed the situation. There were two women with dogs sitting on the ground and a man sitting to the side on a bench. I felt a little unsettled but found a place near the women and started to practice – including moving on an 8 count breath.

It wasn’t long before the women left and I could already feel my fear of being on my own in this hidden part of the park rise up.

I tried to breath into it as my head was actively spinning in thought, my eyes open now instead of closed and I could see more men around. Some were watching. Some were walking through. Some were sitting over on the benches. Not a single woman in sight.

I kept trying to move on my breath by my senses were heightened and hyper-vigilance was switched on. My mind searching for an answer of whether I was safe or not. Thoughts that I was on my own and these men could attack me or carry me off into the woods competed with “you are safe” and “keep breathing”.

As the hyper-vigilant thoughts took over my breath shortened. As I returned to lengthening the breath I could stay in the belief that I was safe and start to let go of control and constriction. The fear also grew at times like waves, feeling like I was in a pool of threatening male energy. Ultimately I stayed in the vortex of thoughts as I continued practicing, keeping my eye on my surroundings from time to time. The sound of my thoughts was so loud it was like a vibration of screaming running through my head.

I finished my practice, completing the full hour, and was physically unharmed, left alone and able to even spend some time there before packing up.

My mind was racing.

Where was this fear coming from? Years of conditioning around staying safe – when and where and how to walk in order to do so? Or growing up in a time when men were driving around in panel vans stealing little girls off of the street? Watching Unsolved Mysteries as a kid (I was convinced I would be abducted by the age of 16)? Centuries of conditioning?

Is there truth to it? Perhaps. Is it also chatter in the mind? Yes. Do I want to keep myself safe and protected? Yes, I think so. Do I want to fear being somewhere just because there are men there and something “might” happen? No.

It brought a lot of questions for me to look at about my practice. How it can be so difficult to learn different techniques in a safe space – like a class (which don’t always feel safe) or at home (which may or may not feel safe to some)? How do I bring those practices more into how I am in the world? How do I match the movement to the breath and still the chatter of the mind in any situation – not just sitting? How do I start to feel safe and trust and stay open in any situation – no matter what the outcome may be?

I started to see more and more of how I could view any outcome as healing.

I started to think over and over about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.2. To translate and paraphrase he says, “yoga is the practice of stilling the fluctuations (or chatter) of the mind”.

The exact opposite of that was happening here. How on earth does someone cultivate a practice where all that happens in a place of safety can also happen in a place that feels unsafe? What is safety anyway?

The more I sat with it the more I realized that for much of my life I have believed people can’t actually see me. I mean – on some level I know they can – and I also tend to forget that aspect of life. I’m starting to wonder how much of that belief is also founded in the more spiritual aspects of myself that were shared (and not believed) as a child – mostly by boys.

I remember the first dream I had where every single detail came true the next day. I told some of the neighbourhood boys who told me that wasn’t possible and made so much fun of me I started to learn to not share those things any more. The ridicule and shame and fear of being judged were too strong.

If people didn’t want to see me, then I would start to not be seen.

In time I let those aspects of myself become buried – I hid them so that they wouldn’t be seen – so that I wouldn’t be seen. And there I was now, smack dab in the middle of a clearing surrounded by men and letting myself and my practice be seen fully.

Letting myself be witnessed – and not being dragged off or persecuted as a result. They let me do my thing. Some watched for a while and moved on.

I had a heightened awareness of my surroundings and of everything that could possible happen to hurt me and I also stayed. I stayed and stepped into the fear. I felt the chatter of the mind escalate, my breath short, and not only did none of those things I imagined happening happen, but a big piece of my spirit started to heal. No one (except my own inner voice) told me to stop. No one cut me off or said this was crazy or get out of there. No one hurt me.

It was fantasy (of what might happen) that took me out of the present moment.

I don’t want to intentionally put myself in danger just to see if I can practice – but what was “dangerous” about that situation? It was all created in my head through years of conditioning. What does that block out? Create? Not allow? Something stops flowing and becomes trapped.

I started to think more broadly as I know there are a lot of things going on in the world – right now and always – and a lot of people and places aren’t considered safe. I wonder too how much of how I move in the world contributes to that sense of safety or fear. Energy feeds energy and if I am filled with fear, those around me can feel it. How then does my energy impact those people around me and their belief systems and healing paths?

I can no longer be afraid to let myself be seen. I want to feel safe in the world – not because of my external surroundings (which I admit are privileged) but because of my internal world.

Being afraid isn’t the answer. Hiding isn’t the answer. Neither will prevent me from being harmed. Embracing the fear and transforming it into being seen: allowing the breath to flow (not constrict) and continuing to still the mind through these practices both on and off the mat give me more options.

It gives me more openness and freedom to move.

To start to not be trapped.

Stepping Into the Sky

IMG_0074I once climbed Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh twice in one day. It was many years ago now – and a younger version of me was constantly out of breath as I trudged (or dragged) myself up the “hill”. I remember stopping, wheezing, heart beating out of control, my legs heavy. I remember suddenly being hit with allergies – which stayed with me for years – as though contracted on that hill. I felt thick, exhausted, overtaxed and under-run all at once. I remember feeling almost dizzy as I kept my cloudy focus to get to the top.

I made it.

I made it all by myself.

By the time I got back to the hostel, beyond exertion, my friends announced that we were going to climb Arthur’s Seat – to watch the sunset and drink.

My head fell. Sigh. Seriously?

“But I just got back from there”.

And then up we went – together – a joyous group.

I can still see the image of us caught on camera – all linked together. Silhouettes with the sky coloured streaks of orange and purple behind us.

Somehow, in the company of others, and because I already knew the way, that climb felt like less effort than the first. I was still out of breath but I felt like I belonged and that made the trek seem easy.

Thirteen years later I felt drawn to climb it again. Again on my own. As I approached, nothing looked familiar. To my left I could see paths and had a vague recollection of them – softly winding across the landscape. To my right a steep set of stairs and a wider path leading up.

I wanted to retrace the steps from thirteen years ago only I couldn’t remember where they had been. I chose the path to my right and up I went.

Up. Up. Up.

A very different route – easeful in breath this time despite the sharp incline.

Some spots of the path eased off and twisted gently around the edge of the hill and then came the peak.

To say the rocky steps ahead were uneven is a significant understatement – with every step up I could feel myself not wanting to continue. It felt as if the rocks would give way underneath my feet. I constantly had to watch my step. To make sure I wasn’t going to fall off the side of the cliff. People passing by me in the narrowness.  It didn’t feel safe or how I wanted to get up there – my steps didn’t feel secure even though I could keep my balance and (amazingly) my breath was pretty even and not strained. I kept reminding myself “this isn’t the path from last time. This isn’t what you wanted to do”.

I even tried to look away a few times over my shoulder to find that other path (where was it? I kept trying to figure out where it could be) but this one demanded all of my focus and I kept having to come back to pay close attention to what I was doing. Apparently my internal world didn’t like that one bit. It screamed out.

My thoughts, with every small careful jagged step, were snapping around with a vicious intensity. They were what was loud and strong enough to flip me off course.

About halfway up I looked at the peak beyond and actively decided to stop where I was. To know it was far enough for today.

Physically I could have kept going. Mentally and energetically something strong was going on and I needed to pause.

My expectations of reaching the peak were different from what happened and I kept telling myself that was okay. I could stop here. I glanced up at the peak a few times, trying to calculate if I could go on. No. I didn’t want to take those steps the rest of the way.

After sitting for a while, taking in the view, and meditating for a while, I looked up at the peak one last time to verify that I wasn’t going to get up there today.

I wouldn’t reach the top.

After a few attempts at trying to find an alternate way back down (each resulting in a dead end at the edge of a cliff) I turned back and went down the craggy steps, carved and worn into the side of Arthur’s Seat.

Halfway down another path appeared. One I didn’t notice on the way up. This one turned away from the edge and lead through a valley – I turned onto it and walked. My pace now was fast. The slow tempo I was forced to keep on the way up being pushed aside. Now I didn’t know where I was. I had no idea where this path would lead or how long it would take.

My thoughts started to ramp up in a different way. Now they were going on and on about all the productive things I could do. Thinking about a chakra worksheet I’d created earlier that day, classes I’d teach, reiki sessions to offer, a whole new chakra workshop with this new worksheet appeared, oh – wait – a book! I could turn it into a book – a series of books! A franchise!

As I walked I had created an entire self-publishing empire. I had even mentally prepared the marketing copy.

The volume of my thoughts had taken over and the longer I walked in that direction the more uncertain I became of where I was. The more aware I became of how I didn’t get back up to the top again. The more fueled my energy and thoughts became by the fact that I didn’t find that same thirteen-year-old path (and if I had, I’d be up there at the peak).

And now I had no clue as to where this path was leading. I walked faster. My breath quickened. My thoughts flooded me with things to “do”. Ways to be productive. To survive.

My first chakra – trying to keep me grounded, rooted, safe – had been flaring up at the uncertainty of the steps ahead. My third chakra shaken by the “failure” of not reaching the peak behind me because I let the need for such intense focus on the the unstable ground (of a path that wasn’t the one I wanted to be on in the first place) shake me off. I couldn’t stay with it. My sixth chakra also ungrounded and overactive as the expectations I had of reliving the past were not met.

No longer needing to stay so focused on surviving the steps now that the way was paved my feet had tried to carry me out as quickly as possible and my mind tried to gather money – resources. All of it designed to get me out and onto a path of security.

It took a while before I stopped myself. Physically stopped. I made myself look around.

“You’re in the crater of a volcano,” I told myself. “I mean LOOK at where you are right now – be here”.

“Be here now”.

I repeated that statement over until I listened.

I could feel the prehistoric fullness of the place. The richness of the land. The magic and mystery of it.

I could see the slants and slopes. The colour of the dark rock and green vegetation, dotted with bright yellow flowers. It was breathtaking.

And my breath was taken, which helped it slow back down.

When I started moving again, my walk was slow – drinking in my surroundings instead of racing through them.

Every time my thoughts started up again, I stopped. I stopped and looked at the nature around me. I stopped and smiled at the details of the leaves on the tree. I took in every detail and became present.

Once I’d stopped I started to see the imbalances and how so many times in life I’ve rushed into productivity when the path ahead seemed uncertain, or long, or when I didn’t know where it would end. Always trying hard to ground – to get as much as I can to stay safe. Somehow being productive then must mean I know where I’m going.

Only it doesn’t mean that at all. That I know where I’m going is merely an illusion. In fact, all it ever did was make me feel stressed, panicked and like I’d never get out. I constantly missed all that was around me as a result. I have done this for a very, very long time.

The path ahead is always uncertain and I’m starting to see safety in that. Safety in that I don’t need to cling to another path – an old path or a worn in one just because it’s there. Chances are (just like the path I couldn’t find from all those years before) it’s not actually there anyway.

And it’s different each time. The first time I went up Arthur’s Seat I struggled with every step. I took one of the less strenuous paths and still couldn’t breathe. I was so wrapped up then in the limitations of my health that I didn’t see what was around me then. The second time I was in community, and the walk was more joyful. Less about an end result and more about simply being with others. Being myself with others. This time I went straight up the hardest path – effortlessly for most of it – even when it looked like I’d be stepping off into the sky.

This time it wasn’t that the path was steep or high – it was the unevenness of the steps at the peak. It made me focus 100% on each step. And I learned quickly that I didn’t like that much focus – at least not on something I didn’t want to be doing. I didn’t like having to focus so intently on each step. That is something to practice more. To find ease in the ability to focus for a length of time – to actually be in the present moment no matter what it’s bringing up.

I’m grateful that the power and drive of survival is built in. I’m grateful that it’s strong in me. It’s so strong that it can take over and blind me to everything else around.

I’m not going to lose that drive – it will always be there. The practice for me is to know when to use it and know when it’s okay to let it go. To trust. Otherwise I will go through the rest of my life ramped up and racing through with blinders on to all that’s around me simply because I’m afraid of not knowing where I’m going or if I’ll be safe and supported.

To continue to learn how to be present with what is.

To actually be here now.

Scarcity in Abundance

IMG_4750.jpgCan a person be generous and selfish at the same time?

Are those even opposites? Are they on a spectrum? Or do they co-exist? Or something else entirely?

Does the very meaning of both of those ways of being conflict?

If I don’t accept someone else’s generosity (which I do quite often) is that selfish? Does it cause harm? I think it may do both.
In a way it’s stealing that person’s ability to be generous too.

I’m really not sure that there’s an answer. I find myself starting to see just how selfish I am as I move towards wanting to become a more generous person. Generous as in one of those people who loves unconditionally and gives unconditionally.

And yet, even in putting qualifications on it, I’m already limiting generosity.

I’ve been thinking about generosity in relation to money in particular. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who would take people in if they needed help or a place to stay. Am I? Can I be?

At least a year ago I consciously decided to notice my responses with homeless people I meet. What happens? Sometimes I do give money or food. More often I don’t. A handful of times I’ve felt as though the money just moves out of my hand and into theirs as if guided and I think, “I can always make another $8, maybe he can’t”. Usually though my thoughts start to move towards wondering if I could make it living on the streets and where I would go. I usually decide that I’d figure out some way to survive. I then start to calculate – how much do I have in my back account? How long will that last me? Is it enough to survive? For how long? How long have I got? What happens when it runs out? And then I start to wonder – do I give to one person? Or everyone? Will it really make a difference? How do I choose? I’d much rather give to organizations that then help these people. Yes, I do that once a year. That’s what I’ll keep doing.

All the machinations of the mind taking over and moving me out of the situation at hand so that I don’t have to actually do anything at all. I’m no longer present, and am instead lost in a stream of fantasy, working around the edges of my own fear and avoiding reality.

Internally I feel myself constrict. I stop breathing. I hold on. Hold on to what I have. Don’t share. Contract. Keep it. Stop it from moving. Flowing. Don’t give. I need it. There’s not enough.

Every time I do this I buy into the belief of scarcity and the fear of not surviving as a result.

What about abundance?

When I was a kid there was one homeless man in our town (that we knew of anyway). The kids called him “Jim the Bum”. Likely because the adults did too. The story I remember was that he had a promising hockey career and turned to drugs and his parents disowned him. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s what I remember.

How’s that for learning about unconditional love? And what happens when you’re struggling?

We were taught to stay away. Why? To stay safe? Maybe. Was he dangerous? Or just needing help? Because people were afraid? Of what? And is that fear still with me?

About a year or so ago I was on my way to dance class after work and there was a pregnant woman at the top of the subway steps asking for money. My heart went out to her and yet I still walked past, trying to get to class. She stayed with me though – very strongly. When I got home I wished I had a spare room or some way to help her. I wished I could take her in or do something other than just giving her money. I decided that the next time I saw her (both hoping there would be a next time and also believing there wouldn’t be) I would ask if she wanted to come with me to have a meal. We could talk. Maybe she needed someone to talk to. I could do that. I could listen over a meal.

I didn’t see her for weeks though I looked for her every time I went to class. Then one day there she was. All the blood felt like drained out of my heart down into my feet. I slowed and nearly stopped. I wanted to open my mouth. I remembered the plan to take her for a meal. I saw images of us sitting at a table. I looked around for a restaurant. And then I didn’t want to be late for class. I didn’t want to miss class. I walked past and then wanted to turn around. I stopped and turned back towards her and then turned away again. At least three times. I wanted to skip class and go back and ask her.

I didn’t.

If I were to reference a famous couple here, it seems as though I too would have turned Mary and Joseph away.

Is it a fear of not being safe and secure? Of not having? Trust?

Maybe it’s not so much about being generous or selfish, maybe it’s that I’ve started to see more clearly my deep fear of scarcity and how much of my life that has driven. How many decisions it’s made for me. How often I’ve stayed in painful situations or suffering out of that fear and deep-rooted belief in scarcity. Maybe I’d like to let go of that fear – to live differently. Maybe that’s selfish too. Maybe not.

I was recently in a Deep Ecology workshop where I got to play the role of an ancestor speaking to my descendant – and telling her about the current state of the world and also how we got out of it.

I found myself remembering and sharing that when I was eight or nine I decided emphatically to never bring a child into this world. That there was no point because the world was doomed. Today I realized that right around that age I saw the first images of war on the TV. I saw the tanks rolling by. The bombs at night. I had heard of other wars in the past, but this made it more real. I wasn’t even living it in person and can’t imagine the impact of doing so. Was it fighting over scarcity? Next I remembered seeing so many ads for World Vision and I would always wonder why I’d been born where I had been and not where these kids were born. How did that work? I honestly remember being confused that the people in the ad had enough emotion left to cry when they didn’t seem to have anything else. I saw scarcity in images. I heard it all around me, coupled with fear.

Being taught to never be like Jim. To get as much as you can because “you never know” to take care of yourself because no one else will do it and when you can’t take care of yourself, no one else will do it. To live in isolation and not ask for help (but somewhere in there being told to help others – if they met some unknown criteria and then only indirectly). It’s confusing even now to think about. How was that all meant to work?

It never occurred to me to see life as abundant.

It never occurred to me to see the belief in scarcity as a belief.

It’s the same with knowledge. As a kid and for a good chunk of my life, I’d hide it, hold onto it. I learned and believed that being smart was the key to surviving – so it must be kept scarce too. Don’t let others get it – this “intelligence” or knowledge. I remember hiding my answers behind a 3-sided blue folder that stood up on my desk – my arms covering the pages as I hunched over them. No one was going to take it from me. They weren’t going to get what I had. It was mine.

Only now I see that’s now how knowledge works. Give it away! Let it circulate and flow and evolve and cycle back through.

Much later, when I decided I might one day want to have a baby, I was gripped with fear that they’d run out of them. That all of a sudden the supply of babies would run out. Seriously. There wouldn’t be any more left for me to have one too. That someone will turn off the valve like they were turning off a faucet. The flow would end. That’s honestly the image I could see. Completely illogical right? Yes. I knew that too and also couldn’t quite believe it was false. Apply the fear of scarcity here and it’s a completely logical statement. (I want to be mindful here of the many people who have difficulty conceiving or can’t and how hard that can be and to not discount your experience).

Seeing that makes me see how illogical the other scenarios sound too. It’s all part of the same fear. So why does only one of those situations seem irrational?

It brings to mind the yamas of ahimsa (causing no harm) and aparigraha (non-grasping or non-clinging) and in particular Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.39 (aparigrahasthairye janma kathanta sambodhah) which is translated in many different ways. Three that I like are:

“Becoming established in non-greediness gives you knowledge of the how and why of birth (your own, others, and the world’s)” –Translation by Swami Nirmalananda Saraswati

“When the inner light of intelligence illumines the state of mind that has firmly rejected all greed and there is contentment with what life brings unsolicited, there arises knowledge of the mysteries of life and its why and how”. –Translation and interpretation by Swami Venkatesananda

“Acknowledging abundance (aparigraha) we recognize the blessings in everything and gain insights into the purpose for our worldly existence.” –Translation by Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga.

I like that aparigraha can be interpreted as non-greediness and also as the ability to acknowledge abundance. Two ways of viewing the same concept – almost as if the antidote of non-greed is seeing that there is abundance.

In acknowledging abundance and practicing gratitude for what is, eventually greed may fall away. Clinging to the fear of scarcity may fall away. I think that it already has started to.

There’s still more to be worked through like becoming trapped and stuck in the emotions that come up when faced with having or not having. Giving or receiving. Choosing to withhold or limit or block in order to keep ahold of something. To have. I wonder if I can fully trust in the abundance of life to the point that I no longer believe in scarcity. It’s all really just sensations in the body. Responses. The cutting off and holding that happens inside because of this fear is then manifested externally as well. Attaching itself to money or possessions or knowledge. Attaching itself to limiting life. When it’s all just sensations and as those sensations can shift (and have) from fear to feeling full – to feeling that my cup runneth over – things shift externally as well.

There is evidence of abundance surrounding me daily – internally and externally. I only have to observe nature to see evidence of abundance. Is that true of everywhere? Am I speaking from a place of privilege? Yes, probably. And yet, the more I practice seeing the abundance in all that is (and not what could be or might be), the more I trust in the flow of the world. The more I give away, the less I have to carry. The more I let go, the more authentic I can be in giving. I see how these sensations don’t seem to come up as much as they used to with friends, family, people I know. More often than not it just flows. Inside and out. Without thought or conditions.

And still, I wonder what more will fall away if I can shift this relationship to scarcity and come at every interaction as though abundance abounds. Will my relationship to generosity shift? Will I still be so selfish? Will I find even more corners of fear? If I can choose to look at all that is around and all that I get to be a part of by being here at this moment and be grateful does that then is that enough?

I’m starting to see that it’s all energy – money, knowledge, life force – whatever it is and it moves and circulates and has a current all its own. It goes where it goes and it’s futile and naïve for me to think I can contain or hold onto any of it. To limit it and try to keep it just means I’m limiting and containing myself in the struggle.

I’m the one who becomes constricted in those moments of greed and clinging. I’m the one who is trapped in the fear of not having. Is it selfish to want to be free of that? Perhaps.

Clinging to Cookie Monster

Screen shot 2016-03-24 at 12.10.15 AMToday, the Cookie Monster followed me on Twitter. It’s a childhood dream come true – okay not entirely since there was no Twitter or Internet then – still, it makes me smile.

When I was around four or five years old I went to a picnic with my family. It was an organized day with lots of festivities – games for kids and grown-ups alike – and an appearance by none other than the Cookie Monster. I was completely mesmerized – so full of excitement and wonder at seeing him right before my eyes. Getting to meet him! It was as though every single cell in my body was full of joy – beaming and radiating even after he left. I was completely content.

Later that day I was indoors with my mom and for some reason I was looking under the tables. I don’t know what I was looking for but I do know what I found. As I pulled back the tablecloth I saw a large beaten-up cardboard box. Something familiar and blue was in it. I pulled back the flap of the box and to my horror there was a flattened Cookie Monster.

“Cookie Monster’s dead!” I sobbed. A mix of grief and horror shocked my system to its very core. Completely devastated, wonder and awe seemingly destroyed, I kept crying and crying at this lifeless mass of blue fur who not so long ago had brought me so much joy.

My mom tried to explain and I certainly didn’t have the skill or understanding at that age to hold both realities. Which was real? The Cookie Monster I saw not so long ago moving around and bringing such happiness or the Cookie Monster deflated and contained in the box underneath the table? Why did I have to open that box? Why did I have to find him like that? I wished I hadn’t.

Of course both were real, as were the emotions that came with both realities. I just happened to like the reality that I understood more and liked more. The one where I felt good and enjoyed life! The one before “reality” was crushed and I didn’t believe I could ever recover from the loss and the torrent of huge emotions of pain that came up and ran through me. I wanted the first reality back. I tried to will it back into existence, but it was gone. Both were gone. Past.

The polarity of these two extremes stuck with me like a framework within which to ride through life. Oscillating from one extreme to the other. Cling to the good (but not too much joy because it’ll be taken away and I don’t like how that feels) and avoid the bad. I can feel the remnants of years of brainpower used up trying to get back to many a reality I liked or thought I’d wanted. Trying to curb the emotion by sheer will. Trying to get to what “should” have been or could have been or the maybes or mights. Years of beating myself up for what I did “wrong” or simply trying to figure out how to get back. How to go back. There must be a way.

The thing is it’s not separate. One reality doesn’t replace another. It’s fluid. A movement through time and experience. Some moments will be intense, others won’t be.

It happens in moments as simple as being on an overcrowded subway car, all the while using energy to try to get out. It happens at crossroads in life, not trusting which “reality” is the right one. It happens on vacations and wanting or not wanting to get back to “real” life. It happens in the extremes of death and trauma and dramatic change.

The practice of yoga is to learn how to tolerate the intolerable and be able to allow all charges of emotion or energy (even the strong ones) move through without getting stuck or held onto anywhere in our systems. The charge of energy or emotion in that moment needs to be felt, fully experienced, and let go. Moved through. Not stored. Once it’s past it’s old energy. No longer needed. I’m coming to see that storing bits of old energy and clinging to it helps cling to judgments and beliefs including the belief that you can get back to the past which is impossible, and causes suffering.

Suffering also comes from clinging to one reality. When reality doesn’t actually exist to just adhere to my definition of it or my belief of what it should be or was or is. It’s just there. Constant. All these “realities” or moments are real and all require the same energy and care to flow through us in order to be present with what is instead of what could be or should be or might be or wasn’t.

Now, I smile at that person who tried so hard so many times to dig her way back. To uncover what was lost. I smile at all her efforts and hard work at trying to turn back time (and believing that she could by willpower alone). I smile because I understand her and I can now see her efforts of persistent tunneling to get back never would have got her far. She just couldn’t see that yet.

I can see now that I was powerless in what I was doing and didn’t want to believe it. I felt like I had the power to do it. I didn’t want to give up. If I just kept digging…I could get that “should have” back. I could undo opening the box. I could stay in the reality I liked – if only I could find it again.

I was caught up in an endless cycle of suffering that consumed so much of me and for so long.

I had to change direction. I had to let go not only of the past memories but also of my attachment of believing they meant anything about me. I had to see that my current reality – the one I’m actually in is real.

Changing direction has taken years of daily practice and there’s still a ways to go. I have noticed though that my severe and constant self-judgment about what I did “wrong” or how to change things I’ve done really has fallen off. It went from a constant churn in my brain to being pretty much non-existent. I no longer exert myself trying to get back with such intensity. The more I work to remove the charge from past moments and let current charges move through the best I can, the less I have to cling to and the more easeful and kind I can be.

When I saw that the Cookie Monster had followed me this morning I had a flood of happy emotions and instead of remembering the painful parts as painful or extreme joy all I could feel now was compassion; for myself as that little girl and compassion for myself now. Not disregarding the grief or loss or pain or joy. Including and incorporating it and letting it have had its place to pass through. Now it’s gone and the memory is no longer charged with anything other than love.

Ungrounding to Balance

toomuchMy eyes blinked open to the sound of rushing water. 4:38 a.m.

“How do I make it stop?” I thought.

After a moment of hesitation I called for help as the water started rising up under the door, flooding the room. A pipe had burst with the fluctuating sub-zero temperatures rising so quickly overnight. All that was frozen and stuck prohibiting the movement of the water that wanted to flow. Wanted to get through.

I got help, cleaned it up enough, and managed to get back to bed by 5:23, leaving an assortment of rags and mats and towels to sop up the remaining water.

As I settled back into sleep I did think, “the water is literally trying to get to me”.

Water keeps calling me, loud and clear. It has been for months in different ways. Now, here it was – literally crashing down on top of me and starting to rise.

The next day I grew in heightened sensation across my heart and chest. I noticed large blips of energy releasing from my womb (second chakra) continuously rising up. One after another enough energy would collect together and release, rising up.

Blip. Blip. Blip.

Rising up and then getting stuck – my solar plexus through throat constricted so tightly around the accumulation of energy, holding it tight. Minor things started to trigger me significantly, bringing up a strong sense of hyper-vigilance, allowing me to hold even tighter.

Feeling a fully heightened state of panic growing stronger I started to try to ground. To bring the energy down from that place where it felt so contained and intense that I actually thought I was going to explode. I focused on the breath over and over. I stuck to my practice, trying to ground and while it would work for a minute or two all that happened was more intensity of sensation.

The next morning I sat down on my mat and all that kept appearing was the name of one of my teachers. Instead of practicing on my own, I decided to get up and go to her class even though I was exhausted. The very thought of getting to class felt impossible and like too many steps. By the time I arrived, simply sitting down in class and seeing her was enough to bring tears up to the surface. I was ready to burst.

I held it back even as I wanted to let it out (and knew that I should).

In class we worked to balance our doshas. Basically we are born with a certain balance of the five elements (earth, water, fire, air and space) within us and the mixture of these elements can be seen as three different dosha “types”: vata (air and space), pitta (fire and water) and kapha (earth and water). We have a unique composition of these elements or doshas (prakriti) and as we find our way through the conditions of life they also can become out of balance (vrakriti). To find balance is to find that original composition of the elements within us, and not be caught up in the imbalances of our condition.

Throughout class I couldn’t tell where my imbalance was. I felt so intensely heightened in every possible way – the air quality and fire quality felt like they were stronger than normal. It must be vata or pitta. I completely disregarded the possibility of a kapha imbalance.

The teacher lovingly gave me a big hug after class and the tears started coming up and out instantly. A whole bunch of emotion released and she offered that I not resist the emotions.

Afterward, I felt much better. Much more clear.

The energy accumulated again over night. Not as strongly but in the same ways and holding in all the same places. There was less of it and I wanted to keep it that way.

I had an appointment with my therapist and suddenly her office seemed so far away. Like it had never been that far before, my goodness. Even watching the numbers on the houses slowly increase until I finally got to her door felt like they dragged on for years in between.

I finally arrived and with the thought of not resisting and all the work I’d been doing to ground I simply said that I didn’t know whether to ground or to go into the sensations.

“What have you been doing so far?”

“Grounding.”

“Is it working?”

“No…”

“Well then… try going into it”.

Sigh. I didn’t want to. I already felt like I was going to explode – the energy was so strong. I knew that wouldn’t actually happen and still a part of me felt like it might.

I stepped in and started listing the emotions.

Panic. Fear. Sadness. Frustrated. Loss. Fear. Anger. Inability.

I continued and we dove into some a bit further and more and more opened up as a few more layers ripped through and so much emotion came up and out. I didn’t stop it from coming.

By the evening I felt remarkably better. Completely clear. Something about releasing these emotions was working and yet I still didn’t fully trust it or make that connection.

Even though I didn’t think I was working with a kapha imbalance I went to my teacher’s workshop the next day. I didn’t know, but she could (thankfully) see it. The traces of the panic and emotions had returned and were accumulating again with less intensity than the day before.

We moved through a lot of energy and emotion through the class, releasing even more.

The key for me was also learning that an imbalance in the doshas always means there is too much of something. Too much earth, water, fire, air or space. The “too much” then also takes on a quality of being overactive (rajas) or under-active (tamas).

This suddenly made so much sense. My kapha condition (or imbalance) was that I had too much water and earth. This condition is often tamasic or lethargic and that quality was certainly there underneath and the main quality was rajasic – overactive. So even though I was feeling all this heightened energy it was the kapha that needed release (which also helped explain my simultaneous inability or lack of desire to move or change or do anything about it).

The water and the ground are rising.

Too much water and too much earth.

No wonder I’ve felt panic and the inability to breathe.

I can’t add more ground (as I was trying to do to ground the sensations through breath) when the imbalance right now is too much ground. It only makes things worse – more intense.

Too much ground.

The water wants to release.

It needs to rise up in order to release and that rajasic quality to the energy was letting it do just that. Except – all I wanted to do was add more ground to it. Cover it back up. Get away from the discomfort of all that build up. Sleep. Holding the energy was exhausting and sleep could let me avoid having to do anything with it. Plus it felt so cozy and comfy and satisfied the other more tamasic parts of my imbalance.

Right now I see the ground as old experiences I’ve locked away and the water as the old emotions also swallowed down and stored in my body. I’ve done so much work to draw all those things up to the surface – I like that part. The part I don’t like being caught off guard by is the waves of emotional release.

I like holding on. I’ve been doing it for a long time, collecting stagnant energy. I’ve been working a lot on getting that energy to move and… it’s starting to move. I’m letting it move in some places now freely and restricting it in others – resisting. Still putting on the brakes, just not as firmly.

So I have a choice. I can either hold it all in my body. I can hold it all in my solar plexus and heart and throat. I can continue to choke down all that old energy again and again and let it settle in my body.

Or… I can let it go. I can go into it. Feel it. Stop holding on to it all. Clear it out.

It’s the opposite of everything I want to do and everything I have always done. Except I know how to do this now. I know I won’t explode by facing things. I can start to trust the safety of allowing the flow of energy and emotions to happen. I don’t like it and it’s the only way out.

The majority of the energy has passed now. Traces keep accumulating and releasing and soon it will all be moved through.

I feel exhausted and wiped out except I’m not. Not really. That is just on the surface (coaxing me into false inactivity). Wiped out would mean some sort of lacking. In fact I have “too much” right now of a couple of elements. That’s all. And they want to come out. This layer wants to heal. It wants to be let go or it wouldn’t be rising up to the surface.

The best part is I don’t have to do this alone. Just like the call for help at 4:38 in the morning to fix the bursting pipe and water rising into my place I wouldn’t have been able to do this on my own. I needed people there to recognize what was happening when I couldn’t and know how to approach it. To help allow me to “burst”, to help me dive in, and let the water rise up and out, releasing the excess ground with it.

Choking on the Brake Pedal

gaspedalI have been feeling intensely lately that I constantly have one foot on the gas pedal and one foot on the brake simultaneously. Like I am always pressing down on both and preventing myself from moving forward (or moving at all). Continuously forcing myself to stay in one place while wanting change.

In the past couple of days I experienced an acceleration of thoughts – picking up speed, intensity and volume. I had a pain in the right side of my neck and shoulder and my attention focused primarily on my discomfort, consistently returning there with anger and sadness at the pain. As I watched the thoughts they seemed to be all focused on past romantic relationships, past best friends, people moving away, upcoming anniversaries of loss, current friends I’m missing, other people who seem to have close groups around them, and my sense of belonging (or lack there of) started to take hold of the wheel of my reality. I scanned through the past and present for “evidence” supporting the belief that I was always as alone as I was starting to feel (and had felt strongly at times before).

It swelled up as if overnight and I could feel the corners of depression while everything was spinning around as if on the wind. I felt like the energy needed to ground. I needed help so I reached out to a friend and went for a massage and healing session.

Every time she worked on the pain in my neck and shoulder my brain would have a flurry of intense thoughts. The thoughts now were about things that “needed” to get “done” either at work or administrative thoughts about a new program or class offering a new business or getting so and so to do such and such for this or that.

The flurry that exploded with each release of the neck and shoulder were completely different in content and would dissipate to silence in between strokes. I realized the thoughts were there trying to make me do something to not feel the pain. To get away from the pain.

Was I trying to get away from the pain in my neck or the pain the pain of not belonging or the pain of loss of relationships (by preventing them from starting or deepening, or by them ending) or all of the above? Either way the refusal to acknowledge the pain and to try to smooth over it with activity was evident.

“Just be with it,” I told myself. “Just be with the pain right now. You are safe. Let it happen.”

This helped me to settle into the experience of what was happening right now and not anything else. As I moved into just feeling the pain, trusting that nothing was wrong and that I was in good hands, the thoughts stopped. My breath settled. I relaxed and let go. The pain even lessened as I softened around it and just let the pain be there with my full attention acknowledging it.

I could quickly see how this is something I’ve always done. As a teenager I adamantly refused to have emotions. I flat out decided to stop. They weren’t “useful” and I didn’t really like having them. Of course it doesn’t work that way but I didn’t know that then. One of the ways to work around having them was to stay busy. To work. To take on three or four part-time jobs as well as school. That way I wouldn’t have to deal with them and I’d also be too busy to figure out that whole relationships being important thing. Work I could do and it conveniently made me prioritize being busy over having time to be with other people too much. I did, of course, also have friendships and relationships – many of them quite close – though I never allowed them to satisfy this belief that I belonged. I was “too busy” to have been included so it’s okay that they didn’t ask me (even though it felt painful) or I had to work so I wouldn’t be able to make that party. I didn’t have to look at the pain or beliefs that I felt around not belonging. I could conveniently avoid them all. Every time the thoughts or pain came up if I wasn’t invited out or felt like I’d never be in a relationship, I’d feel the pain and it would push me to isolate myself further.

The pain in my neck and shoulders linked the fourth and fifth chakras. The fourth chakra governs our relationships (with ourselves and others) and the fifth chakra governs communication (including communicating needs, emotions, desires). While both the feeling of belonging and work are related to the first chakra – that was the energy catching the wind and trying to leave my feet, move up and out through my head in a long-held escape pattern, only to get stuck on its way.

In romantic relationships in particular I would often put on the brakes in communicating what I needed or wanted. I’d press down that foot in order to not have to fully express myself and to keep my emotions in check. Relationships did evolve, of course, though with one foot constantly on the brake connection was also limited. The heart chakra often also closed off or moving frantically between the gas and the brake (with a bit more heft on the brake). When an interaction let me press further down on the brake it pressed down significantly and became really hard to let go of or bounce back from (if at all). If I could keep the brakes on then I could keep the person at a distance. My inner resistance satisfied and my fears of not belonging and internal convictions of being alone confirmed every time a relationship inevitably ended.

As I explored after the massage I also saw that this is a trauma response of mine, which became further engrained several years ago in a different way. While going through a significant traumatic experience I put the brakes on at the same time I moved forward and through. Resisting internally every step of the way while the external world seemed to push me forward. Not to mention many complex relationship dynamics at play.

Now I can see that I’m still doing it all the time with pretty much everything. The foot that’s on the brake pedal is still much heavier than that on the gas. Why? To protect myself? To not want to go through with it? To make it stop? In that moment, yes perhaps. What about now?

I realized that I’m still holding on to the belief that to release my foot from the brake means stepping into intense pain and having to feel it. It has meant (until now) that all those painful thoughts and beliefs of not belonging are true. It has meant not having the relationships I want and not expressing what I need in them. It carries with it the memory of (and subconsciously reliving) traumatic events maybe even playing out in the background without me knowing every time I do this (which feels like all the time). It’s potentially loaded and yet I continue to sit poised, one foot pressing more on the brake than the gas.

Except I didn’t release my foot from the brake before and there was still so much pain. So clearly that doesn’t work. There’s no avoiding pain. Just like there’s no avoiding emotions. I’m learning now that to be with the pain just like being with emotions and not trying to get away from it lets it pass. I don’t need to put up all these mechanisms of inner resistance and avoidance. I can step into the pain, know how much I can tolerate, and move through it. Not around. Not above or below. Not trying to move up and out in escape. Not to stop and avoid it and try to go only when it feels safe (it’s too convenient to believe it never will feel safe) but to keep moving. To keep everything moving no matter what it brings.

I can use both pedals with skill and fluidity. So that I can keep moving and not suffocate and choke (as it has started to feel) by limiting myself in this way. By starting to lift my foot from the brake and allow myself to live, love and be loved.

As I sat with it all again today to investigate further, I noticed a subtle clenching in my womb. The pain in my neck and shoulder also present again though not as strong. Thoughts continued to spring up about what I wanted to do. What I wanted to start. How I wanted to live. How I wasn’t living. What work I wanted to do. How I’m starting to want my work to have a different meaning. And wondering, why can’t I just move forward with any of it?

And I felt a small blip of fear. Wait – let’s look at that and let it be there.

Fear.

I felt myself try to turn away from it and gently turned back. I went further into it.

“What am I afraid of?”

“Of not having the life I want.”

I’m afraid of not having the life I want to have.

Tears released in resonance.

And immediately another thought tried to take me down, “you don’t even know what you want.”

I dropped down into the fear and felt it more fully.

Moments passed in silence.

Yes, I do. I’ve always known.

And I smiled as the fear released.

The Hardness of Happiness

“People don’t just walk around IMG_0371being happy all the time,” I barked and snarled in response to my boyfriend at the time. He had told me that he wasn’t happy and wanted to be happier in life.

“Impossible,” I thought. It hurt to even consider that anyone would want to be happy. That wasn’t what life was for. Life was supposed to be hard. It was my heart center that I can remember now. When I hurled this response at him it burst forward at the sides in attack while at the same time shrinking and shriveling in the middle. Caving in. I wanted the same thing and believed it couldn’t happen for me.

I used to see people who smiled all the time and I wanted to smack them. It didn’t seem authentic. I mean who were they kidding? “Wipe that smile off your face,” isn’t that what we’re told. Don’t be happy – especially when you’re getting away with something.

Early in my yoga teacher training we sat for a meditation where we were invited to bring a happy moment to mind.

Nothing came.

Nothing came and I froze, holding my breath, and stuck my focus on the pain that in the black hole where I could see there was no hint of happiness. All I could feel were hard edges. I wasn’t allowed to be happy. Because of what I’d done? What I’d “gotten away with”? It had set in long before that but now… never.

And I started to cry because I couldn’t find a single happy moment. Just blackness. Emptiness.

Life is hard.

People don’t just walk around being happy all the time.

I don’t get to be happy – especially because of what I had done.

My long-held beliefs (apparently even as a child I would walk around saying “life is hard”) were so thickly set they were all I could fathom. At that time all I felt was pain. I was comfortable in pain – it’s hard. There’s no happiness in it. I was used to it. I believed that’s all there was and so that’s all I found as I made my way through life, adding experience after experience to this way of seeing the world. Fitting them all in.

Except in that invitation to see a happy moment a seed had been planted. I was, on some level, aware of this absence and aware that I wanted to be happy too. Not being happy was also causing pain. I wanted to find this seemingly fictional state I had hidden from and pushed away for so long.

It was about a year and a half after that initial meditation that I found the practice of yoga nidra. Part of the practice of yoga nidra is the pairing of opposites. For example you might be invited to become heavy then light or hot then cold to move between these two states a few times. At first the different states always felt extreme to me. I’d become so heavy I’d sink way down into the earth and so light I felt as though I was floating way up on the ceiling.

I was in a weekend-long training and the first time happy was paired with sad I had no problem finding the sad moments and feeling sensations of sadness. I could stick with them and pile them one on top of the other. Bring it on.

This time the happy moment didn’t come but I could feel my brain buzzing and searching. Reaching across space and time and trying desperately to connect, to rewire, and then the feeling and sound like when a heart monitor flat lines. There was blackness and there was movement.

The next day it happened. The first time a happy moment appeared. Soft and powerful and clear – it was the memory of the first time I held my little brother. I was nearly twelve and he was a few hours old. The smallest baby I had ever held. That was my happy memory. It appeared and sensations of happiness flooded my body. Tears, different than the ones of loss and desperation from before streamed out, as I stayed wrapped up in the moment.

I had one! I had the most perfect fitting happy moment appear. I was thrilled. It happened. And if I found it once, I could find it again. And I did. For a while that was my go-to memory every time I was asked to find a happy one. Some times it took a while to appear and then it would float up and bring the memory of all that happiness with it.

The sad, painful memories still came more easily. Of course they did – it was a lifetime of me believing that was all there was. And yet there was this beacon of light and reprieve. This moment of happiness in that vast sea that would so constantly overwhelm me and drag me down.

In the yoga nidra practices that followed I found it difficult to find the happy place more than once. We would go into happy and it would eventually come. I’d leave it to go into sad and then that’s where I would get stuck. When alternating back to happy again I couldn’t go. The familiar sensations of sadness held me in place.

Until one day there was more movement.

I was laying on the floor and the happy moment came and then the sad moment that appeared showed me an entire trauma – that thing I had “done”. And for the first time ever I could move away from it. I could feel my brain letting go and unsticking like tendrils languishing for a bit before releasing. I could move away and back to the sensations of happiness. Not right away but it didn’t take long.

I was allowed to feel happiness.

Life wasn’t about being hard. It wasn’t all about only being in pain – whether I was “getting away with” anything or not. It wasn’t about being stuck in one place unable to be happy.

I could move between both.

I could move between both and the more I practiced the easier it became. The easier it became to go in and out and over and across from happy to sad.

I no longer sink into the floor in heaviness or float up on the ceiling in lightness. The two opposites have started to feel similar. It’s the same for happy and sad. I’ve built up a similar strength in happiness (there’s so much!) to what I used to have only in sadness. Now, in some ways, they seem to have combined. Infused with the emotional charge of one another so they aren’t so absolute. I can feel and tolerate both at any level of extremity without it feeling extreme and without get stuck in either.

So no, people don’t just walk around being happy all of the time. That is true. Happiness doesn’t work in that absolute kind of way. Neither should sadness or pain or any other emotion. I was so afraid to let go of the beliefs and control that I had within pain and sadness that no one could be happy, least of all me. I had to make it all fit.

Now I know it can’t be contained. It can only be felt and the more freedom I have to feel and move between these (and other) states the less “hard” life becomes.