Why is Emotional Intelligence Worth Developing?

The old 1950s paradigm that a leader must ignore or suppress her/his emotional urges has been thoroughly discredited over the last 20 years of research. Instead, research shows, time and again, that leaders that are aware of their moods, emotions, and drives, can leverage that competency to drive positive organizational change. While logic and intellect have made our lives easier in many ways—giving us indoor plumbing and high speed internet—they do not motivate people. By placing too high a value on brainpower rather than heart-power, we inadvertently demotivate the teams we lead. Why?

A Leader’s Emotional Field

Because our emotional field acts like an unseen force that either motivates or discourages the teams of people we lead. Our emotions have a profound impact on shaping the perceptions around us. To convey this point, look at the following photo and see if you can answer the question: Which monster is bigger?:

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Both monsters are, in fact, of equal size.

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Also, look at the following shape. See if you can trace the spiral:

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The shape appears to be a spiral, but is, in fact, a series of concentric circles. The visual distortions in both pictures are produced by the backgrounds. In the picture of the monsters, the lines make the monster in the back appear larger. And the background tiles in the image above give the illusion that what we are seeing is a spiral. Our attentions tend to be drawn to the most obvious object, like the monsters, and in so doing, we often overlook the background and its capacity to shape our perception of what we experience.

As leaders, our emotions are like those background lines or tiles. Maybe we want our team to focus on meeting their numbers; closing a deal; or putting out a fire. The background of emotion we inject into the achievement of tasks and goals acts as a sort of frame that contextualizes our team’s experience. If, for example, we are scared that our team will not make its numbers, and unaware of the intensity of our fear, we will inadvertently demotivate. Unless we are aware of the emotional fields we create, we, as leaders, will not be aware of our impact upon those we influence. As a result, we will be powerless to wield these unseen forces and silent messages that shape, not only our teams’ experiences, but, ultimately, the destiny of the organizations we lead.

Emotions are infectious in a way that concepts are not. Unlike like logic or analysis, emotion drives action. Without emotion, we are not inspire. Exhilaration, loyalty, fury, and affection give our work lives vibrancy and purpose. Attraction, desire, and enthusiasm draw us toward people and situations, while fear, shame, guilt, and disgust repel us from others. In all cases, emotions act as an all-pervading guide. Emotion has a way of drawing us into almost immediate alignment in a way that thoughts cannot. That's why watching movies in the theater can be more powerful than when we watch them at home. We are surrounded by others’ emotional responses. It is also why stampedes form in stadiums when crowds of people are filled with fright or anger. And we all know what it is like to work in environments where emotions like worry, doubt, and cynicism pervade. Emotional fields like these have an incredible capacity to take the wind out of our sails.

Emotionally intelligent leaders recognize that in order to harness the trust, creativity, and positive will of individuals, groups, and organizations, that is to motivate others toward greatness, he or she must know how to tap into and influence the emotions of those around him or her. Researchers at management the consulting firm, Hay/McBer, have shown that emotional competencies are twice as important in contributing to leadership excellence as are pure intellect and technical expertise . Additionally, the United States Office of Personnel Management oversaw an analysis of the competencies deemed to set superior performers apart from barely adequate ones for virtually every federal job. For lower-level positions, there was a higher premium on technical abilities than on interpersonal ones. As people advanced in their position, interpersonal skills became more important in distinguishing superior from average performance. In other words, it’s more important for leaders to be likeable than it is for them to be smart.

The goods news is that research demonstrates that E.Q. (Emotional Quotient) is learnable. Emotional intelligence is not just something some people are born with and others not, like I.Q. The essential set of skills, the core, in fact, is developed through mindfulness training, which is a simple, age-old, time-tested technique that builds self-awareness and empathy.

The Practice of Self-Acceptance

Below, is an email exchange I had with a 40-something Ashtangi who read a blog I wrote a few years ago, reached out to me this morning to share what a struggle it it has been to accept herself as an aspiring teacher, especially given that she's not as agile or supple as she once was. She writes, "I am 46 years old and have been practsing yoga for 14 years. I had my last child at 42 years old and my back injury and arthritis in my foot seem to hamve acelerated since then. Not to mention the ever present exhaustion. My Ashtanga practise has been a source of solace for me, but lately I have experienced exhaustion and niggly aches and pains. The 32 year old in me strives to continue, to move on, to be able to do chakrasana, watching video after video. I am now training to be a yoga teacher. The inner struggle within me of achieving, reaching my full potential and realising this may be it, is a grieving process I was not prepared for. Ahimsa is hard to accept for yourself.

Dear D,

It touched me to receive your message this morning. I was particularly struck by your statement that “the 32 year old in me strives to continue, to move on…” Oh yes, I know that feeling. It sounds doubly hard given the fact that you’re training to be a yoga teacher, especially because the yoga culture we live in these days tends to put teachers in the category of "spiritual acrobats.” We have this misnomer that in order to teach, we have to be fit, flexible, strong, wise, compassionate, non-violent, etc. To have to fit all those expectations will send anyone into feeling like crap about themselves.

I personally fell in love with yoga because it initially made me feels so good. And then I started teaching because I wanted to share all the bounty I’d discovered with others. And when I did, I inadvertently found myself overlaying all of my old baggage I thought yoga freed me from onto my practice and myself as a teacher. I found myself feeling inadequate: Maybe I wasn't attracting enough students. Maybe I wasn't good enough. Maybe I just didn't have that special thing it takes to be popular. So the practice that once made me feel free became another place where I felt trapped in thoughts, feelings and behaviors that took me farther away from myself.

I discovered that this was an important milestone on my journey of becoming a teacher. It was not that anything had particularly gone wrong. On the contrary, it was exactly what was supposed to happen, except that nobody around me was talking about the "deeper work." It was all about “what pose you were on;” “what series you were practicing;” “how many times you’d been to Mysore;” “who your teacher was;” “whether you were certified or authorized;” and, of course, “how many students you had." This is the typical stupid shit that comes in being in community. Because nobody was talking about it at the time, the way I initially understood my dilemma was that it was an indication that something was wrong on my end. Like everyone, I'm wired to want to fit in, so it felt terribly isolating when I didn’t find solace in my community.

Through a lot of personal exploration, especially on the mat, I discovered that there was a lot to be uncovered here. In many ways, the yoga community represented a surrogate family. When I found my way to Mysore at the tender age of 19, I'd hoped that it would be the better, more enlightened one than the one I was born into. It turned out to be just as dysfunctional, if not more. It, like my family of origin, became another place to project all of the interior issues where I don’t accept myself.

Over the last few years I’ve taken a step back from teaching. That’s helped ease a lot of that feeling of inadequacy. I can just practice again without having to be a "well-liked" teacher. Likewise, my practice has become less and less about being able to “perform" asanas. Instead, it’s about using the asanas to find an embodied way into those knotted places that seek the light of acceptance.

Of course there are days where my vanity takes hold and I notice that I don’t look as fit as I used to, nor am I able to perform all the asanas I once could, and that can be a little frustrating. However, I have finite amount of time to practice, and I can see that I could either do the one that continues to take me further away from myself but helps me avoid my fear of sagging skin, or I can practice the one that takes me home.

Don’t lose heart. Keep seeking your own intuitive way forward. If all you can muster is standing asanas and restorative poses, then you’ve actually listened to the deeper calling. It’s inevitable and human that we compare our current situation to where we previously were. Unfortunately, whenever we compare, we come up short. To become the best teacher you can be, start with yourself. Keep listening to yourself with both honesty and gentleness. They’re both incredible capacities to grow. Ultimately, they will be great gifts for all the students you teach.

From the heart,

Chad

Fasting from the News

Over the last year, I've made it a point not to turn on the news. I started noticing that I became sleepless with anxiety from the content coming in about ISIS. I realize that for many, turning off the news could be seen as a form of denial, but I see it as a form of mindfulness. I'm attempting to bring awareness to what my nervous system can handle. If I can't handle it and, more importantly, I can't impact it other than worry about it, what good is it doing me? And, more importantly, what good is it doing the people I impact, my wife, our families, and my clients? If I'm coming from anxiety, how can I possibly generate positivity in that situation? I figure that if I can help transform it, it's not going to come about through knowing more and more information. It's going to happen in the little ways I interact with others. Maybe it's denial or small mindedness or maybe it's knowing the difference between what I can change and what I cannot.

The Space Between Stimulus & Response

The psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, was someone who endured the most appalling of atrocities and, at the same time, didn’t end up a victim because of them. He famously wrote:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness.

When it comes to wise leadership, Frankl’s words point to the fact that our success is not contingent on what happens to us, but on how we respond to what happens. So if we are going to have the impact we want, we need to find an access to that elusive space between what happens to us and how we respond. This capacity eludes us when a primitive structure in our brain has taken over. This structure, called, the amygdala, was historically useful because it helped us cope with the threat of a wooly mammoth chasing us down.

Amygdala Hijack When the amygdala goes into hijack mode, it stirs strong emotions, like fear, revulsion, or overwhelm. While it is attempting to steer us safely away from danger and toward safety, it also seizes power from another important brain structure, the middle prefrontal cortex. This higher brain structure enables our capacity to create a nuanced response, thus, allowing us to orchestrate thoughts and behaviors based on our goals.

Interestingly, neuroscience studies confirm the ability of mindfulness practice to change the structure of the amygdala and middle prefrontal cortex. A Massachusetts General study showed that mindfulness practice stimulates proteins that strengthen and thicken the middle prefrontal cortex.(1) In a follow-up study, it was shown that the density of the amygdala decreased after 8-weeks of mindfulness meditation training.(2) With a thicker middle prefrontal cortex and a smaller amygdala, we can not only pause, but we can think of the larger social good and enact a behavior that is better for everyone.

Below is a useful three-step formula created by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk known for interfaith dialogue and his work on the interaction between spirituality and science. He came up with this three-part “Recipe for Grateful Living: Stop! Look! Go!”(3) While this model is a gratefulness practice, it works equally as a practice for building the mindfulness muscle throughout the working day. If practiced consistently, it allows us to create a space between what happens to us and how we respond so that our amygdala hijack doesn’t determine our outcome, but, instead, our middle prefrontal cortex does.

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Stop! Let’s start with an example to make this model come alive: It comes to our attention that someone we manage has mishandled a longstanding and loyal customer relationship, and we are angry, really angry. Our amygdala’s been hijacked. If we are going to have half-a-chance of responding wisely, we’re going to have to create some mental time and space before we confront him or her. As a quick rule-of-thumb, we’ll stop long enough to allow our emotional reactivity to diminish enough so that we can see options that are non-defensive or aggressive. We want to give the middle prefrontal cortex enough time to come online.

Look! And once it has, we can formulate a response that bridges the gap between the impact we want to have in the situation versus the reaction we want to spew. In the case of the employee who does not recognize the mistake, we might consider seeing the situation from his or her perspective. Or maybe we decide to let them know that we do not agree with them or that they’ve disappointed us.

Go! Many of us get stuck in the Stop! and Look! phases, waiting for a “good feeling” to occur. But really, it requires that we just take the step that’s in front of us. And it’s not that all action is complete.

Stop! Look! Go! → Stop! Look! Go! → Stop! Look! Go!

Whatever action we’ve taken, we return to Stop! and Look!. Did we get the result we intended? If we shared our disappointment with our employee, but he or she continues to disregard us, it might even be useful to take hard action. Stop! Look! Go! then becomes a circular pattern of mindful engagement.

By learning how to stand outside of the continuous motion of life, we begin to step into an observer’s perspective. We can see the patterns arise, but we need not react to them. In other words, Stop! Look! Go! gives us a greater degree of objectivity. Of course, we will never be truly objective. Nevertheless, our capacity for wise leadership increases exponentially because we have given ourselves the space needed to stay present, even-minded and non-reactive.

Footnotes (1)Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, Sara W. Lazar. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain grey matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011; 191 (1): 36 DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006 (2)Sara Lazar, Catherine Kerr, Rachel Wasserman, Jeremy Gray, Douglas Greve, Michael Treadway, Metta McGarvey, Brian Quinn, Jeffery Dusek, Herbert Benson, Scott Raunch, Christopher Moore, Bruce Fischld. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005. (3)Steindl-Rast, Br. David. “Stop! Look! Go!: The Recipe for Grateful Living. Gratefulness.org. Web. 14 Nov. 2014. http://www.gratefulness.org/readings/dsr_recipeforjoy.htm

To Everything There is a Season

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“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; A time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.” Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (King James Version)

Every time we attempt to keep something that makes us feel good, it somehow slips through our fingers. The feeling we used to have when we’d meet our sales quota no longer gives us the same jolt. Likewise, as we attempt to ward off unpleasant experiences, we get caught in an array of patterns and behaviors that limit us. If we experience panic whenever we are called on to speak at a meeting, we avoid meetings altogether. These are extreme examples of some things that we subtly do all the time. We’re trying to maintain an eternal state of happiness, peace, joy, ease, power, prestige, etc. And, at the same time, we are trying to ward off fatigue, depression, irritation, anger, anxiety, doubt, etc.

Unfortunately, the universe does not function the way we’d like it to. Life has more of a cyclical nature. The Buddha made this a central part of his teaching. He called this law of change, Impermanence, and pointed out that all conditions are highly unstable and in constant flux. All things change, disappear, and eventually no longer satisfy us. All things are born, live for a while, and eventually pass away. This is reflected everywhere: in the life of planets, the human body, a rose; in the rise and fall of conquering nations; in the condensation of water from the ocean into clouds, from clouds to rain, from rain to rivers and lakes, and then back to the ocean again.

We all experience cycles of success (when things come relatively easily to us and we thrive), cycles of failure (when nothing seems to go right), and disintegration (when we have to learn to let go in order to make room for something new to happen). The compulsion to derive a sense of self worth and identity from our achievements makes it hard—if not impossible—to accept the cycles when we are not productive. We cannot always function at high levels. Sometimes we are creative and generative, and sometimes we are not. There are no magic bullets or tricks we learn that will ever make us fire on all cylinders all the time. We experience periods of creativity, but we also experience stagnation, too. A down cycle can last for moments, hours, or even years.

We forget that, at some point, sometimes sooner and at other times later, all experiences fade. Instead, we agonize about things that are completely out of our control. Of course, when we can influence something, we can actually help to shape an outcome, but much of life is beyond the sway of our will. The Buddha’s approach to working with that which is beyond our control is called upekkha. Upekkha translates as equanimity, a perfect, unshakable balance of mind, rooted in the insight that all things are unstable, that nothing is constant, and this unpredictability is impersonal.

The Taoist tradition tells the story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.

“Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

The story above can be a little deceiving. On first glance, it may look as if the farmer is apathetic, but upekkha is not an emotional emptiness, a sort of lack of enthusiasm. Instead, it is non-reactivity, non-judgment. The old farmer’s equanimity was formed out of the presence of his mind, the willingness not to get lost in the habitual interpretation of what is good or bad, right or wrong, but, instead, to remain open to the unfolding and mysterious nature of life.

The point of upekkha isn't to turn away from life. Instead, it's about avoiding being trapped in clinging to what feels good and attempting to avoid what doesn't. When wanted things happen, we get to enjoy them, to relish in them, but we also recognize that they're temporary. They won't be here forever, so we do not lose the balance of our mind as they fade or change. The same is true of those moments and periods where we are not well, when we experience pain, anxiety, depression, anger, etc. Whatever the experience, we recognize that, “This too shall pass.”

From the standpoint of impermanence, we should not ask why bad and good things happen to us. Wanted and unwanted events do not point to either a beatific or malefic influence beyond us. Change, from the Buddha’s standpoint, is a basic law of the world—not unlike gravity or relativity—and, thus, is impersonal. From this neutral standpoint, the question to ask is not, “Why is this happening to me?” but rather, “How do I work with it skillfully?”

For all of us, life can be a roller-coaster ride. We do not always have a say over its vicissitudes. One method of holding onto our sanity is learning how to ride the horse in the direction it’s going. The more we understand the fallacy and implausibility of eternal pleasure, ease, strength, clarity, power, etc. on an experiential level, the more peace and acceptance we develop around discomfort and the less grabby we get when these qualities slip through our fingers. In short, paying attention to pleasant and painful sensations and everything in between both polarities in a non-reactive way makes us suffer a lot less.

Five Elements Series: Creating Transformational Breakthroughs

There is a pattern for the process of transformation.  There's actually a movement to transformation, and it has one of two directions.  One direction is downward.  Another goes  up.  The up direction corresponds to the fire and air elements.  The downward direction corresponds to the water and earth elements.  So if there's a particularly strong emotion or feeling state that occurs, if we will apply curiosity and attention, that feeling state will either deepen and go downward if the feelings and emotions are watery or earthy-- sadness and heaviness.  Or if it is fire and air elements, the emotions tend to erupt in anger--fire element-- or become chaotic--fire and air element. If we do not allow the feeling and emotion states to either go all the way down or all the way up, we often get stuck somewhere on the way down or on the way up.  We don't, either hit rock bottom--water and earth-- or fully express ourselves-fire and air.  So the game of applying consciousness is being with watery and earthy feeling states until we feel to the depth of our being. And it's often when we get to the depth of our core that insight emerges, and we start to rise up from the depths with qualities of the fire and air elements, enthusiasm and clarity.

The same is true of the fire and air elements.  If we'll allow ourselves to let go to the anger and frustration--not to the storyline that's associated with it--to just meet the raw emotion of it in its full expression and to allow for the full expression and movement of it, since those feeling states are all about movement, then, at some point, the intensity of the state will break and we return back to a state of clarity, insight, and wisdom.

It’s like when a child throws a tantrum and he or she expresses the emotion.  At the end the emotion has completed itself and it is a distant memory.  But when we won’t express, we live as angry, frustrated people.  We are truly more malleable than we think we are.  In so many ways, we all get fixed into one or a few elements.  The truth is that we are much more than being a bitch, or a sad, heavy person.  We have access to the full experience of life.

So this is one way to approach the experience of the elements: to simply be with them, to either allow ourselves to descend deeper and deeper into the depth of our being when we’re in water and earth elements or to allow ourselves to express and expand into the fire and air elements.  As a result of going to the depths or heights, there’s a kind of widening that occurs, called wisdom because insight naturally emerges when we will be with the full experience of life, however it is.

Balance

That’s one way of approaching the elements, either descent or ascent.  The other is to have a remedy you provide for the element, so for example: fire and water balance each other out and air and earth balance each other out.  So when we’re anxious and ungrounded, we have the possibility of creating more earth element for the excess air element.  That’s one approach.  Same thing is true if there’ excess fire element, or excess water element.  We can apply the opposite element in order to evoke a state of balance.

And there are some aspects of our lives where we need to recreate balance because we simply are unable to be with the full expression of life.  There are some experiences that we simply cannot be with.  We recreate balance when we are incapable of being with the intensity of the experience.  That’s where medicine is useful, where healers are useful.  Most alternative medicine, like those from Ayurveda or Chinese Medicine, are all designed around recreating balance.  The only problem is that their effects are temporary.  As soon as we’ve removed the medicine, we return back to a state of imbalance.  Until we learn to experience directly, we keep looking outside of ourselves.  Ultimately, the true balance occurs when we’re able to be with ‘what is.’  Until then, that’s where it can be extremely useful to have outside help.  Until we develop the skillful means to approach whatever is in our present moment experience and be with it and to allow it to completely transform us.  Ultimately, all experiences of life are about transformation.  They’re about allowing us to deepen and widen into wisdom, into insight, into Sat-Chit-Ananda.

 

Living in the Here & Now

Training And Development Like most mind/body therapies, mindfulness isn't exactly new. Its roots are old, but for decades, mainstream culture viewed it as alternative or plain weird. Then came a perfect storm. About a decade ago studies began proving that mindfulness could be a key to fighting disease and, in fact, change the very structure of the brain. The concept of mindfulness is both super simple to understand but not particularly easy to master. Mindfulness is a a present moment, non-reactive awareness. Most of the time, we all habitually rehearse past experiences (if only I'd _____) or anxiously planning/avoiding a particular future (what if____ happens? or how do I avoid ___ from happening?). Because we all are so habituated to agonize about what's already happened or what might happen, present moment awareness can be completely elusive.

But unlike some forms of meditation, mindfulness is not about stopping thought. Instead, mindfulness is the practice of learning to observe all of our mind's shenanigans, letting all of those wild thoughts come and go. Instead of getting preoccupied with understanding or making sense of the thoughts, we develop the knack for observing them, kind of like watching clouds passing across the sky. They move in and then they move out. Through this process of simply noticing, we strengthen an observing quality in the mind. We develop the knack for noticing the contents of our minds without being overly identified with them. They're just thoughts, after all, and they come in, stay for awhile, and then eventually pass away.

If that sounds a little mind-numbing, it is not. Long-term mindfulness practitioners aren't checked out. The practice does not stop us from caring or wanting to have impact. Rather, it heightens our awareness of the possibilities to do so, possibilities that are not necessarily accessible to us when we're dwelling on the past or future. When we're lost in this sort of "un-mindfulness", research shows that we're activating our sympathetic nervous systems, driving our bodies into fight-or-flight responses. Living this way for a sustained amount of time has all sorts of deleterious effects on the body and outlook on life.

Mindfulness not only counters this by stimulating the "feed, breed, rest, and digest" parasympathetic response, which means we have fewer stress hormones, like cortisol, coursing through our veins at any given time. Hence the links between mindfulness and reductions in blood pressure, heart rate, and inflammation. Not only can it alter our stress levels, but it also has been proven to change the very structure of our brains, a process called neuroplasticity. Mindfulness has been shown to thicken areas of the brain that control emotions and stress responses within just eight weeks of daily practice. That's why mindfulness can mean the difference between absolutely "losing it" and staying centered when a boss arbitrarily gives a raise to a peer and not to us.

Start Your Practice

Begin You can try it anytime, any place, in almost any situation. And once you get the hang of it, you'll automatically be more mindful, without much effort. It's a good idea to start with a timer. That way, you're committed to staying put for a particular period of time.

Posture It does not matter, though, whether you sit in a chair or on the floor. What does matter, however, is that your body is relatively comfortable, and you can remain in the same posture for a sustained period of time. The posture is like a tripod of a camera. The steadier it is, the more you’ll see.

Breath If posture is like the tripod of a camera, the awareness is like the lens: if it is clouded or agitated, you may see forms but no detail. That’s why you focus on the breath. The breath is an object the awareness can steady on for a sustained period of time. The subtler the mind, the more detail you’ll see. Just observing the breath calms the thought patterns of the mind, brings you back into the present moment, awakens clear seeing, and brings the awareness toward the interior.

Sensations Once the attention is razor-sharp, you point it in the direction of the interior. This is where you train to be both sensitive and, at the same time, non-reactive. Move your attention throughout the body in what’s known as a body-scan, shifting the awareness from head-to-toe and toe-to-head, noticing sensations that crop up depending on where the attention is drawn to. Start the awareness at the top of the head, move down to the face, the neck, throat, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, upper back, belly, mid and lower back, pelvis, genitals, legs, and feet. And then return from the toes back up the same way you came down. Repeat this until your timer goes off.

Just Notice/ Don’t React Feeling sensation in the body like this can sometimes be overwhelming, boring, uncomfortable, and, at times, downright painful. Nobody likes to feel pain or discomfort, but mindfulness instruction is very clear: Don’t react. Just notice. In other words, if you feel discomfort, try not to move away from it. One way we try to move away from discomfort is by trying to understand or make sense of it. So if thoughts arise, notice them and label them, “Thinking.” And then come back to the sensations in the body.

Curiosity It can be immensely helpful to observe with a quality of curiosity. Curiosity tends to lower the risk associated with meeting our edge. It also opens us up to being surprised to find unexpected truths. Finally, it's child-like and exciting.

Distraction If you notice that you are distracted for good chunks of the time, don’t be too hard on yourself. There is no such thing as a good or bad meditation. A wandering mind does not mean failure. The fact that the mind wanders throughout is just data. In all likelihood, if you stay with the process, you'll also notice moments when the mind is very still and clear. We are not attempting to achieve a state of no-thinking. Instead, we are observing the various states of mind.

One method of tracking our progress on the path is to consider the amount of time we were able to stay present. This can be very difficult and to do so can be extremely frustrating. The place to start, instead, is to consider the amount of times we were able to come back to the present moment. As we keep applauding our return, we slowly encourage our awareness to keep returning.

A Passionate Life

There are three yogis in a cave. They’ve been there, practicing meditation for the last 10 years. Around the tenth year, something moves by the mouth of the cave. One yogi murmurs, “I think that was a rabbit." A year later, another yogi whispers, “No, I think that was a squirrel.”

Six months later, the third one blurts, “If the two of you don’t stop fighting, I’m going to have to leave this cave."

There’s a misperception that to be mindful means to be a detached navel-gazer in a cave, that being present and aware is devoid of creativity and passion. Mindfulness, in fact, highlights our passions.

By bringing us fully into the experience of the here-and-now, we are more aware, allowing us to appreciate each moment with far greater subtlety: a bursting feeling in the heart when we realize we are in love; the uplifting quality of a new and creative idea; the power when we sense our connection to a cause that aligns with our deepest values.

Because our senses are more enhanced, we can grasp more clearly what is actually calling us among the myriad, transitory complications of our modern lives. We can also see who we are with less judgment and more acceptance. Sometimes even more importantly, we see the inauthentic roles we have been playing out, those roles that do not reflect who we are essentially.

When we stop wanting to be someone else, we can finally recognize our unique gifts, talents and passions and what we want to do with our “one wild and precious life.” We can let go of playing by everyone else’s rules—our parents, our bosses, our partner’s, society— and start to ask the question, “What matters to me?”

Make Your Life Your Message

When asked for his message for the world, Gandhi responded with the now famous line, “My life is my message.” Is your life a reflection of your message? To live such a life, is to live passionately, as Gandhi did.

Webster dictionary defines passion as, “a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept.” At its core, passion is an interior force, a sort of current that drives and energizes us to understand and merge with the object of our passion. It can be an activity, a quality of mind, a path and, of course, it can be another person or animal. When we are not living in accordance or in harmony with our passions, our lives feel discordant, lifeless, flat and hollow.

In contrast, when we live with passion, we are compelled and fueled with enthusiastic emotion. Whatever the object of our passion, it connects us to a greater sense of purpose, the feeling that we are part of some greater whole. It also leads us to a greater understanding of what makes us unique; whatever the object of our passion, it is our very own.

It is not something to be found somewhere other than where we are. It is already inside of us, yet for most of us, passion is ill-defined. Instead, it is a lived experience that emerges in subtle inklings. It can show up at the birth of a child, a sunset, the completion of an arduous journey or the beginning of a new one. Our passions often can be discovered in the activities where we completely lose ourselves, be it a sport, a hobby or a particular kind of problem solving.

We are not always aware of our passions because we are so busy with our to-do lists. It also does not help that many of us were told that our passions were not practical, that if we followed them, we likely would not succeed or we would not make enough money to get by. We learned to turn a blind eye to the glimmer of a calling. Regardless of the cause, for most of us, our passions are hidden.

Obsession and Clinging

Our passions can also blind us. When our passions control us, they can lead toward obsessions. When overdone, passion can completely undo our lives. Just think of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, lechery and sloth. In Buddhism, each sin is considered a form of grasping or clinging. When we obsessively clinging to the pleasant feelings that passion can fuel, we forget that like all things, even passion is impermanent: it comes; stays for awhile; and eventually passes away.

We are all vulnerable to obsessive passion. We all get lost in it sometimes. Wealth, power and fame can be alluring for each of us at times. Mindfulness practices are not moralistic. Because we meditate does not mean that we should not abstain from enjoying the things we have or pursue success.

Instead, our practices have the potential to show us our embodied response of when passion has overtaken us and when we have become attached. We can be sure that we are working with clinging when we find ourselves on the hunt for increasingly greater thresholds of success and, at the same time, are despondent at its loss or evading quality.

Mindfulness practice helps us maintain an even quality of mind. It helps us to see that whatever success we have attained in following our passion, it does not define us, nor is our happiness dependent on it. The practice itself helps us remain discerning. We use the practice to distinguish wisdom from delusion, to make choices that are life enhancing not only to ourselves but others, as well.

So enjoy what lights you up. Explore all the varieties of California Pinots. Protest race inequality. Make music that delights you. Sweat your prayers. Make love with abandon. And bring your mindfulness practice to each experience: breathing with it, sensing it and ride the wave all the way until the end. And when it is over, let it go.

An Approach to Ashtanga that Supports Aging & Fatigue

Below, is an email exchange I had with a friend in the Ashtanga community, someone who is struggling to find a way into her practice such that it supports her fatigue and depression. I share it because I have the sense that many practitioners silently struggle with these very issues, and I do not believe that the teaching community adequately speaks into these issues.  Often the instruction students receive is, “Keep practicing.  It will change.” And so many fatigued and frustrated Ashtangis, just keep doing the same practice over and over hoping for a different outcome.  Many, however, quit.  Ashtanga is a powerful practice, but there can be an ethos within the community that is unforgiving.  There isn’t a lot of space for those who need to deviate from the standard practice.  It is not uncommon for students to essentially get the message: “You either do it the way it’s taught in Mysore, or you’re not welcome in this room.” 

I share this dialogue for those people who have not been able to find the space within the world of Ashtanga to know that an Ashtanga practice does not have to look just one way and that there is a way for the practice to support you, no matter where you are in your life. 

Dear Chad,

I have had chronic fatigue for many years, and used to find my Ashtanga practice helpful with my energy levels, but lately, I’ve been struggling with the intensity of the practice and have been asking myself, “What the heck am I actually doing?” I do think the Primary Series is very detoxifying, but it wasn't until I went back on antidepressants that I had any kind of ability to maintain my practice. I have been off of them again for 1 year and want to keep it that way.

However my fatigue returns when I try to expand my practice, and my self-practice at home is never very energized.  I feel I need the energy of others in order to really push through my energy issues. And now that I’m in my mid-40’s, I’ve been asking myself, “How am I going to maintain this practice?” Lately, I am always on that line of questioning because it seems that without the pills I cannot maintain my energy, and I am committed to keeping myself off medications.

At this time the support of a community and teacher would be so helpful, but I cannot seem to find it; in fact, I have been greatly disappointed by folks within the tradition who I admire, people I thought would understand and point me in a particular direction.  They’ve neither been kind nor helpful. If you could offer me some advice on how to proceed I would be very grateful.

Thanks,

T

 

Dear T.

Many within the tradition we come from, unfortunately, promote the notion that we should be able to maintain a vigorous practice no matter what stage of development we're in, no matter how healthy or unhealthy we are.  And that's just not a viable, life-long approach to practice.  The practice that suited me in my early 20’s, for example, no longer fits for me in my 40s. A mature perspective on practice recognizes that yoga should support our health and well-being no matter where we are in life.

When I first started learning the practice, I was 19 years old, so it helped me immensely to have a place to direct all of my energies, both positive and not so positive.  Without it those anxious times might have been met with a lot more self-destructive patterns, like drinking, drugs, and self-loathing.  Having the structure to get up early each morning, to show up on that mat and practice strongly each day was the perfect solution for all that anxiety, self-doubt, and agitation that seemed to be central to my 20s and early 30’s.  But as I’ve gotten older, practicing like that zaps me.

I’ve recently stopped practicing Advanced A.  I find that it stresses me out physically and emotionally.  As I transition into my early 40’s, I notice that all of the arm balances make my neck, shoulders, and upper-back ache and tax my energy. I am at the stage of life where I want to have enough energy to give to my wife, our family, my clients, and my community, and it is a lot to manage.  At some point in the last few years I woke up to the fact that I did not want to keep giving all my energy to my practice.  I wanted my practice to be able to support me, to support my life, to support my pursuits.

And these days, I’m just starting to be okay with the fact that my practice might look different each day.  I tend to stay on the six day per week schedule, but I no longer beat myself up if I don’t get to it that often.  If I, at the very least, get on my mat four days a week, I feel like I’m on track.  After all, I’m not trying to “kill it.”  I’m not pushing into the next pose or the next series. I’m maintaining my health, vitality, and clarity to face my life.  While I practice primary and intermediate series most of those days, I may or may not complete the whole series of postures.  I usually jump back between sides, but when I don’t have the energy, I don’t push it.

I especially don’t push it when I have an injury, am sick, or don’t get enough sleep.  Melissa, my wife was up all night with the flu last week, which meant that I was up, too.  When I got on my mat the next morning, my head was spinning.  I wasn't sure if I was coming down with the flu, myself.  So after the Ashtanga Invocation, instead of starting Suryanamaskar A, all I had the energy to do was to take padmasana; do ujjayi pranayama for about 30 minutes; and then take a 45-minute savasana.  Yep, that was my practice.  And, yes, I still consider that Ashtanga Yoga. I did not, in fact, get sick.  I had eight clients that day, and had I not taken care of myself, I would have been a mess.

It is my sense that the practice continues to evolve as we get older.  When I was in Mysore in 2005, I was told that someone I was practicing with in the shala in his mid-50’s was taking anti-inflammatory drugs in order to continue practicing Advanced A and B.  His practice looked quite acrobatic for someone his age, but was that practice supporting him or was he supporting it?  What’s clear to me is that as the body evolves, so should we.

Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois’ teacher, divided yoga practice into various categories, called krama, which means a step used to achieve a particular goal.  As we get older, our orientation moves from athletic perfection (siksasana krama) to maintaining our health and preserving our youth (raksasana krama).  Eventually, our orientation moves to adhyamatya krama, or spiritual matters. (1) We tend to move our practice in this direction in the time of life we in the West tend of think of as retirement.  It occurs in our culture when we are in our 60’s or 70’s.  Our focus turns toward questions about the meaning of life. And so the orientation is less in the way of getting and staying strong and flexible in the body. I am not suggesting that it is unimportant to maintain health and vitality as we age, but that the 60’s onward are about developing wisdom, and that comes about primarily through stillness practices, like meditation. (2)

I cannot personally speak about this stage of development because I am not there. I do know several Ashtanga practitioners in their late-50’s and 60’s who do not keep the same practice they kept when they were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, but they’re not very public about how their practices have changed; in fact, about a year ago, I asked an old friend who has been practicing since the 70s if he would be willing to be interviewed for this very question, but he declined.  He did not want to expose himself to criticism.  I completely understand his perspective.  When someone speaks about altering the practice to even the slightest degree, some people who have elected themselves to be the “yoga police” within the community launch in with vitriolic abuse. Nevertheless, I do sense that it would be very healing for all of us to learn how our teachers and mentors evolved their practices to account for the physical, emotional, and spiritual changes that occur with aging.

As far as I can see, T, you can take the practice we're taught and break it into component parts that support you energetically and spiritually.  Maybe one day you skip all jump-backs and jump-throughs to prevent fatigue from setting in.  Maybe on another, you practice only a few postures paying particular attention to your breath and bandhas and only go as far as you can keep your attention.  When you notice it flagging, you stop. Maybe on another day, you wake up feeling ungrounded, so you just do the standing sequence, holding each posture for 10-20 breaths.  Or maybe the mood needs lifting, so you focus on back bending, chest openers, and emphasize inhales and inhale retentions.  The variations are endless.  What’s required is the willingness to take the dive, to experiment.

Yes, it can be helpful to have a teacher who has already walked down this path, someone who can show you the way, and it can also be extremely helpful to have a place with group support where your experimentation is welcome, but there are not many Mysore rooms or teachers that are ready for a student like you, not yet, at least.  So you have to be willing to develop a home practice and then also be equally willing to take risks, read, and just keep showing up on your mat with curiosity.

In closing, I recently heard about this experiment called the Asch Paradigm where they put 10 people in a room.  9 of the people were shills.  1 was not.  They showed all 10 cards with lines of different lengths.  Two of the lines were clearly of equal length (Exhibit 1 and B) while the other two (A and C) were not.

asch_conformity

The researchers asked the nine shills to claim that two badly mismatched lines (B and C) were actually the same, and that the actual twins (Exhibit 1 and A) were total misfits. The one person who was not a shill almost always went along with the other 9 members.  Why?  When they quizzed the victims of peer pressure, it turned out that many had done far more than simply go along to get along. They had actually shaped their perceptions, not with the reality in front of them, but with the consensus of the multitude. (3)

In short, what I'm suggesting is that you're not weird or unusual in your experience of the practice.  That you're fatigued from it is pretty common.  My question to you is whether you have the guts to trust your own intuitive sense that something is off and find an approach that supports your well-being and that supports your mood.  That can be a huge challenge, especially if you're used to the support of the Mysore room to carry your practice as well as the support of a teacher and friends who share a mutual love for the system.  It's hard not only to stand on your own, but to trust your innate knowing when everyone around you is telling you that you’re crazy when, in fact, you’re not.

I hope this helps.

Chad

 

Footnotes:

(1) So for example, B.K.S. Iyengar reported that “In 1978, after my 60th birthday celebration, my guru (Sri T. Krishnamacharya) advised me to devote time to meditation and to reduce my physical strain.” (Iyengar, B.K.S., Astadala Yogamala. New Delhi: Allied Publishers Limited. 2001)

(2) I’m not suggestion just because one has reached a certain age, they should stop doing the Ashtanga series.  If someone has the inclination, time, and energy to devote to progressing through the series and they’re no longer young, by all means, I think it is important to follow that urge.  It can be incredibly life affirming to practice advanced postures and to push the limits on what’s possible in this human form.

 

Five Element Series Part 6: Fire Element

The fire element brings heat to the body-mind-spirit.  The sensations of fire range from feelings of warmth to heat of desire to lust.  This is the element of aggression, anger, tension, hostility, and rage.  It also puts us in touch with burning passion and intensity, the testosterone-driven urge to "f-ck it or kill it" and many lesser extremes, too.  In its milder forms, it shows up as the warmth and generosity we bring to our relationships.

The Horny Celibate

Some yoga and spiritual teachers, especially those that focus on transcendence from the temporal and mundane, tend to have an awkward relationship with the fire element. They discourage their students from feeding the fire element. Much of the teaching is centered around overcoming passion through suppression rather than transformation.  When anger gets suppressed, we tend to see aspirants pretending to be blissed out when, in fact, they’re really angry.  We also see people pretending to have transcended sexuality but are, in fact, what Ram Dass  calls "the horny celibate."

Part of the issue is that fiery emotions can be extremely destructive.  We all have had the experience in which someone close to us has said something to us or someone else in a moment of rage that destroyed that relationship.  Oftentimes people who kill will say, "I was in a fit of rage.  I wasn't in my right mind."  Playing with fire requires great skill, both literally and figuratively.  We tell children not to touch the fire, but we train firefighters to develop a a healthy respect for it.  Suffice to say, the fire element is scary for us all, but if we don't learn how to wield and use it, we miss out on a whole side of life, one filled with expression, warmth, passion, aliveness, sexual expression and adventure.

Saying, "Yes" but meaning, "No"

Another expression of the fire element that can be extremely useful to harness is our capacity to say, “no.”  Many of us just have the hardest time expressing anger in a clean way.  Anger is really the emotional experience that a boundary has been crossed, the boundary that marks and protects something we cherish or love deeply, whether a value, someone we love, or ourselves.  And if we learn how to handle the fire element with a degree of proficiency, we don't end up feeling ripped off or used by others.  We simply have the capacity to say, "No" and mean, "No," rather than saying, "Yes" but meaning, "No."

Present moment, firey responses that come from the ground of our being and through our center tend to be clear, succinct, and powerful.  When the energy of the fire element is sourced in the mind and is past oriented and based in resentment or future oriented and based in anticipatory fear, however, the expression tends to create more chaos. This is a sort of top down expression rather than the first, which is bottom up.  This is the kind of anger or lust sourced in fantasy, the kind we replay over and over again in our heads.  Actions that are sourced from this place often end us in a heap of trouble.  I am not suggesting that we suppress the fire element that arises like this.  Instead of reacting from a place of rumination, it can be helpful to learn to channel the energy until clarity and insight arise.  When we can learn to move the energies, they shift and awaken insight in us.

Fire in the Belly

From the yogic perspective, the fire element that is centered in the navel is called agni.  It is situated there in order to metabolize the food we eat and the experiences we have into energy and insight.  The metabolism is fueled by fire, and it's not just any fire.  It's the fire of transformation.  Our systems alchemically transform other life forms, whether in animal or vegetal forms, into the life force we use to survive.  Similarly, the fire element is the source of the various faculties we use to transform our inner experience through, staying.  In other words, we experience plenty of situations in life when we want to run, when we’re freaked out, but when we continuously observe our experiences without labeling or running, we’re harnessing an inner fire that in Sanskrit is called tapasTapas is our capacity to stay with discomfort in order to see clearly into things.

Fire is also an incredibly useful tool for clearing blockages and debris in the system, called apana.  The grandfather of modern yoga, Sri T. Krishnamacharya used to teach that we can use the breath to direct the cleansing nature of agni: "On inhalation the breath moves toward the belly, causing a draft that directs the flame downward, just like a fireplace: during exhalation the draft moves the flame in the opposite direction, brining with it the just burned waste matter." (Desikachar, T.K.V., The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice.  VermontInner Traditions International, 1995. Print).  Similarly, inverted postures, like sirsasana (headstand) and sarvangasana (shoulder stand) help direct the agni deeper into the lower abdomen and pelvic floor.  In the inversion, the inner flame is said to be pointed upward into the lower chakras, burning away our preoccupation with fear (first chakra) and sex (second chakra).  Ultimately, all of these cleaning techniques are aimed at transmuting the lower nature of the mind so that we can experience higher states of consciousness, like love, compassion, wisdom, and insight.

Exercise

Click here to listen to Fire Element Music 1

Click here to listen to Fire Element Music 2

Diagnosing the Fire Element in Ourselves and Our Practice

Fire is the element representative of the fiery nature of the body, mind, and spirit.  We feel the fire element in our bodies when we sense heat or lack there of, from fevers, to frenzies, erotic feelings to rage.  Heat has the tendency to rise up, and so it does in our bodies manifesting in burning eyes, headaches, and hypertension.   Fire element is present when we describe the things of life as: "intense," "hot," and even, "scary."

The Personality of the Fire Element

People with a lot of fire element in their personality exude the following positive attributes:

  • Sexy
  • Passionate
  • Direct
  • Enthusiastic
  • Warm
  • Expressive
  • Active
  • Stimulating
  • Generous
  • Daring
  • Inspiring

They can also exude the following attributes that can be both challenging to themselves and others:

  • Scary
  • Reckless
  • Angry
  • Edgy
  • Domineering
  • Egotistical
  • Need to be recognized and admired

Examples of people who exude the positive qualities of the fire element include: Madonna, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Courtney Love, Joan of Arc, Mick Jagger, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Basinger, Jack Nicholson,  and Vincent Cassel

What Fire Element Feels Like in the Body

Excess fire element can be subtle and so we feel:

  • fidgety
  • uneasy
  • vague anxiety
  • slightly dizzy
  • ringing in the ears
  • low grade fevers
  • night sweats
  • difficulty staying asleep

When the fire element is in full force, we can feel:

  • rage
  • throbbing headaches
  • rashes, acne and skin sores
  • high fevers and other burning sensations in the body

Deficiency of fire is the same thing as fatigue. There's no energy present for transformation of life into life.  Prana or life force is a rarefied form of fire.  Without prana life expires.  So an extreme case of deficiency of fire element is death, but, then that's true of all of the elements.  Loss of life is the extreme separation of the elements, while life is the coalescence of the elements.  Yoga is a path that teaches us how to harmonize and balancing the elements such that we live in true-bliss-consciousness (Sat-Chit-Ananda).  Nevertheless, when fire element is deficient, we feel

  • cold
  • fatigued
  • lifeless
  • unmotivated
  • disinterested
  • weak

Antidote for Excess Fire Element:

  1. Observe the fire element
  2. Express the fire element
  3. Increase water

 1. Observe the fire element.

  • The Ashtanga practice has all sorts of ways to express the fire element (see below), but just observing it can be very powerful.  By applying observation to the sensations of heat, irritability, fluster, and excitement, we simply begin a relationship with the fire element that is not based on reacting to it.  Most of us have a difficult relationship with the fire element.  Either we like to keep a lid on it, or where all about expressing it.  Very few of us have the capacity not to become bothered when we're hot.  Somehow the two go together.  All societies ask us to curb our fire element.  If we didn't we'd probably want to fuck or kill lots of people.  So, that's probably a good thing.  It helps keep societies just, safe, and sustainable.  But when the fire element is repressed, we have a tendency to go into all sorts of vices.  Examples of hot vices include internet pornography, alcoholic spirits, cocaine, coffee, cigarettes, and methamphetamine.  In a way, our addictions give us space to express our fiery nature.  The only problem with most of the vices listed above is that they burn not only us, but those around us who we effect.  And they don't transform our transmute into compassion, wisdom, or insight.  Rather, they tend to perpetuate ignorance (moha).

2.  Expressing the fire element.  If we cannot be with the fire element, it can be extremely powerful to express it.  On the other side of expression is often both grounding (earth element) and clarity (air element).  That's what catharsis is about.  In Greek, catharsis means to purify and purge.  In yoga, we say that tapas is the fire needed to burn away the impurities of the mind.  So we build tapas all sorts of ways in the practice.

  • We don't hold poses for long periods of time.  Instead, we stay moving fairly rapidly from one pose to the next, creating heat.  Maybe we stay in poses for 3-4 breaths instead of 5-10.  Active practice (as opposed to static postures), like Surya Namaskar tends to increase agni; so it can be useful to do a full-vinyasa practice rather than a half-vinyasa practice to increase the internal cleansing fires and to increase the amount of Surya Namaskar A and B that you do in the beginning of practice.
  • Both primary and intermediate series are designed as an arc of transformation:  Suryanamaskar A and B build the fire, the standing poses and most of the sitting poses keep building it up.  The intensity of the sequence peaks somewhere around navasana in primary series.  In intermediate series we experience a few peaks.  Kapotasana is the first one. Next comes titbasana. Finally, comes karandavasana.  After these peaks, the rest is a downhill arc.  By maintaining the intensity up to the peaks of the arc and coming back down on the other side, we move some of the chaotic energy of the fire element through.  In a way, we can create a cathartic experience just by following the sequence.  By the time we jump into savasana we can ground ourselves--earth element--and return to a state of clarity--air element.
  • Keeping the dristi allows us to be less reactive, less volatile.  In a lot of ways, the dristi is a form of pratyaharaPratyahara is the fifth limb of Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga.  Pratyahara is all about drawing the senses inward.  Guruji used to say that pratyahara means, "Sense control, anywhere you look, any thought that you have, any perception, it is all Atma (the Self or Soul)...When you exercise sense control you are no longer deceived by outward appearances, but perceive only Atma."  When we direct our attention to the inner fire rather than seeking retribution outside of ourselves, we start to rewire the habit patterns of mind, the samskaras.  
  • Certain asanas build a lot of heat.  About a year ago, I was involved in a research put on by Yoga Journal about the effects of yoga practice on heart rate.  We were given heart rate monitors to wear while we practiced.  As my heart rate increased, I tended to get hotter.  I found that those postures that asked me to engage my lower abdominal and pelvic muscles more intensely, increased my heart rate:  forward bends and inversions, especially.  As an experiment, try staying in paschimottanasana, sarvangasana, and sirsasana for a good 20-30 breaths.
  • Bhastrika pranayama is one of the pranayamas that Guruji historically taught in the Ashtanga Pranayama Sequence.  In bhastrika pranayama we take a vigorous exhalation and a reflexive inhalation through our nostrils.  When we exhale, we pull the lower abdomen back strongly, using both uddiyana and mula bandhas.  We do this quickly about 100 times; take a slow inhale and retain the breath somewhere between 20 and 100 seconds.  And then exhale the breath.  We repeat this process three times.   
  • Listen to hard rock, heavy metal, or rock n' roll while you practice.  This music can help really get the fires moving, excite, and enliven a dead practice.  Let the rhythm carry the movement.
  • Another way to increase the fire element is to make the ujjayi sound louder and emphasize the sound of the exhale so it sounds a bit forced.  The restriction in the back of the throat causes the lower abdominal muscles to work harder, thus stoking the internal fires.  As the exhale comes to completion, pull the lower abdomen int tightly and draw in on the whole pelvic floor, the anus, the perineum, and the genitals.  For men, an advanced form of this is to develop the capacity to draw the testicles up and into the pelvic floor and for women to develop the capacity to tone the ovaries, which is an advanced  Taoist practice, as well.

3. Increase the Water Element. Water balances fire.  If you put too much water on a fire, it stanches it out.  But if you put just the right amount, it creates warm vapors.  In other words, water and fire are constantly in a balancing act.  If our practices are all fire, we end up burning away too much.  We see this in people who've had a kundalini rising situation, in which their nervous systems got burned or fried through too much fiery practice.  The water element is all about emotions, deep, soulful emotions.  When we're in the land of the water element, tears naturally pour forth.

  • Staying in touch with our feeling nature, especially feelings of sadness, longing, and mystery can balance our fiery, hot emotions, like rage, anger or addictive sexual tendencies.  Something else that can be immensely useful is to find self compassion with mantras like those found in the Buddhist Lovingkindness (Metta) Meditations, words like the following:May I be filled with peace.May I be filled with love and compassion.

    May I be safe and protected.

  • Some food and fluids can increase fire too much, foods like sugars and sweets, alcohol, coffee, stimulants and dry, pungent, warm, and acrid spices, like chillies, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon.  Soups and stews, lots of cooked vegetables and grains, and a bit of animal protein tend to add moisture where there's too much dryness and heat.  
  • Connect to the fluidity of the vinyasa.  (See Water Element)
  • Emphasize smooth, fluid transitions between the inhale and exhale and the exhale and inhale.  (See Water Element)
  • Develop a stillness practice.  (See Water Element)

 

Five Element Series Part 7: Water Element

The Water Element

Click here to listen to Water Element Music

The water element is represented by the sacral chakra.  It is related to the genitourinary system and the adrenals.  The key issues of this chakra relate to basic emotional needs: pleasure and longing.  Because the water element represents desire, it has been located in the genital region.  It is not just about excreting water through urination, but it is also about our capacity to procreate.  In many ways, yoga is about sublimating the desire to form new life outside of ourselves through this act.  It doesn't mean yogis shouldn't have children.  It's just to say that the work of the yogi is to become 'twice born,' which means to completely cease living and responding from our conditioning, which is the same thing as samsara.  That which we become when we're no longer operating from this place is called dwija (dwi-two, ja-born).  So working with the water element is really the path of learning how to transform our longing and desire into compassion and wisdom that are characteristic of the higher chakras, those located in the heart, throat, head, and above.

Additionally, the water element represents fluid-like nature of the body, as well as its cohesiveness. The water element creates emotion and passion in our bodies.  It brings strong, watery emotions & feelings: depth, mystery, and longing. It's different from the emotions of the fire element, which are more fiery and so have to do with hot passion, rage, and excitement.  Water's emotion is more subdued and deep.  The emotion of the water element is the emotion of dreams, of the subconscious, of the mystery.  These emotions come out of nowhere and return to nowhere.  I have a client who, for example, never had a desire to have children until she was in her late thirties.  Out of nowhere she could not let go of the idea that she needed to bare a child.  This is the power of the water element.  Emotions well up from the deep subconscious.

Diagnosing the Water Element in Ourselves and Our Practice

Water is the element representative of the fluid nature of the body, mind, and spirit.  It's what lubricates our joints, so when we feel like our motion is lacking in fluidity, when our bodies feel stiff and dry, we're noticing deficiency of the water element.  When our bodies feel thick, heavy, and everything we eats, sits and is slow to digest, we've got too much water element.

The Personality of the Water Element

People with a lot of water element in their personality exude the following positive attributes:

  • Fluid
  • Deep
  • Intuitive
  • Empathic
  • Introverted
  • Soulful
  • Romantic
  • Nurturing

They can also exude the following attributes that can be both challenging to themselves and others:

  • Moody
  • Prone to fantasy
  • Overly sentimental
  • Smothering
  • Impractical
  • Manic-Depressive

Examples of artists who exude or portray the positive qualities of the water element include: Joaqin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Van Gogh, Monet, Debussy

What Water Element Feels Like in the Body

Excess water element feels:

  • sentimental
  • irrational
  • filled with regret
  • sorrowful
  • heavy
  • cloudy
  • sluggish
  • heavy
  • tired
  • congested
  • aching joints
  • heavy limbs

Deficient water element feels like:

  • dry: skin, hair, nails, inner eyelids, stools
  • insomnia
  • nervy feelings of tingling and numbness in the limbs
  • weight loss
  • thirst
  • fatigue after menstruation

Antidote for Excess Water Element:

  1. Surrender to the water element
  2. Increase fire element to burn away the excess water

1. Surrender to the water:

  • Connect to the fluidity of the vinyasa.  Highlight the quality of flow within the practice such that it connects to the core of your being, to your emotions.  Allow the movements to be fluid-like, smooth, round and easy.  Movements should be both continuous and circular  This quality of movement is just the opposite of fiery  movements, which are jagged, staccato, sharp, quick, and intense.
  • The breath can be a great access point to connecting us with our watery nature.  Rather than focusing on breathing to the top of the inhale or the bottom of the inhale, we can emphasize creating smooth, fluid transitions between the inhale and exhale and the exhale and inhale.  The breath can either be shallow or deep as long as it connects us to our emotions.  Remember that emotion is just energy in motion, but if we don't access the emotions, they remain stuck within us.  Rather than resisting and, thereby, strengthening that which we resist, we can harmoniously blend with our deep, watery nature thereby connecting to our needs, fears, pains, and desires.  This allows us to become more compassionate not just with ourselves, but others, as well.
  • Sometimes the watery feelings, sensations, and emotions are so deep and so difficult to access that stillness can be a useful tool to accessing the depth of our being.  In stillness we take ourselves out of the rush of frenetic energy to be with our inner wisdom.  Stillness teaches us of the remedies of excess water element, wisdom and compassion.

2. Increase fire element to burn away the excess water (See Fire Element)

Five Element Series Part 8: Earth Element

The Earth Element

Click here to listen to Earth Element Music

The earth element is connected to the root chakra and is located in the perineum-- the region between the genitals and the anus. It's located there because it is the place where, when we're seated on the floor, we make contact with the earth.  Additionally, it is located at the base of the spinal column.  It is what the whole spinal column rests on and so is the foundation of our nervous system and, thus, represents the foundation of our being, the root of our consciousness. This chakra is related to our survival instinct and controls basic self-preservation.

Diagnosing the Earth Element in Ourselves and Our Practice

Earth is the elemental representative of the solid nature and structure of the body, mind, and spirit.  We can feel the earth element in the body when we feel a sense of solidity and groundedness, along with a sense of possibility.  We tend to feel rooted with a firm foundation.  Earth element is present when we describe the things of life as: "real," "organic," "earthy," or “what you see is what you get.”

The Personality of the Earth Element

People with a lot of earth element in their personality exude the following positive attributes:

  • honest-to-goodness
  •  what you see is what you get
  • loyal
  • steadfast
  • methodical
  • practical
  • grounded
  • reliable
  • detail-conscious
  • realist

They can also exude the following attributes that can be both challenging to themselves and others:

  • excessively cautious
  • premeditative
  • conventional
  • rigid
  • predictable
  • unimaginative
  • dull
  • materialistic

Examples of people who artists who exude or portray the positive qualities of the earth element include: Tom Hanks, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Morgan Freeman, and Russell Crowe

What Earth Element Feels Like in the Body

Excess earth element feels:

  • heavy
  • stiff
  • stuck
  • tight
  • constricted
  • pessimistic
  • gloomy

Deficient earth element feels like excessive air element:

  • Worry
  • Anxiety
  • Fidgeting
  • Overly sensitive
  • Falling asleep easily but waking up a night or in the early morning
  • Stuck in our heads and out of our bodies
  • Dizziness

Antidote for Excess Earth Element:

  1. Surrender to the earth element
  2. Increase air
  3. Increase fire elements.

1. Surrender to the earth element:

  • Increase the time of savasana.  There's a propensity for a lot of us to "check out" in savasana.  Instead of falling asleep here, the game is to fall awake.  And what we're awake to here is the state of the body, being with the sensations in the body, as they are, just 'being with.'  When there's too much earth element, simply applying consciousness to the sensation of heaviness, lethargy, and fatigue, can transform and balance them.
  • Instead of doing a whole practice, let your practice just be a few postures and then surrender to them. Postures most helpful are ones that allow you to rest in them.  This is the same idea of taking long periods in savasana. You can take a restorative yoga class, or you can just choose a few postures that allow you to slow down enough to bring attention to the sensations in the body, thus, transforming them.
  • Hit the snooze button on the alarm.  Sometimes it can be extremely healing to sleep the extra few hours you would be spending at the shala practicing yoga.  I know that this is controversial, since most teachers say you should practice six days per week.  However, when you're "shoulding on yourself" and you're too fatigued to be present, you're not really practicing yoga.  You're guilting yourself and adding more karma to add to your pile of samskaras to overcome.  Additionally, we in the West already have enough guilt, responsibility and intensity in our lives.  The addition of having a practice we "have to do" is just another burden.  Sleep is necessary.  Period. 

2. Increase air element (see Air Element)

3. Increase fire element:  (see Fire Element)

Antidote for Deficient Earth Element:

  • Emphasize mula bandha, since the the Muladhara Chakra is the residence of the earth element.  Placing our attention here has the tendency to connect us into our physical form, which is an expression of the root element.  It also allows us to connect not only to our physical seat, but the seat of our consciousness.
  • Increase the time you spend on the exhaling compared to inhaling.  You might try at 1:2 ratio, so, for example, you might inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 10.  Or maybe that's too time consuming, so you inhale for 4 and exhale for 8.  When we increase the ratio of exhale to inhale, we have the capacity to calm our nervous system.  If, for example, you notice you're agitated, take time aside to just try the 1:2 ratio of inhale to exhale, and you'll notice that your mind will naturally find more stability.  Additionally, you'll notice that at the end of an exhale, you naturally engage mula bandha. In other words the pelvic floor natural contract; thus, exhaling is a natural way to engage mula bandha.
  • Put an exhale retention into the breath sequence.  By doing so, you will be emphasizing the exhale and its capacity to calm and stabilize the nervous system.
  • Increase the time you spend in forward bends over back bends.  Forward bends have a more sedating effect on the nervous system than backbends.  That's one reason why primary series is so powerful when us Westerners first learn it.  We're so used to being amped by life that when we take all of those forward bends, we start to find an access point toward introversion.
  • Additionally, while in forward bends we can either emphasize the extension of the spine out of the pelvic girdle or the flexion of the bend from the waste.  By emphasizing flexion rather than extension, we create more introversion.
  • The earth element is all about the parts of our lives where we're grounded, honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth, what you see is what you get.  When we're exploring the earth element in our lives, we get to notice the places in our lives where we need to "get real", places where we've been lying to ourselves, places where we could simplify.  Additionally, it can help to cut out stimulants, television, computer time, and to eat nourishing foods.

 

A Living, Breathing Practice

1462139_orig A group of friends and I have started to gather at my house monthly to take a deeper dive into Yoga than the kind we get when we go to the yoga studio or even when we do a teacher training.  The problem with teacher trainings is that there's so much to cover in terms of content, that we don't have a lot of time to linger on some of the deeper questions, like what on earth is yoga about?  Or what's yoga to me?  Or how did the ancients view yoga and spirituality?  And how does it pertain to my life?  It is my sense that we all have to ask these questions, to not just accept techniques like asanas (yoga postures) or meditation without an analytical consideration.

And because Yoga has the propensity to be embodied and non-analytical, we're not  encouraged to go here a lot.  My teacher, Pattabhi Jois,is often quoted as saying, "Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory."  How often do we hear the instruction, "Drop the the thought and return to the body," or "Your thoughts are like passing clouds.  Notice the thought, and come back to the breath."  This is really the heart of spiritual practice, just noticing.  And most practice, if it's effective, takes us out of our thinking, comparing, and analytical mind and into a more intuitive, sensing, feeling, and non-thinking place.

But that's not to say that the spiritual experience is, strictly speaking, a non-thinking experience.  Actually, there's a lot of thought, in fact, thousands of years of thought, about the spiritual life and the spiritual experience that we can draw from.  There are a ton of maps written by those who have walked the path before us that we can use to understand and make sense of our own journey.  It is not only important but should be mandatory for all of us who are deeply seeking to understand the traditions we come from.  That way we can start to contextualize them and make sense of them.  More importantly, I think it's imperative that we develop a critical eye for our spiritual practice and the teaching associated with it, so we can choose a path that takes us to where we need to go rather than where we're told we should go by a teacher, a teaching, or a community.

The Sutras Through a Critical Eye

As I was preparing for our last gathering, I came across an interesting podcast by Matthew Remski that really had me questioning how much authority I wanted to place in The Yoga Sutras as a map for my spiritual practice.  Remski points out some of Patanjali's weird views.  Examples include:

  1. The idea that Yoga is about such a complete separation of awareness (purusa) and nature (prakriti), that it veers in the direction of disembodied, spiritual bypass.  In other words, the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness (1:2) lead to a recognition that one's true identity is not this body; this entity I call me; or these relationships I surround myself with.  These are all fluctuations within awareness.  Through a gradual process of detachment, we see that these things are ephemeral, and thus, not eternal.  The awareness (purusa) that notices these things that arise, stay for awhile, and pass away is eternal, and, thus, our true identity.  Extreme form of non-attachment, like the one espoused in The Yoga Sutras, has the potential to validate the avoidance of practical challenges or difficult or painful feelings or memories.  This stark dualism, separating awareness and all the things within it tends to unground people and unseat them from their innate wisdom.
  2.  The fourth chapter, Kaivalya Pada, commonly translated as chapter on liberation is a mistranslation. Pada means subject.  Kaivalya actually means perfect isolation; thus, one of the end goals of a good yoga practitioner, according to Patanjali, is to detach so much from nature (prakriti) so as to separate from society, as a whole.  Yoga was heavily influenced by the monasticism of Buddhism and Jainism.  In fact, the ethical precepts, the yamas and the niyamas, come from the Jains who believed that separation was a necessary ideal to experience complete liberation, that to be in contact with others leaves the yogi vulnerable to the negative karma of another.  In our everyday language, this is another way of saying that liberation requires that we stay away from others so as not to pick up on their bad vibe.
  3. The book is chalk-full of  magical thinking.  For example, intense forms of absorption lead to one's capacity to fly or inhabit the body of another and make that body move.

Remski's analysis--which is brilliant by the way--forces us to look twice at this text that we yogis tend to hold with reverence.  Without a doubt, much of the instruction in The Sutras is erudite and brilliant.  Developing a capacity to practice anything with non-attachment (vairagya) (1.15) is a simple and brilliant instruction on how to learn anything.  The tools that the Sutras offer us on how to witness and what to witness are fabulous instruction for each of us who would like to develop greater capacity for objectivity.

But how far do we intend to take this process?  In its most extreme form, it could lead us away from our relationships, away from community, and either into monastic life or a cave in the Himlayas.  Or maybe what we're looking for is just an hour in the day "where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. (Campbell, Joseph; Bill Moyers (2011-05-18). The Power of Myth (p. 115). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.)

Bringing Old Texts to Life

As I said before, I'm not suggesting that we ignore the classic texts.  They're giving us hints that can help us immensely on the journey.  But if we are on the path, we have to take responsibility for our journey.  Doing so requires that we look with a critical eye.  When we accept these maps on faith we sometimes end up in places we never intended to be.   A lot of the orthodox approaches within the Buddhist and Yogic tradition posits the notion that because we're too rife with avidya (misunderstanding, misapprehension, or spiritual ignorance), we cannot possibly see what will help or hinder us on the journey.  That's why we need not question the authority of the teacher, the teaching, or the community but, instead to have faith in their innate validity.

There's a third approach to working with the teachings of a tradition. We don't take them at face value, and we don't ignore them.  Instead, we struggle with them.  We see them as texts written by human beings, like you and me, and who were writing for a particular audience living in a particular moment in history with a unique set of struggles.  And then we work with the text to separate that which is essential truth for us from that which is particular to the times and perspective of the writer.  And then we try to make sense of it for the current situation we find ourselves in.  This how a tradition becomes a living, breathing, and evolving thing.  And if you consider it, we are the critical link to the evolution of the tradition.  How each of us interprets and makes sense of any tradition determines how it will be carried forth from one generation to the next.  In short, to go through this process is to take responsibility not only for our spiritual path, but to create new maps, maps that one day will influence seekers, like us.

Why Do You Hire a Coach?

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We’re living in a period in history where we’re paralyzed by the fear of some impending doom. Our 24-hour news cycle will have us believe that there are more wars and violent deaths than ever.  But we are actually living in an unusually calm time.  The odds of us dying violently are low and getting lower.  We also keep hearing scary economic data.  And while there’s no doubt we’ve been living in a trying economic period since 2008, we’re also living in one of the most prosperous periods in history.  Fear sells newspapers.  It also has the nasty side effect of paralyzing us. We end up sticking with stuff that, while, on the one hand, feels safe, on the other hand, sucks the life out of us, be it a job or a relationship.  It makes us afraid of change.

Playing It Safe

And then we have all sorts of justifications we tell ourselves for why we should just “suck it up.”  Most of the clients that show up at my office have a self-critical voice inside that tells them that they should just be grateful for what they have.  “At least I’m not out on the streets.” But often, they’re just playing it safe.  They’re doing fine, but they’re disconnected from an experience of life that’s vivid, alive, and meaningful.

By fearing risk, something in them has died.  One client who sought coaching with me used to come home from work everyday, pour herself a glass of wine, and make love to her channel changer instead of the man of her dreams she was dying to meet.  While she didn’t particularly enjoy the time in front of the television, at least she didn’t have to face rejection.

As a coach, I can’t do much when someone has given up.  There has to be a hunger in there somewhere, even if it’s buried in avoidance. Sometimes that hidden and elusive hunger demands that my clients be willing to dive down, through the experience of fear, through panic, and through layers of discomfort.  It’s often at the bottom of this journey downward that my clients discover a gem in the form of wisdom, clarity, and creativity. When the client I described above reached her bottom, she realized,  “I’m scared that it’ll be too much work to try to find someone, but I am even more scared of what my life will look like 10 years from now if I don’t try.”  Hitting bottom woke her up to the recognition that she wasn’t preordained to be a recluse.  She was choosing it.

The Calling

So she traded in her remote control for a yoga mat and a membership to the studio down the street.  “Who knows?  Maybe I’ll meet him in class.”  When we have the courage to take the one step in a direction that might be fun, engaging, and just a little scary, we’re reminded that risk brings vibrancy to life.  That it’s a little scary can be a really good thing.  When we choose something that is both exciting and just a little uncomfortable, we start to move out of paralysis and toward aliveness.  Whether it’s a yoga class, quiet time in nature, or a workshop, it can be extremely helpful to shake things up, to get out of our routines in order to be reminded of who we are and what we’re made of.

We all come into the world with a hunger and zest for aliveness, but it’s often been taken from us by the expectations of others.  Mainly when I get the call for a introductory coaching session, the person on the other line can sense that they’ve been called to something else or something greater, but what that is isn’t clear.   Sometimes this recognition comes in the form of illness, depression, or anxiety.  Sometimes, it’s just a low grade, nagging feeling that they have something important to get to in their lives but can’t see it clearly.  Sometimes, it’s clear as day, but the path getting there is fraught with pitfalls, and they can’t see the way through.

T.S.O.

The only way that it can get clearer is if we take just one step forward. And sometimes, just taking that step can be like pulling teeth because we’ve already thought our way to the end, and it looks very scary.  Poet, David Whyte, offers pithy instruction for this tendency to over strategizing in his poem, Start Close In:

Start close in, 
don't take the second step 
or the third, 
 start with the first 
thing 
close in, 
the step
 you don't want to take.

Start with 
the ground
 you know, 
the pale ground
 beneath your feet, your own 
way of starting 
the conversation.

Sometimes it requires that we just take the step that’s in front of us.  I watch some clients giving too much weight to having a plan.  I am not suggesting that it’s worthless to have a plan, but rarely does a path follow a straight trajectory except, of course, when we look in hindsight.  Mainly, we have to have the courage to just take that one step that’s in front of us, the one we’re afraid to take but equally the one we know we need to take.

The technical term I use for one mode of stepping forward that I teach my clients is called, “T.S.O.-ing,” or Trying Shit Out.  Taking that leap into action sometimes calls for 3 parts balls, 1 part throwing caution to the wind, and a dash of “f**k it.”  That step demands that we let go of what we think we know.  It demands that we be willing to concede mistakes.  Often it requires we be willing to just give it a try.

Giving Up Victimhood

That step is a form of reckoning; it requires us to own our hunger and the journey it takes us on.  It forces us to defeat the fears that we might not have what it takes-- the guts, the smarts, or the stamina—to make it to the finish. Once we’ve taken it, we no longer have anyone to blame for our paralysis, not our cruel boss, not our absent father, or the balance in our bank account.  When we take that one uncomfortable, sometimes painful, yet authentic step, we have to give up our victim stance.  It won’t serve us on that journey.

We also have to be willing to withstand long periods of discomfort, of not knowing the outcome but not so long that we’re pigheaded.  And that’s a fine dance.  It seems to me, though, that most of us could use a little stick-to-it-ive-ness.  We’re often willing to live in atmospheres that are simultaneously empty and combative, but for some reason it’s really hard to stay with something that means a lot to us.  Neurobiologists tell us that we’re not wired to do this.  We’re wired to avoid change because it actually hurts. The brain does not distinguish between physical or psychological pain.  We have to be willing to stay with the pain of not knowing the outcome for extended periods of time.

Why Do It Alone?

Given that that one, risky step is so laden with fear, doubt, and all the stuff that comes up when we put ourselves on the line, it can’t hurt to have community and individual support.  We are, by nature, social creatures, no matter how introverted some of us are.  We need others.  We live in a culture that has historically valued people with gumption who make it to the top through sheer willfulness.  We rarely hear about the Bela Karolyi’s that help form the Nadia Comăneci’s.  Nadia did it, but she didn’t do it alone. Sometimes the mentor comes in the form of a historical figure, like Mohandas Gandhi for Martin Luther King, Jr.  Sometimes, it comes in the form of a teaching or a teacher like Gautama Buddha or Jesus.

However it comes, the direct experience of being met in our hunger and acknowledged for it is absolutely life affirming.  It connects us to something we know, something that is much bigger than us, and reminds us to wonder, to stay in curiosity, and to continue to struggle with the journey we feel called to.  The friend, ally, or teacher can’t do it for us, but they can help us frame the path in such a way that it makes sense and, at the same time, helps us stay connected to what’s important.

This is where coaching can be useful.  As coaches, we’re trained to want what our clients want.  Instead of wanting what we want, most people we’re close to, in fact, want what they want for us.  The distinction I am making here is that most everybody else thinks that they know what’s best for us.  But they don’t.  How could they? Someone who comes from a reputable coach training holds their clients as experts and, instead of telling them what they should want and do, asks powerful questions that evokes the learning necessary to forward action.  Additionally, a good coach will hold his/her client accountable for the action, since we all have a tendency to talk good games without much follow through.

Be the Change

This is a time of great change, politically, socially, globally, environmentally, economically and so much more.  The old systems that worked at one time, no longer work.  As a coach, I get that I’m about to be trite when I say that Gandhi had it right when he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  The bottom line is that we’re it.  The political system won’t change until we’ve changed, nor will the economic, environmental, social, or any other.  You and I ARE the system.  And its brokenness is only reflecting to us our own brokenness.

Until we’ve become tired of waiting for Santa Clause to come down the chimney; until we wake up to the fact that there will never be enough money in the bank; and until we’re willing to step up to the plate and claim our hunger and take that first step, we’ll remain, at best, innocent bystanders, or, at worst, the cause of the ever increasing decay we see around us.  In short, it’s critical that we, as a species, wake up to what authentically moves us.  It’s my hunch that that’s what will transform the situation we all face.  And it starts with us, you and me.  And it starts, now.  And now.  And now.

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The Art of Collaborative Conversations: The Design

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IMG_1086Our lives are made up of the relationships we have.  None of us is an island unto ourselves.  We need others.  Our brains are actually wired for collaboration.  We get rewarded with serotonin, the happy neurotransmitter, every time we collaborate.  And when our lives flourish, we live collaboratively within intimate relationships, communities, and with the greater world.  Our relationships are built upon and fed by the conversations we have.  Conversations, in this case, aren't just verbal.  We're having a conversation, for example with our civic body when we don't vote.  We're in conversation with our circle of friends when we're engaged and even when we're disengaged.  And a lot of what we don't say in a relationship fashions how we relate.  In each case, it's really the quality of our conversation that impacts who we are and the impact we can have in the world.

Stop Assuming and Start Designing

The main reason conversations breakdown is that we go into them with too many assumptions.  We assume, for example, that we know what the other person wants and needs from the conversation and that they know what we want and need.  Sometimes this works, but often times, conversations, especially the important ones--the one's about a shared future, about how to handle a difficult situation, or past resentments--end in breakdown or leave us feeling off or incomplete.  Mostly the reason why we're left incomplete from the conversation is that we never designed it or set an intention for it in the first place.
It doesn’t work to leave these conversations to chance, to just wing it. When we design our significant conversations before we have them, we create the possibility to collaborate and to get to completion. A designed conversation is one in which both people have agreed to the parameters of the conversation before entering into it.  By the way, the design doesn’t end once the conversation gets underway. It is constantly being re-negotiated. That way the structure remains fluid.
It may seem a bit artificial, at first, to initiate a design with someone in the beginning or even in the middle of an ongoing conversation, however, the results are powerful, magical, and pivotal to any enduring relationship. It's an incredibly powerful way for conversations to go somewhere, to have impact.   A pre-designed conversation creates a structure where both people can feel safe.  It's also a structure that is flexible enough where both people can take risks, to not skip over hard-truths or filter themselves.
Below you will find a 6- Point Plan on how to design a conversation:

Designing a Conversation

STEP 1: Get Clear About the Situation

First ask yourself the following four questions:

  • What am I noticing about the situation? What do I notice the issue to be? What is my perspective?
  • How do I feel about what I see? Do I feel mad, sad, glad, inspired?
  • What do I really want/need?
  • What am I willing/not willing to do?

STEP 2: Go Back to Step 1

Don't engage in the conversation until you're clear on the 4 questions above.

STEP 3: Invite

Start the discussion by inviting the person to a discussion.  Don't just spew on them.  Give them a choice.  You might say:  I am noticing "x" coming up for me, and I'd really like to be able to speak about it with you.  When can we speak about this? And where would you like to meet?

By the way, it helps to meet in a neutral space, one where neither of you is at an advantage or disadvantage.  It can also be helpful to walk and talk--which is disarming--versus to sit face-to-face--which can be confrontational.

STEP 4: Design the Conversation

Before the conversation gets going, initiate the design by asking and speaking into the following questions:

  • What would you like to get from the conversation?  What I expect is...
  • What exactly do you need and want from me?  What I want from you is...
  • How do you want me to be with you if you become shut down, hurt, angry, and/or sad? How I want you to be with me is…
  • What could I say or do that would really support you in this conversation? What would really support me is…

STEP 5: Keep Redesigning

Once the design is set, stick with the agreements you made in the fourth point.  If you need to alter the design, say, so.  Be as explicit about the design of the conversation as you possibly can be.  Do not assume.  Do not assume. Do not assume.

STEP 6: Get to Completion

All conversations are seeking completion. When a conversation is complete, we know and feel it.  Nothing more needs to be said.  All that is left between you and the other person is love and affinity.  And when a conversation feels incomplete, we can sense that, too.  If, on the first round, you're still left incomplete, go back to the four questions on #1.  Keep repeating all 6 steps until you get to completion.

 

Love and Work Transition Checklist by Bill Bridges

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NYT-1000538340-BridgesW.1_012846The author, teacher and consultant, William Bridges, recently passed away.  He transformed the way people thought about life's transitions.  His landmark book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life Changes, acted as a sort of how-to-manual in the 80's for people who found themselves burnt out in their job, in the middle of divorces, grieving a parent, and overwhelmed with new children.  He mapped out  and gave language to the three stages of transition we all experience throughout our lives: endings, the neutral zone (a time of fertile emptiness), and the new beginning.  Bridges taught his readers to honor each individual stage of the transition, especially endings and that emptiness we all experience when we're in between things.  Honoring these two primary stages of transition ushers in the last stage in a more complete way. I recently picked his book up, again, at the library in honor of his passing and wanted to share an excerpt that I think is sound and wise advice when entering a transition.  I tend to loathe the numbered lists meant to teach/inspire change.  They always seem contrived and glib.  Bridge's list below is actually quite thoughtful:

 Love and work: a transition checklist

  1. Take your time. The outer forms of our lives can change in an instant, but the inner reorientation that brings us back into a vital relation to people and activity takes time. This does not mean that everything must come to a total standstill as you wait for self renewal. But it does mean that your commitments, either to the old situation that you haven't yet left for the new situation that you haven't yet invested yourself in are going to be somewhat provisional. And it means that you cannot rush the inner process whereby this state of affairs will change.
  2. Arrange temporary structures. You will need to work out ways of going on while the inner work is being done. This may involve getting a temporary job while you look for a real job; it may involve agreements at home or at work to carry on in some modified fashion until something more permanent can be devised; or it may simply involve an inner resolve to accept a given situation as temporary and to transfer some energy to the job of finding a replacement for it.
  3. Don't act for the sake of action. The temporary situation is frustrating and there is likely to be a temptation to “do something–anything.” This reaction is understandable, but it usually leads to more difficulty. The transition process requires not only that we bring a chapter of our lives to conclusion, but that we discover whatever we need to learn for the next step we are going to take. We need to stay in transition long enough to complete this important process, not to abort it through premature action.
  4. Recognize why you are uncomfortable. Distress is not a sign that something has gone wrong but that something is changing. Understanding the transition process, expecting times of anxiety, expecting others to be threatened, expecting old fears to be awakened–all of these things are very important...
  5. Take care of yourself in little ways. This is probably not the time to be living up to your highest self-image, although it is time to keep your agreements carefully. Be sensitive to your smallest needs and don't force change on yourself as though it were medicine. Find the little continuities that are important when everything else seems to be changing...
  6. Explore the other side of the change. Some changes are chosen and some are not, and each kind of transition has its own difficulties. If you have not chosen a change, there are a dozen reasons to refuse to see its possible benefits–for by seeing such benefits you may undercut your anger at whoever forced the change on you, or you may realize that the old situation wasn't all that you thought it was. On the other hand, if you have chosen your change, there are just as many reasons not to want to consider the cost–for that may weaken your resolve, or make you aware of the pain your transition brings to others. In either case, you will need to explore the other side of the situation.
  7. Get someone to talk to. Whether you choose a professional counselor or just a good friend, you will need someone to talk to when you're going through an important transition in your work-life or your relationships.   What you primarily need it is not advice, although that may occasionally be useful, but rather to put into words your dilemmas and your feelings so that you can fully understand what's going on. Beware of a listener who “knows exactly what you ought to do,” but also be suspicious if you find yourself explaining away your listener's reactions if they don't happen to fit with yours–especially if several people have reacted the same way to what you say.
  8. Find out what is waiting in the wings of your life. Whether you chose your change or not, there are unlimited potentialities within you, interests and talents that you have not yet explored. Transitions clear the ground for new growth. They drop the curtain so that the stage can be set for a new scene. What is it, at this point in your life, that is waiting quietly backstage for an entrance cue? What new growth is ready to germinate in this season of your life? These are questions that you can talk about with a confidant, or you can privately explore them in writing in a transition journal. You could get a piece of paper right now and right at the top, “What is Waiting to Happen in My Life Now,” and begin writing. (Don't plan it out or try to figure out the answer in advance; just start writing and write as quickly as you can. You will be surprised what comes out once you have given up deciding in advance what you're going to say.)
  9. Use this transition as the impetus to a new kind of learning. You knew much of what you needed to know for what you were, but what you are going to become will require new understandings and new skills that you may not yet possess. Edward Gibbon wrote that "every man who rises above the common level has received two educations: the first from his teachers; the second more personal and important, from himself.” This transition point in your life may well be the time to launch that second education–or to begin it again, for while the first education follows a fixed curriculum to a stopping point, the second education opens out into new areas at every turning point.
  10. Recognize that transition has a characteristic shape. Arnold Toynbee pointed out years ago in The Study of History that societies gain access to new energies and new directions only after a “time of troubles” initiates a process of disintegration where in the old order comes apart; and he showed how often the new orientation is made clear only after what he calls a “withdrawal and return” on the part of individuals or creative minorities within the society. The crucial change, it seems, takes place in some in between state or outside the margin of ordinary life. That is so with individual lives as well: Things end, there is a time of fertile emptiness, and then things begin a new.

Bridges, William. Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1980. Book. pp. 78-82.

 

The Mind/Body Connection

In the years following my brother’s death, I investigated anything and everything that might help me snap out of my grief, anger and worry. I read every self-help book I could get my hands on. I took part in residential retreats in which I swung a plastic bat into a pillow, imagining that I was hitting the negative aspects of my parents in order to heal cathartically. I tried all sorts of diets. I became a vegetarian. I fasted. I even had a stint in which I ate nothing but potatoes. My heartache and sense of loss lingered. When a friend invited me to my first yoga class, I found myself attempting to replicate an intricate series of movements that left me completely fatigued. And then the teacher said,

I am going to teach you to meditate. Ready? Sit down. Cross your legs. Sit upright. Close your eyes and focus on your breath: air coming in, air going out. Let go of your thinking. Each time you’re lost in thought, return to the in breath and the out breath.

After a few moments, he whispered,

Notice the sensations within your body? Do you feel all that movement and tingling? That’s your body’s internal pharmacy healing itself. Stay focused on that.

After minutes of sitting there, attempting to notice my “body’s internal pharmacy,” I began to perceive spasms of emotion roiling through my intestines. I could feel those places inside that felt scared, empty and alone in grief and anxiety.

I had learned to talk about my distress with my therapist—where it came from and how I might think about it in a way that made it more tolerable—but I had never had a direct feeling perception of it. As I invited these waves of unpleasant emotion to wash through me, the internal knots of pain slowly begin to unravel.

While we tend to think of intelligence as residing somewhere behind the eyes, in our cranium, many native traditions indicate that intelligence is located throughout the body. While our thinking mind helps us make sense of the world intellectually and provides executive control, the body is the place of transformation. Our intelligence is not just mental. Other parts of our body provide powerful insight and intuition.

The Gut Brain Our gut is known as the second brain. It consists of more than 500 million neurons, about the same amount as in a cat’s brain. In fact, our bowel produces over 95% of our total serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates our feelings of happiness. The gut is quite distinct from the thinking mind in that it speaks in declarative tones via sensations. It says things like, “Yuck,” “Yum,” “Ow!” “Mmm,” “No way!” “Yes!” and “No!” Unlike the thinking mind, the mind in our gut doesn’t second-guess. It simply calls out what it senses.

Complementary medicine advocate Deepak Chopra used to tell the story of an interview he had with the late co-founder of Sony Corporation, Masaru Ibuka, who liked to “swallow” a deal before he signed it. If Ibuka had an important choice to make, he would do his due diligence: consult with key people, review market data and research sales reports. But he didn’t stop there.  

He’d have his assistant prepare a Japanese tea ceremony, which is actually a type of meditation. Once the tea was prepared, he’d hold a “yes” or “no” question” in his mind. He would then take a sip of tea and listen, carefully observing how his body responded to how the tea felt in the stomach. If it felt good, he interpreted that as a “yes;” if it didn’t, it was a “no.” “I trust my gut and I know how it works,” he said. “My mind is not that smart, but my body is.”

The Heart Brain The heart also has its own consciousness and intelligence related to issues of relationship, passion and morality. When people are sincere, we often say they are “speaking from the heart.” When they need an honest conversation, they have a “heart-to-heart.” When they throw themselves into an activity, we say that they are doing it “with all their heart.” Even our gestures indicate the importance we give to the heart; when people point to themselves they generally point to the heart. Modern science is showing us that these figurative expressions actually reflect a physiological truth.

More than a simple pump for blood, the heart is a brain unto itself. It has somewhere between 40,000 and 120,000 neurons. The heart sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart. Like the brain, the heart is neuroplastic; it can grow and change. It continues to create new neuronal connections as our emotional and empathetic capacities continue to expand.

We now have scientific evidence that the anatomical heart sends us emotional and intuitive signals to help govern our lives. It does so through a number of different hormones, the primary one being oxytocin—the hormone associated with labor and maternal bonding, and is also involved in relational bonding, emotion, passion and values. The heart produces equal amounts of this hormone as the brain itself.

Health and Mind/Body Connection While I am a coach and mindfulness teacher, I am also an acupuncturist and herbalist. Most of what I treat is stress-related illnesses, such as chronic pain, digestive disorders, low-grade depression and anxiety. We all know that blood is essential for the body’s healthy functioning. Over the years of doing this work, I have come to realize that tension contracts the body, which obstructs the blood’s flow. In my training as an acupuncturist, I was taught that acupuncture and natural medicines restore it, but I also found out—through trial and error—that unless the underlying tension is dissolved, these modalities only give temporary relief. Despite graduating from a four year Masters Degree program, I initially felt pretty inept at my craft. No matter what acupuncture points or herbal remedies I prescribed, very few of my patients got the help they were looking for.

At some point, I got so fed up with my lackluster results that I started to teach mindfulness to a patient who was trying to give up smoking. I asked him why he smoked. He said he was lonely, that he hadn’t had an intimate relationship for many years. As he learned to feel and welcome the sensations of pain and heartache that smoking numbed, the addiction slowly lost its hold on him.

Once I learned to work with my smoking patient, I began to receive a steady stream of patients with similar heartache. Some had lost loved ones to death. Others were struggling with grief, loneliness or a lack of passion. Some were saying yes to partners, jobs and bosses when their guts were saying no. I’d treat them with acupuncture, but I would also help them uncover and let go of the underlying feeling states by teaching them mindful awareness. I have come to discover that when we dissociate from our hearts and guts, it not only affects us emotionally, it also wears at our health. We tend to put emotions into the category of the mind, but emotions are not just mental phenomena. They’re bodily experiences, too. We feel them in the form of sensations. Some of us feel our hearts racing and shortness of the breath when we are anxious. Some get belly aches when we are nervous. I personally cannot eat when I am about to give a presentation. A friend of mine gets migraines before examinations. As a culture, we have attempted to disconnect the mind and the body, but they are intricately connected. While modern medicine tends to treat them separately, more holistic approaches address both mind and body.

A sore shoulder may be the result of tendonitis, but it can also be caused by stress. When we feel anxious or under pressure, we grip. We can take anti-inflammatories and hope that the pain will go away, but if we don’t give our attention to the pattern of gripping associated with the anxiety, medicine will only have temporary effect.

When we are sleepless, anxious and in pain, our bodies are speaking to us. If we can slow down enough to heed their messages by non-reactively feeling the sensations in our body, we can learn a lot about the circumstances we find ourselves in and the path forward.

Creating a Morning Ritual

In The Power of Myth, the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell said, “You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning. You don’t know who your friends are. You don’t know what you owe anybody. You don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”

This is what the morning ritual is about.  It’s a time and space of “creative incubation.”  It’s the place where you come back to day after day to look into the mirror, to see not just the lines that are accruing on your face, but to see the beautiful wisdom that wants to and needs to emerge through you.  It’s a time where we don’t need to understand or make sense in conventional terms, but simply to be connected to the essence of life.

Morning rituals are times when we spend 15 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour or whatever time you need to connect with yourself, to connect to spirit or whatever term you want to call the great mystery. The heart of all ritual is about connecting.  It's about establishing a relationship to ourselves and our emotions, and also about letting go in an unadulterated way to the creative urges that are moving through us.  It’s not about getting caught in doing it right or following someone else’s prescribed ritual to a tee.  One day, you might wake up and want to do some yoga postures.  Another day, you may just want to read poetry or write in your journal.    Maybe it’s just about sitting with your sadness or lying down with your exhaustion.  The important thing is that you meet the experience in a flexible and adaptable way such that you find your inner connection.

Some people do not do morning rituals because they say that they do not have time, but all that is needed is 15 minutes.  We can all surrender 15 minutes of our sleep time for this period.  And even though we may have time in the morning, we often feel too distracted.  We want to check our emails, or the Facebook feed, anything but go to the mat or pillow.  One trick I often teach my clients is to roll their yoga mats out or set up their meditation cushions right next to their beds. That way, when they wake in the morning they stand up and get immediately on their yoga mat or sit down on your meditation cushion.

Below are some possible items that may fit nicely into a morning ritual of your choosing.  These are meant simply as suggestions and are not intended in any way shape or form to be performed in a fixed way or in chronological fashion.  Take what works.  Remove what doesn’t. These are just rough guidelines for you to use as a tool.

  1. Start with an invocation.  An example might be a loving kindness meditation  The one below comes from the vipassana tradition as taught by S.N. Goenka:May I be filled with peace.May I be filled with harmony

    May I be filled with loving kindness.

    May I be healthy and safe.

    May all beings  share in my  peace.

    May all beings share  my  harmony.

    May all beings share my loving kindness.

    May all beings share my goodwill.

    May all beings near and far, seen and unseen, human and non-human, sentient and non-sentient  be  happy.

    May all beings be peaceful.

    May all beings be free of suffering and ill-will.

    I forgive all  those  who  might  have  hurt  or  harmed  me, knowingly  or  unknowingly, consciously  or  unconsciously,  by  their  deeds  of  body, speech,  or  mind.

    I seek  pardon from  all  those  whom  I  might  have  hurt  or  harmed, knowingly  or  unknowingly, intentionally  or  unintentionally, by  my  deeds  of  body, speech,  or  mind. All  are  my  friends. None  is  my  enemy . All  are  my  friends. None  is  my  enemy.

    May  all  share  my  peace.

    May  all  share  my  harmony.

    May  all  beings be  happy, be  peaceful, be happy, be happy

  2. Extend your gratitude. One of my teachers, Angeles Arrien says, “Begin and end the day with gratitude. When the heart is open, anything is possible. Gratitude extends curiosity. We want our curiosity to be greater than our criticality.” You might express a prayer of gratitude that is your very own, or you may use one that you’ve learned. Or you can take up a gratefulness practice.  Check out Brother David Steindl-Rast’s Gratefulness.org (http://www.gratefulness.org/p/)
  3. Take action that lifts your spirit? Examples might be an anonymous act of kindness, something that might surprise and delight someone.  Maybe it is doing some yoga postures, some breath work, and/or some seated, lying, or standing meditation.  Maybe it is about drinking coffee or tea with a loved one while reading poetry.
  4. Set intentions by asking yourself, “What is the value that would support my well-being today? What would comfort or strengthen me?”  Examples include: trust, humor, flexibility, compassion, or humility. Wait and watch for that to be revealed to you.  And then imagine placing that value above you, below you, to your left, your right, inside of you, outside of you, and all around you.
  5. Call on your allies: your teachers; your ancestors; your favorite animals, birds, flowers, or trees for their guidance: “Oh ancestor, please live through me today to support the common good for all humanity and for the betterment of all our relations.”
  6. Remind yourself of certain proverbs, sayings, poems or stories your teachers have taught you.  A reminder I often love coming back to lately is from Angeles: “Anything that is at my gate, I can handle; otherwise, it wouldn't be there.” Others might be: "This too shall pass" or the old Beatles line, "All you need is love." You might read a story from a spiritual tradition that resonates with you.
  7. Finally, consider a pattern of behavior that you want to let go of today. Examples might include negative self-talk, pessimism, or gossiping.

 

 

A Mindful Approach to Shame

The most challenging thing my clients face is how to deal with their emotions.  Emotions can be such an inconvenience, especially the ones we're always trying to fix or overcome; the ones we beat ourselves up about; and those that we hide from others.  These are what I consider the "shame-based emotions." We don't live in a world that has a great deal of intelligence around emotions.  Some therapists encourage us to express them.  As kids we're taught not to say anything, "if you don't have anything nice to say."  When we see a friend or co-worker, and they ask, "How are you?" our reflexive responses tend to be, "Good.  You?"  When I was in my early-20's, I started to experiment with my responses to that question.  Each time I gave a nuanced answer, like "I'm feeling blue today," the responses I'd get were often so weird and uncomfortable that I just stopped. We all know that life isn't one smooth and happy ride, and yet we don't live in a culture or a time in history that acknowledges that fact.  The very nature of emotion is that it isn't stable.  The Greek god associated with our deeper emotions and dreams is Neptune.  Neptune is also the god of water, oceans, and seas.  The Greeks understood that our emotions were like the sea, untamable, unfathomable, and amorphous.  We live in a culture and period that would like to and seeks to get a handle on everything around us.  We might hang on to every word of  a pundit that predicted the 2008 market crash.  We might seek advice from self-help books and inspirational speakers.  We even make big purchases, like homes and cars to feel secure.  And we often won't rock the boat in challenging relationships and jobs, all so we won't feel certain emotions.

Why?  We're downright afraid of our feelings, not all of them, but some, and especially the ones that we wouldn't describe when asked, "How are you doing today?"  Part of the reason we're so averse to feeling shameful emotions is that we don't know how we'll handle them when they come up, or to put it another way, how they'll handle us.  One of the emotions my client Tom avoids at all costs is sadness, and it's really getting to be a problem in his relationship with Jane, his wife.  So when Jane inadvertently says something that hurts, he doesn't even notice that he's upset.  From the outside, it's obvious.  The expression on his face absolutely changes.  And when she asks him what's upsetting him, he's quick to say, "Nothing.  Nothing," and then adds, "Leave me alone!"  At which point, he sulks for a few days until the mood passes.  And when he finally emerges, he feels remorse and vows to never do it again, only to start that cycle over, again.

Tom isn't unusual.  When we don't like a particular emotion,  we do everything we can to avoid it, often to the point where we carry a great deal of shame around it.  One client, Gina, feels so ashamed of the ways that she manipulates her boyfriend into "not leaving me."  She can't help it, she claims, that she feels the urge to try to distract him from wanting to leave her.  She says, "I  just don't want to feel lonely."  We're all afraid to feel certain emotions.  That's the human experience. It's equally human that when we avoid our painful and shameful emotions, they tend to follow us like the plague.  The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, famously said, "What you resist persists."  Jung found that patients could not help but enlarge aspects of themselves that they wouldn't embrace.  The more they hid, denied, or covered up that which they were ashamed of, the greater the problem became.

Throwing the Book at Ourselves

If we're ever going to change, if we're ever going to find a way of working with these painful emotions, we need to start by having a new relationship with them.  We tend to regard emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety, jealousy, or loneliness as bad or wrong.  Anything that's bad or wrong needs to be arrested or subdued.  That's where shame enters.  Shame is a form of self-loathing that we add to an already challenging situation.  When we add shame to an emotion, it's a form of self-punishment.  We penalize ourselves much like a judge or jury when we hold our emotions as either wrong or bad.  And, in addition, we continue to paralyze ourselves, making it impossible to learn or evolve from the experiences we're in.  In fact, when we throw the book at ourselves like this, we end up as Tom keeps ending up, repeating the same experience again and again.

Emotion is a reply or a response to a stimulus.  That's really all it is.  And when we try to overcome, deny, or attack ourselves for even having the emotion, we miss out on the deeper learning the emotion is trying to make known.  To become adept at listening to our emotions is to gain access to our inner experience and to be led into an inner life.  What's required of us is something absolutely counterintuitive.  What's needed is that we develop the knack for staying aware of our emotions when they come up and restrain ourselves from judging them and reacting to them.

Refraining from Reaction

Contrary to popular belief, our emotions are not the thoughts we have about the way we feel. These thoughts are the stories we tell ourselves, which are made up of our opinions, judgements, and beliefs.  The domain of emotion is totally different from the domain of thought.  Emotions, in fact, are really quite a physical phenomena.  We feel our emotions.  We feel them in our bodies.  As soon as we feel emotions, especially painful ones, we tend to react to them by forming stories about their source and  almost simultaneously seek strategies to try to get away from them.  This process of feeling--->identification---> reaction happens so quickly that unless we're really paying attention, we rarely notice it happening.  Why?  Because the brain does not distinguish emotional pain from physical pain.  For the brain, they are one and the same.  And so we reflexively try to get away from pain. The only problem is that emotions, even the painful ones, aren't eradicated through these knee-jerk reactions.  In fact, they tend to create more problems.

Lisa, came to coaching because her husband is threatening to leave her; he claims that she's "not present in the relationship."  Through a little inquiry, we quickly discovered that she's angry with him for not showing up as an equal partner.  But she doesn't want to "rock the boat" because she fears her anger and the devastation it might cause.  Her father was quite verbally abusive to her mother and sister, and she's afraid of the damage she'll cause.  She's so habituated to avoiding her anger, that she's almost completely checked out of all her relationships, especially the one that means the most to her.  In other words, as soon as she feels anger, she identifies it as wrong or bad, and all at once becomes absent.  And she's so habituated to this reaction that she doesn't even notice it happening.  It's gotten to the point, now, where she can barely be in the same room as her husband.

Realizing We're Triggered

Before Lisa was ever going to be able to work with her feelings of anger, she was going to have to learn to slow down enough to notice the emotions or feelings she was reacting to.  The only way she would be able to do that was to let the domain of thoughts go and enter into the domain of feelings, bodily feelings.  It took some coaxing, but as she got habituated to meeting the emotions in her body, she stopped reacting to them in the same way.  Anyone can easily develop the ability to observe painful emotions that come up when we're triggered.  Being triggered literally evokes a biochemical experience, a cascade of feelings, usually uncomfortable, accompanied by shallow and rapid breathing.  If we develop the knack for staying attuned to the body and/or breath, we can short-circuit a lot of the drama of our lives, especially the fabrications we make up that result from our knee-jerk reactions.  Our body and breath give us warning signals to alert us to a painful emotion long before we've reacted to it, and it's gotten out of control.

Body-Scan

One of the easiest ways to discover our emotions in the body is to locate them with a body-scan.  When we scan the body, we do a quick scan for gross, uncomfortable sensations from head to toe.  We scan the surface  and interior of of the body from top to bottom and back to front; so, a body scan might look like this:

Head, face, neck, throat, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, upper back, belly, mid and lower back, pelvis, genitals, legs, and feet.

My client, Jenny, tends to feel her anger in the hollow in the back of her knees.  Others feel it in the chest as a tightness or a heaviness.  Some feel it like a stuck feeling in their bellies that keeps moving around or like a piece of steak caught in the throat.  Given the fact that our bodies are the ground for this internal feedback, it's critical that we develop a relationship with them, to develop a daily habit of attuning ourselves to the inner framework of our bodies, to actually wanting to know what's happening inside of us, even when we experience an unpleasant feeling.  We have to alter the language, "What's wrong, here?" to, "What's here, now?"...Pause...Feel...and then, "What's here, now." ...Pause...Feel...and then, "What's here, now."

Short Exercise

Briefly scan your body from head to toe and notice  if any feelings or sensations stand out.  Allow yourself to stay with a sensation for a minute or two with a quality of curiosity. "What's here?"  Just locate whatever emotions or sensations are in your body, and stay with one or two of the sensations for a sustained period of time.

Laser-Focused Attention and Soft-Global Attention

My 20's were tumultuous years.  I spent a good deal of those years feeling lonely and lost, emotions which exacerbated an already sensitive gut.  The only thing that would quell the discomfort sometimes was lying prone on the floor or in bed, closing my eyes and just feeling my way through the he knots in my belly.  That's what they felt like on first glance.  Then the initial tightness around the gut would give way to subtler sensation in the belly, almost the feeling of scurrying mice, until, at some point, I could pinpoint a locus, a central point from which all the sensations were emanating from.  It was as if all of the tightness in and around the belly was a sort of bracing or guarding to protect this central, vulnerable point. When we learn to meet our emotions in the physical form of our bodies, it initially feels gross.  If we're patient, the guarding or protection fades, and the sensations require subtler and subtler awareness.  If we keep our awareness connected to the domain of the body, we will begin to notice a variety of sensation with accompanying emotions.

The sensations tend to require a laser-like focus.  All the attention is pointed toward one single spot.  Occasionally, however, it can be useful to alternate between a concentrated, focused attention and a softer, full-bodied awareness.  This second type of awareness allows us  to be conscious of the underlying mood or tone and gives us a sense of what's changing overall.The laser focused awareness gives us an almost microscopic view of subtle body sensations.  It can sometimes be useful to label the sensations associated with laser-focused awareness and the emotions associated with soft-global awareness as a way to stay present and to stay out of the storyline in our heads.  Here is a very simple labeling classification that comes from the five elements:

 

SymbolKey-150dpi

 

  • Air:
    • laser-focused awareness sensations: floaty, light, and moving
    • soft-global awareness emotion: afraid, anxious, apprehensive, fearful, frightened, hesitant, jittery, nervous, overwhelmed, panicky, and shaky
  • Earth:
    • laser-focused awareness sensations:  heavy, fixed, grounded, stuck
    • soft-global awareness emotion: apathetic, blah, dull, fatigued, lethargic, listless, numb, stuck
  • Fire:
    • laser-focused awareness sensations: cold, cool, hot, and warm
    • soft-global awareness emotion: agitated, angry, annoyed, bitter, cold, disgusted, disheartened, dismayed, edgy, exasperated, harried, irate, irked, irritated, and mad
  • Water:
    • laser-focused awareness sensations:  deep, moist, sticky
    • soft-global awareness emotion: anguished, blue, brokenhearted, dejected, despair, disappointed, downhearted, gloomy, jealous, morose, mournful, and  sad

Staying with Curiosity and Noticing Change

The wisdom and insight that we discover from paying attention in this way requires a sustained form of looking along with a quality of curiosity. In other words, if we just notice how we feel and draw quick conclusions as to why we feel what we do, we don't actually get the learning our difficult emotions have the potential to reveal to us.  And because they're uncomfortable and our brain seeks quick resolutions to their occurrence, there's a propensity for all of us to try to figure them out quickly, so we don't have to feel them. When we bring our attention to the body sensations and immediately try to understand, make sense of, or grasp why we're feeling the way we feel, we short-circuit the deeper learning our emotions offer us.  If we're trying to meet our discomfort with the aim of getting rid of or fixing the feelings with answers and justification, we enact a subtle form of rejecting our feelings.

Instead, what I want to posit about painful emotions is that it can be immensely helpful to incorporate patience, curiosity, and a quality of welcoming into the inquiry.  Curiosity tends to lower the risk associated with meeting our edge.  It also opens us up to being surprised to find unexpected truths.  Finally, it's child-like and exciting.  When we are welcoming of painful emotions, we soften into and invite them in, rather than tightening and resisting them.  Welcoming of painful emotions can be immensely challenging, especially if we are prone to avoiding them.  It can sometimes be helpful to have an outside support who can help us feel safe enough to welcome.  If an outsider isn't present, we can also occasionally bring a gentle and caring hand to the area of the body where we feel our emotional pain, caressing the area in a nurturing way.  I sometimes even have clients hold a pillow or teddy bear to feel connected to a child-like welcoming.

When I first tried to teach my client, Kevin, how to pay attention to his body's experience of anxiety rather than trying to understand it, he closed his eyes, felt inward and reported a tightness in his chest.  He then opened his eyes and said, "Oh I am nervous.  It's probably because I have a lot on my mind today."  And while this is an absolutely valid interpretation of his experience, it's still a speculation on the cause of his anxiety. So I asked Kevin to welcome the tightness in his chest and to start to get curious not about "why" he was feeling this way but just to be curious about the sensations.  He closed his eyes again, and I asked him, "What are you noticing, now?"  "Well, the tightness is gone.  I don't feel anything in my chest."  And so he opened his eyes, again.  So I said, "Great, no more tightness in your chest.  What's there, now?"  Reluctantly, he closed his eyes, again, and after a long pause, he settled inside and said, "I didn't realize this before, but I guess I feel sadness."  "Where do you feel sadness?"  I asked.  He pointed to his upper belly."  "Great," I said.  "Not great that you feel sad.  Great that you're noticing that.  Stay with it and see where it takes you."  So we sat quietly for a minute or two while he stayed with his inner feelings and sensations. At some point I noticed tears dropping down his cheeks. "What's happening?" I asked.  "I just really miss Jenny," his ex-girlfriend.

Kevin's story is very revealing about the journey into our emotions. We tend to just scrape the surface of them when we try to understand them before we've given ourselves time to feel them.  When we bring both an inquisitiveness and a welcoming to the feeling experience within our bodies for a sustained period of time, even when the feelings are uncomfortable and, at times, unbearable, we start to notice that they change, thus, giving us access to richer emotions that reveal a greater depth to our inner experience. And if we stay with the feeling experience, rather than avoid it or fix it, the first thing we'll notice is that it changes.

Surrendering to the Descent

That's the nature of all emotions and sensations; they're constantly changing.  What the next sensation will be can't be predicted.  Nevertheless, I tend to see a pattern in my clients when they develop the skill set of looking.  There's a kind of descent that initially takes place, and for some of my novice clients, that descent can be a bit unnerving.  As we go down, in, and through to the heart of the emotions and sensations that we've spent years and sometimes even a lifetime trying to get rid of, fix, overcome, or hide from, it can be a little scary. Even worse, it can feel like the descent is never ending.  Below is a visual representation of this experience.

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The essence of the model above is that before we're ever going to develop wisdom, clarity, and insight, we have to be willing to surrender to the feeling experience, tracking it as it changes from stuck and tight fear, to hot and burning anger, back to fear, and then all the way to sticky and heavy gloominess.  While it sometimes doesn't feel like it will ever come, we do, in fact, always reach a bottom, sometimes in minutes, sometimes in hours, and other times in days.  At some point we get there, and once there, it can feel chaotic or as if something inside is breaking apart.  And for some of us, it can feel like labor. Nevertheless, when we reach the bottom, we experience a sort of disintegration and reintegration.  While the experience is a whole lot less pleasurable than sex, reaching bottom is almost the same as reaching orgasm.  We can no longer hold the energy or intensity, and, thus, experience a sort of spilling over into a new perspective and sometimes even a new life.  This moment is really the moment of transformation we all seek.  It's the moment some people wait a lifetime for.  In many ways our painful emotions are invitations to this new awareness.

This breakthrough is described quite well by the Tao Te Ching, "When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be."  Letting go, in this sense, is really letting ourselves go into the feeling experience of the painful or difficult emotions so that we can incorporate and include what we have previously prevented, resisted, or tried to overcome.  Once we've reached the bottom of the ride down, we start to develop the capacity to be comfortable with the emotion. It no longer runs us.  We stop feeling the need to react to it.  More significantly, as we integrate, rather than reject, we experience more wholeness, more clarity, and a vastly different outlook on life.  If we allow them, our emotions can be powerful enough to completely alter the way we experience the world.

Don't Do It Alone

Because this descent can be unnerving, it can be immensely helpful to have a guide along the way, especially someone who isn't particularly biased, like a family member or a friend.  A well-reputed mind-body coach, somatic therapist, or teacher who has years of experience with clients can ease this process for us.  Other places where we might develop the knack for dropping into the domain of the body are mindful dance classes, yoga classes, and meditation classes and retreats.  It's important that the classes be less oriented around performance or competition, but, instead, the focus is each individual's one's own internal and personal experience.

Brief Summary

  1. Noticing uncomfortable feelings accompanied by shallow and rapid breathing when we're triggered.
  2. Scan the body from head to toe looking for gross and uncomfortable sensations.
  3. Alternating laser focused attention and soft, global attention.
  4. Identifying the elemental quality of the sensations: air, earth, fire, and water.
  5. Staying with curiosity and openness and noticing change.
  6. Surrendering to the descent until we've reached the bottom.
  7. Integration, insight, and clarity,

If you'd like to learn more skillful means of working with shameful emotions, please contact me for a complimentary assessment:

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Creating the Space to See What We Do

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IMG_1092I've just returned from my first yoga practice back at the yoga studio I co-ran for six years and recently handed over to my partner.  It felt great to be back to see my friends and to be surrounded by my yoga community.  It felt equally good not to be in the role of the teacher.  I'd had so much anticipation over the last year of what that would be like, admittedly a sort of possessiveness that was difficult to give up.  But then today I got one of those clear insights that life is difficult when we hold on. It's such a fine line.  You don't want to be so loosey-goosey that you have no commitments, and yet to be committed to something out of fear of loss or the unknown is not really commitment.  It's gripping, or, as we say in yoga, attachment or ego clinging.  I keep having this overriding feeling since I've handed over my so-called authority a few weeks ago that when I am gripping that I don't, in fact, need to.  It's like this sense of let go, freedom, or ease that miraculously keeps appearing in my consciousness.

I recognize that this is a temporary experience, and so I know not to grip even on to this.  And yet it's a great lesson for me to be learning, since so much of the last six years of my life have been about a sort of gripping.  When I came home to San Francisco-- after living in India for three years and being in graduate school for four years before that-- I had this overarching sense that I needed to get my work out there.  And I did.  I really did, and I am proud of what I have created on my own and with the help of lots of other people in my life.  Along the way of "doing it," I carried a sense of anxiety, the feeling that no matter what I'd produced, it was somehow never enough.

I would not say that this sense of insufficiency is altogether gone, but, now, I have enough space within my being to notice when it's running me, along with a few other self-saboutaging voices, like the one that has something to prove to others.  In short, what I am describing is that having given my role up, I am finding more access to not being led around by my patterns.  This capacity couldn't have happened had I not had the courage to let go, not of a commitment, but of a fear.