Hacks for the Holidaze

If you, like me, are a sensitive sort prone to getting off-kilter this time of year (whether that’s about year-end goals, consumption of food/drink/stuff/media, family drama, past losses, expectations on the part of yourself/family/others, or any other cluster)… I give you five hard-won holiday hacks. These are good in any stressful time but especially useful this time of year.

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“Stress Elf” Photo by Dylan Tweney, via Flickr Creative Commons

  1. Switch off the sirens. Your nervous system is most likely on alarm overload, like a firetruck siren that keeps on shrieking long after the six-alarm fire is out. In the modern world, this is a widespread issue that leads to adrenal burnout—and that’s why it’s so important to develop calming practices. This video shows some calming practices derived from the energy medicine tools of Donna Eden, but you can also simply take deep slow breaths, note your surroundings and safety, come into your senses, place your hand on your heart/belly/cheek and send your nervous system some love. Especially helpful: Leaning against a tree while doing any combination of these.
  2. Strenuously commit to missing out. I skip holiday parties if my body says “no.” I tune out most media, and turn down the noise of social media in particular. I know I miss out on certain things. Whole categories of pop culture and current events pass me by. I enjoy airplane mode from time to time, even when not inflight. I figure I can take a little trip to the insides of me. This tends to give me more energy than endlessly scrolling, which is what can happen if I’m tired.
  3. Reframe your emo-pictures. This tip comes by way of creativity coach Jen Louden, who suggests renaming unwanted feeling states. The goal is not to bypass the uncomfortable emotions, but to experiment with widening out in possibility. I tried it and found that I could reframe my anxiety as alertness, my sadness as soulfulness, and my judgment (sometimes) as clarity about my boundaries. An interesting tool to play with!
  4. Give yourself a big gift. Do what you want, only and exactly what you want, for a few hours. If you worry that this is selfish, your family will hate you, etc., consider the findings of Adam Grant, a generosity researcher: People give more over the long term when they keep their own goals sacrosanct. To my mind, if I avoid burnout by giving myself this gift…I’ll be more resilient, more loving, more present, and more generous over the long haul.
  5. Watch the birdie(s). By this I basically mean: watch your emotions and sensations come and go. (We just got a bird feeder and I’ve been watching the birds come and go, like my internal states.) I’ve also heard this skill taught in terms of identifying with sky vs. weather or (Jen Louden again) observing fish in an imaginary aquarium without getting in the tank.

However we can, as soon as we remember, the idea is to separate identity from emotional state. A friend who intensively practices mindfulness will say to herself, “sadness is present in my awareness,” to put distance between her essential self and the emotion. Isn’t that so much lighter than “I am depressed” or “my life is miserable”? It’s a ninja move designed to decrease reactivity. Bottom line: The more we can observe ourselves with compassion and curiosity, the more we are able to pause in the presence of strife, confusion, or (in my case) that fudgy brownie that will jack up the nervous system for sure.

Bonus hacker tip: Look for the nourishment. When deciding what to give (yourself or others) or how to spend your time or what to consume, discern with your body what feels truly nourishing to you.

My earlier post, Tips for the Anxiety-Prone, may help too. What about you—what hacks do you have to share for holiday time?

A Safe Space

When someone says all is lost, do you agree? Do you match her intensity of lament with your own, amping up the despair?

Or do you try to talk her out of her fear and angst, knee-jerkily attempting to cheer her up so you don’t have to hear her pain?

Or do you make a safe space for her to express what she needs to express, without agreeing or negating, so she can hear herself and move the lostness and pain out of her body and mind?

I do all three, though I aspire to the latter. Depending on my own emotional state of the moment, I may or may not be able to offer that spaciousness. Sometimes I turn away from another’s declaration of lostness. My own fears get triggered, and I shut down. Or try to shut the other person down. “Don’t catastrophize,” I snapped once when a friend told me of her overwhelming fears. Not my finest moment.

Sometime earlier this week the streetlights on my block mysteriously went out. I am sure someone is following up with the city, keeping the neighbors informed on Facebook, monitoring when they will be turned back on. In the meantime it seems more important than ever that our porch lights stay on and illuminate the street. (I’m adjusting the timer on ours today to match the shorter day length of this season. Happy fall, though it feels like endless summer around here, just another disquieting “new normal.”)

But you get what I’m saying, about the lights, right?

Last night in yoga class our teacher guided us through an experience of mutual support that could be felt in our very bones. We stood four and five across in the small studio space, and each took a tree pose (balancing on one foot with the other pressed into ankle or thigh) while pressing palms into our neighbors’ palms. Some worried they would destabilize those around them and trigger a domino effect of falling tree-bodies.

But that didn’t happen. We stood separately yet connected, a grove of human trees. No one toppled, and if we wobbled a little, the contact with another’s hand steadied us.

I was in the back row and got to glimpse this roomful of interlinked trees, like life-sized paper doll chains.

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Photo by The Real Estreya, via Flickr Creative Commons

Balancing in mutual support felt effortless—even when Gaynell next had us reach one leg backwards and bend forward into Warrior Three, this time with our arms outstretched and resting straight across the arms of our neighbors.

What a pleasure to bend forward in synchrony with my yogini friends. I felt that we could sail across an ice rink as one! Simultaneously holding and being held.

When times seem dark, we have this to count on. In the press of each other’s hands, we are stronger and steadier than we could ever imagine.

Getting and Spending

“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

A long time ago, when I worked in a corporation, I kept this William Wordsworth quote on my cubicle wall to remind me of what I knew—that my life was about more than producing and consuming.

Now I see that this statement doesn’t go far enough. Not only does endless productivity and consumerism crush our personal power, it destroys our planet.

Witness the fires devastating the Amazon. Deliberately set, left to burn until God knows what point of no return. Why is Brazil’s rainforest burning? In part, to feed consumer demand for paper, lumber, soy, and beef. (That’s not even taking into account the impact of mining minerals like copper, tin, gold, iron ore.)

We could blame the people who set the fires, but the more we buy into capitalism, the more complicit we are. Not to say that we don’t need to hold companies and governments responsible for the greedy policies that encourage slash-and-burn deforestation. But when something “out there” disturbs me, I try to to look within to see what is being reflected back to me. 

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Photo by Katja Schulz, via Flickr Commons “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” —The Dalai Lama

Curiously, I started this blog post wanting to talk about doing nothing. In her new book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell reframes doing nothing as a potent form of resistance.

I have yet to read the book, but a review of it in Yes magazine piqued my interest. It is not a call to passivity, but an invitation to true transformation.

Odell writes that our constant activity and stimulus-addiction keep us from imagining the bold action that would truly change the world.

If we keep trying to feed a bottomless hole with products or busyness or information, we just heat the globe more. But if we step back and get quiet, allow ourselves to feel, we might get in touch with radically different possibilities. Like undoing capitalism.

The master’s tools will never bring down the master’s house, as Audre Lorde put it decades ago. We’ve got to make new tools, and to do that, we’ve got to dive deep.

What of the need for urgent action, to fight the powers that be? Charles Eisenstein has suggested that our urgent scurrying from problem to problem (along with our shame-and-blame culture) are symptomatic of a bigger cultural story driving the intertwined problems of our age. Not only symptomatic, but propping up that story, which is one of alienation, separateness.

We are part of this world. By getting quiet, concentrating ourselves, choosing to stop doing from time to time, we heal a little corner of it. We don’t always know the extent of that healing’s reverberation, but it’s real.

Now, if I stop there, I could use this truth as an excuse to never make a move that feels scary. Worse, as license to let injustices ride and exploitation continue unabated.

Without some measure of self-awareness—and a willingness to act when needed—“doing nothing” becomes self-indulgent. But sitting still, without input from screens or other media—isn’t that the cradle of self-awareness and compassion, a place that can spur inspired action?

A friend posted this quote yesterday along with her rainforest-inspired commitment to a vegan diet: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” —The Dalai Lama

Where does it arise from, the deeply committed, maybe-small-but-world-changing action? From a spacious, quiet place, in touch with the deep pain of our time, and in touch with infinite possibility.

How to help the situation in Brazil: This Newsweek article lists some action items and organizations to support.

Morning Incantation

I scribbled out this prayer/wish/invocation in slightly messier form a while ago in my journal. It was early in the morning after a week or two of insomniac nights, and I wrote what I needed, in no particular order and with little forethought. I’m posting it today in case it is of use. 

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May it rain today, enough so we don’t need to water the garden, enough to loosen weeds.

May my workday go gently, with breaks to close eyes, take a walk, widen focus, breathe a yogic breath.

May I be nourished by my food choices.

May the morning walk be sustenance for both me and Opal.

May Judy feel restored by the night that was so fraught for me.

May I enjoy my writing time, exploration time. May I lower the pressure level yet stay committed. May I submit my work to places that will receive me well.

May I be brave and gentle. May I be fueled from unseen sources, sourced by underground streams. May I source others from inexhaustible Source. May I be a light even in my own dark times.

BodyMindSpiritEarth

I had a realization at the close of yoga class, while resting in savasana (corpse pose), eyes falling back into their sockets, head heavy on the mat. It’s just this: I have a skull.

Oh I knew that of course. In theory. But it’s weird to think of this thing—used as symbol for poison, or to provoke ghoulish fright, the bony remains of a human—being embedded under my skin RIGHT NOW.

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Photo by Kate Bunker, via Flicker Creative Commons

Maybe this is not so revelatory for you. Well, I’m the girl who recently discovered, to my amazement, that the bones of my pelvis start way higher at my sides than I had previously pictured. When I thought “pelvis,” I thought “sex organs.” I thought “hips.” I didn’t think “bony parts at my waist just a few inches below my ribcage.”

In this level of bodily cluelessness, I may be unusual, but I think not. Do we really know what goes on under our skin? Do we key into the intelligence of our organs all working together, our blood flowing, our skeletons? Do we connect to the slime and gore of our insides, cached away under the outer layer that meets the world?

It’s easy to forget all that stuff, in an age where we think a whole lot. We can end up experiencing ourselves as brains on a stick, using the body to move the big brain from here to there. This brain that will save the day! (That’s working great for humanity so far, as our “progress” continues to wipe out species and their habitat at unprecedented rates.)

On the other hand, in spiritual development circles, we experience ourselves as bigger-than-brain, as soul or Higher Self, and we know that we go on beyond the body and the body is just dust and ashes.

I submit that this laudable idea can be just as alienating, even dangerous, as the big brain idea.

Of course we are our intellectual capacity; humanity makes incredible use (and misuse) of our curiosity, our capacity for logic, and our problem-solving prowess.

Of course we are our souls; that bigger perspective feeds many a spiritual seeker, including myself.

But the bones, the blood, the viscera—they have their own story to tell, and they don’t just exist to tote us from problem-solving puzzle to enlightened insight. Divorced from the body, the mind is imbalanced, the soul unmoored.

The energy within the body IS us. The blood moves, heart beats, bones/muscles/organs support each other in an integrated system that boggles the mind AND spirit.

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Photo by Marco De Stabile, via Flickr Creative Commons

I am not a mind. I am not a spirit. Not only these. I am a bodymindspirit. I come to practices like yoga and qi gong because I want to experience myself as all three, integrated and invincible.

Like most of us I’m good at neglecting this body. I push it past fatigue, I feed it poor fuel, I ask it to digest too much too fast, I wish it would just sit down and shut up so I can do my real work, but what if my real work is…a dance? A prayer-in-motion?

What if my real work is to sink back into this body that is part of the earth, that needs me to care for it in a deep and loving way?

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What if, by disowning the body’s “ugly” innards, and ignoring its whispers and clues and shouts and cries, I’m only contributing to the disregard of our precious earth’s wisdom?

That’s the bigger picture: bodymindspiritearth. Could I experience myself as all four integrated, and what would that look like?

What dance would I offer then?

Three Hours North

I was born the same year as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

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Oh of course, we both were in existence long before this birth, but 1966 was when our current recognized incarnation began: When my soul consolidated into this body, and the Dunes were designated as National Lakeshore.

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I’m only three hours south of this incredible place, something I allowed myself to forget for way too long. Recently we became reacquainted. Exploring the trails and shores for a couple days, I felt restored.

Walking the beach you might see trees pressing down across the sand and into the water. The brushy ones make it look like you can’t get past, till you arrive and find: Here you can walk under the tree, or here you can go up higher on the sand, or here just hoist yourself over. Or go a little deeper than you mean to, out in the water.

Or here maybe you just want to savor standing on a downed tree and feeling its smooth skin with your feet. The water doing its dauntless polishing, tempting a toe.

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To the east or west from the beaches lie the trappings of industry. Lakeshore and I were both born under the shadow of human folly, which continues still to this day.

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But there is peace even in the smokestacked encroached-upon existence. (Not-so-fun fact: Lead pollution, like that of the steel mill described here, fed into my health problems a dozen years ago, when high levels of both lead and mercury were found in my body.)

Still: These waves. Their power feels truer than anything. Sitting here you can’t hear industry, you can’t hear vehicular hum, or any of the ubiquitous noises of civilization that just.never.stop.

The waves are like breaths—sometimes slowing, sometimes racing each other but constant, the sound of moist, fluid, rhythmic life. Every single wave and breath its own experience.

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The answers are within, say the sages. Sit still long enough and you will find your answer. Or at least find a newer more pregnant more potent version of the question.

Sit still long enough and you contact something like eternity, the thing that goes on long before and long after this small understanding of a life.

Lies I’ve Loved

Last time I wrote about radical ephemerality, shamelessly stealing from my yoga teacher. Since then we’ve had another gentle snow to delight my eye.

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You can’t see it, but there was a kingfisher in this old craggy cottonwood by the creek.

Then we had about a gazillion inches of hard rain, and wind strong enough to knock the birdfeeder off its platform. A sinkhole opened up down the street, the same one the city filled in with gravel sometime back. Water flowed into basements all over the neighborhood and the creek ran high and muddy.

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Blossoms in a sand trap show the high water mark.

And a friend marked herself as “safe” on Facebook, after a shooting in a California town I used to visit on business in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile I read a little book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and other lies I’ve loved, by Kate Bowler. It’s the true story of a woman living with inoperable stage 4 cancer, a memoir like none I’ve read before. Kate writes with great honesty and humor of the tyranny of prescriptive joy, the collective addiction to control, and the dumb things people say.

She writes of her habitual need to plan. For example: walking with her husband, the whole time talking about what to do next. (I can relate.)

But she’s smack in the middle of a present moment tinged with pain because of the possibility of losing everything dear to her. “I just need to live to be fifty,” she tells a friend. “I need to make sure that kid is launched. I need to get most of my life done. I need to lock it down.”

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Daffodil head blown far from its stalk.

 

“Don’t skip to the end,” the friend tells her.

It’s one of the wisest things anyone can say. In fact, at the end of the book she has a list of things not to say to people facing terrible times. Things like “Well, at least…” and “When my aunt had cancer” and “God needed an angel.” (She suggests instead: Silence. Offers of hugs and food. Or: “Oh my friend, that sounds so hard.”)

The book made me think of the biggest loss of my life to date, the death of my father. I remember his response when people would say, “Just keep fighting!”

“I don’t know what that means,” he said, as mesothelioma closed his lung tissue, and chemo and radiation made him only sicker. Grieving his foreshortened lifespan, he shook his head: “What does that mean, to fight?”

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I can never remember what these are called. I used to ask Dad year after year.

 

We put such pressure on our sick people, to be brave, to be fighters, to be positive. A well-meaning extended family member asked him, “Do you want to get better?” As if he somehow wasn’t clinging to life passionately enough.

Talk about dumb things people say. A few days after he died, a twentysomething fitness guru said to me consolingly, “At least you know he’s not suffering anymore.” I remember wanting to throttle her. Thank you for that insight, perky little cheerleader-gym owner. That just makes it all OK now. Or at least YOU feel better.

The funny thing is, I do tend toward the belief (beloved lie?) that things happen for a reason. I want to believe that the hard things I go through have a purpose, that my soul draws experiences to me so that it can grow. Perhaps it is a lie, but it feels like a more empowered frame of mind than blaming random chance.

I do know that some of the difficult times in my life have softened me to others’ pain, and brought me resources that later served a larger healing.

But I would never suggest that “everything happens for a reason” to a young mother dealing with a death sentence. Sitting squarely in her ephemerality. Life is more beautiful, and painful, Kate writes, than she could have imagined.

“My little plans are crumbs scattered on the ground. This is all I have learned about living here, plodding along, and finding God. My well-laid plans are no longer my foundation. I can only hope that my dreams, my actions, my hopes are leaving a trail for Zach and Toban, so, whichever way the path turns, all they will find is Love.”

—Kate Bowler