Force ≠ Power

Everyone’s working so hard these days, trying to figure out how to parse the new COVID-19 reality, trying to deal with massive uncertainty and upheaval.

A long time ago, an intuitive told me that “trying harder”—my usual tactic for getting through difficult things—was a habit that didn’t really serve me. I cut my teeth on the Mennonite work ethic though, and it’s a hard one to let go. Even now, knowing that it doesn’t really help, I’m not too long at a task or goal before my eyeballs get all squinched up and I hold one shoulder tighter or squeeze up my right thigh. It’s natural, right? I’m working hard!

We did an experiment in yoga class that showed me how truly unhelpful this pattern is. My teacher Gaynell had us swim our arms through space, bounce at the knees, forget about holding a certain posture. Get a little playful. Then she directed us to feel our “energy ball.”

You can do it right now just by shaking out your hands, rubbing them together, shaking them out some more, and then holding them a little bit apart. There’s a staticky feeling, a sort of fuzziness, between them—you feel it? That’s your own energy field.

So we have this energy ball and we’re playing with it, expanding the space and closing it, in touch with flow, and then Gaynell has us CLENCH EVERY MUSCLE IN OUR BODIES. You can do it right now. Really go rigid. Tense everything up completely. Your face, your toes, your glutes, everything. Then: Feel for your energy ball. Where did it go?

Mine collapsed. I mean, I couldn’t feel it AT ALL.

In the same vein, I once saw a demo with a personal trainer who tightened every muscle in her body… and was measurably weaker on a strength test, vs. staying loose and using only the muscles needed. This surprised even her.

These experiments tell me that force ≠ power!

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Photo by “orangemaniac” via Flickr Creative Commons

True power is quiet humming fuel, the life force underlying everything. Forcing, clenching, pushing, driving… these are all things I’ve been enculturated to do when my energy runs low. Just push on through. But, what if I’m just making life harder for myself and everyone around me?

What if there’s a way to reconnect to that hum every hour of every day, and use it to fuel my endeavors, instead of listening to the busy mind that overrides every small signal and tells me to press on? To drop any unneeded “efforting,” as yoga teaches us?

What if, indeed, this energy source is key to transforming this messed-up world from the inside out?

If I were to stand in my energy, could I listen more deeply, engage more fully, relate more authentically, even with people who push my buttons?

Could I have access to inspiration, innovations, and solutions that get cut off every time I tighten up?

Could I, through an easeful resonance, alter the energy of any place I enter?

I’d like to think so. Remembering to remember to remember… that’s the key.

Gratitude: Where would I be without yoga, my yoga community, my yoga teachers? Clenched-up, lonely, and snappish, that’s where. I’m especially grateful that some classes are now offered outdoors. If you need some support, check out Irvington Wellness Center for virtual classes and—if you’re local—for select in-person offerings. (I also offer Soul Realignment via Zoom, and you can book through IWC.)

Tip of the Day: If you read through my post but didn’t try the experiment… try it out now!

Resource of the Day: How to rewire the fear response through love. Check out this article by happiness specialist Arthur C. Brooke (four tips at the very end). 

Not your Sister’s Self-Care

I was asked to write a wellness article for a local women’s magazine, sharing practices that can help us find our footing in the midst of uncertainty. I was in the midst of drafting it when the world blew up for the second time in a few months, with George Floyd’s murder.

Not for the first time, that confluence of events made me really think about self-care in the context of  inequity and social change. Is self-care an inherently selfish act? Does it require donning blinders and living in a syrupy bubble of pampered and precarious comfort?

Not the kind of self-care I mean.

Embodiment teacher/activist Abigail Rose Clarke has said that having the time and space to do mindbody practices is a privilege. And the very fact that this kind of practice is a privilege, she notes, makes it a responsibility.

We who have the time and space to create the change within ourselves that can help heal the world, must do so.

I believe that building our personal resilience does in fact heal the world. I think of the white woman who called the police on a Black birdwatcher and claimed he threatened her, after he lawfully requested that she leash her dog. The level of reactivity in that act, aside from its painful demonstration of racism, indicates (to my mind) someone who is not awake to her own need.

Self-care, and not your sister’s self-care of pedicures and bubble baths and pricey skin toners, is a muscular act. It requires facing up to the boiling mess of emotion inside us, and giving it room to flow and transform. So often we suppress the things we don’t want to feel, but they don’t go anywhere but underground.

Then they burst out in annoying and sometimes dangerous ways, like chronic pain or low-grade irritability. Or acute reactivity that puts another in danger.

In actual fact, turning towards our emotions on the regular, with self-kindness, is what relieves and releases them. And it may not look pretty or feel yummy. Rolling on the floor and wailing is not a Calgon-take-me-away moment (totally dating myself with that reference). But I would much rather have a private tantrum than inflict that pent-up frustration, fear, and resentment on another.

(It doesn’t necessarily have to be a tantrum. Maybe it’s just experiencing that inward trio of sensation, thought, and emotion—and following where they lead with curiosity.)

By turning to kinder practices that nourish the body and soul, we become more resilient and less reactive. As we move through our day with less fear, suspicion, and hostility—less triggered, or more able to stay with the triggers and breathe before acting—we truly do build a more compassionate community and world.

I used to teach a class I called Radical Cell(f) Care, offering self-care practices I’d gleaned from various energy healing traditions. I called it radical because this kind of practice gets to the root, because it gives us tools to pause, because it creates change from within. It generates more kindness in a world sorely in need of that.

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The portulaca blooms closed up in yesterday’s rain, and opened again when it stopped. Life inhales and exhales, contracts and expands. 

Now, kindness alone won’t solve the pattern of deadly force against black people and the dearth of justice for their murders, or other ways massive inequities show up in our society. It won’t halt a pandemic’s spread (but may slow it down, as people take precautions, expressing their care for each other). On its own it won’t fix the breakdown of our planetary systems, or the rise of fascism, or other seemingly intractable problems. But I still contend it is a vital tool for addressing the general awfulness that faces us at every turn.

Policies are behind much of the awfulness—policies set by people with power. We are also people… with our own power. Our choices and behaviors can uphold the awfulness, or challenge it, transcend it, create something brand new.

We need to continually refuel for the big and small acts that will make change. We need to embody and radiate the kind of muscular compassion that doesn’t look away from the awfulness, and doesn’t allow it to persist, and points the way to a different kind of world.

Gratitude: I am grateful for the view I have from my desk—our tiny back yard, where I can see young robins eating mock strawberries, and all the garden freshening under rain, and all the chipmunks, neighborhood cats, hummingbirds, bluegray gnatcatchers, sparrows, cardinals and so on making it their playground.

Tip of the Day: From the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is HardI learned that willpower is a finite resource. We exhaust ourselves quickly if we power through with grit alone. It’s not high-quality fuel. I’ve been cultivating a new motivation to fuel I do throughout my day, connecting to a feeling-level motivation where I can. Positive feelings like love, kindness, pride, excitement, and joy have staying power. If you are working toward change, it might be useful to check your fuel levels!

Resource of the Day: I started watching the Reimagining and Remaking America replay with activists Valarie Kaur and Van Jones. Now I can’t wait to read her book, See No Stranger, which makes a case for the ultimate long-haul fuel: revolutionary love.

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.