Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Rooting Out the Bad Eggs: A Lesson from the Cowbird

Many people say that having children gives you a shot at a second childhood. This seems mostly true: being an active participant and observer in my kids' lives lets me play and learn like a kid again. Just last week my husband and I went along on a Cub Scout outing to a local arboretum to learn about birding. Since I am trying to learn more about local plants and wildlife, I paid close attention.

One of my favorite ways to study spirituality is through the lens of nature, looking at the natural world as a reflection of spiritual truths. This is a belief held by Native American, Hindu and African spiritual traditions, among others.

Something we learned on our birding outing last week gave me an epiphany of sorts, one that I may not have experienced as a child. We sighted a Cowbird, a species native to the United States and often feared and disliked. Cowbirds are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other species. The females seek out female birds of other species who are actively laying eggs; then when the nest is unprotected they go in removing or damaging some of the existing eggs, proceeding to lay their own eggs in their place. Cowbird eggs have a relatively short incubation period so their babies hatch before the others, are usually larger than the others, and end up taking most of the food from the mother, causing her to lose her own offspring. To learn more about cowbirds, go here and read up a bit.

Upon hearing the story of the Cowbird, I had the thought that everything we see in nature we can also observe in both human society and the human mind. I said to another mother next to me, "Sadly, we know people just like that, don't we?" After all, we're a part of nature, too. We find our own strategies for survival.

My Cowbird epiphany had more to do with the inner workings of the human mind than human parasitic behaviors. The lesson I take away from the Cowbird is to watch for and root out parasitic thoughts and beliefs. 

Each of us has an inner nest in our consciousness where we incubate good thoughts, ideas, feelings and beliefs that can hatch into our best life. We have the power to feed certain thoughts we want to grow and thrive. On the other hand, we sometimes find insidious, harmful thoughts and beliefs invading our nest. Sadly, we are often unaware of these destructive thoughts, almost as if they were planted by someone else. They often begin in our unconscious mind, subtly planted there, beneath the surface, waiting to take over the nest. By the time they hatch from eggs, we may feel like it's too late. But no matter how big or loud these harmful thoughts may seem, we can remember that we do get to decide which ones we feed.

It takes conscious, concerted effort to find and eject the bad eggs in the nest of our consciousness. Just like an avid birder, we have to stop, listen and look deeply. We can do this through any regular mindful and focused practice, (including birdwatching), especially in meditation. Meditation is one of the central components of a yoga practice, and the culmination of the strong and beautiful postures we execute. All mindful practices allow us to cultivate and maintain a deeper relationship with the self and to become the watcher, the observer of our thoughts. We may even get lucky enough to witness the very moment when one little destructive thought inserts itself into our consciousness--at that moment, or in any moment that follows, we can recognize its power to siphon our energy and rob us of our freedom to feed our good thoughts.

Take a thorough inventory of your nest today. Count the eggs that are there, and really look at them to see which ones you are willing to nurture. Throw out the ones that threaten the integrity and success of your mental brood.

In my own mind, a recurring belief that stops me from living my best life is the thought that other people can't and won't believe good things about me, and that their opinion of me will cause me to fail. I know this belief to be mostly false and 100% destructive. I am consciously choosing to recognize it when it surfaces and demands to be fed. It is my hope to starve it out of my nest.

You may have a similar recurring belief you would like to starve. It may relate to your relationships, your career, or even your perception of your physical body. It may be a belief that you can't achieve something or have something you have always wanted. It may be something as small as the belief that you are not good at yoga, or some other physical practice. Use every activity as a chance to observe your thoughts and beliefs, how they make you feel, how much energy they consume, and whether or not they are serving your highest goals.

Don't let a parasite take over the nest you have taken your life to build.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Feel It To Heal It: Practicing Interoception

Based on our own intuition and experience, many of us know that meditation, conscious breathing and mindful bodily movement have the effect of calming an overactive and anxious mind. When we are flustered or upset and stop to take to a deep breath, close our eyes for a moment or stand up and stretch, we feel instantly better.

Are you curious to know why this is? Why do certain behaviors serve to soothe us? You may have guessed the answer relates to our brain and nervous system. Different parts of the brain and nervous system are responsible for performing different functions related to our thoughts, feelings and actions.

Fortunately for us, we are not puppets exclusively controlled by the automatic strings of our brain and spinal chord. We often think of our brain as the executive organ in charge of most all we do; while this is true, there are ways we can consciously pull the strings to turn on specific parts of our brains and nervous systems and disengage from others.

For example, our autonomic nervous system contains our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems performing complimentary functions. Even though these systems are automatic and involuntary, there are things we can do to voluntarily affect them. The sympathetic nervous system aids in our survival through controlling our fight or flight response, gearing us up for intense action; this part of our nervous system engages our stress response. On the other hand, our parasympathetic nervous system brings the body back into balance following a stressful experience, slowing down the heart rate, supporting glandular activity, facilitating digestion and helping our muscles to relax. The way I was taught the difference between the two systems is to remember that sympathetic means fight or flight, and parasympathetic means rest and digest. The most important way we consciously engage our parasympathetic nervous system is through intentional and controlled breathing. If we can slow down and control our breathing, we can override our stress response.

To give an example of turning on different parts of our brain, we can point first to the frontal lobes of the neocortex: these allow us to respond to external stimuli, to think, to analyze and to gauge our place among others through social judgment and conceptual self-evaluation. All of these functions are extremely useful, yet this part of our brain can feel like it's on overdrive at times. Not surprisingly, this is the part of our brain responsible for the distressing thoughts that come with depression and anxiety. We may often feel that we need to shut off our thoughts so we can relax or sleep. At these times, we can switch gears, relying more on two smaller and deeper areas of our brain, the insula and posterior cingulate: these relate more to feelings, both physical and emotional. When we can go deeper into our present experience of physical sensations and emotional or intuitive feelings, we can bypass racing thoughts and find relief from external stress.

When our attention is turned to the outside world and the way we engage with it, we can say our awareness is exteroceptive. When we turn our focus to our immediate physical and internal experience (such as the sensations related to breathing), we can say we have interoceptive awareness. When we meditate, do conscious breath work and engage in a movement practice such as tai chi or yoga, we are increasing our interoceptive awareness--we are practicing interoception. Interoception is related to mindfulness practice, another mind/body tool for reducing stress and anxiety. When we are able to feel, very deeply and keenly, what's happening on the inside of us, we move towards healing mental and physical ailments that show up on the outside. When we can feel, then we can heal.

Some people may find it initially quite difficult to spend quiet, intimate time with themselves engaging these practices. Uncomfortable feelings may surface and ask to be resolved. I have a friend who has told me she always cries in savasana at the end of yoga class and that's how she knows she needs to do it more often. Her self-assessment is very wise. Laughter and tears do sometimes show up in classes I teach, in my own yoga practice and in classes I attend, and I find that the environment adequately supports any such natural reaction. However, many people will prefer to have these deeper experiences on their own in their practice, on a yoga or meditation retreat, or with a trusted and qualified teacher, one-on-one.

These methods of dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and trauma have been scientifically tested and proven, and are currently used to treat veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as other sensitive populations. We can use these methods on ourselves and our loved ones, as good preventative health measures and also avenues for enjoyment.

Meditation, breath work and mindful movement practices proactively support our mental and physical well-being. A little interoceptive awareness brings a much needed balance to our externally focused behaviors, habits and patterns.

If you are interested in reading more about interoception and the brain, check out this article from Scientific American, by Emma Seppala.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Blessing Meditation

As a human being, we each have such great power,
so much more than we realize, to create, to heal and to bless
ourselves, our loved ones, our community at large,
and all of the world around us.

Pulsating within each of us,
a strong heart,
an electric energy,
a spark of the heat and fire
at the heart of the Universe.

Take a moment,
and look at your hands.
Touch them together,
and bring them apart,
and then slowly back together,
and apart again.
Bring your hands in closer and closer to one another,
and feel the energy moving from one hand to the other.
Feel the power, heat and energy in your hands.

Find a place to sit or lie down comfortably,
with your eyes closed.
Rub your hands together until they are hot,
then place them over your eyes,
gently pressing the heels of your hands into your eyes,
with your fingertips on your forehead,
blessing your eyes, blessing your brain,
connecting to your own power to bless.

Know that you can bless yourself with your thoughts,
and bless others through your eyes,
when you look at them through the lens of love.

Move your hands over your throat,
and bless your voice and your speech,
connecting to your power to bless through your words,
and the quality of your voice,
which is yours alone, your unique and precious voice,
a vehicle for blessings.

Move your hands over your chest,
and breathe into your heart space,
feeling your chest lift up into your hands,
realizing you are blessed with each in breath,
and each out breath.

Move your hands over your belly,
and breathe into your belly,
blessing your digestive system.

Move your hands down your body now,
over your hips, sliding them down your legs,
all the way to your feet,
and bless your feet for carrying you through the spaces you walk,
each day.

Come back to sit or stand with open eyes,
clear mind, clear eyes, clear throat, clear chest,
clear heart, clear lungs, clear belly, clear body,
and look back at your hands, and spread your blessing arms wide.

Go into the rest of your day and be a blessing to this Earth and its people. That's why you're here. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Row Me Home

Closing my eyes, this is what I see,
On this pond, in this row boat,
With you rowing me. 

Fresh in my mind's eye,
the green and the pink,
vibrantly stirring my thoughts,
and I think.

And then I don't think,
my thoughts are thinking me. 
And you are rowing me.

I don't see you, 
but I feel you,
I remember you, yes. 

Familiar, so familiar...

I'm knowing you, and even more,
you're knowing me. 

I'm resting, and rocking,
the little oars are knocking,
I can hear and feel and taste 
the water,
my body in the sun,
my heart in my chest.

A passage in my mind is opening,
you're taking me there,
I'm bringing you with me,

And you row me home. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Steadiness Requires Readiness: Yoga and Preparation

"Study to show yourself approved," is a biblical quote I'll always remember my father saying throughout my childhood before tests or performances. When I looked it up I learned it comes from the book of 2 Timothy in the New Testament. Verse 15 of the King James version reads, "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." At the time the King James version was written, "study" carried the meaning of striving or working diligently. I can understand why my parents used that verse to encourage me and it helped me set a pattern of preparing well for exams.

These days, as a yoga practitioner and teacher, I sometimes think of that verse in relation to yoga. The "study" aspect, taken literally, makes me think about the self-study and scriptural study aspects of yoga, from the yoga concept of Ishvara pranidhana. More recently, though, I've been thinking about how it relates to the concept of purvanga, translated as preparation.

Purvanga (preparation) is meant to apply to all aspects of our practice and life. Generally, the more prepared we are for anything we do, the smoother it all goes down. In the meditation courses I took in the past, meditatators were instructed to prepare their own space for regular meditation to maximize comfort and minimize distraction. I apply this instruction for both my postural and meditation practices. I remember one of my yoga teachers describing how the simple act of making one's bed in the morning can set the right tone for the day, making everything run more efficiently. I also find this to be true and dislike doing my practice at home with an unmade bed or an untidy space. I also dislike jumping right into any sort of physical practice without an adequate period of warming up my body--the preparation for what's to come.

I had a very literal reminder of the importance of preparation during my home practice this week. I was in my tidied practice space, going through my postures and beginning to work on bakasana, crow posture. This next part may seem made up, but it's not: my phone rang and my neighbor informed me that my garbage cans sitting on the curb were being attacked by crows! I had to pause my practice and go outside to clean up and put lids on the garbage cans. My wonderful spouse had taken the garbage out without lids. Immediately I thought about preparation: were we prepared to have our garbage collected having left off the lids? Wasn't that a part of the necessary preparation? In addition, I had accidentally left a kitchen drawer partially opened and while I was practicing, my dog had pulled out a container of sandwich bags and strewn them all over the living room floor during my sun salutations. These two oversights, the missing garbage lids and the opened drawer, created distraction and interruption, as the outside as well as the inside of our home have a direct effect on my home practice.

As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul! - Hermes Trismegistus. There's another concept related to being prepared, and reminding me of another Bible verse attributed to Jesus about preparing the inside as well as the outside of the cup. If we are truly studious and diligent, everything is important. Nothing can be neglected on the outside or the inside for a truly successful physical, mental or spiritual practice of any kind.

So how does this wisdom help us with our day to day practice, besides reminding us to put the lids on our garbage cans and secure our drawers and pets? I think it's a good way to think about streamlining our lives and remembering what's essential. It's a good reminder to come back to our simplest and best intentions and remove anything and everything cluttering our space, our minds and our lives. For example, I have a goal of some sort of healthy physical exercise each day, and I am more likely to remain true to that goal if I don't put lots of extra pressure around it, such as the number of miles I must walk or run, the number of fancy yoga postures I must execute or any number of extra obligations I pile on top of that simple goal. Another example is the goal my husband and I share to spend time connecting with one another and our kids: we are more likely to achieve that goal when we keep it streamlined and simple, not signing up for more and more "family" events packaged as quality time, like saying yes to each and every birthday party, fundraiser and extracurricular activity and spreading ourselves too thin. Sometimes we need to stay home and cook and play a game instead of piling into the car and heading out to another gathering.

As a rule, I believe that good preparation in yoga practice and life translates as "less is more." As I am discovering this, I'm including fewer yoga postures in the classes I teach so they don't feel so "busy," and fewer physical obligations in my home practice so that I don't intimidate myself into showing up on my own mat: "Do what you feel like doing today and include time for rest," has been good self-talk for me lately. I'm feeling freer and more focused as a result. I'm also feeling stronger. Streamlining your life and slowing down the tendency to over-effort (common in our culture) does not mean slacking--in fact, it takes more concentration and intentionality to live this way.

When we intentionally prepare and streamline our yoga practice, we train ourselves to focus on what's important in our lives and begin to experience more peace and ease. Don't take my word for it: try it yourself. Review your personal goals this week and make a list of what you can eliminate from your practice and daily life that may not be serving those goals. Take extra time to prepare yourself, tidying up what's already in your life and being more intentional about each thing you add to your space, your body and your consciousness. Pay attention to yourself on the inside and the outside and you'll feel better when life's real tests come, as they always do.