A philosopher friend recently shared an article with an intriguing title: The Case for Melancholy. In the piece the author waxes poetic about the merits of embracing one's dark side. Throughout the article he conflates melancholy with creativity and disparages what he perceives as our culture's celebration of happiness and pursuit of bliss.
I was struck by the how starkly the contrast was painted - as though finding benefit in the blues is only possible if we shun not only our own sunny sides, but also the optimism of others. Isn't it possible there is merit in embracing a desire for solitude and expressing joy? Must the two be mutually exclusive?
Some among us were born optimists - constantly convinced they are on the cusp of overcoming whatever challenge they may encounter. Others plan and prepare compulsively - certain every worst case scenario will come to pass. Some awaken singing a cheerful tune before their eyes even open. Others can't conceive of conversation before coffee. But most of us dance between the extremes, and if we are honest, we would admit to finding ourselves at different points along the spectrum at any given moment.
Rather than relegate ourselves - or others - to a one-dimensional existence, it can be freeing to simply accept where we are right now. Mindfulness teaches us to pay attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment. Whether we experience melancholy or cheer, we can set aside the need to label it and instead observe, accept, and proceed. And I think it is a valuable practice as we head into the frenzy of the holiday season.
In the coming weeks, many of us will spend intense periods of concentrated time with family and friends - full of the potential for delight as well as drama. Even the most compatible families have their opposing forces, and over time lingering friction can rise to the surface.
But what if we allowed ourselves to experience the feelings and people we encounter without judgment? What if we commit to simply stop, take a breath, observe, and proceed? This month I encourage you to allow yourself to be melancholy - or cheerful - or whatever else makes you your unique self - and consider extending the same grace to those around you.
Enjoy a mindful conclusion to 2015...
I like to think of myself as a "behind the scenes" kind of girl. I have no desire to deliver a speech, but I love writing a script and standing back to watch the magic unfold. When taking a yoga class, I always put my mat in the back corner of the room, and when teaching, I often position myself so I can observe without being noticed. I could chalk it up to shyness or insecurity, but I prefer to see it as a preference for the periphery.
Traveling provides an irresistible opportunity for anonymity. In a new city, I can be anyone or anything - or nothing at all. I especially enjoy taking yoga classes at local studios. In addition to experiencing new teachers and styles, it is refreshing to take off my "teacher" hat and be just another student in the room - with no expectations about how well (or not) I execute a pose, how long (or not) I choose to sit in meditation, and how often I drop into child's pose.
While in a class on a recent visit to New York, I was excited when the instructor cued us into handstand in the middle of the room. I was eager for the chance to experiment without the subconscious concern of what my students or fellow teachers might think. As I played, however, I recognized I was timing my efforts based on when the teacher was nearby or looking in my direction. When I realized what I was doing, I almost laughed out loud. Isn't this precisely what I tell my students not to do?
How often have I explained to a yogi that yoga is a practice, not perfection? How many times have I emphasized that we come to the mat not to demonstrate our fancy physical tricks but instead to explore what our efforts and reactions reveal about us off the mat? How frequently do I remind students that our true measure as yogis is not the length of our hamstrings but rather our flexibility in dealing with the challenges we face in the course of our daily lives? Yet there I was, wanting to be seen.
When I returned home the next week, I noticed the pattern repeating itself. When leaving a tip at a coffee shop, I caught myself waiting until the cashier was looking forward before dropping the money into the jar. And when presented with the opportunity to make an anonymous donation in response to a friend's charitable solicitation, I instead gave my name. I told myself I was doing so to ensure he knew I supported him and his cause, but was it really about him or me???
The reward of our good deeds should be in the doing - not the recognition. And our self worth shouldn't be dependent on the acknowledgements of others. So this month, I am working to embrace my "behind the scenes" persona. I am looking for opportunities to be generous without seeking gratitude and achieve personal goals without applause. I am aiming to be invisible, and I invite you to do the same. Will you join me?
A friend recently shared a parenting blog post entitled, "Don't Parent from Fear." I smiled when I read the title, assuming I knew exactly what the author was going to say...
We all have seen mothers on the playground shriek when their little one trips. We have heard fathers debating the merits of an emergency room visit every time a child coughs or reaches for her ear. We know parents who refuse to let their kiddo splash in a puddle lest they contract the norovirus. I offer these examples not to pass judgment - if I have learned one thing in my 2.5 years of parenting it is not to criticize a fellow mama! - but my husband and I have taken a decidedly non-alarmist approach to raising our babe.
We have gone out of our way to NOT overreact when she falls and skins a knee. We let her run fast, climb walls, and walk ahead of us on the city sidewalks. Yes, this has led to bumps, bruises, and tears along the way, but it has also (so far) yielded a brave and adventurous child.
As I read the post, however, my ego deflated. The fear referenced by the author had nothing to do with being overly cautious. Instead, she spoke of fear that our children won't thrive or be successful in the world's eyes. Fear that they will choose a dangerous path - or simply a path other than what we envision. Fear that we will fail them by getting it wrong. Fear that we can't give them enough love or attention or resources.
I have felt all of these fears - and more. And they extend far beyond parenting. If I am being honest, I have to admit I have allowed fear to pervade nearly every area of my life. At various times in my life I have allowed fear of the unknown to hold me back from trying new things. I have allowed fear of others' opinions to stop me from sharing a different perspective. I have allowed fear of failure to keep me from pursuing a passion.
In recognizing the prevalence and poignance of these fears, I can see how they have, at times, prevented me from living a full and fulfilled life. And that is not what I want for my daughter...or myself. So I am pulling the mask off this boogeyman once and for all. I am committing to acknowledge - and rise above - my fears. I will allow - even encourage - myself to look foolish, sound inexpert, and feel silly.
Where have you allowed fears to hold you back from living fully? How can you overcome them and live more authentically?
Let me ask you a question: How soon after this newsletter arrived in your inbox did you open it? Studies suggest as many as 70 percent of emails are read AND responded to within six seconds of their arrival. In tracking the open rate of previous newsletters, I can attest to the fact that most of you open these emails within an hour of receiving them. Don't get me wrong - I LOVE that you find these missives worthy of timely attention, but I'm asking you to do me a favor: please stop and ask yourself, Do I really need to read this RIGHT NOW?
We live in a hyper connected world, and in many ways, this is a wonderful thing. Families who live far apart can see and interact with one another on a daily basis; friends who have lost touch over the years can connect and catch up as though no time has passed; and we can access any elusive fact or research a burning question within seconds.
But constant connection also has its downsides. When is the last time you spent an afternoon with a friend that wasn't interrupted at some point by an email or text that "needed" an immediate response? When is the last time you focused your full attention on a work assignment or personal project without being distracted by an incoming text or facebook notification? When is the last time you were successful in accomplishing the goals on your list rather than allowing your day to be derailed by endless responses to other people's agendas?
Despite taking steps to reduce my own reliance on email and social media in recent years, I continue to find myself sliding down that slippery slope of checking for "just one more thing" and losing precious hours of presence with the ones I love. So last month, I decided to do something about it.
During August, I challenged myself to take a real break. I unplugged for one entire week (!) and significantly curtailed my online availability the rest of the month. In doing so, I made some key observations that helped me shift my behaviors and be more present.
Like most children, my daughter seems to have been born to entertain. She narrates every encounter, creates her own songs, twirls and dances down the street, and lives to make her Mama and Papa laugh.
Anyone who has spent much time with children - or can recall their own childhood clearly - can relate to the seemingly endless creativity with which we are born. Need a guitar pick to perform a guitar concert for your cat? Repurpose a small wooden magnet. Need an extra bed for your dollhouse? Grab your mama's yoga block. Discover a lone key on the sidewalk? Use it to "unlock" your stroller wheels.
But somewhere along the line, our focus shifts from the beauty of creative expression to more immediate needs. We want to succeed in school, so we study. We want to excel in sports, so we practice. We want to find the perfect job, so we send out resumes and network. We want to get a promotion or a raise, so we work harder. We divorce ourselves from creativity because we fail to see its practical application.
And when creativity does find its way into our lives - whether singing in the shower or signing up for a photography class - we tend to keep it siloed away, separate from our day to day rhythms. We are out of practice and find the idea of creative expression a bit uncomfortable. We haven't picked up a paintbrush in years. We haven't touched a piano since grade school. We are fearful of putting our (self-determined) lack of talent on display.
I notice this in myself when my daughter invites me to join in her sidewalk serenades. Rather than mirroring her gusto, I find myself carefully scanning the crowd for familiar faces and stalling until I can navigate to a less well traveled street. We spend so much time thinking about how something might sound or look that we forget the sheer delight of making up a story, dancing around the room, or filling a page in a coloring book.
Fortunately, the joy is easy to recapture, and it isn't contingent upon skillful execution of any particular art form. Creativity isn't defined by our ability to transform a blank canvas into a lifelike representation. Consider the catharsis of slapping paint on a blank canvas Pollock-style. Pull your phone out of your pocket as you walk through the farmers market and capture a particularly beautiful display. Experiment with a new recipe - or close your cookbooks and embark on a spontaneous kitchen adventure.
For many of us, August provides a bit more spaciousness than our the rest of our jam-packed year. Can you invest a free afternoon or weekend this month reconnecting with your creative side? Can you let down your guard and your creativity shine?
At the end of last year I bought a bike. I wanted to spend less time in the car and more time out and about in the course of a day. Eight months later I couldn't be happier about the change. I am grateful not to circle endlessly for the ever-elusive parking spot when meeting someone downtown. I enjoy getting from points A to B without the distraction of a radio or phone. I appreciate moving on my schedule rather than being subject to traffic delays or dependent on the whims of a metro conductor. But more than anything, I have discovered that I love being slow!
When commuting by foot or car, I do everything I can to reach my destination as quickly as possible. I am constantly looking for the most direct route and evaluating whether traffic or other considerations merit a detour. When reliant on public transportation, I find myself bemoaning every pause or extended stop. I have somewhere to be people - let's move!
But when on my bike - whether because of the physical effort required to navigate hills, traffic, and fellow riders - or hesitation brought about by concern for the threats posed by other, bigger forms of transportation, I am content to move slowly.
When I say "slow," I don't mean I am not fast. I don't mean I keep a moderate pace. I mean S.L.O.W. On any given ride, I am routinely passed by fellow bikers of all ages and abilities. On occasion, I am even eclipsed by a runner. And for once in my life, I don't mind being last.
My lack of physical speed has caused a shift in perspective. While creeping up hills, I began to notice the subtle transformation of the flowers and trees as Spring turned to Summer. On particularly lovely afternoons, I found myself making an extra trip around the block to enjoy the breeze and the newfound feeling of lightness and ease. And rather than relying on a steady soundtrack of NPR programming to distract me from the frustrations of traffic and track work delays, I can leave the headphones at home and tune in to the early stirrings of the city in the pre-dawn hours, or the purposeful rhythms of the rush hour commute.
I am enjoying this process of experiencing familiar surroundings in a new, more mindful way and eager to explore how else I can reduce the speed of my daily life.
What better time than the heat of summer to allow yourself to slow down? Can you (literally) stop and smell the flowers this month?
While the official beginning of Summer is weeks away, in our nation's capital we don't need to look at the calendar to know when the season has shifted. The heat, humidity, and influx of tourists in recent weeks leave us with no doubt that Summer has arrived.
Beginning with the arrival of the first Cherry Blossoms and extending until the grand old oaks shed their leaves, planes, trains, and automobiles deliver throngs of visitors eager to experience history up close and witness democracy in action (or at least the buildings in which they imagine such things happen). From the historic White House and Capitol buildings to the beautiful memorials, monuments, and museums that line the National Mall, our city overflows with eager internationals, fanny-packed families, and wide-eyed interns.
D.C. locals grumble as crowds thicken and school and tour buses clog our already crowded roads. Exasperated worker bees scoff as middle schoolers from Middle America pause for selfies, blocking access to their workplaces. Long-time residents sigh as they are forced to navigate around public transportation neophytes who inevitably walk and stand on the wrong sides of the escalator.
I am not immune to my own flashes of frustration in these scenarios, but as I walk through the streets with my daughter, I am growing to love the guests in our city and the fresh perspective they offer. The enthusiasm of the gaggles who gather in front of the White House can be infectious. Their dozens of languages and accents provide a unique soundtrack to an otherwise unremarkable day. And overhearing an awestruck recounting of one's first visit to a memorial or museum reminds me what a blessing it is to be surrounded by such an immense array of history and culture.
Being a tourist isn't about visiting popular sites, it is a state of mind. To be a tourist is to take a break from our carefully crafted air of indifference and allow ourselves to be excited - even in awe. To be a tourist is to be enthusiastic, curious, and open to new experiences.
As the spaciousness of summer descends on D.C., I am declaring my intention to be a tourist. I am vowing to pause long enough to watch the sun rise over the monuments during an early morning run, stop and snap a picture of my daughter's favorite animal while strolling through the National Zoo, and appreciate the symbols that define our city.
You don't need to live in a popular travel destination to sprinkle some tourism into your summer. Go for a walk in a different neighborhood. Pack a picnic lunch and eat outside, where you can watch the world go by instead of staring at your computer screen. Stop to enjoy your morning cup of coffee sitting down at a cafe or on a park bench rather than on the run. Find a new way to enjoy the familiar sights and sounds that surround you. Give yourself time to pause and appreciate life.
Last month I lost my wedding ring. It didn't slip down the drain while washing my hands, or slide off unnoticed while waterskiing, or disappear under any other forgivable, accidental scenario. I lost the ring I have worn every day for the past 10 and a half years - the symbol of love and commitment that has accompanied me around the globe and through the ups and downs of a decade of marriage - and I had no one to blame but myself.
When I recognized the ring was missing, I immediately began retracing the previous day's steps, searching for a clue to its whereabouts. As I mentally revisited the regular routine of classes, clients, and errands, one minute came into clear focus. I saw myself sitting in a treatment room at my acupuncturist's office with my ring balanced on my knee as I put lotion on my cracked hands. I observed myself leaning forward to toss the empty lotion bottle in the trash can and settling back into the chair as she entered. I watched the scene unfold, helpless to change the past, with a sinking sense that I would never see the ring again.
I calculated the time lapse between loss and discovery: 13 hours. Perhaps there was cause for hope. When I called the office to explain the situation, the office manager assured me she would search the room thoroughly, but it was to no avail. I immediately made my way there to scour the room personally, but no amount of crawling around the floor willing the ring to appear produced it. I tracked down the manager of the building's overnight cleaning crew, and while she was sympathetic, she wasn't able to help. Disappointed by the loss and in myself for the carelessness that brought it about, I slumped home.
Seemingly out of options and in need of encouragement, I picked up the phone and dialed my mom. She reminded me that the ring was simply a possession like any other, and its loss would be just one of many I would undoubtedly encounter in the years to come. And then she asked, "Have you prayed about it?"
I couldn't bring myself to ask for a miracle for something as trivial as a piece of jewelry - even one with great sentimental value, but I couldn't shake the advice. I prayed instead for peace of mind and gave myself permission to surrender the search and accept the loss.
A week later, while folding laundry, I caught sight of what appeared to be a button resting on a cabinet in our bedroom. As I approached the table to pick it up, my heart stopped: it was not a button, but my ring. I immediately began inventing scenarios that would explain its presence there. It must have been caught in the cuff of my pants and somehow survived the bike ride back home... Or maybe it fell from my knee into my purse and then back out... But no explanation seemed quite right - or relevant.
As I reflected on the disappearance and reappearance, I recognized that the relief I felt upon finding the ring was no greater than the peace I experienced when I stopped striving and embraced my inability to control the outcome.
This type of surrender has applications far beyond material possessions. So many of the challenges we face are out of our control: the end of a relationship, a missed opportunity, the inability to start a family. When our own efforts and resources fail to deliver the results we desire, we can find healing in surrendering our attachment to a specific outcome and accepting what comes next.
Have you made a mistake - small or large - you can't reverse? Are you facing a burden greater than your abilities? Consider surrendering your desires and allowing life to unfold. It just may surprise you...
Hi! How are you? We offer and hear this phrase so often it seems a rhetorical question. Whether passing a neighbor on the street or a co-worker in the hallway, the words are exchanged with little expectation of anything more than a one-word response.
When a client actually answered the question recently, I was caught off guard. Rather than breezing past the query, she paused for a moment then shared she was planning a trip to visit her mother, who was in failing health. She went on to say she was also making travel arrangements for the funeral of an uncle who was likely to pass away in the coming days. She then went on to explain that the persistent cold weather had caused the pipes to burst in her home as well as her family's country home. As she came to the end of her answer, she paused again and said, "Sorry, that is probably not what you were looking for."
In a way she was right: I asked the question without any expectation of an honest answer. But at the same time, I was grateful for the glimpse into what was happening in her life, and it informed our work together. Knowing her mind was whirling with the many details she needed to sort out, I did what I could to keep her body and mind in the present moment - if only for the hour we were together.
Our habitual surface-level response to inquiries about our well-being is developed early. At two years old, my daughter responds to questions about how she slept or how her day was with an automatic, "Good." While this may be the socially acceptable answer, we deny opportunities for meaningful connection at our own peril.
I can see countless examples of this in my own life. By insisting I was "fine" rather than accepting a stranger's help as I navigated a busy airport with bags and a babe in tow, I ended up with a tweaked wrist and sore back. On a deeper level, my refusal to admit when something was wrong has created tension in important relationships with those who can see past the pretense and sincerely want to help.
These patterns may be deeply ingrained, but when we recognize them, we have the opportunity to correct our course. While you probably don't need to share the details of your Aunt Helen's upcoming surgery with your barista, we are all surrounded by people who are able - and often glad - to help.
If you mention to an office mate that you are facing a personal challenge, they might go the extra mile on a collaborative project. If you let your yoga teacher know you have been up all night taking care of a sick kiddo, you may find yourself treated to an extra indulgent savasana assist. If you admit to your spouse that the cold you have been battling for TWO WEEKS is showing no sign of abatement, he may encourage you to take the Sunday afternoon nap that helps you get past it once and for all.
Being honest can be scary, but it might be just what you need. How can you be more honest today?
Having celebrated yet another birthday last week, I must confess I am finding myself increasingly forgetful. It happens frequently enough that it has become a joke in our house - albeit one I don't always find amusing... I could blame "mommy brain" or my vata dosha. I could point to the frenzy of preparing for a seventeen day stretch of travel with a toddler or the wide ranging array of details floating around in my head at any given moment. I could acknowledge that I am not getting any younger. But the underlying cause doesn't change the reality: If I don't write something down - whether an observation, appointment time, or song I want to add to an upcoming class playlist - the information could very well be lost forever.
This experience is extraordinarily frustrating for someone who used to take for granted her ability to recall every element of every dish in a 24 course tasting menu years after the fact - or recite entire Shakespeare soliloquys - or remember the winners of every major Academy Award category for the past 20 years. I have begun to feel rather self-conscious about this development - fearing I will be judged dimwitted, or inattentive, or worse. I think often of a sentiment shared by a dear family friend well into the third act of her life: "You should have known me back when I was smart!"
But if I reflect honestly on the former me who seemingly had all the facts of the world at her disposal, I also recognize her impatience. I feel her annoyance when a colleague paused to recall a relevant fact or stopped to select just the right word to convey an idea. I see her roll her eyes (inwardly, of course) when a well-meaning family friend would ask, "How old are you now?" I hear her sigh (not always inwardly) when interrupted mid-conversation and asked to repeat an answer or anecdote. And it occurs to me, as bright as that girl may have been, she isn't someone I would choose to be around today.
Rather than longing for the razor-sharp young lady I was, I am learning to embrace the more forgetful, more forgiving woman I am becoming. I am daring to ask a question rather than pretending I remember the answer. I am realizing that asking someone to repeat something is not the end of the world. I am letting go of the fear of being judged and focusing instead on accepting where I am today.
Perhaps your mind is a steel trap and you have no concern about the foibles of your memory. But it is a rare individual who doesn't have some insecurity or weakness they try to mitigate and/or conceal from others. Next time you find yourself mapping out a coping strategy or retreating before your flaw (real or imagined) is discovered, try looking at what you have gained by losing. Embracing your vulnerability may be exactly what you need to grow.
Thank you for visiting the Starting Over blog. Stop by anytime for a dose of inspiration, tools to help you achieve your goals, and a community of fellow travelers. I hope to see you often!