10 Things I Learned from Making a Podcast.....

1. Get out of your own way. That old survival strategy of making yourself invisible and sabotaging any chance of success is just getting plain old. If others think you are arrogant, conceited, or annoying for speaking your truth, that is not about you. Have compassion, as this is a projection, and keep it moving.

2. Ask for support. Give Yourself permission to be supported. Perceived support is a major predictor of resiliency and long term health. If support is hard for you to receive, that’s ok. The belief that people will judge you or abandon you is pretty powerful. Believing you are undeserving or unworthy of support is also powerful. Take the time to practice gentle awareness and notice how this resistance shows up in your body. Go to the breath for guidance.

3. If you don't don't know how to do something, Google it.  Feeling ashamed of not knowing how to do something is the mind's way of distorting the  truth. Yet again. So many people are not only happy to help, but also enjoy getting to know a new person along the way. Did you know how many free resources there are on the internet? 

4. A spark of creativity is much like a firefly at dusk. When they appear in the middle of the fading hues of day, they grab your attention, dim, then reappear almost immediately. They are hard to catch and contain. Stay curious and allow them to do their thing. Creativity is a process of growth and deep transformation. Creativity is necessary and a major part of being human. Don't lose your creative fire. It's a divine right of humanity. The Buddha said it was a necessary component of contemplative practice. So there.

5. If you feel stuck, sometimes a little distance and a little redirection goes a long way.  If you have ever had a 3 year old, you know what I'm talking about. This applies to both creative projects and parenting. Don't try to make yourself unstuck. It just makes it worse. Drinking 3 glasses of wine or eating 3 donuts won't help either. Turn to the breath for guidance.

6. Creative ideas are meant to evolve. Podcasts, much like people are continuous works in progress. We change, circle back, unravel, change, and circle back again. Kind of like a roller coaster and nauseating at times, but well worth the journey.

7. Your audience will find you. Those that need to her what you have to say will find you. Show up consistently and authentically, even if you feel like you have nothing to say. Someone out there is suffering and your message could have a ripple effect.

8. Making a podcast is much like making a patchwork quilt. It's definitely not linear. Not much in life is.

9. It's ok to add everyone you know to your email list. No one has ever died from getting an email.  The worse that will happen is they will unsubscribe. That circles back to #2: ASK FOR SUPPORT

10. Make sure you honor your efforts. Take time to celebrate the accomplishment of rewiring your brain and changing old habit structures. When you release attachment to the outcome, you change the course of your destiny. I had to drop some Gita knowledge here.

BONUS LESSON # 11: My husband is a bad ass. Without launching into a Kenny Rogers song, his love has kept me warm and safe. Every. Step. Of. The.Way.

Facing Change With Fear AND Courage

We often hear people talk about facing challenges, adversities, and changes “fearlessly.” I once read, that courage is not the absence of fear. Rather it is being able to acknowledge and be in the presence of fear, but proceed with courage at the same time. When we allow the voice of the Self to be heard, change is often in the air which then causes fear to arise. In yoga, one of the spiritual ethics known as“niyamas” is “tapas.” The Sanskrit definition can mean “fiery discipline.” It can mean intense, committed discipline needed to burn off the things that impede us from living in a true state of union with ourselves and the divine such as our habituations, our attachments, and our aversions. Tapas can also be the friction and resistance we feel in the presence of change when our egos feel threatened. For me, locking my hair is my tapas. I will tell you the story of why.

After about 20 years of wanting to have locked hair, turning 40 seemed to present itself as the most optimal opportunity to do so. If I didn’t do it now, then I would probably never follow through with it. The question that kept arising was, “but why now and not before?” How did I wait 20 yearsand suddenly decide to lock my hair? The decision was far from impulsive and the issue was no longer about hair. The clarity that emerged from the process of making the decision was this: 

1. I have always made decisions based upon receiving approval or avoiding rejection from others.

2. Change is scary

3. I am very attached to my hair.

Numbers 2 and 3 I can roll with. Number 1? No way. No more. Something has to give.  Now, I am just angry. I was always told that people with tattoos, piercings, and locked hair couldn’t get jobs. In fact, I had tried so hard to fit myself into boxes so that I could carry out the vision of others, that my own passion and purpose was long forgotten. Even though the ripe old age of 40 has gotten me reading glasses, my meta-perspective has become 20/20. I call BS. I was suddenly flooded with a barrage of thoughts that if many of the decisions I had made in my life  were based upon receiving approval or avoiding rejection from others, then what would my life look like if I had made decisions from my heart’s space? If I had a mic, I would drop it.  I’m not sure what was scarier. This major record stopping realization or the process of taking my waist long hair and letting my friend backcomb and weave it into a feral looking state of frizz. 

As she lovingly tended to my hair over a two day, 16 hour process, she told me that locks take time to mature. She, after all is the wise woman in the story who has been through the same transformation herself and has emerged as an empowered being worthy of matriarchal status. She said they go through developmental stages, much like human beings. Infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and mature adulthood. Every stage brings its share of trials and tribulations. This story is no longer about hair and it was no longer about being angry about my decisions. In fact, many of my decisions were profoundly transformative. One led me to the love of my life, which led me to my two angels on earth. This was an opportunity to transition into a new chapter of mylife, holding both my fear and mycouragewith compassion and lovingkindness. My hair would be a visual representation of this messy and sacred process. Making decisions based upon the projections of others is what kept me safe in the world for many years. It served a purpose. It satisfied my need to feel loved and accepted like a quick fix, while numbing the pain of knowing that I was not acting in alignment with my true essence because the risk of abandonment was terrifying. However, what ensues in this pattern of conditioning and habituation is far more destructive. The abandonment of the Self leads to patterns of incessant self-doubt and lack of self-agency. 

When I headed into work the weekend after my hair was done, I felt waves of fear as I drove into the parking lot. “Will people notice?” “Will my supervisor accuse me of not following the dress code?” I had many people tell me that I shouldn’t have done it, while an equal number said it “suited me.”  I even had a co-worker shake her head at me disappointinglyas if I had violated some major rule and say, “I can’t believe you did that to your beautiful hair.”  In that moment, the same inner sensation of rejection I felt as a 5 year old on the playground when someone didn't want to play with me, rippled throughmy belly and chest with sensation until it dissolved back into the abyss of consciousness. My 40 year old eyes can spot a projection a million miles away now. There was no longer a charge nor an impulse to change it back. It didn’t matter if my hair was validated or invalidated. There was only a sense of liberation. I had finally made a decision based on what I wanted while befriending the fear rather than trying to be fearless. Even though the tapas can grow into a fiery inferno, I am safe with knowing that I have the balm to cool the flames, as it has always been inside of me.

On Being Present.......

Most of us who have participated in a yoga class, a meditation group, or some kind of contemplative practice in a group context, have heard the words “Just be present,” spoken in a soft, welcoming voice by a well meaning instructor. You may have also heard, “Stay present,” “Come back to the present moment,” or “Stay present with the breath.”  You may have been profoundly moved by these sentiments and felt lovingly guided into a deeper state of bliss. Or perhaps you became increasingly agitated as the incessant flooding of thoughts began to arise: your grocery list, how you anticipate avoiding traffic on the way home, how you should have eaten before this class, why the person you went out on a date with last weekend hasn’t returned your call, your upcoming trip to the Bahamas, worrying that the headache you feel is really a brain tumor, or how much you hate your job and that you wouldn’t have to come to these classes if it weren’t for the daily tyranny you feel subjected to. The number of thoughts we become aware of during the course of an hour long yoga class or 10 minute meditation practice can be exhausting. As well intended as the gentle ring of the words “Be Present” are, we all know that intention without sound guidance can be counterproductive. The truth is that being present is hard work, especially in our modern day world. “Being Present” is a complex action that is often downplayed by simplistic wording.

Many beginning students and clients have reported to me that they have no earthly clue what “being present” actually means, and were even more thrown off course by feelings of impending uncertainty regarding what they were actually “supposed to be doing” during instruction. Many felt overwhelmed at the incessant barrage of thoughts flooding their minds and, as a result, the focus of their practice became questioning their ability to comprehend simple instruction rather than having a transformative experience. Feelings of failure and little motivation to return to the practice often followed. A common concern that is often expressed to me by clients is, “I just can’t stop my thoughts. There is something wrong with my brain.” The good news is that if you have thoughts, you have brain activity and are still alive. A brain WITH thoughts is actually in pretty decent shape. The bad news is that if you thought the outcome of meditation practice is to stop the flow of thoughts, unfortunately you may have been misguided. Just as the nature of the heart is to beat, the nature of our minds is to have thoughts. Thoughts are not the problem. It’s how we have we learned to relate to our thoughts that creates the desire to flee the present moment and seek out safety in acts of either avoidance or pleasure.

The concept of “being present” can feel incongruent with the fast paced, ever changing world we inhabit. In fact, for many modern humans, a certain level of vigilance and planning ahead seems to help minimize the anxiety that often arises when faced with the ever present uncertainties of life. I recently had the privilege of taking a training with Dr. Ronald Siegel, Psy.D., a prominent researcher and scholar in the field of mindfulness and psychotherapy. He discussed the concept of “negativity bias” which gave our earlier ancestors a major evolutionary advantage by allowing the “thinking brain”, also known as the neo-cortex, to assess and analyze every situation in order to avoid pain. If you take a moment and scroll back throughout the landscape of your life, our earliest patterns of conditioning involved seeking out what pleased the senses and avoiding what brought pain. As children, that was usually in the form of a punishment or reward. It’s Pavlov’s theory of behavior at its simplest. We learned to be in the world according to which actions would increase our chances of pleasure and success and minimize the possibility of pain and failure. According to Siegel, “activities that perpetuate our DNA are pleasurable.” These activities can include eating, sleeping, having sex, alleviating most pain, and enhancing social rank. The problem isn’t with these activities themselves, however when we are focused on seeking out the pleasure derived from a specific object or activity, or avoiding painful circumstances that we predict might happen, we attach to the future and lose our connection to all that is occurring in the present moment. A common yogic analogy for the modern human mind, is a monkey swinging from branch to branch (my own monkeys have had a cup or two of coffee, I think). Sound familiar?

To be fully engaged in the present moment can be really scary. Any adept practitioner can attest to that. Learning to befriend and witness our sadness, anger, and fear is a major step for our modern minds to accomplish. We are continually bombarded with an array of products, objects, substances, and illusory stimuli that lead us to believe that we will be happier, skinnier, better looking, wealthier, and have higher social rank if we only consumewhatever is being marketed to us. We are continuously focused on our plans for the future so that maybe the lingering, unresolved regrets of the past will magically disappear from our consciousness. One of the most common statements I hear from others when they attempt to describe the intensity of their psychosocial stressors is, “I just need to get through the next 3 months and then everything will be ok.” We all have our default patterns of navigating tough times. Again, the problem isn’t with our innate impulse to survive (i.e “checking out” for the next 3 months). The problem is that we often try to deaden our senses and avoid the suffering that can arise when our lives become challenging.  

Being present is simply an invitation to cultivate an awareness of breath, sensation, sound, taste, smell, or anything that sustains attention on something without judgment. Seeking refuge in the sensation of the breath, or the connection of the feet to the earth, can begin to shift the relationship to the body as a strong, safe container that can withstand high levels of energy and a vast spectrum of human experience.  Being present involves "returning" to the present moment, rather than "being" in it. We can always come back. The present moment is always there for us to return to. It does not judge us or deny us. The continuous presence of real time can in and of itself be space where safety and peace can always be found. When we practice awareness of something either internal or external, we are anchoring and grounding ourselves in the present moment. Present moment awareness takes time to develop. Simply having the awareness of when you have become lost in your thoughts or stories about yourself, and returning to the present moment IS the practice itself. Be kind to yourself. Cultivating a meditation practice isn’t easy. Just as you wouldn’t be harshly critical towards a baby, try to abstain from being harshly critical towards yourself.  Practicing presence is an act of undoing and unlearning. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are new neural pathways.

The take away message here is that practicing awareness of the present moment is good for your health! The practice of focusing on an object of awareness, such as following the breath, without any judgment creates a portal for better nervous system regulation and resiliency. The ability to self-regulate decreases nervous system activation associated with the stress response. Less stress decreases the toxic load caused by an over-abundance of stress hormones and ultimately less inflammation, which is associated with many chronic health conditions. By practicing present moment awareness, we are taking an active role in preventing the onset and progression of potential health risks.

The following techniques provide multiple, accessible options for cultivating present moment awareness during any kind of contemplative practice be it yoga, meditation, prayer, mindful walking, etc. 

1.  Find the breath. Taking deep breaths creates a lot of sensation in the torso. Breath moves the belly, chest, rib cage, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and shoulders. Try making your exhale twice as long as your inhale.

2.  Focus on endpoints. Endpoints are places are places in the body that create a closed chain connection with surfaces in the environment. There are a lot of nerve endings in the endpoints! For example, take your shoes off and feel your feet on the floor. Feel the bottom of your pelvis in the chair or the floor. Press your palms together. Notice the sensation of air on your skin. Lying on your back, focus on the sensation of the entire back body receiving support from the floor. 

3.  Notice the sounds that are present in your environment. For example, try taking a walk and only focusing on the sounds of the birds.

4.  Practice becoming aware of when you engage with your thoughts. Notice that it’s a thought, then switch your awareness back to a present moment object. 

5.  Practice with the mind of a beginner and give yourself permission to be imperfect. Self-Compassion goes a long way.

Dr. Ronald Siegel PsyD is a Assistant Clinical Professor at Harvard Medical School. He has written several books on mindfulness, including the The Mindfulness Solution available on Amazon.

 

Ancient Tools.....Modern Living: The What, the Why, and some Personal Reflections

What are ancient tools for modern living? What are the benefits for using an ancient perspective to cultivate a deeper understanding of humanity with more spacious awareness? There are many misconceptions regarding the cultural  accessibility of some of these teachings, as they can be esoteric by nature, considering the the historical context in which they were written. Do I need to walk off barefoot to India in order to become enlightened? Do I need to sit in a cave all day and meditate? I know for many, it can seem inconceivable to roll out your yoga mat in the conference room or checkout line at the supermarket. As contemporary culture advances, the more we get pampered with amenities that are supposed to “make life easier.” I would argue that it’s making life harder. In fact, the more we advance, the more estranged we become from the loving presence that is the self. Ancient wisdom traditions offer systems of practices that provide accessible yet challenging strategies that undo the neurotic entanglement that  modern living in a modern society often perpetuates. Learning to accept painful feelings rather than avoiding them can be a vehicle for liberation. It can seem radical to even propose that we are fine the way we are and really don’t need all of the social accessories that mistakenly bring us closer to happiness. These ancient teachings demonstrate that the happiness is already inside as well as an entire universe. 

Ancient Tools for Modern Living is an attempt to gain a more embodied understanding of what it means to be human. It seeks to explore, unpack, and assimilate the inherent wisdom present in contemplative traditions such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and spiritually oriented practices while closely examining some of the modern contributions of neuroscience that occupy a mutual space in the field of integrative healthcare. By venturing into the cultural wilderness as truth seekers, our collective psyche can begin to unfold and reveal  more of what it means to be human in a modern society. 

Now....A little about my own unraveling. Thank God it happened, because the knot is no longer as tight.

As I approach the ripe age of 40 (big gulp and a deep breath), I am beginning to expand my awareness in ways that I only thought were possible through the consumption of mind altering substances.  I am sure I am not the only one who thought this at one time or another. At the expense of sounding like a cheeseball, I would not have been able to move forward and begin the process of rewriting  my narrative without the path of yoga. Yoga isn’t just about fancy poses and tight sparkly leggings as cool looking as they are. Yoga is about cultivating a sense of union of body and consciousness by way of calming the mind. It was  a way of integrating all of the disembodied, fragmented pieces of myself that had been denied a presence in the landscape of my life. Ultimately, it was about freedom.  Based upon the teachings of the Yoga Sutras, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute asserts that until the mind is calm and no longer distorts our sense of reality, consciousness and the body cannot arrive at a state of true unification. Therefore it is important to examine the consequences of living in and within fragmentation. We all do it to some extent and many have perfected this approach as a primary survival strategy in a society where "feelings" are highly feminized and therefore subjugated and avoided. I lived with a suitcase full of distorted perceptions of myself and others for most of my life. In our current cultural context, we refer to this suitcase as “baggage.” The emotional grime and residue we let infiltrate our interpersonal relationships so that we remain disconnected from the truth. If I maintain the same distorted perception of myself, then I will continue to engage in the same habitual patterns of behavior that keep me stuck in circumstances that I cannot accept and continue to judge as unfavorable. I know. It's not as easy as it seems. Human behavior is one of the hardest things to change because we are irrational beings by nature.  For me it was about ripening my awareness through cultivating a strong witness function and surrendering to the ebbs and flows of life with grace and acceptance. It was about no longer believing the stories I was told about myself by teachers, parents, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and the list goes on.  It was about rediscovering the light of my infant self and rediscovering that my beginner mind (which doesn’t actually get thrown out with the diapers) is what allows us to bathe in the the divine lightof sensory experience, opening up to the fullness and richness of our lives.

I am also discovering that I am much more of an introvert than I thought. For many years, what I defined as an introvert is in reality what I now have come to understand as a person on a tantric path. All introverts are not students of tantra and not all students of tantra are introverts. The reason I associate my newfound introversion with tantra is because the introspection that tantra fosters is mostly a solitary practice that prepares me for deeper connections to others. Tantra means “to weave.” Currently the concept of tantra has been culturally misappropriated to represent erotic sexual encounters. Tantra is one of several yogic paths that involves a “being with” the ebbs and flows of experience, rather than avoiding it or giving it over to a higher source. In other words, our culture is saturated with constant strategies for avoiding pain rather than befriending it. This may sound like a radical concept. I mean, who would actually want to sit down with their suffering and have coffee with it, gazing lovingly into its eyes. The idea however is that when we realize that our feelings are transient, a part of the ebb and flow of the universe’s pulse, we can better intercept the thoughts that hijack the mind and distort reality which breeds more suffering.  By learning toweave together my life experiences and memoriesinto a comprehensive tapestry, I am working to undo the pervasive sense offragmentation and displacement that was present for so many years. The awareness of how strongly I was bound to patterns of habitual functioning  allows me now to better tolerate the non-duality of my rich and earthly human condition. 

Discovering the path of yoga, after a tumultuous career as a theatre artist and dancer,  was like embarking on a major archeological excavation. At that time, my basic knowledge of yoga was much like the common Western consumer. Poses that involved twisting and bending the body into routines designed for a seasoned contortionist. No problem. I came from the dance world and fancy tricks was what got you seen and hired. No one would notice the barren inner landscape where clouds of self-loathing constantly hovered. Where needing to be seen was like an insatiable, crippling hunger that wasn't satisfied in childhood.  It didn’t matter if you kept your food down or not or whether you stayed high or intoxicated to numb the pain of rejection.  Layer upon layer exposed and revealed. Rich jewels buried under rubbish and refuse. Somatic memories that illuminated my core beliefs and the striking conclusion that my perception of the world was that it was a very unsafe place to be.   Habitual patterns of self-destruction, self-doubt, and emotional mutilation that always seemed to resurface no matter how many shots of bourbon or beers I consumed. Oh and the fear. The relentless fear. The fear of rejection and failure and armageddon style catastrophe. In my mind, I would envision scenes of homelessness and starvation if I was 5 minutes late for work. The paralyzing internal siren of panic and the distorted image of myself in an unsafe world that would inevitably drive me to construct some story of why I wasn’t good enough or smart enough. For years I felt like a passive receptacle where others could unconsciously toss their projections into me like a newspaper into a recycling bin. I know I am not alone. As a psychotherapist, I sit with stories that are messy and full of relentless attempts to numb painful feelings, all of which worsen the suffering that already exist as an ancient relics of childhoodghosts.  Here is the good news though. Yoga teaches us that from darkness light emerges. But we have to grow comfortable first sitting in AND with the darkness. Even to its farthest edges. I guess that’s Tantra for the modern day reader.

Now, as a licensed healthcare provider, I know that it can’t be all revelation backed up by personal testimony. Fortunately there is enough neuroscience that can provide an evidence base for mind/body transformation through practices such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.  This embodied knowledge is what we refer to as an “inner resource”, and can be the catalyst that leads to the fountain of healing and better health. Insight that is cultivated through the embodied practices of yoga, meditation,  and mindfulness and reinforces the yogic idea that we already have everything we needinside. When the inner universe speaks, it sometimes reveals the truth in wind like whispers and other times like lightening bolts. Strengthening our containers, meaning the body, allows us to contain and manage high levels of energy, including the emotional effects of personal truths.

“Mind is the ground for both bondage and liberation.”-The Yoga Sutras