Last night on my walk home I saw a little girl leaving her apartment building with her mom. As soon as she stepped outside, she looked up at the sky and shouted, “The moon! The moon! Mama, I can see the moon! I love it!”.
I was so moved by her excitement and joy at such simple moment. It reminded me that gratitude is not complicated- we have a moving experience, it triggers a profound joy and we get a warm and fuzzy feeling. The beauty of gratitude is a cycle- the more we feel it, the more our hearts open, and with our hearts open we are more likely to be moved by those simple moments.
But, this time of year we can forget to keep it simple. Between party hopping and hunting down the perfect gift we end up rushing around, stressing out and overtaxing our bodies and wallets. Top that off with a sugar crash and a mulled-wine hang-over and we are left feeling lethargic, tired, and maybe even a little depressed. What starts out as a season of abundance quickly turns into a season of overindulgence and disconnection from the spirit of generosity and gratitude that can make this time of year so special.
So, my offering to you for this holiday season is several simple practices that I use to cultivate presence and gratitude when I feel like shit. Sometimes I just do one. Sometimes, I do a combination of them. May these practices help you connect to yourself, stay open to others, and find a few moments of peace and gratitude throughout the holiday season.
7. When in doubt look up at the moon in wonder.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”
I have always loved to travel – leaving the familiar routines, habits, and objects behind for a while and taking only what is necessary. We don’t often realize how much “stuff” we fill our spaces with. In our homes: stuff. In our bags: stuff. In our bodies and minds: more and more stuff.
When we leave the stuff behind and take only what is essential, a kind of alchemy occurs. There is a lightness and simplicity to our choices. We spend less time wading through clothing, toiletries, and adornments and we create more time to walk, swim, breathe and simply enjoy life. It’s magic.
But for me, as soon as I return home the spell is broken.
Immediately upon opening the door to my apartment, I feel claustrophobic and anxious. My body tightens as my eyes scan the rooms, criticizing the worn out furniture, the broken sink and the dusty windows. I start to judge the construction worker who made the floors uneven, and the people upstairs for letting their young son pound his little feet on the floor above me.I even judge myself for color choices, the art I hung on the wall and quite frankly, my decision to live in this giant city with it’s tiny little apartments stacked on top of each other.
Usually, my tactic is to clean obsessively. I throw out a bunch of old things and buy a few new things to create a sense of peace and temporary transformation. It’s as if the new aquamarine towels will somehow evoke the sense that I am gazing out once more at the Mediterranean Sea, or that the sweetgrass incense will transport me to back to the silent prairies of Minnesota.
I recently was given a copy of the popular book by Marie Kondo called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The whole premise is to only keep the objects that truly spark joy. It’s not about buying new stuff. It’s about appreciating the beautiful things that already surround us. In doing so, we open ourselves up to the possibility of experiencing joy each and every time we come home.
As soon as I started the process of decluttering my apartment, I felt a shift. After getting rid of the stuff that I felt mediocre about (which was the majority of things I owned) I had the freedom to use the things I LOVED every day! I began to wear my favorite clothing even though it wasn’t a special occasion. I started to drink my morning coffee only out of my favorite mug and eat summer berries out of my favorite bowl. By stripping down to the most essential and joy-inspiring objects, I carved out more space in my home. Now, I have more time and energy to appreciate the things I love and I spend less energy complaining about the stuff the weighs me down. As a result, I feel softer, more spacious and relaxed. It’s like a mini-vacation every time I walk in door. It’s magic.
I believe we must begin the task of decluttering and letting go of what no longer serves us. It may be as simple as taking a box of clothing to a local shelter, or it may mean cutting out a food from your diet that is not nourishing you. It might be the difficult job of ending a relationship that is draining or hurtful. Once we let go of these forces that take up valuable time and energy, we can start to see more clearly and with more appreciation the space that we reside in.
We don’t need to go anywhere to find magic. That which brings us joy is already there.
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” –Mary Oliver
Two Fridays ago as I was waiting for the train, I reached into my pocket for my phone. It wasn’t there. I reached into my other pocket. No phone. I patted myself down hoping to find the familiar shape that would ease all my worries, insecurities and boredom. Nothing.
(Insert horror movie sound effect).
I am not lying when I say that I felt as if my heart stopped beating for a moment. What was I going to do? How would I possibly engage with the world without email, text, Facebook and Instagram? I felt as if I had forgotten to put on my pants (okay, yoga leggings). I felt naked and vulnerable. Then about 3 seconds later I felt ridiculous.
“Come on, Jess,” I said to myself. “You’ve got this. It’ll only be a few hours and then you will be home to your phone and everything will be okay“.
The train arrived while I chuckled to myself for being so silly. I sat down and reached into my pocket for my phone. It still wasn’t there. The reaching was reflexive, like yawning or scratching an itch. I sighed and leaned back into my seat, wondering how I would pass the train ride without obsessively organizing my calendar or making to-do lists (much to my boyfriend’s chagrin, I don’t play games on my phone- making lists is my version of Candy Crush).
I decided that this 25-minute train ride was the perfect opportunity to practice doing nothing; to sit in stillness and pay attention to the world around me. So I sat up straight, relaxed my shoulders focused on my breath and did nothing for about 10 seconds. Then I remembered that I had a pack of gum in my purse. Saved! Now, I had something to do! I dug around in my purse, found the gum and started chewing.
A few minutes later, I was ashamed of myself. I mean, I call myself a yoga teacher. I teach my students to stay focused and attentive to each breath and each moment, yet here I was grasping for anything to entertain my mind and distract me away from the present.
As I was chastising myself, I began to fold the gum wrapper into tiny squares. I folded and folded until there was nothing left to fold. So I unfolded and started to fold it into tiny rectangles. I unfolded and folded a few more times. I made about 10 different shapes with my gum wrapper – tiny gum wrapper paper airplanes, tiny gum wrapper cones and tiny gum wrapper pirate hats. A few minutes before my train stopped I smoothed out the wrapper, ironing out all of the creases and wrinkles with my fingers. It was so thin and soft from all the working. It was delicate and light and velvety. It had become the most lovely gum wrapper in the world.
Somehow, the beauty of that tiny little wrapper woke me up.
I looked up and saw the people around me for the first time. They were marvelous! They were interesting! I wondered what their lives were like-where they were from, where they were going, who they loved, what stories they would tell if they had the chance. It was pure magic. I felt connected and intimate with them- as if they were all my best friends and lovers. The rest of the train ride, I did nothing but sit in wonder and reverence. I felt deep gratitude for my life, gratitude for my city and its people, gratitude for forgetting my phone and remembering my ability to be amazed.
It doesn’t take much to shift from a place of boredom to awe, to bring the mind from complete distraction to full presence. It may be a yoga class that connects us to our bodies for the first time all day or the sun breaking through the clouds on a grey February afternoon; it could be the moment that you see simple object as something extraordinary.
We get to choose what holds our attention, whether it’s our iphones, a gum wrapper or the people in front of us. I hope we can choose wisely. There is a world that is right in front our eyes, waiting for us to take it in our arms and fall in love.
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were”.
Autumn is my favorite time of year: the cool air, the fresh juicy apples, the vibrant leaves. It is crisp. It is clear. It is the perfect time to practice the art of being present. So why do I always get nostalgic during this season? It’s as if each falling leaf represents a past version of myself. Something about it makes me want to go on long walks and think about who I used to be and what my life used to look like.
There are various ways that I have learned to nurture this nostalgia. I listen to songs that make me cry. I look through old photos, reminiscing about good times with good friends and old boyfriends and past cities that I lived in long, long ago. Sometimes as I am walking under the clear blue sky with falling purple and yellow leaves all around me, the cool clean air kisses my cheek and reminds me of the long walks that I used to take with those same past loves in those same past cities.
There is something warm and sweet about nostalgia. It’s like a soft, cozy sweater- safe and wholesome. It has the power to remind us of the beauty that life holds, the beauty of our own past that has brought us to where we are.
Nostalgia can also carry us away. Like hot cocoa that is too sweet, it can make us thirsty, unsatisfied, and craving something different than what is currently there.
Milan Kundera, one of my favorite novelists writes:
“The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering”. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return”
What is it that we hope to return to in those moments of nostalgia? Is it that lover? Is it that city? Is it the way we used to be when we were younger? Was life easier? What is better? Were those walks we went on 10 years ago more lovely than the ones we take now? Were the leaves brighter then? Was the sky bluer?
Perhaps it is simply that the suffering of our past has been forgotten and we are left with the memory of the sweet without the bitter.
The present moment is hard to be in because it is filled with discomfort- the noisy city, the cold air, the tiny cramped apartment, the stomachache, and the lingering tension after an argument with someone you love. The present has the capacity to make us suffer RIGHT NOW. So, it’s easier to take a hit of nostalgia. You just put on your headphones, listen to Bob Dylan singing about the North Country and suddenly your veins are full of hazy sweet memories.
It takes work to be present. It takes perseverance and dedication to return again and again to what’s right in front of us. Being present requires that we meet the noise, the cold air, the tension in our bodies and minds, the fear of discomfort and everything else without running away, without pulling the sweater of nostalgia on to keep us warm and seemingly safe.
Listen, I am all for long walks and listening to sad music. So, do it and revel in it. It is part of being human and it is lovely. But, if you are up for a challenge follow the steps below and enjoy this beautiful season as it is now, before it’s gone:
Walking Autumn Mediation:
Me on a walk long, long ago.
I am not just talking about those “yoga teacher rockstars” (yes they exist, with groupies and everything!). I am talking about real-life, torn-up jeans wearing, guitar slinging, tattooed ROCKSTARS. Or, at least that’s what I wanted while I was at Governor’s Ball a few weeks ago, watching Alison Mosshart of The Kills wail her heart out at an unearthly decibel.
I have never been one for large drunk crowds of people and typically avoid situations where any or all of my senses feel like they are going to explode. So when my boyfriend bought me tickets for Governor’s Ball last month, I had to feign excitement by saying things like “ gosh, I am super amped for the festival tomorrow!” and “gee whiz, I am pumped to hear some live music!”.
Fast forward to me standing in a sea of people, raising my hands in the air like I just didn’t care, tapping my foot with an irresistible urge to jump and scream and growl and be heard. There was something about the way Alison Mosshart sang- loud and guttural; something about those steady, hard drums (ahem – root chakra!); something in her black attire, bleach blond hair and cherry red lipstick that was dark, urgent and necessary. As I watched The Kills perform, I felt like I was a 15 year old girl again- sitting in my bedroom, listening to Nine Inch Nails and painting my CD player speakers with Revlon Vampire Red nail polish. It was passionate and dramatic and I liked it. I needed it.
Sometimes my yoga practice doesn’t feel so dramatic. When I move my body on my mat it is slow, deliberate, and controlled. On the best of days it is graceful and I feel strong and empowered. Other times it is heavy and messy and makes me want to cry. The fantastic thing for someone like me who is an introvert is that I get to practice my art on the privacy of my own mat – sometimes at home, sometimes under the guidance of my teachers.
Rockstars do it in front of millions. They dish up their heaviness and messiness and heartache right up on a giant stage with hot, bright lights on them. They are unafraid to be vulnerable, to dance around and whip their hair and sweat all over the place. They’ve got guts to sing their truth loud- even if it’s dark and ugly and uncomfortable.
I don’t like being uncomfortable. It’s really uncomfortable! And I especially don’t like to advertise my discomfort for the whole world to see. That is supremely uncomfortable.
In yoga we have the sanskrit word tapas, which means to burn or purify. My favorite translation of tapas is “the willingness to endure intensity for the sake of transformation”. Even though my yoga practice isn’t loud and dramatic, it has taught me that being uncomfortable is one of the best ways to grow; that stepping past the edge of my own awkwardness is the only way to get beyond it. It’s shown me how to ease-fully stretch a tight muscle or work to strengthen a weak one until the challenge shifts; until the boundary of what is uncomfortable changes and I expand beyond my perceived limitation.
So, maybe it is the moments when one or more of my senses feels like it is about to explode that are the ones I should be seeking, or at least stop avoiding. Maybe I should go to more loud concerts. Maybe rather than avoiding Times Square on a hot summer day, I should walk directly through it. Or maybe I simply need to give myself permission to be dramatic once in a while – to stomp my feet, and shake my fists, and shout when I am excited or angry. And if someone sees or hears me being messy, maybe that’s okay too. Maybe that person will learn something about me in that moment. And perhaps that person will realize that they also have permission to be imperfect- to be seen and heard, even if it is dark and ugly and uncomfortable.
Two weeks ago as I was waiting for the train up on 125th St, I saw a woman attempting to open a bottle of Orangina. I watched as she struggled with the cap, trying to twist and turn it from different positions and angles; left hand vs. right. I observed as she positioned the bottle between her thighs and used both hands to work the cap loose. I appreciated her resourcefulness when she pulled out her keys and began to saw at the perforation and I winced when she held it between her back teeth and began to clamp down.
I was trying hard not to watch-I didn’t want to embarrass her nor did I want to be caught with the staring problem that most non-native New Yorkers learn quickly to overcome. The only issue was that I could not look away because I was salivating at the thought of how satisfying it would be if I could be the one to get the bottle open.
We have all been there-watching someone we know struggle with a jam or pickle jar; our muscles flexing, our fingers twitching, our jaws gripping in a sort of physical empathy as we watch the battle between man and lid. There is an unspoken rule that you must let the friend/co-worker/lover struggle for at least 3 attempts before you can step in and say, “Um, do you mind if I give it a try?”, knowing with 100% confidence that you will probably get the job done on the first attempt and then hand it back with a glint of pride in your eyes but trying to be humble saying “Well, you loosened it for me.”
So, as I watched this girl work so hard for her refreshment, I wondered what was stopping me from stepping up and offering to help. I certainly wanted to get the cap off of the bottle. I could already hear the crisp bubbly “tst” of the carbonation being released as the metal perforation finally gave. My forearm muscles were aching in anticipation! Still, I chose to pretend I didn’t notice, to watch out the corner of my eye, to act as if I was engrossed in the standing water and the floating metro cards on the tracks below.
There is a quote by Albert Einstein:
A human being is a part of the whole called by us “the universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us.
So, was I choosing not to help this girl because I didn’t know her? I think so. She was unfamiliar to me and therefore I felt separate from her. I could not easily see her struggle with the Orangina bottle as my own struggle. If it had been my sister, my roommate or a friend I would have quickly lent a hand (pun intended!). Einstein goes on to say
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
As I stood there on the train tracks remembering the wisdom of Einstein, I knew that I had fallen into exactly what he had described- a prison of my own delusion that I was separate from Orangina Girl. At that moment I made a choice that would definitely not change history, but it would satisfy a thirst.
“Can I help you get that open?”, I offered. The girl’s face, flushed with effort and frustration, flooded with relief. “Can you, please? I have tried everything”. I took the bottle in my strong hands and twisted hard…then a little harder…. and finally, “Tst”. Relief. I handed the bottle back to her with a humble shrug and said “Well, you loosened it for me”. She couldn’t reply because she was already chugging the cold liquid sunshine inside the bottle. Afterwards, she wiped her lips and said, “That was satisfying”. I couldn’t have agreed more.