On Perspective

May we see clearly, abide calmly, and act with wisdom and compassion.
— Rolf Gates

Though not necessarily in that order. 

In my life and recovery it's been necessary to take the calm abiding that Yoga and meditation have afforded me, and apply compassion as a daily practice (sometimes moment to moment- don't we need constant reminders that yes that person too deserves compassion; yes this situation too requires a compassionate heart.) Wisdom and perspective have been gifts I've only been able to receive through time, and not usually in my time at all. 

In the rooms of recovery where we share our stories, a common theme is that many of us have scenarios in our past or present that represent something along the lines of stop here, go no further. In other words, I can forgive everyone but not that person. Or, that situation can never be resolved

As I've written before, most, if not all, addictions have some basis in unhealed trauma- whose most primary and destructive psychological effect is to rob us of basic safety and security. And the effects of unhealed trauma, according to Ayurveda, yoga's "sister science", most often include energetic, emotional, even physical blocks within the system. Something holds us, and especially holds us back, until we are so accustomed to being blocked that we cannot see what we don't see. The blockage seems a part of who we are. It clouds our vision and leads to many forms of suffering, the root of which is what Yoga calls avidya- a Sanskrit word whose literal meaning is ignorance, misconceptions, misunderstandings, incorrect knowledge. It's the opposite of clear seeing. 

For me, this loss of perspective had its root in the pain I carried, or rather that carried or held me, around the death of my mother- but not only her death- her life as well. I only saw a woman whose alcoholism rendered her unable to be present for me, to behave in a consistent way, to protect me from what would later harm me, and then to take effective action so that I could feel supported and heal. In my mother, I learned a model for living that necessarily included self-medicating, and the evidence for this was either very obvious or very subtle. It was often so subtle, this need to medicate, that it became very easy for me to fall prey to it in very subtle ways, such as with food, or shopping, then alcohol, then later, social media. (In a future post I'll talk about why I left Facebook this year.) 

This "go no further" relationship with my mother persisted for the first few years in recovery. I would "forgive" her in name only, but not completely. I knew it was wrong (by wrong, I mean harmful) to hold onto the pain of a relationship that for all intents and purposes had ended in 1999 with her death. But I did not know what to do with the grief, and I could not see how this "hook" I had put her on affected every other relationship I had too. There was this shadow of my mother, on a hook, covering everything I did and everything I accomplished or could achieve. The pain led me to self-medicate until I reached a turning point, nearly five years ago. 

During that time and in the process of working the steps of recovery I was afforded the opportunity to look at this relationship (which, make no mistake- continued despite her death- the energy of that resentment and later loss was very much alive in my life) and so many others. 

In October of 2014, my father retired to Florida following a serious illness that had spanned the previous year. I felt such an intense loss. I felt so much pain about this that looking back now, I can't believe how much it affected me, even over two years into recovery. But the pain I allowed myself to feel and experience opened a door for me to begin the process of forgiveness, even in that "go no further" relationship with my mother. 

My dad and I spent Christmas 2014 together in Florida. We went to see the film Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, which is based on the book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed. In the story Strayed explores the wilderness- literally- as she navigates her own grief and loss and addiction surrounding the death of her mother. This film impacted me so strongly. I had something of a mini-breakdown- an emotional reaction sitting there in the theater- and I realized how much of that grief I had not processed. I was still angry, still hurt. So, being where I was in recovery- two years in and having recovered a sense of trust in the universe- highly necessary for working especially the "action" steps- I knew I could work with these feelings I was having. 

I remained open to the grief, talked about it whenever I could, especially in meetings, with close friends, and in writing class. I felt it in my asana practice as tension in my hip, shoulders, neck, or back- there one day, gone the next depending on how present I'd been and how kind I'd been to my body. I began running more and experienced a freedom in my runs- the stuck, heavy energy moving and shifting. I added strength work and developed a sense of vitality and purpose that had eluded me before. During this time I could not see what was changing- I had limited perspective. My teacher Nikki says that we cannot clearly see the picture of ourselves when we're still in the frame. I could not agree more. It's only through time and expanding our perspective that our relationships to ourselves and others change. So sharing about that relationship- and even more so, listening to the guidance of others who have had similar experiences- gave me some new thoughts about my mother, and some new ideas about why she was who she was and how that affected our relationship. 

This past Mother's Day I tried something new. I visited my mother's grave, which I've done many times, never knowing what to do or say once I got there. This time, I took my journal. I set my timer for 10 minutes and meditated- doing so in the form of a letter to her. I won't share the contents of that letter, but the essence of it was to tell her how much I loved and appreciated her, that I understood her suffering, that I forgave her for her part in what we went through together while she was alive. I also made a commitment to keep this forgiveness alive- and not to forget it. 

Following this experience I felt such a shift in my being, I can't really accurately describe it. In a very short period of time, I noticed that the way I felt about her had changed dramatically. I saw her as a dear, lovely person, with great pain, lost to me forever. I longed for her memory. A tenderness took over that relationship which continues to this day- even in this moment as I write it, there's a pang of emotion in my throat and heart. I miss her and I'm sad she's gone. But there is no anger. I don't see her as a person who let me down. I just love her and am grateful I had her while I did. 

Once this shift happened, the dominoes began to fall, so to speak. I have begun to see all of my relationships in this way. Why would I willingly, knowingly, choose to hold on to pain? Why would I choose to suffer if I could make another choice? A first step is to ask what's really going on here? Then, what am I missing? What's my part? What are the gifts this person brings to my life? And can I see that those gifts are more valuable than the pain I'm holding onto? I can still set healthy boundaries- what I will and won't allow into my life- to keep myself strong and in integrity with myself.  But I can always look closely at the situation and use discernment to find the right perspective. 

I understand now, on a deep level that is hard to communicate in words, the value of the people in my life. All of the people in my life. They often come in as agents working for my Higher Power. In Yoga-speak, they are my gurus- the ones who lead me from shadow to light. The change in my perspective is extraordinary. And it is, indeed, addictive- in the best possible way. And those forms of suffering, rooted in ignorance? The ego, the aversion, the desire, the fear- those too are lessened. 

A while ago, a dear friend in recovery shared the following prayer: "God/Spirit/Higher Power/Universe, please help me to see this differently." In other words, I'm suffering and I need your guidance to help me see things in a new way, with new eyes. It's become my go-to.

Try it. It works. 

Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. ~Alcoholics Anonymous

On Discomfort

"Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself." 

~ one translation of a line from the Bhagavad Gita

At this moment, I could not agree more. It's that, and then it's also more, and more. I'm here at the Kripalu Yoga, Meditation and Addiction Recovery Conference. Each year this community converges for a week of brave, compassionate fellowship and personal work. I'm honored not only to assist, but most definitely even more so to participate. 

I'm not a flowery writer. My style probably echoes how my mind works- in fits and starts, with sometimes just not the right word. And usually, there's a bit of a bite in there. It's just how I roll. So, I appreciate the starkness of the above quote- however uncomfortable it made me feel a few years ago when I first saw it. 

I've been thinking about the practice of turning inward and toward suffering a lot as I've been writing more, whether on a blog, or in a writing group, or in a journal- and feeling into my voice, learning to write about these things. It's been a great inquiry. When I was a kid, very sensitive, quite emotional, a young budding addict, my mother used to say, "You need to get a thicker skin." What I eventually learned that this really meant was that she was uncomfortable meeting me where I was and teaching me how to be resilient. How does a child gain emotional intelligence? But that was where she was, and so I've needed in adulthood to recover my sensitivity and develop compassion- not only for her, but for myself. And I think that sensitivity and compassion are skills that help me consider deeply what I write about- and how. But they came in time, through steady effort and a willingness to let go a little into creative flow. 

Pretty much across the board, when I listen at 12-step meetings, I hear people in recovery reporting feelings very early on of being "not quite right" inside or feeling "different." Though the specific circumstances vary, I can say that yes, that was my experience. I felt and saw and knew that the adults in my life were not well regulated. We had lots of joy in our household- I'd hate to make anyone think our family life was all bad- not at all. But somehow, even those moments of joy were punctuated by a sense that This is not real. This will end very soon. The other shoe will drop. 

Around the ages of 7-9, a series of personal and family traumas set our home dynamic on its end. My mother began her slow decline into her addiction and from about 1982 to 1999 her disease worsened and eventually took her life. My parents bounced off each other- unable to find the comfort with one another each desperately needed- until 1989 when my mother finally jumped ship. The years in between and even after the split were hard- for a lot of reasons that are too complicated for this post (that's a story for another day, or maybe my sponsor). 

It's not a very comfortable way to live- not for long, anyway. Just like wearing those itchy sweaters my 11-year-old niece hates, staying in an uncomfortable place- without tools- can make you feel that your skin is on fire. Welts break out, panic sets in, and you'd do anything- just about anything at all- to get out of that situation. 

I found alcohol pretty early- at the age of 13, I figured out how to sneak wine coolers to school in a thermos and skim liquor off the top of the bottles in my parents' cabinet. My mom never noticed the incremental amounts of wine that disappeared from the large grocery-store jug of white zinfandel (horrors!)- and so I got away with it. I'd sneak out, or go to a party under the auspices that the parents would be there only to return vomiting uncontrollably. My mother would later cover for me since she knew the rage that would follow once my dad found out- so then she had the dirt on me, and round and round we'd go. That was the psychological backdrop for my habit- but moreover, alcohol made me feel warm and relaxed in a way nothing else did. 

But this is not meant to be a drunk-a-log. We know what happens when people are substance abusers: relationships suffer, often-preventable accidents happen, health, employment status, and finances are ruined, and legal consequences ensue. I didn't have all of those yet, but enough had happened over my 25 year career of binge drinking (and later daily maintenance drinking) to finally give in. I surrendered on September 1, 2012 under a starry sky, calling out to the universe to please take this away from me. I can't say I've really looked back, ever- but I've had to look deeper and deeper to stay on this path. That's the way it works- once you commit to recovery it has to be complete (read: not perfect). Otherwise, as my teacher and mentor Nikki says, in the way only she can, "you may be dry, but you're still a miserable asshole." 

Over time I've learned to sit with more and more discomfort and with greater and greater ease. If it weren't for the principles of the 12 steps: rigorous honesty, open mindedness, willingness (or at least, the willingness to be willing), humility, surrender, trust, dedication, introspection, devotion, consistency and service; along with the practices of yoga (sitting in meditation, with a mind that is open and a heart that knows the way, embodying steadiness and ease, breathing in the present moment, self-study and compassion) there's a decent chance I wouldn't still be sober and those other "not yets" would begin to materialize.

To "tolerate the consequences" of being myself, I had to first be willing to look. I thank the god of my understanding every day for the teachers who came before me- and before my sobriety date- as well as those teachers who still guide me today, for showing me through their lives and through their wisdom how to hold myself in compassion so that I could take that first look, and then a second, and a third... 

(Part 2 coming... stay tuned.) 


On Activism (part IV)

I was heartened after the 2016 Presidential election to see that so many of my friends donated to the ACLU and NRDC and other extremely worthy organizations- I did too. I follow these organizations on Instagram and try to stay abreast of the positive anti-Trump administration work they are all doing. Our people and our planet depend on it. What good is a "Great" America if basic human rights for all are destroyed in the process? And what good are "jobs" and "borders" if our planet as we know it is not around for future generations? 

I'm grateful for the new breed of activism that has arisen (under the threat of very ancient racism and insidious greed that's been given a new face in this administration). And yet, there's a sense that this same new breed of activism has the potential to be counter-productive if we don't know our own motives and commit to fully examining and grounding the roots of our activism in ethical practices.  

For example, in my case, as a white person I attempt to remain extremely aware of how my comments and actions might be heard and experienced by people of color. I thus make the effort to speak and to act with intention. I recently saw the hilarious (yet scarily real) film "Get Out" and I was not at all surprised at the conversations that film has started around so-called well-meaning liberalism. Are we passively liberal just to make ourselves feel better and maintain the status quo (keeping folks of color in "the sunken place")? Or are we truly allies doing meaningful, grounded work to level the playing field and ultimately elevate consciousness and empowerment for all? 

(In this post, I really just want to weigh in on where I sit at this moment amidst an ongoing exploration of activism.) 

I've been exploring justice work for some time now- and have learned and grown a bit already. Just a few years back I found myself challenged a lot by the new ways I was being asked to think and consider the "-ist" (sex-, race- age- able- etc...) structures of our society many of us have come to accept as business as usual. I'm forever grateful to the Yoga Service Council (Project Yoga Richmond is a member organization) for helping ground my practice and teaching in the context of justice. After spending even just a little time in that world, I'm beginning to feel my horizons widening, and the expanding opportunities to play a meaningful, albeit small, part in true liberation for all. 

To that end, Up Dog Yoga, LLC is now a member of the Business Coalition for Justice, a coalition of businesses working together to raise awareness of and combat the structural causes of racial inequity in the U.S. I'm honored to serve on the steering committee for BCJ.

I also joined SURJ-RVA, the local chapter of Showing Up For Racial Justice. "Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) believes in collective liberation -- and that none of us can be free until we end white supremacy." I especially appreciate SURJ's accountability to people of color as a core tenet of the organization's primary action initiatives. 

I've written in the past about how any action I take toward awareness and strength within myself ultimately strengthens my connection to those around me and increases my need for justice- my own liberation is making it more and more important for me to work for the liberation of all. If that transformation truly happens on every level within me, that seems an inevitable result. Shame blocks us from taking action because it makes us hide our authentic selves. We play small. Or, we overcompensate. Or I think worst of all, we just play along in a system that is harmful for many, many people, often the most vulnerable. None of this is especially good, from an actual or a karmic standpoint. 

I've said before that as my own recovery unfolded and layers of shame lifted, I ultimately uncovered my own deeply held dormant value system. I'm grateful to have had teachers very open about how their recovery has led to the birth of ethics- as my teacher Rolf Gates says, "We maintain our freedom through healthy self-boundaries." The most effective ethical systems are grounded in self-compassion. How will I suffer the effects of treating someone in less than a kind manner? A moment of resentment or meanness on my part often results in hours of personal pain and guilt. This is because I suffer when I cause suffering and I desire not to create pain and suffering- for myself or others. This, for me, is ahimsa in its deepest expression. I have more freedom, more peace, more space in my life and in my relationships because of the effort I take to do no harm.

These days I try my utmost to act with kindness, honesty, non-violence and generosity. It generally makes most of my decisions on what actions to take much easier. Often this means I need to remain silent-- that, too, is an action. Can we sit in the presence of suffering and not try to fix it? This is a critical question- another teacher, Matthew Sanford, says that if we try to fix another person's suffering we unintentionally dis-empower them. 

I may never fully understand what forces had to come together for me that both of my primary teachers, Rolf Gates and Nikki Myers, would end up being very vocal, awakened people of color (unlike me) and in recovery from addiction (like me). I consider myself very fortunate to attempt to follow their lead in recovery and in activism. Nikki often quotes her teacher, saying, "How you do anything is how you do everything." In 12 Step programs we say "practice these principles in all our affairs" and "stick with the winners" and that we have to be "willing to go to any length" for our recovery. 

I say we need to be willing to go to any depth as well. 

On Writing

I wrote my first legitimate piece back in my senior year of high school. It was about the loss of my dog, Pancake (Cocoa Bean in the story). Pancake was a terrier mutt we adopted when I was about 5. She was the coolest dog ever-- super playful, loved to go on runs with my dad when he was running, obsessive (as many terriers are) about small critters-- she would spend the better part of an afternoon tormenting a chipmunk trapped in some spare PVC pipe we had under our deck. Of course, she'd stay there, running from end to end long after the quick little bugger escaped without her knowing. Not the smartest dog. 

Pancake was a pretty old dog when my dad had her put down. I was 16, my parents had split, and Pancake had a few health problems, not to mention my dad had plans to move in with his new girlfriend. I came home (from school? from staying with my mom? can't remember) and he broke the news to me. I was crushed. She had been part of her family almost since I could remember. Everything was falling apart, and when I had the opportunity to write I wrote about her. It was a way of telling a story that was extremely painful. 

The piece won an honorable mention in a high school writing competition-- my English teacher submitted it on my behalf. I wrote some poetry too-- noodly, self-indulgent stuff-- but the seed was planted then that writing could be therapy. 

I left writing behind for a number of years as adulthood set in and real world problems took me over-- the illness and death of my mother, the resulting need to find stability in anyone and anything-- and I almost completely forgot about writing. 

During that period I got more into reading about spirituality and Eastern thought and this was the beginning of my journey into Yoga. I sometimes say I got into Yoga as a physical practice, but that's not entirely accurate. My first understanding of embodied spirituality (which is what Yoga really is, it can be said simply) came in a Zen Buddhism class. I understood the story of the Buddha to mean that if one took a seat in a comfortable way with the intention of awakening, one might uncover the nature of suffering, attain compassion toward it, and see the path to move through it, neutralizing its power. This was a tantalizing prospect for me, because by that point I had been suffering for nearly 20 years from unhealed childhood trauma. It's taken me a long time to accept that's what it was, and to call it by its real name. 

There's such a healing aspect to naming a thing. Writing, as I realized while writing about writing recently, is a way of making amends for having been out of step with the flow of the universe. If that sounds too fluffy-new-agey, I'll try to say it another way. Carrying a story in my head (and thus, in my body, if it's a traumatic story) is a painful burden. Telling it on the page (or verbally) is a way of letting the reins loose and taking on a softer, gentler attitude. When that happens, I'm often more ready to hear what I need to hear, to look with less attachment at a situation, have a more open, allowing orientation about my experience. 

A wonderful by-product of having told my story (or parts of it, time permitting) repeatedly in community over the course of the past few years is that I no longer carry shame about it. It simply holds no power over me. Of course there are times I go back to old ways, retreat, and clam up, forgetting this, but I've gotten pretty good at reading the messages of my own body and how held tension and stress are a signpost that I need to let go a little. And when I do, the results are pretty much immediate. 

The best formula for me seems to be: Yoga & meditation + writing + community + running & exercise + nutrition = health, balance, and wholeness. (More about wholeness in a future post.) 

What's your formula? 


On Meditation

I have a tendency to make things way more complicated than they need to be. For years I wanted a daily meditation practice. As with most things that are good for me, I kept that inner dialogue going that I didn't have time for it. (This was not true, by the way.) Sitting in actual, intentional meditation became something I only practiced here and there, and so it was difficult. 

Last Spring I roomed with my friend Dr. Melody Moore at the Yoga, Meditation and Recovery Conference at Kripalu, where I was both a participant and an assistant. Melody introduced me to Insight Timer, an app that connects meditators worldwide. There is a social networking aspect to it that I don't use-- the real value to me is the daily accountability it offers. I've been able to maintain much longer stretches of time with a daily seated practice than ever before (right now I'm on Day 55!) and it is just so easy. I set the timer for whatever length of time I have that day, usually between 10 and 30 minutes (okay... most often, 10 if I'm being honest) and I just get still, breathe, and eventually the mind does quiet. The longer I sit, the easier it is to quiet the mind-- seems counterintuitive, but for me, it takes time for all that "mindstuff" to fade away. Then the timer goes off, I'm informed by the brilliant minds at Insight Timer how many people were also meditating at the same time (usually between 1600-5500 people globally! what a community) and I start my day. 

The results are usually immediate. Following a sit, for the first minute or so, I'm a little spacy. But then things come into clear focus. I feel more present, embodied (meaning, less in my head and more in my body), aware, and available for whatever the day might bring. And this state seems to last throughout the day, if I let it. It gives me choices: to speak or not speak, to act or not act-- it even gives me the choice to notice thoughts before their power has a chance to derail my day. Once tapped into, that frequency is easier to access. And all I had to do was sit?!? 

I think there's a misconception that meditation and yoga are all about bliss. I think it's the opposite. I think these practices are most useful when we use them as tools for presence, empowerment and awareness. I didn't make that up-- it's in the literature both ancient and modern. More about that in a future post: checking in vs. checking out

On Activism

“As my practice deepened, it ignited many things, including my path of activism. An activist is simply a person who sees a need for large scale change and begins personal action to move toward it.” ~ Nikki Myers

How easy is it to stay asleep? In these times there is such an opportunity to make an inroad on the problems we've created which separate and marginalize people, or worse, harm our citizens and our way of life: institutionalized and systemic racism, poverty, the school to prison pipeline, environmental destruction, domestic violence. 

As a white middle class woman, heterosexual, able-bodied, educated, I recognize that I have enjoyed a sense of privilege in this lifetime. I know I can walk into just about any store and be accepted as just another customer. I know if I am stopped in traffic by the police, there is a pretty good chance it was for a valid reason and I will not be shot and killed by that officer. If I fill out a job application I can assume my qualifications will be given fair consideration because I have a name typically assigned to a caucasian woman. And, I know that as I walk down the street I won’t be singled out or attacked for who I am or who I love. This is not the case for many people, and these are only a few examples of privilege.

And as a citizen of this planet first and a lover of nature (it’s where I find Spirit most readily, in all things), I see that it’s important that our natural resources are preserved for not only ourselves but for future generations. The privilege I’ve had to swim in the oceans and rivers, drink our water, and breathe our air is one that all people present and future deserve.

So, as a start, I recently signed up to either join, support, or learn more about the following national organizations:

The Southern Poverty Law Center   fighting hate, teaching tolerance, seeking justice

The American Civil Liberties Union   defending and preserving individual rights and liberties

The National Resources Defense Council   creating solutions for lasting environmental change, protecting natural resources

And locally, the following organizations have my interest and support at present:

Business Coalition for Justice   as a member of the Steering Committee for this new organization, I'm thrilled to work toward solutions addressing racial disparity in business law

The Virginia Anti Violence Project   working to address and end violence, focusing on the LGBTQ community

Showing Up For Racial Justice (RVA chapter, formed July 2016)   organizing white people for racial justice