Being & Becoming

Cultivating Inspiration, Creativity, and a Life on Purpose


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The Holiday Season and Reconnecting to Your Inner Light

Holiday lights in the Philippines.

Holiday lights in the Philippines.

I always was excited about holiday lights coming out in the winter.  Candles in windows, golden lights strung in shrubbery; all of them filled me with small bits of child-like wonder.  I liked seeing colorful lights in the summer, but it never had quite the same impact as in December, and I wondered why. I began to notice the attempt to increase and augment existing light in other ways- even in fashion, with sequins and rhinestones becoming ever-present on women’s clothing items as the holidays approached.

I realized, at least for me, that in a time of increasing darkness, seeing the light again became more salient, more necessary. In spite of the darkness, we attempt to bring forth light.

Sometimes, though, seeing bright lights and holiday festivities can have the opposite effect.  The cheer of others can be infectious, but it can also be alienating, especially if one has memories of loss, trauma, or loneliness. The lights, the joy, the celebrations of the season can remind us of what we don’t have, what we’ve never had, what we’re missing.  There can be a more than implicit pressure to be happy and joyous during the holidays. Feeling bad can make one feel alienated and separate to begin with, but this time of year can accentuate and exacerbate existing emotional pain. Add in frigid temperatures, nasty weather, and Vitamin D deficiencies, and we find a whole lot of fuel for feeling bad, and being unable to do anything about it.  Trauma, of any kind, is characterized by some experience of helplessness- an inability to escape, to move, to have agency, to make decisions and act upon them.  Winter makes it inherently difficult to be mobile, to explore, to find new experiences.  One can be left feeling alone and unable to reach out amidst the sea of cheer and happiness.

Do you ever feel like you're holding this sign?

Do you ever feel like you’re holding this sign at holiday gatherings?

Here’s the thing, though- if you’re feeling this way, you aren’t alone. Sometimes, the people with the brightest smiles are living with the most darkness.  Within some facets of the yoga community, there also can be a subtle pressure to attempt to always remain positive. This, of course, is always well-intentioned- the desire to help people to switch to more positive thoughts, and ultimately, to feel better, is rooted in love. We want to help others fix their problems; we want to help them grow. If one take this too far, ignores their feelings and shoves them down without ever processing them, they never can really move beyond them. We can never fully grow. We can never fully experience the world if we repress our experience of it.

After a lot of contemplation about how to safely become present to one’s feelings surrounding winter/holiday emotional distress, I came up with two meditations inspired by two poems from The Radiance Sutras (translated by Lorin Roche).  One focuses on being present with the darkness, and the other on connecting to the light within. If you are experiencing intense emotional distress, depression, or have a had a recent trauma, I would not recommend practicing the darkness meditation unless you feel you have strong self-care and coping skills.  Ultimately, the idea is to help you safely acknowledge your emotions and help provide a safe, sacred space where it’s okay to feel them, and thus begin to process them. Once we have truly experienced the darkness, we can connect more deeply to the light. Feel free to journal about your process afterward.

Note: These meditations most likely won’t fix the underlying problems you may be experiencing and are not a substitution for therapeutic work.  They may, however, help you develop more mindfulness around literal and metaphorical darkness.  Being present to it and breathing through it can help you regain more power, strengthen your ability to manage your feelings, and become your own source of light and energy.

 

Darkness Meditation

You’ll need:

A very comfortable place to sit.  Maybe some blankets to wrap yourself in.  If you are fearful that the darkness may trigger something within you, light a single candle and place it behind you- know that the light is there, and that you can turn and gaze upon it if necessary.

1). Read Sutra 64 (see below).

2). Set up an extremely comfortable and warm meditation space.  Make sure that the spine is still upright and aligned.

Darken the room you’re in completely (unless you are lighting your back-up candle).  Close your eyes, find comfort, and begin to experience the darkness and how it settles in your body.  Continue to breathe deeply and you bring your focus to this concept.  Notice any difficult emotions that arise, and try to witness them without engaging with them.  Don’t ignore them; let them surface and flow.  Know that it’s okay to feel what you feel. Know that each feeling is transient.  Notice how your body responds. If you begin to feel rising distress, begin to lengthen your exhalations to calm your sympathetic nervous system. Notice how your relationship with this concept changes when you are present to it.

Begin to visualize the darkness as a place of incubation. A seed must stay deep in the earth before it begins to sprout.  Dark feelings can transform into inspiration and fuel for creation.  Contemplate how darkness could be an agent of change in your life.

When you feel ready, softly blink the eyes open and prepare for the next meditation.

 

Winter Candle Meditation for Your Inner Fire

candlecarols

You’ll need:

A candle. A totally normal one will do.  Maybe a candle holder that refracts the light in dynamic ways.

1). Read Sutra 14 (see below)

2). Find a comfortable seat.

Begin to gaze at a single flame.  Follow the flickering and contemplate the movement of the fire.

Imagine yourself becoming like the flame- powerful, dynamic, bright, energetic, warm, glowing.  Feel your light awakening and radiating outward, encompassing your body, the room, your home, your town, your state, your country, and the entire world.  If you like, you can find some subtle, spontaneous swaying or other movement that feels natural.

Know that soon, the solstice will come, and light will begin to return. See the lights now as a reminder of the potentiality for fire within you that is always there, even in times when you don’t think it’s possible.

 

Sutra 64 (Darkness)

 

Secrets are hidden in darkness

And difficult nights.

You awaken into a pang of aloneness,

A howl of separation.

This is the call of the Dark One,

The roar of life seeking its source.

The union you long for is within reach.

Throw off all hesitation.

Become one with the fear.

Plunge into the uncanny blackness,

Eyes wide open,

As if there were no other choice.

Vibrating with fierce tenderness,

Breathe Intimately

With the Lord of infinite space.

 

Sutra 14 (Light/Fire)

 

When you close your eyes,

Attention turns toward the inner glow.

Your heart sees by its own light,

Pulsing with subtle flame.

In your forehead is a single eye.

Here streams of living electricity

Flow together.

The body of substance

And the body of light fuse into one.

Above your head a star is shining –

The soul, luminous in its own realm.

Life arises from itself

In a swirling motion of flame.

Being becomes body.

In meditation, adore the subtle fire –

In heart, forehead, above the head,

Dissolve into radiance.

 


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Being Afraid, but Doing it Anyway- Anxiety, Love, Music, and Mindfulness

Me, playing guitar with my new friend, Eiffel Tower in the distance.

Me, playing guitar with my new friend, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance.

A couple of weeks ago, I had an exciting and terrifying rendez-vous with one of my goals.  My boyfriend and I had seen a concert in Pigalle (the neighborhood that houses Moulin Rouge), and then walked up to the highest point in the city (Monmartre), where the famous Sacre Coeur church presides over the city.  Many other people had the same idea, and were gazing off into the city lights, drinking beer, or making out by the telescopes.  There was a group of people surrounding two guys playing flamenco guitar on the church steps.  I listened for a few minutes, and really dug it.  A little later, as I was looking out into the city, I heard the guitarists (now finished) speaking in English.  I approached them, thanked them for playing, and we began chatting about flamenco.  At one point, one of the guys asked me if I played; I paused, and boyfriend immediately shared that I did.  The guitarist smiled, pulled out his guitar, and told me to play with them.  I stared blankly at it, smiled, said “no, no, I couldn’t…”, but he insisted, and enthusiastically shoved it into my hands.

For a moment, I stood frozen as a wave of anxiety washed over me. I had been practicing a lot, but I was not ready to play with seasoned, professional flamencos.  But, I knew in that moment that it it was extremely important for me to play, no matter how I felt.  Predictably, the complex rumba strumming patterns I’d spent hours practicing fled from my memory, and my cold hands couldn’t move fast enough. I could have panicked, but I didn’t. I decided not to be formulaic or fancy- i just soloed along with what they were playing.  I let go of ideas of how I should sound.  I just stayed in the moment, listened to the sounds, and focused on my guitar.   I connected, I stayed in key, and kept with the mood of the song.

I knew I did not do my best, but I f*****g did it.  I played flamenco with professional musicians in front of a beautiful landmark overlooking the entire city of Paris.  A few years ago, I would not have gone through with it.  Just the act of playing- even though I felt nervous and not ready- was a huge step.  I embraced the role I didn’t believe belonged to me, in a city I never thought I’d ever see.  What else could I do if I really felt confident and owned the idea?

I told my guitar teacher about the experience, asked him what I could do to prevent myself from “freezing”, and we spent the entire lesson talking about  living a meaningful life.  “Be a flower, not a weed,” he told me.  “The secret to playing music is love.  All you need is love.  You must give love away.  It can’t be about you. Weeds take and take.  Flowers open up for the word, give pollen to bees, they share.”

Anxiety and fear are always, by nature, about trying to protect the self (even if this anxiety is directed toward other people.  More on this in another post).  If I’m worried about the act of “screwing up”, I’m, by default, not putting my all into what I’m doing.  I’m not helping anyone by being closed-off- I’m taking shelter, holding the beautiful things I’ve learned in in an act of self-preservation.  I’m not giving my love; I’m locking it away.  Anxiety is a complex and tangled weed to get rid of, and even when you think you’ve totally trimmed it, little bits of it find a way to grow back and continue draining attention from something else.  Sometimes it makes me feel like a weed, too.

The Bhagavad Gita talks a bit about attachment to goals and anxiety.  Arjuna, the subject of the story, is pretty freaked out about an impending war and paralyzed by indecision and his anxiety. Krishna, his charioteer (and also; secret god) engages him in a discussion about dharma (right action, or that which one is meant to do). He says,

“You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself – without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat.”

Easier said than done, Krishna.  But, that’s why yoga is a practice and not a performance.  On and off the mat, we have opportunities to practice non-attachment to our goals.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have goals, dreams, and aspirations.  It means we should honor exactly where we are, and be totally present to the process.  Being present to the task and not worrying about the outcome of action seems to be the key to truly connecting, understanding, fully-engaging with, and mastering our work.  Paradoxically, it also seems to be the most direct path to reaching the goal we are no longer fixated on.

Next time someone asks me to play guitar atop a city, I’ll slow down and connect to my yoga practice.  I’ll take a few deep breaths and remind myself why I play- because the sound and the act of playing makes me feel more alive than anything, and I want others to feel it too.  Then, I might just be able to be like a flower.

What about you, readers?  Do you ever feel held back by fear or attachment? Have you let love overcome fear?  How did you do it?


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Perfection is the Enemy of Progress

For most of my creative life, I’ve fallen into something I’ve named the Perfectionistic-Anxiety Cycle.  I’ve experienced it with almost anything I very deeply care about doing.  Maybe you’ve experienced it, too- it is as follows:

1.Start a new thing.  This could be a homework assignment, an instrument, a NEW YEARS RESOLUTION, anything. It’s really exciting, and you can’t wait to dive right in.  HOORAY NEW THING.

2. Consistently practice the thing…for a little while.   

3. Life gets in the way; practice falls by the wayside.  Maybe you’re tired from work, maybe you already practiced yesterday and feel a day off won’t hurt.  Either way, time starts passing by.

4. Eventually come back to the practice, but notice that you’ve “fallen behind”.  Maybe you’ve forgotten things, noticed a gap in your knowledge, or have some impending deadline that you do not think you’ll be ready for.

5. Anxiety about performance ensues.  “I screwed up! It’s too late! I’ll never be ready in time for the deadline!”  This can come in nagging little droplets, or like a raging monsoon drowning your hopes and dreams.

6. Pull further away from the thing to reduce anxiety.  “It’s okay, I didn’t like thing that much anyway.”  This is also a time where hours of activities designed to distract occur, i.e- spending several hours browsing the internet.

7. Begin to engage with a new thing, feeling that *this time* it’ll be different- a fresh start.  

…And it repeats, ad infinitum.

infinityjh

I was always perplexed about why I did this with the things I loved most.  For a while, I was convinced I had ADHD.  It was only during my time studying psychology in graduate school that I realized that it was anxiety.  I was so anxious about doing the things I loved well that I would rather not do them at all if I felt I my efforts were not doing the art/goal justice. I’d rather do nothing than fail.

But that’s the thing. If you wait to do something until it’s perfected, then you’ll never do a damn thing.

Our goals, visions, and resolutions can be big- as they should be! But if the steps to reach them aren’t small and manageable, its far less likely that change will be integrated into our daily lives.  I have shared this idea with many of my therapy clients, but only recently have really been putting it into practice.

1. Still have your big goals, but let go of attachment to their outcome (yoga blogs on this forthcoming).

2. Break the goals into small pieces that can easily be attained interwoven into your daily routine. An example of this-

Big goal- Play guitar on stage in front of other humans.

Smaller goal- Practice guitar every day for an hour and have fun doing it.

If this goal is still not being met, break it down even further:

Even smaller goal- Play guitar for thirty minutes a day.

Still coming up short?

Smallest goal- Pick up the f*****g guitar up and maybe move your hands on it at least once a day, even when you’re feeling anxious and discouraged, and even if you feel it doesn’t sound great.

So, the smallest doesn’t seem terribly ambitious, does it? BUT, if you make the task so simple that it becomes routine to just hold the the guitar every damn day, the likelihood of beginning to practice increases.  Building habits, especially ones you ENJOY (but continuing even on days when you’re not so into it) are key in growing your skills.  Especially if you are completely immersed in the activity without focusing on the outcome/future.  Worrying about perfection takes energy away from the thing you’re trying to perfect.  If you practice mindfully and consistently, you may wake up one day and “suddenly” be skilled at your thing.

So, readers- have you experienced this cycle?  How do you handle it?  What is the thing you want to perfect? How would you further break down your goals to make them more attainable?