Your most constant companion

max-conrad-203234.jpg

Often, when beginners are given meditation instruction, they are told to pay attention to their breath, the feeling of air rushing in and out of their nose. While I occasionally like this method, it also trips me up.  I can become hyper-aware of my breathing, and it starts becoming forced and irregular.  Additionally, guidance may also be given to place ones hands on top of each other in your lap, touching your thumbs together.  I’ve always preferred to place my hands face down on my knees, feeling the pressure and stability of my palms as they rest, supported.

This past Saturday in my physics class, we began learning about dynamics, which is the sum of all the forces acting on us at a given time.  Forces do not come out of nowhere–they are the relationship of two or more objects.  While the teacher listed the various types of forces on the whiteboard, my thoughts latched onto the last one: gravity.  Gravity is the force acted on us by the earth; except in a rarified environment, we are always subject to it. My daughter, like most small children, performs a multitude of experiments to test gravity, dropping things from her high chair and other random places, watching as time and again, they do indeed drop down.  By the time we’re grown, we take gravity for granted, a banal fact of our existence.

When I thought of it, how gravity is a force and where there is a force there is a relationship, I was awestruck at the thought of gravity’s origin.  To picture the earth is to visualize it on some grand, cosmic scale-the view of astronauts looking out their window.   Yet when thought of in this context, the earth becomes intimate, something that we have a continuous relationship with from our first moments alive on to our last breath.  To take the time to feel the weight of our feet on the ground, our body as lies in bed, the feeling of our seat in a chair, is bring our minds into closer contact with that relationship we have with gravity, and consequently with the earth.  This isn’t mysticism–this is scientific fact.

As we go about our day and our lives, we endure many moments of hardship and stress.  Mindfulness is helpful for this, if you can catch yourself before being totally overwhelmed.  In these moments of strife, however, a meditative space can be hard to enter into, seemingly remote, reserved for monks and sacred places far from us.   Finding tools that remind us of those calm, clear moments are essential.  When I thought of gravity as a reminder of our relationship with the earth, it seemed to be a useful way of making that meditative peace and clarity both immediate and accessible.   When we’re feeling caught up in crap, disconnected from ourselves and struggling, we can sink our thoughts to our feet, to that point of contact with the ground below us.  When we feel that weight, the force of the planet’s gravitational pull, why not take the time to appreciate the force that holds us, the earth that connects and sustains us and all the other beings with this most constant of companions?

emilia-samborska-115704.jpg

 

Maternity

The New York Times just published a first person article written by a woman who found herself suffering from maternal O.C.D. For years now, postpartum depression has had the spotlight when talking about maternal mood disorders.  The tragedy as it is given to us learning about this disorder is that women can be unable to bond with their child because of their depression, and have difficulty meeting the demands of motherhood. This is indeed tragic, but it is reductive to limit this result of a mood disorder to postpartum depression.

Motherhood is all-encompassing. We want to be at our best when we interact with our child, but in reality it gets all of us, the good parts and the bad parts.  Not only do we bring our full self to the mix, but the hormones, neurological re-wiring, and the constant demands of parenting can trigger latent or new psychological issues.  Anxiety and OCD can be too easy to dismiss as a new parent being overcautious, but can interrupt the bonding of mother and child just as postpartum depression can. Dr. James Leckman, a professor of child psychiatry, psychology and pediatrics at Yale who studies postpartum O.C.D. is quoted, saying that “parents who are overwhelmed by preoccupations generally don’t talk to their babies as much as other parents do. They don’t respond to their child’s subtle cues. They may even avoid contact with their children to save themselves the discomfort of anxiety and intrusive thoughts.”

It’s easy to let yourself go into the role of mother.  The line where your relationship with yourself ends and where your relationship with your child  and yourself as a mother begins can become blurred.  Whenever possible, it’s important for us to step back from ourselves the mother, and see how we’re doing as ourselves.  We’re all familiar with the speech the flight attendants give us at the beginning of a flight, to secure our oxygen mask before assisting the child next to us.  This is an important principle to bring to motherhood and our emotional health.  If we’re not doing well, we need to prioritize self-care as much as we can until find balance again. The immediate needs of a child so easily take precedent over ourselves.  Taking the time to figure out what we can do to help ourselves when we find ourselves out of whack is an important and often neglected part of parenting.

 

 

Restrictions and Pain

There are a few yogis on earth, I imagine, that have never experienced restriction in their movement, or pain in their body.  The rest of us will encounter, at one or another times in our lives–perhaps even more often–and will have to figure out how best to work with it.

When I use the word restriction, I’m talking about difficulty in a movement, from touching your toes due to lack of flexibility in your hamstrings and lower back, to recovering from an acute injury to your shoulder that keeps you from using your arm.  These restrictions may or may not be accompanied by pain or discomfort.  Some restrictions may be clearly defined and limited, such as the shoulder injury example, but others may be chronic, due to repetitive motion or the way your body developed.

The first thing that I believe most important in working with a bodily restriction is to develop some sort of feelings akin to compassion and curiosity for it, especially if it’s a big one.  Whether you choose to “fight” it or “work with” it, acknowledging the limitation is important.  The softening of attitude may allow you to take your time, fully assessing where it’s really coming from in your body, what it responds best to, what makes it worse, and how long it’s been an issue.  If you’re frustrated with it, or wish it just wasn’t so, it might be hard to have the patience to sit with it and find a long-term strategy.

The successful treatment of most ailment first depends on you as the patient getting to know what it feels like in your body so that you can describe it to your healthcare provider.  It can be easy just to think “this hurts” or “this feels bad”, and leave it at that.  However, if you start investigating the feeling, moving around with it and seeing how it reacts, you’ll get a better sense of it and be able to relay it more accurately to your provider.  This will in turn give them better clues about what will help the most, and what your healing trajectory is most likely to be.

Compassion (again)

christopher-burns-198263.jpg

Something that I want to touch on right now as our country reels from yet another mass shooting, as well as from our government’s pathological refusal to do anything about it, is compassion.

Whenever you are at a loss of what to think, what to feel, whenever things feel bleak, or possibly hopeless, whenever your spirit turns sour and embittered, you will never go wrong with retreating to a place of compassion.

I’ve written about this before in the guise of self-compassion, but really, can you ever talk too much about compassion?

The compassion I’m talking about here is not necessarily directed at anyone or anything in particular.   Sometimes we get too in our heads trying to hold compassion for someone whom it’s not natural for us to hold compassion. It may feel stiff and artificial, so why not expand your view?  Simply start with what it feels like to feel compassion.  What specifically does that feel like to you?

Keep the feeling small at first, expanding it to people that it’s easy for you to have compassion for.  Slowly, as you get more comfortable with the feeling, begin expanding it.  Find some image that allows you to hold compassion for people you don’t normally.  Picture them as children, babies, in moments of hardship, or as their loved ones see them.

pablo-heimplatz-243301.jpg

Keep working with that feeling until you are resting comfortably in it.  When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with compassion.