vulnerable path

Make yourself a stronger woman.

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Where are you at this moment?

Sometimes the ongoing chatter in my mind is like a constant whir of a fan, a muffled, incessant hum. Like white noise, I’m used to it. It’s always there. It keeps me company when I have no other distractions. Or more aptly, it refuses to leave me alone. And sometimes, when the chatter is all about my problems or worries, it’s easy to become consumed and overwhelmed.

I had an appointment with my massage therapist yesterday. After a stressful week, I was looking forward to the chance to relax and take some much needed time for self-care. As I lay there, my thoughts wandered to all kinds of places. It raced into the future to the problems I will need to solve at work next week, and to the plans I’m making for an extended trip with my Girl Scouts. As my therapist’s hands attempted to find and relieve the tight muscles in my shoulders and neck, I realized I wasn’t present on her table. I wasn’t in the moment.

I have been using massage for more than a year to help reduce muscle tightness and pain. When I first visited Susan (who is also a wonderful yoga instructor), I had a huge knot at the top of my left shoulder. I had pain in my neck that stabbed me whenever I turned my head to the left. And I had tightness across my left pectoral muscle that caused constant discomfort. I had been ignoring all this for about six months before I decided to do something about it. That was my New Year’s Resolution in 2014.

I felt some immediate relief with a stretching exercise that Susan recommended for the pectoral muscle. Hallelujah! But the shoulder and neck were stubborn, so I decided that I should rule out any kind of injury. I visited an orthopedic doctor and had X-rays and an MRI of my neck. After examining the images, the doctor could find nothing more than minor arthritis beginning to form between the vertebrae in my neck, which is normal for someone my age. She recommended physical therapy. So I worked with a physical therapist for about six weeks. I faithfully did the exercises she gave me. I saw very little improvement.

But I kept up regular visits with my massage therapist, who was able to explain more to me about how my muscle groups are all connected and affect one another. She warned me that it can take a long time to “re-train” muscles that have spent so much time in a contracted state.  We also talked about how stress can manifest in the physical body. After ruling out everything else, it was clear that I was experiencing a physical reaction to emotional stress. This realization was part of what motivated me to take a hard look at where I am at in my life. It was also the impetus for starting my Vulnerable Path blog.

I am happy to report that, with Susan’s help, I no longer have a huge knot in my shoulder, and most days are pain free.  Yet after more than a year of serious work to improve my mind, body, and spirit, I still haven’t figured out how to just “be in the moment.” It sounds like the simplest thing, yet for me it is actually a struggle.

I wrote a previous blog post about Pema Chodron’s advice to take three breaths. This basic principle of meditation, to focus on your breathing, is a tool to use whenever we feel overwhelmed, stressed-out, worried, or scared. It’s a way to push out the clutter in your mind. It helps to even visualize it, imagining all the junk being blown away with your exhales.

I have read and re-read Brene’ Brown’s book about wholehearted living. I connected with her guideposts about cultivating calm and stillness, authenticity, self-compassion. Yet it is an ongoing process to let go of perfectionism, to be slow to judge myself and others, and to choose a mind-set of sufficiency.

So there I was, physically on that massage table, but my mind wasn’t even in the building, let alone the room. The good news is that I realized it. And I immediately shut down the chatter. I took a few deep breaths. I focused on the soft music playing and the physical feeling of the massage. And I also realized one other thing in that moment. I couldn’t remember the last time I was bothered by that stabbing pain in my neck. A second Hallelujah!

I’m making progress. I feel more in touch than ever with my own consciousness and the way I want to grow and transform. I want to work harder at being in the moment, to appreciate fully the here and now, rather than waste any more time worrying about the past or the future. I’ve had a book on my shelf that I’ve intended to read for many months: Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. In the introduction, Tolle says that people come up to him and say, “I want what you have. Can you give it to me, or show me how to get it?”  And his response is, “You have it already. You just can’t feel it because your mind is making too much noise.”

I think Tolle and I are going to become good friends.

© Vulnerable Path, 2015

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Reflections: looking back at the path

While everyone else is making resolutions, I decided to take some time to reflect on what I’ve learned on my journey this past year. This blog has been a major accomplishment for me. Not only a creative outlet, it’s also been a way for me to share my personal journey. It’s helped me to solidify my own feelings about the things I’ve been through, take responsibility for them (good or bad), and take action toward spiritual growth.

Reflections on acceptance: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

I discovered this quote from a Leonard Cohen lyric while reading Brene’ Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection. I used this quote in my very first blog post that you can read here. As many of my blog followers know, this was a life changing read for me. It provided confirmation of what I knew in my heart for a long time. That I am OK just as I am. I’m imperfect, and I am able to accept myself that way. My life has been full of cracks. I’ve made bad choices. I’ve allowed myself to fall into life’s pit of quicksand where I get stuck on stupid. I’ve been ashamed of many things I’ve done and of things that have happened to me. I bet you know the feeling; I am not alone in this! So this year I made up my mind to let the light shine on all my bumps and bruises and to use them to become a better person.

Reflections on failure: “Sometimes when things fall apart, that’s the big opportunity to change.”

My daughter watches a cartoon called Adventure Time. One of the characters is a dog named Jake who profoundly states, “Sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.” The cartoon inspired me, and I have repeated that quote to my daughter many times during cross-country practice, or violin practice, or algebra homework. I’ve sucked at many things too, especially in my relationships. Some of these failures have been catastrophic. Like a nuclear bomb going off, my life has been leveled by heartbreak. Yet somehow I found the hope and the strength to dust myself off. I wrote about how acknowledging failure is the first step to healing in a blog post you can read here. Pema Chodron points out in her book When Things Fall Apart that our tough times are there to help us grow.  This is a constant in life. It can apply to any struggle. Sometimes we need to lean into our pain in order to get closer to our truth, which brings me to my next point.

Reflections on vulnerability: “The most courageous thing we can do is allow ourselves to be vulnerable.”

In yoga class we practice poses called heart openers. These are particularly good exercises for me because they force me to put my shoulders where they belong: back and down. I carry all my stress in my shoulders and neck. The muscles in this area of my body always seem to be contracted.  I’m like a cat who’s just been surprised, walking around with my back scrunched up.  I am always working to correct my posture and focusing on ways to soften and relax.  This contractedness is a physical manifestation of what I have felt emotionally many times. I put the guard up when I’m afraid. It seems natural. When we have a bad experience, we want to protect ourselves from having that happen again. So we set limits with ourselves and with others. But the truth is, we need to do just the opposite. We need to open our hearts. Vulnerability isn’t a topic I’ve written a specific blog post about, but it’s a theme that runs through everything here. We have to be brave to conquer our fears, brave enough to be vulnerable. Because otherwise we are blocking ourselves off from our future happiness. In order to love and be loved, we must take a chance on possibly getting hurt – again. In order to accomplish new things and express ourselves creatively, we must risk being judged.

So I will set forth into 2015 with these reflections in mind. To accept myself, to embrace my failures and take them as opportunities for change, and to open my heart to my own future happiness. May our journeys be blessed in the New Year!

© Vulnerable Path, 2014

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Defying Gravity

Today started like most workdays. I rolled out of bed at 5am and headed for the coffee pot.  I packed a lunch, watched the weather report, and hit the shower.  I dropped my daughter at school and reached my desk by 7:15am.  Another workday filled with lots of “have-to-dos” and not nearly enough “want-to-dos.”

At my workplace, we begin every day with a stand-up meeting. We gather in the reception area and chit chat about last night’s football game or our kids’ antics.  Then the gathering is called to order by our boss who leads us in prayer.  This practice goes back years and is rooted in our boss’ deep faith in God.  We pray for guidance in the decisions we make throughout our day.  And we pray for a list of people who may be sick or burdened in some way.  Some people have been on this list for years.  It’s always changing and growing.

Today’s meeting was interrupted by a phone call from a co-worker. His son had stopped breathing in school and needed to be revived with an AED device.  The gravity of it weighed on us.  We stared silently at each other.  Suddenly the work that had brought us together seemed inconsequential.  We paused again in prayer for this child and his parents.

It was a smack in the face, a jarring moment of realization when we were forced to stop ignoring our humanity and mortality. It brought a screeching halt to the constant rush-hour pace of our to-do list-driven lives.  Wait a minute.  What am I doing?  Am I focusing my life on what’s really important?

Pema Chodron writes, “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing? You know you will die, but you really don’t know how long you have to wake up from the cocoon of your habitual patterns. You don’t know how much time you have left to fulfill the potential of your precious human birth. Given this, what is the most important thing?”

Her answer to this question is simple but not always easy for us to put into practice. She says we need to leave a gap.  Take a pause in your day.  Do it frequently.  Take three breathes.  Consciously stop the cluttered discourse going on in your brain.  It gives you a chance to re-assess what’s really important to you.  You can take these pauses by the coffee pot, or in the car, or by the copy machine.   Stop thinking about what has to happen ten minutes, ten hours, or ten days from now, and bring your full attention to this minute.

IMG_0404This is, of course, the most basic of meditation practice. To breathe, empty the mind, and pause in stillness.  Feel the sensation of your breathe going in and out of your nose or throat.  Listen and focus on a sound or a smell.  Step out the door and look up at the sky.  Perhaps choose a mantra to repeat to yourself that helps you clear away all other thoughts.

Meditation and prayer make good partners and are a part of many faiths. In one of her Super Soul Sunday interviews, Oprah Winfrey asked Deepak Chopra to explain the difference between meditation and prayer.  He said, “Prayer is your speaking to God and meditation is allowing the Spirit to speak to you.”  He went on to explain that, through an ongoing meditation practice, the Spirit’s words will come to us through our intuition and manifest as inspiration.  I think, in many ways, this is exactly how the Spirit answers our prayers.

Taking time throughout your day to pray or meditate can reduce anxiety and stress can bring perspective to those questions of “what am I doing and what is really important.” It’s an anti-gravity device, lifting the weight off your shoulders.  It may inspire you to change the balance between those “have-to-dos” and “want-to-dos.”

It creates the opportunity for you to remember the blessings and beauty of your surroundings. It’s a time to perhaps express gratitude for having enough.  It may inspire you to hug your kid and tell her she’s your favorite person.   It may remind you to call a friend who is suffering and tell her she is loved.  At the end of the day, you might look back and realize that was the most important thing you did today.

© Vulnerable Path, 2014

To read Pema Chodron’s entire essay, click here.