being at choice

How to Make Profound, Lasting Change

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When we lose a job, get a bad review, experience burn out, or our heart is broken, we often can’t help but experience a sense of groundlessness and paralysis. We struggle with meaning and end up feeling stuck.  Who am I, now?  How do I recover from the sense of frustration, overwhelm, or loss?  In this post, I am going to suggest that what stops us is not the situations themselves.  It’s never fun to lose a job or have our hearts broken, but there’s no inherent meaning in these losses.  In other words, the circumstances of our lives don’t make us unhappy.  Rather, our experience of them depends entirely on the meaning we bring to them.  Some perspectives empower us when faced with even the most difficult of situations and some render us incapacitated.  How we hold the circumstances of our lives can either grow us or take us down.

Part 1: Uncover your interpretations of the situations you find ourselves in.

Rarely do we relate to our actual experiences. Instead, we relate to the meaning we make of our experiences and the emotional charge we feel about the experience.

If we observe ourselves over a few days, we’ll notice an automatic, unconscious propensity to see that we’re always adding meaning to the experiences of our lives.  We have the tendency to fit each experience that shows up into an ongoing story we have about our lives and who we are.  In fact, rarely do we regard ourselves in relationship to the immediate circumstances we find ourselves in.  Instead of relating directly to our experiences, we often just relate to our beliefs, opinions, and judgments about the experiences.  And so when things fall apart, and we lose meaning in life, it can be incredibly helpful to reassess how we make meaning of our lives.

A 48-year old client, Mary, had been driven her whole life to make it big in the corporate world.  A year ago she arrived at my office and declared: “I am totally burnt out and am just going through the motions of my life.”  She didn’t sleep well; she’d gained ten pounds over the last few years; and her relationship with her girlfriend was suffering from her tendency to what she called “workaholic tendencies.”  She’d been to a psychologist already, and while that work had clued her into why she felt stuck, it still didn’t propel the change she desperately needed.

When I asked Mary why she didn’t leave or alter her situation in her job, she responded that to do so felt like torture.  Mary’s sense of purpose in life, up until that moment, revolved entirely around her work.  Her sense of self and the qualities of her relationships went down when her work went down.  Likewise, they went up when her work went well, not to mention the fact that she’d spent her whole life working her way to the top.  Now that she’d finally made it to the “big time,” she couldn’t help but look around and scratch her head, asking, “Is this as good as it gets.”  Her health and her personal relationships were suffering, and she found her colleagues, in fact, intolerable.

While Mary felt that to make a change would put her family in financial jeopardy, she knew, rationally speaking, that they’d do fine if she took a pay cut.  She, like most of my clients use the “financial card,” as an excuse not to make a change.  But when she looked closely, she was really afraid to upset her relationship with her girlfriend. As a child, her alcoholic mother had been inconsistent, sometimes present and sometimes altogether absent. When we looked at her “life’s story” it was obvious that she’d done everything in her power to give herself the security and safety that her mother constantly took away from her.  She’d lived her life in service to accruing professional accolades so she wouldn’t feel the way she felt as a little girl, scared and destitute.

Part 2: Meet the feelings you’re avoiding.

To make profound, lasting change not only must we uncover the background stories that help us make meaning of our experiences, but we also must meet the nervous system’s response to the experiences.  Embedded within each of our narratives is a statement like, “I never want to feel "x" again.”  "X" might be loneliness, sadness, anger or fear.  The narratives that live in the subtle background of our lives help us not only to succeed but also to avoid certain feelings.  If we’re ever going to really transform, we have to be willing to meet the feelings we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. In Mary’s case, her workaholism protected her from the fear of being destitute. As Mary examined her life’s narrative and discovered her propensity to be risk averse, she started to confront bodily feelings of terror: fluttering feelings in the chest, queasiness in the stomach, and a knot in the throat.

This part of the journey can be very uncomfortable and equally counterintuitive. Each of us spends a whole lifetime avoiding these feelings.  Turning around and looking at them can be like turning around and facing the demon we swore off almost a lifetime ago.  It takes incredible courage, even-mindedness, tenacity and compassion to ride the waves of emotional pain.  And to do so can feel like this:

Heavy-heartedness… irritation in the chest… boredom… really heavy heartedness… tightness in the ribs…. burning rage…heat in the face…tight throat… boredom… fatigue… numbness… impatience and boredom…. nothing… nothing…nothing…hurt

Often times my clients will ask, “Why would I want to be with this shit?”  Often my response is that to meet it is to transform it.  To avoid it is to let it rule you.”  If we don’t meet the body’s response, we miss a deep learning that our suffering has to show us. So as Mary met the fluttering, queasiness, and knots in one of our meetings, her “fear of change” lost its hold on her.

Part 3: Reinterpret the experience in such a way that it leaves you powerful.

At that point, she was no longer afraid to feel her terror.  She could see that she didn’t need to be a workaholic her whole life in order to avoid “ending up broke, homeless, and alone.”  Instead, she was at choice to create a new narrative, one that created possibility and that empowered her.  When Mary tapped into the wiser and more intuitive parts of her being she could see that instead of her burn out being an obstacle, that it could be seen as an omen for change.  “I could work less, maybe even go to yoga class, and have time to eat a meal with Donna [her girlfriend].” Instead of creating less safety, this crossroads might give her an opportunity to explore a new way of being in the world, one in which work wasn’t the only focus, but, instead, included family and intimacy.

Part 4: Make the insight real through action that leads to specific and measurable outcomes.

All it takes is a moment to see our situations in a light that renders us free, powerful, or expressed.  But to make the changes necessary to fulfill this recognition a clear set of goals accompanied by practice. Once Mary committed to a change in her work, she started to look for new work opportunities, both within her corporation and outside.  She made a point of meeting colleagues within her network.  It took time and a lot of what I call “t.s.o.-ing”—trying shit out--to stumble upon an opportunity that excited her and gave her the flexibility she needed.  She knew that she’d have to surrender some of the clout of her previous job, and so she also established some practices that made this transition easier on her nervous system.

Part 5: Practice mind-body techniques that support the nervous system and facilitate the change.

Mary and I co-created a morning ritual.  Each morning she did some movement, whether it was yoga I taught her or taking a walk with her girlfriend.  I also taught her a few simple meditations, which she could practice for 5-15 minutes.  Finally she wrote in her journal on an inquiry I’d assign her each week. An inquiry is an open-ended question that can be answered from many different sides that gives new insights each way we look at it. One inquiry that uncovered a landmine of insight for her was, “What must I drop in order to gain something new?”  This question helped her discover the confidence that she wasn’t just dropping off altogether but that her change would put her in touch with something new.

Slowly, over a six-month period, Mary discovered the right fit she’d been looking for in a new company. To an outsider, that move might have been seen as a demotion, but to her the move enhanced the quality of her life immensely.  She worked less; had more time to explore new ways of relating and playing with her girlfriend; and found time for herself.  Essentially, this move provided the breathing room Mary needed to replenish the well that had dried up inside of her.

Exercise

  1. Very briefly, write an account of your life and conclude with the situation you currently find yourself in.  Keep the writing to a minimum of one page.
  2. Reread your brief account once.
  3. Notice how your life’s story influences the current circumstances you’re in.  Does  it empower or disempower your circumstances?
  4. Review your brief account, again, this time, reading your account out loud.
  5. Notice how it makes you feel in your head, throat, heart, belly, and genitals once you’ve completed the account.  Do you notice any emotion, sensation, or charge in these areas of the body?
  6. If you notice that you do, read the account out loud, once again.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until any feeling of constraint has altogether gone away.
  8. Notice if there’s a new meaning you start to derive from the circumstances you find yourself in accompanied by new possibilities for yourself and your life.
  9. Write them down on a piece of paper.
  10. Hire a coach. A coach will hold you accountable to making the changes in life you sense you need to make.  Don’t bother trying to do this part alone.  Creating something new can be incredibly daunting.  A good coach is really a skilled change agent.  He or she will collaborate with you in designing practices that will make the process of change easier, fun, and intelligent, too.

Staying Open is a Choice No Matter the Circumstance

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A few weeks ago one of my most favorite aunts passed away.  Jeannde was one of those very special souls who embraced life with joy, openness, and wonder no matter the circumstances.  She had a way of bringing light wherever she went.  Melissa, my wife, and I had the gift to say goodbye to her a few days before her passing. The evening when we walked into her room, I could feel a profound peace, beauty, and light.  At the time, she was in limbo, not quite in this life but not quite in another.  She wasn't scared but, in fact, at peace.  She was clearly in a lot of bodily discomfort, but her spirit was palpably in total acceptance.  We managed to exchange a few powerful words, letting each other know how much we meant to one another; saying, "I love you"; and then, eventually, saying, "Goodbye."

I left that night with a deep peace that still reverberates in my heart as I write this two-weeks later.  Jeannde showed me that it is possible to continue to stay curious, not only in the twilight years but even up to the moment of death.  I always like to tell others that at the ripe age of 87, she was coming to my yoga classes, bending, twisting, and breathing, just like every other 20/30/40-something student in the room. I once told her that a few of my students were inspired by her presence in the room.  She couldn't understand why.  Age meant nothing to her except for the fact that her body was quite a bit less responsive than it had been in her younger years as a dancer.

I share Jeannde's story here because she taught me that circumstances don't make the light dim within us.  At each threshold, no matter what we face, we are at choice to stay open.  And it is a choice.  Literally, on her deathbed, on the threshold of the great unknown, in agonizing physical discomfort, she was sharing her heart, expressing her love, and accepting the calling that it was time for her to go.  Not only did the circumstances she was in not dim her.  They only seemed to add to her luminescence and magical capacity to stay in awe.

Chit: Noticing What Is

In my previous entry, I discussed Sat-Chit-Ananda, an ancient yogic compound of three Sanskrit roots: sat, chit, and ananda, that describes the qualities of the experience of yoga.  I spent most of that blog entry discussing ananda, which I translated in our everyday language, as "the yum."  By "the yum," I mean that profound experience that something deep inside is fed and, thus, resonates profoundly.  We all have an experience of this from time to time.  It shows up in those moments when life is especially rich, rewarding and poignant.  "The yum" is our truth; it's our essence; it's our raison d'être.  And essentially, I made the case for the idea that "the yum" is what we're after in the practice of yoga.

Eyes Unclouded By Longing

In this entry, I intend to speak about chit, which is really "the doing" of Sat-Chit-Ananda.  It's the action we must take to uncover, and meet "the yum."  Chit is often translated as understanding, comprehending, or the fixing of the mind.  The action that leads to such an outcome is, essentially, observation, the simple act of noticing.

And it's not just any old noticing, it's the kind of noticing that occurs when the "eyes are unclouded by longing." (Tao Te Ching).  It's a kind of looking, listening, feeling, tasting, touching, and intuiting that allows us to see into things but is not obstructed by stories, dramas, or any interpretation whatsoever.  It's really just noticing what is.  The action of chit, as described in The Yoga Sutras is an active form of observation without interpretation.  When we really get to know things without immediately jumping to conclusions, when we can just notice with curiosity, openness, and a quality of freshness, we come to know them as they are.

The Habits of Seeking Relief

We rarely see this sort of observation applied on the geopolitical stage.  Instead of curiosity, what tends to show up amongst enemy nations is distrust, accusation, manipulation, coercion, and combativeness.  At the heart of this form of noticing are human emotions that are difficult to be with discomfort, distrust, and, more often than not, fear.  This doesn't just happen among nations.  It also occurs in our everyday relationships.

A few years ago I was coaching a married couple, who claimed to have "the perfect sex life," but they just couldn't get along.  Both had plenty of justifications as to why the other wasn't being a good husband or wife.  He complained that she was "passive aggressive" and always found ways of deflecting responsibility for their arguments.  She would argue that he was domineering and even, at times, dictatorial. When we first met, the two of them tried to get me to see their respective interpretations of what was wrong with their partner.

She'd say, "I don't want to argue.  I just want to feel the way we felt when we first got together."  He'd rebut with, "I am not trying to start a fight.  Come on, Chad, can't you see how manipulative she is?"  At the point in our conversations when both had uncovered and identified the manipulative games they played with each other, I asked them, "Well, what's here if you're not playing out this psychodrama with each other?" Immediately, the masks came off, and what revealed itself in the space was raw, passion, and it was so palpable in the room, but neither of them could just be with it without reacting to it.

Being With What Is

Part of chit is really the capacity of being with things as they are, without interpretation, reaction, or labeling.  And there's so much we have great difficulty being with.  Like the couple above, a lot of us have a hard time being with our passion.  Instead of just experiencing it, we tend to jump to the conclusion that it means something like, "What does he want from me?" or like, "I don't deserve her."  We also have difficulty being with certain feelings in our bodies, like anxiety, sadness, anger, and even joy.  Before we will ever really let ourselves just feel what's coming up emotionally, we are often already seeking a solution that will get rid of the discomfort.

That's what "following the yuck in order to get to the yum" is all about.  Something occurs, like somebody says something to us that makes us uncomfortable, and then, before we actually give ourselves the space to just experience the pain, we go looking for a way to get rid of it.  We might seek revenge.  We might go and hide. We might go straight for the pint of Haagen Dazs.  This is just habit.  It's the habit of reacting so as not to be with the experience, as it is.

The Body as the Field of Experience

We know the world through our bodies.  All we need to do is slow down enough just to notice what's coming up, what it's feeling, and meet the feelings with curiosity and openness.  But being able to slow down and notice isn't necessarily easy.  That's why we practice daily and why the Yoga Sutras state that when practice is done steadily and for an extended period of time, we develop a solid foundation (1.14).  It takes continuous practice to get the hang of choosing the direct experience through the body over the reactive, interpretive reality that our discursive minds create.  In other words, it takes a lot of clarity and years of practice to be with both the pleasure and discomfort that shows up in our body without seeking gratification.  One of the benefits of daily practice is that we get the hang of being with the initial discomfort when we have to choose something that in the short-run doesn't feel so good but is ultimately for our highest good.

A student came to class today with some tears.  She was sad but proud of herself.  Yesterday, she broke off a relationship with someone who she cared about but didn't see a future with.  As she put it, "the relationship wasn't heading in the direction I wanted it to go.  Breaking it off is really painful, but I know that, in the long run, it's the right thing for me."  Instead of holding on to the relationship for another year or two, she knows that deep down inside, she has to let it go in order to meet someone who really does meet her.  Sometimes being with 'what is' doesn't feel so good.  In the case of our student, it's painful, but, simultaneously, there is a feeling, deeper down that something is "right," that it’s perfectly fine to just be with the discomfort, without having to fix it or resolve it.

By the way, our student is creating the yum in her life simply by being willing to face the pain of breaking off the relationship.  Why?  Because she is creating a sort of congruency between whom she knows she is deep inside and whom she is out in the world.  Creating that harmony sometimes requires being with what we fear the most.  In fact, more often than not, it takes incredible courage to make that leap.

Asana: Directing Our Awareness Toward Ananda

The practice of asana (posture) teaches us both how to be with the discomfort when and how to kinesthetically distinguish when the experience of "the yum" is authentic. In Patanjali's Sutras, "the yum" in asana is described as: sthira sukham asana (2.47), the place in the posture that has the simultaneous qualities of sthira, steadiness, and sukha, comfort.  So when we practice asana, we're developing a feel for ananda.   That's why Pattabhi Jois used to say that Ashtanga Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.  It's not a passive, intellectual pursuit.  It's active, and it requires the direct experience.

For those of us who practice, we all know it.  Every once in a while we're in a posture, working with the breath a little, refining the alignment, noticing the bandhas, and then all of a sudden there's this deep, resonant feeling of, "Yes," or "Mmm," or "Ahhh," or just emptiness, vast emptiness.  That's the experience of sthira sukham asana.  And it's the experience of ananda.  It's not that superficial pleasure we get when we eat a cookie or drink wine.  It's deeper than that.  There's a sort of profundity, a rightness, a fundamental goodness about that experience.

And it's why Mysore teachers give adjustments in class.  They do it, not because they simply want to force students into a deeper posture, but because they want the student to connect to the deeper resonance that the posture can evoke in the body.  When we get the hang of finding those dual qualities in our physical practice, when we find that sweet spot, we begin to develop the skill for discovering it in our relationships, in our work, and in our lives.

Being at Choice

The funny thing is that the moment we've found that sweet spot, it's gone.  It only occurs in a moment.  So what brought us sthira, steadiness, and sukha, ease, in our asana or in our lives yesterday won't hold up today.  The nature of things is change.  Nothing is constant, so we have to remain flexible, not just in body but in mind, as well.

Part of chit is being aware and open enough to see that we are constantly at choice in how we interpret things.  Usually, we just assume that the way we've interpreted reality is just the way it is and probably the way it will always be.  Consider that your interpretation of this blog would change dramatically if you read it ten years from today or even if you read it one more time.  Yet we have the tendency to think that our interpretation of 'what is' is the way it is, that it's fixed.

But if we will apply chit to an experience and the interpretation of it, we will find two very different domains of reality.  The first is based in the direct experience, which is always here and in the present moment.  The second is rooted in ideas, beliefs, opinions, and judgments, all of which are past oriented. So, for example, as I was practicing this morning, I noticed a lot of heavy and crampy sensations in my back and legs.  That was my direct experience.  I could have interpreted that experience to mean that I was stiff today, certainly quite a lot stiffer than I was yesterday.  Once I made that interpretation, I could have followed that logic and made my stiffness mean something like, "I hate practicing when I am stiff.  I think I'll just skip the rest of the poses I planned to do and go straight to savasana (corpse pose)."

I am at choice only when my awareness is here and now, in the present moment. When I am stuck in my interpretation of what the sensations means, I'm caught in a cascade of decisions, which are all informed by past stories and experiences that have nothing to do with what I am experiencing in the moment.  More often than not, the choices are not appropriate to the situation at hand.  But when I just experience the sensation directly, I am more apt to make choices that are appropriate for that particular situation, choices that bring me back to ananda, to both my truth and to what's needed in the present moment.

Chit-Ananda

It takes incredible patience not to jump straight to conclusions but simply to observe what's here.  Patience is not about waiting without any discomfort.  True patience is really the capacity to wait both with comfort as well as discomfort.  If we will slow down enough and direct our attention to what is here in the present moment without judgment, without labeling, with curiosity, by allowing things to be as they are, we will discover what the well-known and widely respected Ashtanga Yoga teacher, Richard Freeman, calls "the yoga matrix," which he describes as  "the background of unconditional love and absolute support that is the true nature of an open mind" (Freeman, Richard. The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind. Boston: Tambala Publications. 2010. Print).  This is nothing other than ananda, our truth, our happiness, our wisdom, and the deep, profound sense of the perfection of things.

Sat-Chit-Ananda Series

This is the second part of a four-part series that explores the experience of yoga. Be sure to check out the other posts!