Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Amazing and Hopeful Story of Dahei the Chinese Winter Soup Dog



No situation is ever hopeless. No matter how desperate or impossible life circumstances may become, the truth is that as long as you are breathing, anything can happen.  Personally I don't believe in predestination or a fate that is unavoidable. I do believe that we are put here with certain lessons to learn and our teachers come to us in many forms; people, events, challenges, victories, disasters and miracles. Everything that arrives is a teacher. We have the power to receive the experiences life offers to us, and then we choose how to grow, how to respond, or even how to stay stuck, how to stay trapped. Sometimes things can get so bad we might feel blinded by the darkness, seemingly lost forever. It might feel like the sun in the sky has been blotted out and all there is to do is suffer to the end.

What do you do if you are down in that hole of relentless despair? Don't give up, never count yourself out. Keep breathing and reaching out into the darkness, put one foot in front of the other, keep getting up and meeting each day, because miracles do happen and you do not know what amazing new chapter is just the turn of a page away. At any moment someone might throw some hidden door or window wide open and the sun comes blazing in. It can happen, it does. If my dog Dahei could speak she would tell you exactly that. Anything can happen, anything at all.

Dahei is a Chinese Winter Soup Dog, and that just means she is a mutt and a street dog. She is the kind of dog that some Chinese people love to put in some winter soup. I say that with absolutely no judgment by the way. People throughout the world eat different things and though I would not knowingly eat a dog, I do not hold judgment around this cultural difference. Dahei, very well might though.

Dahei was abandoned at a very young age by the boss at a construction site and his wife. Most likely they realized she is not a pure bred dog and so they rejected her. Dahei lived for quite some time alone on the bare cement in the cold of winter. She scavenged for food in the garbage of a nearby apartment complex, and tried to play with other dogs she would meet there, but she was very afraid of people. No wonder really, as some of the workers and guards in the area were trying to catch her to eat her.

One woman noticed her and left food out, and a box for a bit of shelter, but Dahei's life was harsh and dismal. Then one day, Dahei decided to follow a friendly dog and the woman she was with around on their walk. The dog's name was Xiaohei and the woman's name was Laiya.  Dahei really wanted to play with Xiaohei, but couldn't trust Laiya and so she shied away. Laiya asked around the apartments if Dahei belonged to someone, and the woman who had left the box out told Laiya about Dahei's horrible living conditions. Laiya determined to rescue Dahei. She managed to wrangle her and get her to the veterinarian where she was looked over and de-fleed and de-wormed.

Laiya brought Dahei home and went through significant turmoil and trouble. Dahei only wanted to hide under the table, she used all her energy to try to break the door to the apartment, and she would chew on things and tear the apartment apart. She refused to walk in or out of the building or on stairs and had to be carried. Laiya tried several names and got no response, until she tried Dahei, which means big black in Mandarin, and she wagged her tail. So Dahei was named.

One day a friend had come to try to help repair some of the damage Dahei had done to Laiya's apartment and then they took her out with them to pick up some food. Dahei ended up running away and back to the construction site from where she had come. Laiya went there to reclaim her, but now the construction workers insisted that Dahei belonged to them. Laiya, helpless to save Dahei from them, began to walk away, but a female worker quickly brought her to Laiya and said to take her away and give her a good life.

This time Dahei went to the apartment and settled in. Laiya trained Dahei and set out to find someone to adopt her, but only a temporary foster home could be arranged. Laiya was working full time teaching Mandarin and didn't feel she could keep Dahei herself. That is where my family and I come in.

In my meager and faltering attempts to learn something more than ni hao, "hello", and ting bu dong, "I don't understand", I hired Laiya to tutor me in Mandarin. One evening Harper, my then eight year old daughter, was sitting with us, and somehow the topic of having left our beloved dog, Evan, behind in the States when we moved to China came up. I confessed that we all really missed having a dog. Laiya's face lit up and she told us with great enthusiasm that she had the perfect dog for our family. I tried my best to show restraint, but I really am a sucker for a dog, and rescuing, well, anything. Laiya emailed me a flyer and some pictures. The flyer listed her breed as Chinese Winter Soup Dog. I asked Laiya what that means and she said, "Well, Dahei is the kind of dog that some people think would go in a winter soup. I was a bit horrified to think of that and her photo was adorable, so we all agreed to meet Dahei.

Dahei came to meet us on a Thursday evening a few months ago, and she has been here with us ever since. She was so quiet and shy at first, but she has warmed up to all of us and she is truly the most remarkable dog. I think she is a kind of yogi dog. She is so calm, gentle and friendly. She sits near me when I meditate or do yoga, and she has a great ease about her. She can also be suddenly leaping and bounding, full of playful energy. She is incredible, such a kind soul given the cruelty and harshness of her early life.

Dahei started out her life living on a concrete slab in the cold of winter in China, where she was seen as nothing more than a reject and maybe a good winter meal. She was abandoned, freezing, starving and afraid. Through several twists of fate, and her will to stay the course, surviving, waiting and then recognizing a kind person, her life has been transformed in an amazing and miraculous way.

She is part of our family now and she brings us all great joy. She came like an angel for me at a time when I was feeling a little lost and lonely myself. She has helped my heart to heal and open from a year that has had some hurdles and hurts. We saved her and she has saved us too.

Dahei's story is proof that anything can happen. She went from being a cast out, alone, and in the most dire of situations, to living in one of the best, if not the best area in all of Shanghai. She has an adoring family, no more garbage to eat for her, now it is Science Diet and monthly visits to the groomer. She doesn't sleep on cold concrete, she has a nice cushioned doggy bed, but she has moved herself on up to the couch, or sometimes my meditation cushion. Most importantly, because she didn't give up, she found her way miraculously to the place in this world where she was needed, in our home and in our hearts.

So if you are feeling like your life is hard and hopeless, if you feel like the darkness has overtaken the light, remember the story of Dahei, and keep traveling, look around, keep on keeping on. You never know when, in the turn of a corner or a chance meeting, your life may be changed forever.


Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Life with Mental Illness



I am taking a deep breath now and going to the fire of courage and the light of faith to write what I am about to write.

This month, yes it is still May, is Mental Health Month. I have been thinking of, tossing around, and considering writing about this since the first of the month and yet the month is nearing its end and I am pushing myself, and hard, to write. With so much tragedy and violence stemming from mental illness in recent years and currently in the murders at UCSB it is clear that mental health issues must be brought out of the shadows. It is important that we start to look at the stigma around mental illness which, I believe, is fueled in part by the fact that people are perhaps only seeing a one dimensional view of it, through cases that land in the media spotlight involving mental illness which has spun out of control and ends in such devastation. Even in such extreme cases we must look at the progression of the illness in the person and consider how we as a society are going to work to create pathways to healing and then deliver them in a timely manner. The call for advancements in awareness and treatment for mental health are clearly needed. There are many different forms of mental illness and they present very differently from each other and each individual is unique. I am not a psychologist so I will just write about my own personal experience and insights.

As I think about where to go with this I realize it is not a one post topic. It is a volume. It is an integral part of my life story, and yet, if you met me today and we sat and had even a lengthy conversation you would probably never guess that I have had a life long struggle with anxiety disorder, decades of depression, and post traumatic stress. I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember being alive, and depression was not far behind. I believe that like many diseases my anxiety and depression have roots in my genes and my physiology, and also became triggered by various environmental events and traumas.

As a teenager my struggles became intense. I felt increasingly alone, depressed, angry, agitated, misunderstood, and I was in emotional distress and pain all of the time. I found myself acting out and engaging in behaviors that were risky and sometimes outright dangerous. I was self medicating and would struggle with substance abuse for several years. I was out of control and I didn't care who knew it. I didn't really care about anything and I hated myself. I don't blame anyone that I didn't get the help I needed at the time, because unfortunately, no one knew what to do with me. I think this failure to identify and treat mental illness effectively continues today. When kids are acting out as a cry for help, it is often dismissed as an adolescent phase or just a "bad" kid, and as adults we learn to hide in shame and keep it quiet. The result is that there are many people, right now, kids and adults alike, who are not being seen and not being helped, and the help available is not always effective. The pain of living in denial and shame added to the illness itself can be excruciating. The results of this are often nothing short of devastating.

When I was twenty I got into some serious trouble which resulted in my entry into a treatment program and the beginning of my journey to healing. Twenty two years later I am still on that journey. I have been in and out of counseling, on medication multiple times, and have received many different therapeutic techniques. All of these were necessary and helpful in different ways. Therapy and medication got me through initial stages of processing and integration so I could find some balance and stability. I still have a coach and teacher who helps me immensely. Then I found Kripalu Yoga and it has become my greatest healer, my way of living, my way of being. I have become a Kripalu Yoga teacher and from there rediscovered dance in an amazing practice called Let Your Yoga Dance. I teach Let Your Yoga Dance as well. I run, bike, swim and stay very physically active. I eat healthy and care for myself on all levels. I am creative and love art and writing. I have been married for almost twenty years now and have four beautiful children.  My journey to healing has brought me so much abundance. I have been med free for quite a few years. Now my medicine is doing all these things I have discovered along the way, the things that bring me joy and personal fulfillment. I still have my good days and bad days, I still ride the waves and remain mindful of my emotional state and my energy levels. For the most part though, I have the ability to sense when I am veering off course and I go to all these tools and supports I have, and it works. I can't help but think this must have some relevance in how to treat disorders such as mine.

The main point is that it is possible to heal and live a wonderful life, even with mental health issues. I have grown and learned so much from every experience I have had, both the very painful ones and the joyful ones. Without the huge challenges I have faced I couldn't have arrived into the life I am living today, but it did take a lot of help, from a lot of people. I got lucky and landed in a place where I couldn't hide or evade and was forced to confront my illness. I have had my family and friends by my side. I couldn't have made it this far without helping hands, hugs and people who didn't let me brush it under the rug or bury my head in the sand,  people who helped me get real and get better. I can't say I am cured but I can say I am empowered and passionate about my life.

My hope is that by writing and sharing this I will create a wave or even a ripple of understanding. If even one person is helped or supported by reading this it would be enough. If you are suffering in silence today, reach out and if at first you don't find the right people to help you, keep reaching out. If you know someone who may be in need of support, talk to them, tell them they are not alone. We must find ways in our individual relationships, in our families, and in our communities to meet each other and attend to each other in a grounded and compassionate way. We need to treat people with mental health issues in the same manner we should treat people with any health issue, that is with tenderness, care and basic human respect. We all deserve that much.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sitting with the Angel of Struggle



A week ago today I embarked on a day of retreat to be in silent contemplation of "the place of struggle and grace on the path of love".  This retreat was homework for a group I am a part of that is committed to the practice, the study, and the living of  Kripalu Yoga.

Yoga is not a physical exercise regimen. Yoga is a complex set of practices and inquiries that guide the aspirant toward a life of consciousness, a life of awakening and spiritual evolution. Struggle is a part of life for everyone. Yoga provides us tools to be with struggle, to see the gift and opportunity that struggle offers. Struggle will come and then we get to choose how to relate with it. In the face of struggle we will take some form of action, the question is will our action be ruled by fear or by faith, by judgment or by compassion?

Swami Kripalu said, " When we consider the nature of our struggles, we may think them to be cruel or depict them like horrible demons. Yet the true nature of struggle is not evil. It's really an angel in disguise, bringing good to everyone. struggle keeps us from becoming lazy. It keeps us active and aware, and bestows the kind of knowledge that can't be obtained from any other teacher. struggle is thus the prana or animating force of our lives. Leading us from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, and from death to immortality, struggle is a skillful sculptor who carves a beautiful statue out of an ugly rock." (excerpt from the book Pilgrim of Love)

As I set out to do the prescribed practices, meditations and journaling for this day as directed by our teacher, I was actually quite excited to have a day of quiet and solitude dedicated to my own practice. That does not happen too often being a mother with three kids at home.

I was riding the flow, feeling content and connected, until about seven hours into the day. At that point I was doing a walking meditation outside. It was quite a hot day and the Shanghai air was a bit heavy, as it can be. As I walked I started to feel agitated by the quiet, unsettled. The aloneness started to feel sharp and uncomfortable. My very meditation was becoming struggle itself. At that point I also happened to be walking past an abandoned gated compound of houses that is crumbling away and looks so forlorn and desolate. As I felt myself crumbling a bit myself I tried to be in the experience I was feeling, lonely and desolate. I happened to look to my right and there was a sign, a graffiti sign in fact. There in black spray paint on brick was one word, "solitude" . I got goosebumps upon seeing it, and I truly felt like it was put there somehow, for me, in that moment. That simple sign shifted my outlook and brought me back to the oasis of solitude and out of the shadow of loneliness.

An angel in the struggle. Grace at work.

I continued my day and received great insight, formed intentions and sealed them all in prayer and devotion. My final journal entry that came through source, intuition, divine guidance, or whatever you might call it, was quite powerful to me and so I will share it with you.  

"Keep opening your heart, that is where all the light and knowing you need resides. Keep stepping through doorways of faith, you are protected and provided for. You do not have to fix anything or rise to any occasion. Be always in the company of your breath, your light and your love. Do not worry about any outcome, just give. Give of yourself with a brave heart and an open hand. Remember who you are. Return to the shelter of your spirit, to love. Dedicate to that in practice. Freedom is already within you. You are love and love will never abandon you. Take rest."

A day of solitude and reflection is a powerful thing. We spend much of our lives looking outside ourselves when the greatest treasures are within. Consider taking the time to be quiet and come home to your heart.    

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Being Alone in Shanghai



  "Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It's restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down." ~ Pema Chodron

I have not written on this blog in over a month. There are a few reasons for this. I have been busy with three kids here and the accompanying nurturing, organizing, adapting, and going here, there and everywhere that that entails. I am also giving emotional and energetic support to my daughter living in the states. I have been teaching more, including starting a new job at a new yoga studio. Most of all, I feel I have gone away from writing because I have been in a period of deep introspection and spiritual practice. I have been using a lot of energy in the process of feeling and digesting experience. I have been taking in so intensely, that I have had to pause for a time from giving out. I have had to make a very conscious choice to settle in for awhile, to take shelter and seek quiet in order to do some essential work on myself. I am still very much in the depths of the process, but I finally felt the tug to express something outwardly.

I have been going through a lot here. I am dealing with multiple issues with family and kids. ADD, scoliosis, academic turmoil, teenage hormones, social pressures, bullying, and the list goes on. I have also been dealing with my own core wound around fitting in (amongst others), seeking social acceptance and  connection, and yet honoring my introverted side. I have had some loss in the realm of friendship, including some rejection, which is so hard for me to take, and I will also be faced with friends I have made here repatriating soon. I have a certain sense of connection and support from my friends and family back home, but the fact is I am a world away. Facebook and Skype just can't take the place of a face to face. Virtual hugs just aren't the same as arms wrapped around and warm hearts embracing.

A big part of my experience right now in Shanghai is centered around loneliness. Now the bombshell moment. I thank God for this loneliness! I find it ironic that I have come to the most populated city in the entire world to finally do the hard work I need to do on loneliness.

I am exploring and finding ways to relax into being alone. I realize that when I am experiencing discomfort or anxiety around being alone it is coming from thoughts and beliefs I have been carrying around for most, if not all of my life. These thoughts and beliefs have come from many sources and events, but ultimately are all tied into my perceived lack of value and goodness. These thoughts and beliefs are only that, and as I have leaned into them and relaxed and breathed around them, their solidity and grip on me has begun to dissolve.

I am still connecting and saying yes to social engagements and reaching out to people, the difference is there is far less fear attached to it. I am not depending on my social calendar to give me my sense of security, in fact I am appreciating the time I am making to be alone more and more. I find myself craving more simplicity so I can focus in on more of this internal process. I am pulled to practice. The practice of being and breathing, moving slowly, doing one thing at a time or doing nothing at all (revolutionary).

I feel more rooted and steady. I feel I am enough and I enjoy my own company. Self compassion is becoming more accessible. I need that self compassion because as I dig into my relationship with loneliness other wounds and storylines are showing up as well. This is life and healing happens, not by fixing or controlling outer circumstances or people, but by doing this deep inner excavation. This internal work is not about fixing either. It is about peeling back these layers of false beliefs and judgments about myself and seeing myself clearly.

In my lineage of Kripalu Yoga we believe that the essence of all people, our true nature, is love. Swami Kripalu said "The highest form of spiritual practice is self observation without judgment." Self observation with love is what I am continuously trying to lean into, to embrace and accept.

"It is not your job to like me, it's mine." ~Byron Katie

I am to the point in this where I can say most of the time I feel solitude instead of loneliness. I also have had an angel in doggy form come into my life. She is a great companion with the sweetest nature and the kind of unconditional love that dog angels have. So, we walk on. All of us. In fact we are never really alone. Here we are together even now. Wherever you are, I am with you.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On a Brief Encounter with India


My family and I are currently living as expats in China (if you didn't know that already). This fact has afforded us the opportunity to travel quite a bit within Asia. We recently spent a week in India visiting Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I am a yoga teacher and have been fascinated with India (where yoga comes from) for many years now, so I always thought my travel to India would be with a yoga group or to stay at an ashram in order to dive deeply into my practice. As it turns out though, my husband Stephen and I decided that for the Chinese New Year holiday we would do a more cultural trip with our kids and India guaranteed to be a unique adventure for our family.

In consideration of our kids, and in an attempt to avoid any gastrointestinal disasters, we booked into the nicest hotels that cater to Westerners. Stephen created an ambitious itinerary, packing in the places to go and sites to visit. We landed in Delhi and the learning began almost immediately.

The hotel car picked us up at the airport and the first thing we saw as we pulled out from the airport parking lot was several women dressed in brightly colored orange and red saris laying in a dirt field along with several emaciated dogs. We knew that poverty would be rampant in India and we discussed this quite a bit with the kids leading up to the trip, but seeing it up close is another thing entirely.

On our first full day in Delhi we headed out early, in a day of dense smog, to visit several famous sites. We saw the Bahai Lotus Temple, Red Fort, Humayun's Tomb and Gandhi Smriti. Each of these places had so much  beauty and history. How amazing to stand in the spot where Gandhi took his last steps, or to see the impressive and beautiful fort built by Shah Jahan, all of it was stunning and awe inspiring. A stand out memory of that day though, is a moment when we were caught in a huge snarl of traffic, our hired driver who spoke next to no English was seemingly lost in his own city. We were at a stand still in the middle of a vortex of chaos. There were people everywhere, cars trying to eek through any way they could, hundreds of these green and yellow tuk tuk taxis, a symphony of horns honking, and of course the occasional cow, horse or goat just ambling on by. At one point a cow strolled by within touching distance of my daughter Avery's window. She was sitting in the seat next to me and I could see a look of curiosity meets disbelief on her face. She turned to me and said, "Well Mom, I didn't think there could be a place crazier than China, but you found it!" This made me laugh, and she smirked a bit herself. I had to admit she was correct. This place, from the first moment, presented itself as truly foreign and otherworldly for us. It would continuously challenge our concepts of the world and fill our senses with every possible nuance of color, texture, smell, flavor, and leave us all altered in some way.

The week was a whirlwind of hotels, highways, temples and palaces. We were constantly taking in  astounding and marvelous places; the Taj Mahal, Amber Fort, City Palace in Jaipur, and Akshradam Temple to name a few. The architecture and artistry of every place we visited was beautiful and stirring. Holiness hung in the air in each temple. The palaces were opulent and rich in both artistry and history. These places hold the stories and legends of India, vessels of what has come and gone, and what remains. What remains is a people, a culture, now with multitudes embroiled in deep suffering, but holding fast to hope, but even more than that devotion.

India, much like China, is a country that, despite a growing middle class, still has a significant part of its population living in poverty. The disparity between classes is considerable and the haves have extreme wealth and the have nots often times have little or nothing. In India the have nots are everywhere. The poverty we saw was a shocking and brutal assault on our reality and sensibilities. You can't look away from the poverty and suffering in India because it is everywhere. You can turn your head , but there it is. There were children with beautiful pleading eyes and faces tapping on the windows of our car, raising their fingers to their mouths in a plea for food, and when we gestured that we had none to offer they still would smile generously as we moved on. We saw people on nearly every street, in every city, sleeping on the sidewalks, picking through the garbage. We saw people with serious physical deformities languishing on the pavement. We saw whole families living in filth and famine. At the end of each day we retreated to our hotel oasis and I was immersed in deep gratitude for how blessed a life I have, and so thankful that my children have everything they need and so much more, but my heart ached for the people who would sleep on the pavement that night, especially the children.

India holds up to the light of day the reality of human suffering by revealing its most extreme forms.
What was stunning and touching to me was seeing the depth of devotion that lives along side the suffering. Spirituality is woven into even the roughest cloth, faith rising even where there is the deepest despair. I saw over and over people greeting each other with hands enfolded in prayer position, looking at each other and offering a namaste or namaskar. Almost every block boasted at least a small temple and the quality of bhakti or devotion was clear in every city we visited.

It was so evident to me there that we are all connected in this reality of human suffering and we all live in a family of the human spirit. What I saw, in a powerful heart centered way, was God in the face of every person I encountered, and I was humbled. I saw, how even in what seems to be impenetrable darkness, that light can shine forth when faith is nourished and when spirit is sustained. I saw this clearly in the shining smiles of children, mothers holding their babies, in street side communities where people could be seen sharing both hardship and laughter.

India was at once heartbreaking and breathtaking. It was a hand outstretched offering a view of all human experience; rich and poor, joy and sorrow, devotion and despair and it ultimately pointed toward an awareness of the most powerful forces we all encounter, life and death. The poor of India walk on the razor's edge of life and death every day. I sense in that relationship with death the deep roots of this feeling of sacred presence and spiritual focus. In the West we try to deny aging and death. We view death as taboo, a dark enemy force that maybe we can somehow avoid. We get sucked into a life of delay and denial, and we focus on superficial and unimportant things. We take our time here for granted. Maybe that is why spiritual life is at the forefront of daily living in India. So many people there have nothing, so they take nothing for granted. They live from faith, they live on faith.

India has a certain peace in the midst of the most profound chaos. It is beauty and grace dancing with despair. India is light meeting darkness. In my yogic studies I have wrangled with the idea that divinity is all encompassing, that there is nothing that is not an expression of God. This is so opposite to the Western notions of good versus evil, this is God and that is the devil, black and white views on human experience. Going to India helped me better understand this idea of everything arising from a cosmic intelligence which we might call God or divinity, in my lineage of Kripalu Yoga we might just call it love. Love leads us away from fear, love is the essence of faith, love is the birthright of all beings no matter the circumstances of the life they were born into.

I am still in the beginning stages of my studies and these are observations that are mere seeds that I am planting and I will see what grows from them. A week in India proved to be a great teacher and I feel I am changed. I know the direction I have been taking in my life is the direction my soul wants to travel. I seek to live a life dedicated to yoga, a creative, spirit centered life. I hope to go back to India. I would love to take that yoga trip, go on a pilgrimage, do some service work. My heart has found yet another home.

A few pictures.






Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dream Big, Celebrate the Small


I have found that over the last few years I feel more and more bombarded by messages about dreaming big, shooting for the stars, being more, aiming high. I do appreciate these ideas and the sentiment, I do. I agree that we all have one life to live and we should all be using our talents and passions to live fully and deeply. I think life brings each of us gifts and callings and it is up to each of us to travel a path of self discovery in order to live with purpose. In the yoga world we refer to this as dharma or finding our life's soul work.

I am also completely on board with the concept of moving beyond one's comfort zone, as well as the actions of moving through fear, taking risks and really owning our inner power and brilliance, which we all have. I think we are all put here to shine bright and be bold in our own particular ways and I have experienced first hand the need to challenge my fears and insecurities in order to step forward and grow. The world needs each of us to be courageous and even outrageous in our quest to be fully expressed in our lives. I do see a lot of fear, lethargy and stagnation in our culture. I have experienced periods of all these in my life too. It is hard work to break through, but it is worth it. After all, now is the time. Life can't wait.

I also think there is a shadow side to this dream big mentality. I have noticed that when I see all these messages coming at me through social media, magazine articles, self help books, television shows and all the other possible sources, I start to feel anxious and agitated, sometimes I start to sink towards depression. I find that I am judging myself too harshly and comparing myself with others who seem to be out there living the dream, making amazing things happen and changing the world. I start to feel very insecure and find myself thinking obsessively about what great, outstanding, bigger and better things I should be doing, or at least planning to do. I fall down an emotional hole of "I am not enough as I am." I feel life passing me by and an urgency that I better get to it. I better define this big dream, this achievement of grand proportions I am supposed to create, and then I better succeed. In reality I have a very interesting life and I have accomplished more than I ever thought I would or could, and yet there is this pressure.

I am only speaking for myself here. I am confident though, that if I am feeling this way, others probably are too. I was recently watching a video by Brene Brown on worthiness and she said it has gotten to a point where an ordinary life is not acceptable. That rang so true for me. There is a pressure, I feel, to be extraordinary. This high ideal steals the value from all the beautiful, and yes, ordinary things that I do and experience each day. It takes me out of being present in this moment, because it keeps pulling my awareness to a future me. It makes the present day me not ok, not enough.

What I have realized is that this is an issue of balance. When I let these messages affect me in a way that creates a feeling of lack, and a pressure to be more, I am pulled out of my center. My energy gets disrupted and my mind becomes agitated and unstable. My heart closes and my walls of defense go up. My ego gets triggered and a snowball effect ensues.

I want to dream big. I do dream big, but I also want to be calm, centered and grateful for today. I don't want to miss out on noticing and deeply appreciating the small and ordinary wonders of my day to day life as it is right now.

I have taken on a practice to create more balance around this issue. Some people do a gratitude journal which is powerful too, but can focus too much on externals in my opinion. My practice is a small victories or worthiness journal. Every day I list at least five things that I did, or qualities I see in myself that I want to acknowledge and appreciate. On a day when I am particularly down I might acknowledge the mere fact of getting out of bed and taking on the day. I am crediting myself for making healthy food for my family, having necessary conversations with my kids, doing my daily meditation, yoga and dance practices, getting out for my runs, working on writing. I am also setting small victory goals for myself that will contribute to my bigger dreams, things like saying yes to teaching opportunities, making suggestions for new workshops I can try at the yoga studio, sending that email, brainstorming or making a vision board. I am looking forward with an openness to all possibility and a desire to say "Yes" to life, and at the same time I aim to keep myself anchored in today, in the present moment where life is actually happening.

True happiness and fulfillment come from creating deep internal connection and being joyful about being alive. The small things are not small at all. The best things in life are simple; hugs and smiles, flowers and trees, being with each other in this world, and most of all love.

Dream big and celebrate the all the amazing ordinary things each day.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Reflections on a Year in China



A year ago today my family and I moved to Shanghai China. I will write here about my perspectives, experiences and learning. I am sure my husband Stephen and each of our three children who live here with us would have an entirely different take on it all.

When we found out we were moving here we all experienced excitement, fear, interest and a whole lot of anticipation over the unknown expanding in front of us. We all new that this would be life changing, amazing and assuredly challenging, but we didn't know how; how it would look, feel, sound, taste, we knew next to nothing.

The move, as all our moves have been, was most challenging for me (that is my opinion of course). I say that because for Stephen and the kids there was some continuity of experience. Stephen has his job to structure and fill his days, the kids have school. Yes, their transition has also had its highs and lows, bumps in the road, but they have had some immediate structure and familiarity.

For those of us called "trailing spouses" it is a bit like being thrown out of an airplane into unknown territory without a map or compass. We land, look around, and begin to fumble about like fish out of water trying to figure out what the hell we are supposed to do now. The first few weeks for me were a wake up call. I quickly realized that I am an immigrant here. I didn't know how to achieve the most basic things like get food, pay a bill, set up my cell phone or bank account. On top of that I am completely illiterate here. It is one of the scariest things I have ever confronted, being unable to communicate, speak, read, write. Nothing. Talk about feeling vulnerable, helpless, exposed. I still feel that way quite often, even after a year and learning some basic Mandarin.

Most of us trailing spouses are wives who have followed husbands here for job opportunities. We are the "tai tais". Tai tai is Mandarin for wife, there are some "guy tais" as well to be fair. We live in what we call "the bubble", areas that cater to foreigners and are really an oasis, a kind of tamed down China. I really like going out of the bubble and into old neighborhoods, exploring interesting sites and taking in the culture and the people. It is nice to have the bubble to go back to though, as I sometimes find the experience here can get overwhelming and produce sensory overload.

A great part of this experience is the friends to be made. We expats are a collective, all on this ride, this walk on the wild side and so we all have that in common. Even with my introvert nature and tendency toward social awkwardness, I have met many amazing people and grown some beautiful friendships. The painful part of this is losing people. After only a year here I am faced with saying goodbye to several friends who are repatriating. The fact of the temporary and fleeting nature of expat life has a lot to teach about impermanence and the practice of non attachment. It is a tough one. Really it is just a mirror of life anywhere, everywhere. People come and people go. Life is transitory and fleeting. There is so much opportunity in that respect to explore how I deal with change, how I relate with loss, how I grieve or resist grief. The full on experience will come at the end of the school year, but I am feeling into it even now.

After not too long a time being here I ventured into teaching yoga part time at a big Shanghai yoga studio, and what lessons I would learn there! Teaching there was very difficult because the culture of the studio was very rigid around what yoga is and what it should look like. My teaching, which emphasizes the spiritual over the physical, was not valued or embraced at the studio. I had a choice to be authentic and true to myself, or try to fit the mold and teach within the desired parameters. Despite the pain it caused me I chose to be me, to go against the grain. My classes were not very popular, but I know I reached a number of people, and if even one student gained insight or depth from my teaching then it is a victory. My confidence was shaken and my ego bruised, but it was very powerful for me to stand my ground and walk my truth when under pressure to conform. In the end I found a new studio that has new vision, and that is a journey yet to come.

Some of the biggest lessons I have learned here are about what I have taken for granted in my life. Clean air, water and food to start. The biggest concern of these is air. I can get bottled water and pay more for import or higher quality foods, but you can't buy clean air. What is more vital than the air you breathe? There have been days when the air has just made me angry and left me wondering how a people, a country, could ever have gotten to this point, allowed it to get this bad. I realize now that this is a reactivity I go to often, blaming. The truth is the pollution is a complex problem involving many factors and there is not a quick or easy solution. What I have learned is that people here do care, they do notice, but they have little recourse and no time or energy to spare to engage in activism. They are busy getting the days food on the table, working very hard to get by. Besides, activism is not such a welcome concept here, the people must tread lightly.

That brings up another thing I am more grateful for because of my experiences here. There is so much to be valued and recognized about personal freedom, the ability to express my opinions without fear or hesitation. There is extreme government control here over the media including social media. Facebook, YouTube, even Blogger, which I am writing this on, are blocked in China. All of us expats get around this with use of a vpn. Censorship is just a fact of life.

Another fact of life here is having no privacy. People here know the government is watching and just accept it. As I have watched, from the vantage point of a country with such an invasive government, the discovery of my home country's NSA spying programs, I can only think that it would be a mistake to ignore it or trust that it is all fine. The saying "You don't know what you've got til it's gone." comes to mind.

Treasure what you have. Enjoy every bite of healthy food you eat, pause when you are near rivers, streams, lakes or the ocean and give thanks. Cherish a breath of clean air. Make a conscious choice to value your freedoms and rights, work to keep them by speaking out and voting wisely.

The most important thing I am learning though is about honoring people. Even with a language barrier, cultural differences and sensory overload, despite all the challenges I have confronted, I know now, more than ever, that a smile is really the only language we need. No matter how different a people might seem, we are all searching for the same things; to have what we need to be safe and secure, to be accepted and understood, and most of all to be loved. I believe that love can conquer all and by reaching out with an intention of loving kindness I find that condition increasing within myself.

The culture and history of this country and its people is rich and deep. I have barely scratched the surface of learning about these things. When I am out and about in the city of Shanghai, I marvel at the mix of old and new, the industriousness and ingenuity required to build the impressive skyscrapers, the beauty of the old neighborhoods, the sculptures and the temples. I most love to see the people, playing cards on the street, doing tai chi or dancing in the park where I run, riding their bicycles, out with their kids. I am glad that through my teaching I have the chance to share my Kripalu Yoga practice and Let Your Yoga Dance with local students. I intend to continue to explore, study, teach and connect with people. I want to savor each day and experience fully.

 I look forward to all the learning and growing yet to come.