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.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Running Against The Wind

  Resistance. I have been feeling it, pressing up against it, running away from it, trying to find a way over it, around it, under it, to no avail. I realize I have to go through it.

Even getting on here to write this is a moving into it, moving through it. I knew I wanted to get back to writing, but what to write about? Honestly, thinking about it, I was feeling scared, paralyzed. I want to write about India, but I feel I need more time to process. So if not that, then what is even interesting right now or valuable? I noticed the strong resistance and then it hit me. Resistance has been showing up for me all over the place, in articles, on vlogs, in books, and in my life. So many flags, neon signs, billboards pointing to it like "HEY, look over here! Here is what you are working with!"

Over the last few months in my China experience I have met resistance and fear head on. I quit teaching at the biggest most sparkly shiny yoga studio in all of Shanghai because I was not valued, not seen, not respected. I have been struggling in parenting, we now have two teenagers and one very high energy, big personality eight year old. I struggle here, as always, to find my social footing. Many factors have come into play that were putting me in a space of recoil. I became very shut down, wanting to build some big walls and a moat and hide for a long time. The resistance shows up for me in the impulse that arises to come out and move forward, to risk vulnerability again. I question my value and I am deeply afraid of rejection. This is some deep, murky, old stuff  and it is rich with possibility for growth and evolution, but the only way is through it, into its very heart, which seems to me at times to be endless darkness, but my inner knowing detects light. Fear versus faith, what will it be? I know the shift happens by reaching out into that darkness and taking a big leap of faith. I find it hard to leap, and yet I am writing this now, a leap in and of itself .

I run as part of my regimen to fight depression and also find it to be an integral part of my spiritual practice. Yesterday I was out running and it was very cold for Shanghai, windy and flurries of snow coming down. I run on a path along the river to escape the traffic and to feel connected to nature. As I ran, initially I had the wind to my back and could see the current of the river going along with me, but then as I made the turn around to go back the wind slapped me in the face and its force was like a wall. The mere sight of the river current seemed to press me back as well. I felt my effort increase and I began to tire quickly. I realized that I was fighting, muscling against it, trying so hard to break through. It occurred to me then that there might be another way. What if I just leaned in and relaxed? I played with this and my pace was slowed a bit but not that much and the effort was halved, I found ease. I thought now about the wind as my ally who would catch me if I was falling. It is just like the yoga saying, "What we resist persists."  I was still running against the wind, but now with grace and peace.

I think working with resistance is like that. Yes, you have to go through it, take that leap of faith, but with the understanding that the resistance becomes a gift, not an enemy, when we take the steps to transform it. Swami Kripalu often referred to "the angel of struggle", the angel of resistance ushers us towards our greatest growth. Ultimately it lies in that shift from fear to faith, and we will go through it again and again. We will forget, go into hiding again and another journey is born.

Every experience comes as a wise teacher, leading us to ourselves. I remember now, and I will have to learn again. Beautiful.

Since my run this song has been playing in my head, so a music bonus, from a legendary musician who we will miss.