meditation · mindfulness

Does Meditation Even Work?

I considered different titles for this piece: If I Didn’t Meditate, Would I Be a Monster? Why Even Meditate If I Still Stress Out? I Give Up on Meditation.

But I don’t give up, even as I wonder, why not?  

As many of you know, I’ve been on a meditation streak for some time now. And, an exciting moment happened recently. I did NOT notice the day I passed three years straight in my streak. I meditated. Like it was any other day. Then, ten days later, I suddenly thought, “Wait a minute, did I pass my three-year anniversary of this streak??”

The reason I missed it is this: The first time I saw my mother after the start of the pandemic was in late August. I hadn’t seen her for 19 months. The last day of our visit was my 1000th day of meditation. Since then, I am reminded each day of how long it has been since I last saw my mother. I send out a wish that that day count will not get anywhere near the 500+ of our last interval.

Is it okay if I take a moment here of celebration for three years straight of meditating every-every day?

And, I had one of the worst finish-starts to a year in memory. I got news on December 21st that a yearlong training program I’m in was going to continue with an in-person weekend the first week of January. The email explained all the reasons for pushing back against strict pandemic regulations in Quebec, which only got stricter as the next couple of weeks evolved. And the email said that the majority of the email recipients had been consulted. Not me. I was not in that majority. Plus, I was special needs, given that I was crossing an international border to attend, and all the added risks that entails. I was not worthy of consultation. My opinion did not matter. I slipped into the vortex, a downward spiral of increasing stress.

Stormy sea, by Roan Lavery on Unsplash

Yes, indeed, I fueled that spiral all by myself as I contemplated all the pandemic risks. I deployed all my tools to self-arrest, including meditation. While I could alleviate some of the stress, there was a core nugget that kept moving into darker and darker corners of my psyche. My always-borderline-fragile sense of belonging had been threatened and nothing grounded me or lifted me or offered me ease.

I sat on my meditation cushion and observed my erratic heartbeat fail to settle. I sat on my meditation cushion and watched my staccato breath struggle for smooth passage. I sat on my meditation cushion and felt enraged and heavy and sad.

I kept sitting. Day after day.

No remission of stress. In fact, I managed to work myself up enough that it spilled out all over my partner and set fire to the closing-opening of the years. Then came the news on Monday morning, January 3, that the in-person weekend would be delayed a month. I should-have-could-have been relieved. Instead, I was angry at myself all over again. How could I have allowed myself to stress out about something that simply resolved itself (more or less and with zero elegance)?

More sitting.

Which brings me back to the other possible titles for this piece. If I hadn’t been meditating during these past weeks, would I have been out-of-control monstrous? Would I have lit my angry fire earlier and kept it burning on a higher setting? Is the goal of meditation to never stress out? Or is it to notice that I am stressing out, instead of spending my energy in denial and/or blaming someone else for my stress? Why don’t I give up?

Because. I value the information I glean from the particular discipline of daily observation. I can’t make all my stress go away. I can’t make myself into an angel of patience, which I’m not. I can notice more. That noticing, in and of itself, offers me relief. The sliver of ease may be barely visible to the naked eye, but my nervous system is grateful for the scintilla of extra space. This is not good marketing language for a meditation-is-the-answer-to-everything sales pitch. Meditation is not the answer to everything. It is one tool in what is ideally an ever evolving and updating kit.  

Last year Kim (of this blog) and I challenged each other to write a poem every two weeks (there’s a post coming later today about that). As I was looking through them, I came across this haiku that captures why I continue to meditate:

And if I lived true/ open curiosity / no judgment or fear?

The promise of meditation is that you will notice more. That’s it. That’s enough.     

challenge · motivation · new year's resolutions · WOTY

It’s WOTY-Challenge Time!

In this last month of the year, two thoughts bubble up: What’s my word of the year (WOTY) and what’s my challenge? Many of my fellow bloggers here are thinking about their words. Nicole, for example, says she is looking for a word that expresses the opposite of existential dread. I look forward to what she comes up with. We will have more WOTY posts, to be sure.

Last year my word was enough. For the early part of the year, I reminded myself with some regularity what my word was. I needed the specific boost. Just now, when I sat down to write this, I realized I’d forgotten what my word was. Yet, when I looked back and found my word, it was like a carillon. Oh yes, now I remember my word and I didn’t need the reminder after a certain point in the year, because I had installed an enough-ness fuel gauge in my bodymind dashboard and was taking conscious note of the fuel level on a more regular basis. That realization, in and of itself, topped up the fuel in my enough-ness tank. My word did its job. Pause for mini-celebratory dance.  

In a recent Peloton class one of my favourite instructors, Christine D’Ercole, said that we should give ourselves user names that, when we say them out loud, have the same effect as an encouraging hand on our back. That’s the effect I’m looking for in my WOTY. A word that encourages me. A carrot word. Not a stick word. 

Colourful assortment of letter tiles
Surendran MP on Unsplash

This year’s word builds on enough. I’m not going to give it to you straight out. There’s some stage décor to put in place first. It turns out that enough is a pretty damn bold word. Enough gives me the courage to plunge into learning new modalities (including two separate yearlong trainings, one in Non-Violent Communication and one in Internal Family Systems). Enough inoculates me against being overwhelmed by the voices in my head and in society, who say that I’m past due on expanding into new disciplines. Enough grants me the audacity to incorporate these new techniques into my work now with the simultaneous confidence of a seasoned practitioner and the caution of a novitiate. I am integrating my existing skills base with the fresh skills I am learning and honing to offer more holistic coaching and workshops.

At first, my word for next year wanted to be something like mastery. But two reasons held me back from that choice. First, the word is outmoded and even ugly, in a world that is waking up to all the hidden and subtle ways we perpetuate inequities. Mastery comes with a heavy burden of colonialism and racism.

This first reason would have been more than enough to keep the word out of contention. But there’s more. The word feels static. As if we can master something and then that’s it. One and done. Thank you very much. You may now come to me with questions. I’ve moved on to answers. No. That’s not how I feel about the skills I already have facility with, nor how I feel about the new tools I’m adding. There’s dynamism in the process. Learning is cyclical, not linear, building and looping back on itself to collect new gleanings.

I wanted a word to express my desire to keep learning, integrating, experimenting and refining. In that spirit, my word itself is freshly coined, by me.

Skillflow.

That’s my word. Say it out loud. Feel it on your tongue. Listen to it come out of your mouth. Do you feel how open the word is? Versus, for example, the word skillful, which closes in on itself with that final letter L.

Skillflow: (noun) the continuous, regenerative cycle of learning and applying our skills; the flow of fresh skills mixing with honed skills in a reciprocal renewal of energy.

I am already enough AND I’m going to learn so much this year. I’ve got my word.

So … I wrote all those words above yesterday and I felt plugged in and buzzing with possibility. Excited for the year to come. Up to the task. Empowered. Then I woke up this morning with a possibility hangover. That’s when the part of me who is fearful of failure gets very loud. I was down in the dumps. Questioning everything from my right to even propose a WOTY to my very existence. Apparently, my word is threatening to some part of me that fears that a hand on my back will push me right over a cliff into a humiliating failure; that I’ll choke on my carrot word. Sigh. Thank you, fearful voice. Breathe. Notice that I am learning new skills around befriending that scared voice. Allow her words to flow through me, instead of getting stuck inside like a brick in an impenetrable wall of the-truth-of-who-I-am.      

My word for 2022 is skillflow.

How about that challenge I mentioned? Challenges are my version of resolutions (but not). A friend calls them my annual devotional tasks. They are ways of being I want to try on for size, with no commitment to extend after the year is over.

Last year my challenge was twofold—to continue not to shop for anything from Amazon.com except books and movies (an extension of my 2020 challenge) and to commit to a poetry exchange with my friend (and fellow blogger here), Kim. We agreed to send each other new poems we’d written every second Sunday. We have two poem cycles left and the whole process has been fresh and bracing, plus liberating and connecting. Excellent. Last year, I wanted a challenge that wasn’t all about self-discipline and denial, which has characterized quite a number of my challenges (like not shopping for clothes for a year). This year I want a challenge … well … I have no clue what to do this year.

I’d love to hear your WOTYs and any ideas for a challenge.

motivation · training

Self-Discipline As Ease and a Path to Joy

On a recent morning, I experienced my self-discipline in a whole new way. I’ve always thought of self-discipline as being about … well … discipline. Getting shit done. Staying on top of things. Progress. Maintenance. Control. The universe introduced me to the possibility that self-discipline may contain all those things, and their seeming opposites.    

I woke to torrential rain. I’d been looking forward to my run and the audio book I’m listening to. Instead, I was going to have to do a Peloton ride or stream one of their Pilates classes. Have to, because I had a day full of Zoom and wanted to move; and because moving (and sweating) makes for a happier, more settled day, for me. The have to was weighing on me more than usual. Most of the time, I’m glad to have the external encouragement of the instructor. But not this particular morning. I wanted to move, but not that way, not with that kind of intensity or focus.

When I got to the bike, I thought, hang on a minute, I can do this differently. I don’t have to take a particular class. I can do my own thing, can’t I?  And I did. And it was profoundly satisfying.

To start, I opened the window next to the bike. My music for the morning was the sound of the pouring rain. Next, I hunted down the bike feature that would allow me to do what I wanted. I found the feature under the tab labeled More; and really, it’s more of an un-feature called Just Ride. Finally, I hooked my iPad over the bike screen and pressed play on my audio book and then shut off the screen’s light. Soon I was immersed in the words of David Abram’s, The Spell of the Sensuous, about the origins of language, as it arises from impulsive, gestural responses to our sensorial experience as beings in the world. I was a being on a bike, listening to the rain and the occasional city sound of traffic or a siren, experiencing my body in motion, the sweat running off my face, the rhythm of my legs and the light of a grey day leaking slowly into a dark room, though I mostly rode with my eyes closed.

Such. Pleasure.  

Red leaves through rainy window,
by Anne Nygard on Unsplash

A couple of hours later I was engaged in a deep dive conversation with two study partners about the difference between self-discipline and obedience (as part of my Non-Violent Communication program). My ride was the distinction we were talking about. I woke up with a desire to move and I made a choice to nourish my need. That was my inner voice of self-discipline, or at least how I usually think of her. Then a bunch of shoulds arrived to try to divert me from the freedom underlying my choice. You should do an instructor-led ride. You should try to ride harder than you will on your own. You should be more serious. You get the picture. On this particular morning, the idea of listening to those voices felt like obedience to some random external measure of success. A killjoy. Then, I discovered that getting to the bike was only Part One of the self-discipline voice. Part Two kicked in when I illuminated the screen. In lieu of obeying felt societal pressure, even if that pressure was and is largely imaginary or self-imposed, Part Two suggested that I search inside myself for the answer to what I wanted. The answer was clear. To just ride. To feel connected to nature, even if it was only through an open window. To listen to my book. 

I got off the bike drenched, my brain tingling with the sparks of ideas connecting and my body ready for some hours inside a box on a screen. 

Part One of my self-discipline on her own might not think I did an appropriate workout. She’s a lot about obedience. That’s where Part Two (a fresh aspect of self-discipline) came in to remind me that obedience does not have to be blind choice, but can include flexibility and creativity.  Part Two trusted me to decide, to double check inside and verify that my decision came from a place of internal discernment and not from an externally-fueled judgment of sufficiency. Part Two expanded on Part One’s mission to keep me healthy, reminding me that I alone have the power to decide what is the right workout self-discipline on any given day. With all due respect to Part One, Part Two encouraged me to free myself from obedience to arbitrary, impersonal measures of that incredibly elusive concept—success.

Instead, I my self-discipline is making this choice: what will give me the most joy today? 

hiking · traveling · yoga

Perfect Yoga in Reykjavik

We landed in Reykjavik at 6:30 a.m., jet-lagged from a too-short overnight flight. After a no-nap day, I went to yoga with my friend, Hope, at 5 p.m. Because we didn’t have to pay in advance, we’d both been touch and go about the class all day, but at the last minute we decided to make the effort.

The day was chill and drizzly, which served the purpose of waking me up some on our 15-minute walk through an adorable neighbourhood of plain, flat-fronted houses painted in bright eye-catching colours. When we got to where the studio was supposed to be, there was a bakery. Puzzling. Until we looked up and noticed what seemed to be (and, indeed, turned out to be) a big spacious room on the second and top floor of the building.

We found the entrance tucked around the side in an alley of sorts, left our shoes on the stairs and climbed up into a big, cozy space—cement walls with what seemed to be graffiti relics from another time, half-painted over with more yogic designs; a high vaulted ceiling stuffed with insulation, covered by plastic sheeting taped to the fresh wood beams. One corner was piled with blankets, props and yoga mats, free for anyone to use. In fact, the whole payment system was quite loose. I didn’t have Icelandic currency, and I couldn’t get into my PayPal account on my phone. Then, when I tried to pay after class on my computer, I had another problem paying in Icelandic currency via PayPal. None of which phased the instructor in the least, even when we showed up the next morning for another class and once again forgot cash. I did ultimately pay via PayPal.

The class was in English. A relief. I was tired enough that following along without any verbal cues would have challenged my capacities. Yet all of the other yogis seemed local—I deduce this from the class cards they showed by way of payment. The instructor was a welcoming combination of wry, laissez-faire and yes-this-is-hard-but-give-it-a-try. Plus, she looked to be only a week or two away from giving birth, which added to the earthy, rooted, yet nourishing, ambience. Quick aside here: As a woman without children, I have a sometimes-complicated relationship with my feelings around pregnant women. So, I was surprised by the unequivocal radiance of the positive energy I felt.

The class started with a seated meditation, during which I nodded toward sleep and jerked into consciousness again a couple of times, with that slight feeling of nausea that coats me like Vaseline the day following a red-eye flight. But once we started moving, my body got happy. The class was strong and focused, a Goldilocks balance between challenge and ease (for me). By the end of the 75 minutes, I felt like I had been put back together.

How perfect.

We decided to go again at 9 a.m. the next morning. I barely woke up in time, but we made it to the class. Same great instructor. Shorter class, at 60 minutes. A stimulating morning flow. I was tired. Unsurprisingly. The class cleared cobwebs, reinvigorated and set me up for a day of exploring. Perfect again. Two for two at Reykjavik Yoga.

Plus, breakfast from the bakery below. 

I love going to yoga in a new town; helps me align with the place. Other days, I ran and hiked. The Icelandic landscape cuts me to the quick. It’s an easy place for me to satiate my abiding craving for movement. We did have a slight hiking mishap involving sleet, high winds, an unmarked trail and frayed hiker nerves, but that’s a story for another post.

Landscape on an hike in the Hengill region of Iceland

Traveling is by its nature an adventure. It’s a gift when I can find points of familiarity, which help me locate, while at the same time, immersing me in the newness. Yoga is one of those locators for me.

Do you have locator activities when you’re away?   

mindfulness · running

Running in My Head

Some days I run in my body. Some days I run in my head. It’s not a hard and fast separation, of course (body and mind are one). But, depending on the day, body or head dominates my run. The last couple of runs I’ve done have been in my head. My mind is busy writing a script and delivering its lines and it’s not until mid-run, or even post-run, when my mind notices that my body actually had a much better run than my mind was narrating.

Two examples.

On Sunday, I went out feeling unmotivated and more like watching Season 3 of the Danish television show Seaside Hotel. I reluctantly put on my running gear, laced my shoes, plugged into the audio book I’m listening to (Marshall Rosenberg’s Speaking Peace) and took off. The inner voices had a feisty script to deliver. Run a loop. Or not. If you feel like cutting off the top or bottom of the park, that’s fine too (that’s a thing in New York City’s Central Park, where there are clear options to take a mile off the top or bottom of the standard loop). Okay, I know said anything is fine and I meant it, but why not? So, I ran the whole loop, feeling neither super perky nor as draggy as I’d expected. At the 11th hour in my run, I ran past the last possible entrance to The Reservoir loop. That’s a dirt track around the reservoir in the middle of the park. As I ran past, a loud argument started up in my head. Girlfriend, you haven’t run that loop in ages. What’s wrong with you? Why are you being critical? She can run it when she feels like it. When’s that ever going to happen? Stop being so hard on her. She’ll do it when it feels good. And today is not that day. Whereupon, my body suddenly chimed in. Hold on, I do feel like running the reservoir loop. Do you really, or are you just saying that because you feel pressured? No. I don’t think so. Give me a moment. I’m checking in with the legs and feet. Yup. All parts are a go.  I turned around, ran back to the reservoir and did the loop. My body was tired yes, but also in high spirits when I got home. My head was slowly dragged from doubting to cautious pleasure.  

Second example. Yesterday, I woke up with a mild case of the post-Labour Day back-to-school blues, that feeling that everything should be starting fresh and yet it isn’t, those unaccountable blues that can’t just be ascribed to one particular thing. My body was not feeling springy. My spirit had even less loft. But I could see that it was a beautiful day and I couldn’t face a workout that involved a screen and being indoors. Again, I put on my running kit with unwilling resolve. Halfway up the first block from my apartment an argument broke out in my head.

I can’t do this. It’s boring. It’s too long. Oh for goodness’ sake, just get on with it. How about we compromise? Instead of the loop, let’s just run up to the north woods and do repeats on that short, sharp dirt hill. Okay, but I’m going to be slow. That’s fine. It doesn’t even matter. You can’t not get a good workout, no matter what speed you go. Plus, you get to be in the woods and on dirt. Fine. Just get on with it.

I ran. I repeated. I listened to my book. I got home feeling decent, if still bluesy. Then, I had breakfast with my partner and he asked how my run went. I told him what I’d done and he said, “And that didn’t feel good?” His question made me realize that my mind hadn’t caught up to my body yet. Because, yes, my body was happy with the run and my head hadn’t taken the time to note that fact.

Running in my head can be very noisy. Running in my body is quieter. The quiet doesn’t mean faster or stronger, as I used to think. It just means less blab-blab-blab. When I try to fight the blabs by telling them to be quiet, they just get louder. I am learning, ever so slowly, that taking my head and body where they are at and running with whichever one wants to take the lead on any particular day, is more easeful. Letting the voices roll, allowing them to caution, berate, encourage, argue and generally raise a ruckus is more fruitful than trying to quiet them. When I can resist the urge to pile on to their tirades, to spin myself into their vortices of whatever feels hot to them that day, when I can just be present to their narratives, give them a respectful listen as I run, I notice there’s a calming effect on their vociferous need to get as many words in edgewise as possible.

The most important practice when I’m running in my head is to be mindful of checking in with my body, because she may have a different story to tell. I want to listen to her, too. And I don’t want to miss an opportunity to express my gratitude to my body, for all her hard work and all the pleasure she has given me and continues to give me over our many miles together. 

habits · meditation · mindfulness

Day 999 of My Meditation Streak: When the Mind Chatter Surrenders to What Is

Tiny seated Buddha on a green leaf
Samuel Austin on Unsplash

I sit down on my meditation cushion for day 999 of my current meditation streak. This particular cushion is a stack of two stained decorative pillows on a day bed in an Airbnb in Montreal, where I’m staying with my mother, the first time I’ve seen her since the beginning of the pandemic. The mind chatter starts right in:

Why do I never get any credit for my accomplishments? I’m so tired of these people who tell me that their daily activities are “meditations”—running, gardening, whatever. Last night it was counting stitches in knitting and something about watching sports and managing frustration. Meanwhile, here I am putting in the work of sitting down every single solitary day. Oh right, you call that work? Okay, yeah, it’s most often only for 10 minutes. Exactly, I don’t know what you are even pleased with yourself about? Can everyone just stop taking my meditation away from me with all their fake-itations?! Whoa. Hold on a minute. Who’s the fraud in this scenario? That’s a lot of me-me-me-notice-me about a meditation. Holy antithesis. Is that why you meditate, for the credit? Also, when did you become the Académie Française of meditation, the anointed-one-from-on-high who gets to define what counts as a meditation? Also, also, who the fuck cares what other people are doing? What does that have to do with your meditation? When did meditation become a competitive sport? Also, also, also, juvenile!

Time out. Can everyone take a breath? I hear all of you. But if we pause, can you feel how it doesn’t matter? Can you see how people might be talking about their meditative practices to connect with you, not to diminish you? And, news flash, you do a good enough job diminishing your own self. You don’t need anyone else’s help with that. Plus, a reminder, tuning into this chatter and letting it flow through and away is your practice. Good job. I mean it. Well done.

Just there, did you feel that moment of peace? The way it arrived like a comforting weighted blanket? Aah. That feels good. Let all people call whatever they want their meditation.

Fine.

Wait. Wake up. Enough with the I’m-so-zen, have you forgotten what’s happening today? Oh man, what the hell am I doing with my life, starting a new 10-month training course in Non-Violent Communication? It’s too late. I’m too old. I’ll never finish. When will I be a grown up? I’m in way over my head. How about the monthly travel to Canada from the US? All the documentation. Every time. For what? No one is ever going to hire me. Why are you even doing this? And don’t even give me that over-earnest answer, to make a contribution. Cue the violins. It’s the same as with your meditation. Do you really want to contribute or do you want to be seen to be contributing? Grandiosity.

Okay, I’m calling a time out again. This is not advice, just a suggestion. Surrender. Seriously, I mean it. You know (know-know, in that cellular way) that this course is the right thing for you, for how you want to be in the world. That’s enough. You don’t have to waste time doubting yourself. I know you feel like you need to fight this with doubt. But you really don’t have to. You can just be with what is.

 …

Did you hear that?

I felt it—silence resonating in my mind-body. It was only a few seconds. That’s enough, isn’t it? Yes.

 …

The gong sounds, bringing my meditation to a close. I open my eyes and look out at the green hill of Mont Royal, visible from my aerie. I was running up there not more than an hour ago, enlivened with the joy of movement. Spaciousness fills me again. I am light, yet grounded, centered, fluid and strong. I am ready for breakfast with my mother and then back-to-school. How fitting. 

Also, I did make it to Day 1000 of my meditation streak the next day–this is the log on my Insight Timer app
fitness

Thinking About the T-Word While Riding a Mountain Bike

The voice in my head, who I’ve named IO (pronounced ee-yo), doesn’t like the T-word. She says, “Don’t use that word to describe certain events in your life (such as being sexually assaulted by a tennis instructor). You’re going to get all fragile and breakable. All boohoo about shit. You’re a strong woman. I don’t want you to be defined by trauma. Also, nothing that’s happened to you begins to compare to what other people have experienced. What’s happened to you are only flesh wounds. Comparatively. Worse—they’re psychic wounds, which are literally not flesh wounds. Calling them wounds begins with the same letter of the alphabet as wallow.”

IO’s rough assessment is what led to a recent text-versation with a friend, in which she told me that she felt disconnected from me, “in the realm of trauma, because you have let me know that you don’t believe you are traumatized and find the word pathologizing.” She went on to say that she didn’t feel safe or free of my judgment in this context. Her words stung. I felt like a heartless ogre. The next morning, I woke tired, feeling fragile, questioning my relation to trauma—other people’s and my own, which is how I found myself thinking about my tennis instructor while riding my mountain bike.

I was riding up a trail I call True Grit 4. The trail has some steep bits and three short sections on which it’s always questionable whether I’ll make it or not (here making it equals staying on the bike). Questionable section one (QS1) went off without a hitch—smooth and still surprising each time I make it through the steep, sandy S-turn. QS2 was wonky. On a sharp left uphill littered with rocks, I rode up the wrong line, riding over rocks, instead of finessing between them, and almost abandoned hope. But I told myself I could still do it. And I did. A second surprise.

Mina on her mountain bike on a trail that’s not True Grit, but nearby

After two successes, I was feeling confident about QS3, so I let my mind wander to the tense text exchange from the night before with my friend. I started thinking about a pickle ball clinic I’d taken the week before. It was the first time I’d been on a tennis court since my long-ago lessons with that coercive instructor. Playing something similar to tennis. The first 15-minutes had brought back a rush of unease that swirled my stomach. IO was in top volume denial, telling me to get over it. As I pedaled, I thought about why I do not want to name that event as a trauma, even as my body was re-experiencing the self-disgust and shame.

And … I whiffed QS3. Normally, I’d just continue with my ride. But this day I was not going to accept the situation. I got off my bike. Hoisted it around on the narrow trail, walked it back 10 meters. Pointed it back up the trail. Gave myself a talking to. Gently. The voice of my centered, compassionate Self said, “You can ride this. Yes, you have every right to feel uneasy on a tennis court and we’ll talk about that. But this is not the moment to think about tennis.”  This voice’s name is JG (yes, I name a lot of the voices in my head, because it helps create the distance that I need to get perspective on what they are saying).

I had barely enough time to clip back into my pedals before I was navigating between the rocks on the short steep turn that is QS3. I reassured myself it was okay if I didn’t clip back in. Lots of people ride mountain bikes now with flat pedals, not clipless. I was so focused on relaxing and not worrying about my pedals that I rode up with ease. I wasn’t thinking about tennis.

Later, I checked back in with IO. She told me that since the word trauma was on my mind she had been hitching on my shoulder for the ride. But when I got off my bike to try QS3 again and JG showed up, she went up the trail to watch my second try. IO said, “You looked great, by the way, relaxed and determined.” I was so surprised by her change in tone, I almost didn’t hear her.

On the mountain bike, in that moment on QS3, my psyche and body felt the difference between pushing away the name of trauma and accepting what is with empathy. Psychic or physical, our pain is real, not only a flesh wounds. Oh, and by the way, flesh wounds can be fatal. Why would I discount trauma? Life hurts. Life is not only a flesh wound. It’s a near fatal blow some of the time. Yes, I’ve been lucky, in the grand scheme. I won the lottery in my birth situation. But … my life hasn’t been a cakewalk either. When I insist on thinking of it as a cakewalk, I beat myself up about not being enough. Look at all those people who have overcome bigger obstacles than me to become great fill-in-the-blanks (artists, leaders, entrepreneurs). Why haven’t I done more with my life?!?!

JG says, “Compare and despair. Just stop. You are enough. Keep going, just as you are.”

JG says, “Yes, the tennis incident was hurtful and horrible AND you can keep going, not in denial or minimization, nor in wallowsomeness or exaggeration, but in acceptance and empathy, with confidence, with a spring in your step, with lightness and the grace of heated steel. You are under construction, not broken, and the scars not only make you stronger, they make you more beautiful. Wabi Sabi.”

That my traumas are not as big T as other people’s, does not relegate them to an offsite storage unit. The name of trauma is not in and of itself pathological. My wounds are part of me. Undeniable. Impactful.  The key to flow in my life is finding the suppleness of empathic resilience. That’s what got me up QS3. And what got me home with joy and the zeal to write this. That’s what will open my heart to myself and other people. That’s what will get me up the mountain of life. Today and for the tomorrows.

Fear · femalestrength · hiking

When a Long Hike Becomes an Ultra Hike: How Fear and Strength Make Friends

This past Saturday, my partner and I set out for an 18-mile (30 km) hike from the Castle Peak parking lot at Boreal (near Truckee, CA) to the Mt Lola parking area (near Sierraville). As the hike is a point-to-point, we prepped by parking a car at the finish on Friday. We set out at 7:45 a.m., looking very much forward to 6 or 7 hours of hiking and a dip in the lake just past the halfway point and another in Independence Lake after we finished.

We’d done the route once before, three years ago, and had happy memories of the effortful day. So, we had only the most rudimentary of paper maps with us. No apps or maps downloaded on our phones. After all, we weren’t novices to the trail and it wasn’t as if the mountains or lake could have changed locations. And the route was simple, follow the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to the Mt Lola junction. Take a right. Follow the only trail past White Rock Lake up and over the top of Lola, then down the other side. We’ve hiked the “other side” of Lola many times as up and down. Familiar turf.  

We found our groove quickly. My partner and I have hiked together a lot and we both enjoy a brisk pace, with a minimum of stops. We passed through familiar spots of the hike, noting with pleased surprise at how much sooner we seemed to be getting to them than we’d expected. As we passed through Paradise Valley, my partner commented that it should only be another mile or so to the Lola junction. He also said that if we got to a traveled road, then we’d gone too far. We hiked on. And on. And on. We crossed a few dirt roads, most of which were clearly logging roads (i.e. untraveled). One had a sign that said “Entering Zone X.9”. We didn’t remember the road, but dismissed it as untraveled. After all, we didn’t see any cars on it as we passed by. We climbed up and over an exposed ridge. We looked back at Mt Lola and kept hiking. We expressed doubt. My partner, who likes to quantify things, said he was 10% uneasy. I was I-don’t-know-what-percent uneasy. We rationalized. We downgraded our assumed pace. We immersed ourselves in denial.

Also, I was annoyed at myself for still not buying a full brim sun hat for hiking. We passed people wearing peaked caps and hoodies as protection against the sun (not just the sun, California Sierra Mountains sun). Every time I felt its hot glow beating against the side of my face, a surge of resentment about my inadequate sun protection coursed through me. Also, I was hiking with a camelback, which had a new 1L bladder, 500 ml less than my previous 1.5L bladder. I was mad at myself for not bringing enough water. Also, I was wearing trail runners that I’d only worn one other time and I wasn’t liking them as much as my standard faves. I had a little hot spot on one of my heels.

Finally, when it seemed incredible that the junction was still ahead of us, we asked the next person we saw. A young woman, a solo northbound PCT through-hiker we caught up to (impressive!). She had an app.

After some consultation, expanding and tweezing the map on her phone, she said, “The junction is 5 miles back.”

IMPOSSIBLE. My mind screamed. I didn’t even feel capable of talking to the young woman anymore. My partner said thank you and good bye to her with great cheer. I was fuming. Why hadn’t I brought the good map we have at home? Yes, it unfolds and is huge. But still. Why hadn’t I thought to download an app? Or even look for one? What kind of self-reliant feminist was I (especially compared to the daring, app-savvy woman we’d just met)? This, in addition to my sunhat and water self-criticism.

As we passed them, we asked two more groups of backpackers if they’d seen the Lola cut-off. No one had. Sidenote: We actually didn’t see any other day hikers. Everyone we asked had apps and assured us the junction was 4.2 miles, then 3.2 miles back. One woman even showed us a picture of the bridge 2/10ths of a mile from the turn off. We knew exactly where it was. Each time, my partner was cheery and friendly with the backpackers. And each time people said things like, “Oh that happened to us yesterday.” Or, “Think of it as more time outdoors.”

I was way too frustrated to be as friendly as I could-have-should-have been. I wanted to say things like, “I don’t f@#*&ing need more time outdoors. Don’t you dare presume to know what’s good for me. I’m not just a jock. I want to read my book, too.” And other such unhelpful thoughts. At one point I sat down on a rock and declared myself done and unable to go on and that my partner should just continue without me. My partner assured me that we would make it. I refused to be cheered. Even though another part of me knew he was right, that resilient voice was getting way outshouted by the catastrophizer. Let’s call her, Apocalyptica.

We filled up on water at a high mountain spring. My partner gave me the rest of his water, which restocked my supply. And then refilled his own from the stream. We had no tablets or filter. He reasoned that it was better if only one of us got sick from the water, if that was going to happen. Thankfully, I can report at this distance of days from our hike that he’s fine! I’m grateful for his taking the risk. And for his calm throughout.

At a certain point on our way back, the resilient voice started to get some airtime. Let’s call her, I-Got-This. Apocalyptica had had her fun and was willing to let someone else take the microphone. I-Got-This reasoned that my partner and I were both strong enough. We had enough water and food and there was no still no pressure to finish. Even with 10 miles extra, we would be home well before dark. Sure, the hiking might get uncomfortable. But hey, wasn’t that what being strong was for? Plus, just think of how rock star we would feel when we finished. Soon, I-Got-This was the only voice I heard. She reminded me of the ultra-marathons I’d run. Yes, they were in 2011. Even better, I-Got-This assured me, this was a golden opportunity to renew the feeling of accomplishment I’d had when I did those runs.

When we hit the crucial bridge, we slowed way down. Our eyes combing the ground. And there it was. A weather worn grey wood sign lying on the grey dusty ground at a bend in the trail. So easy to miss. We changed its location to make sure the next hikers wouldn’t be misled. The path we wanted was nothing more than a thin filament threading through the long grass. Not many people take the cut off. We didn’t see another hiker for the next 7 miles.

What a relief! Just finding the right trail was shot of adrenaline. I-Got-This was dancing. Even Apocalyptica was grooving. She gets her thrills from the possibility of a catastrophe, not from its actual occurrence. I would have busted a move, too, but I was conserving energy. We still had 8.5 miles to go. A mile later, we found the rock we’d eaten lunch on the last time and ate lunch. Took a dip in White Rock Lake. Heavenly. Putting our shoes and socks back on after a dose of cold water was the balm we needed to recoup our spirits for the climb up Lola; an extended effort, which saves the steepest part for the top.

White Rock Lake–from the shore, halfway up Lola and the top of Lola.

Oh, wondrous summit! We lay down on a flattish rock for 10 minutes to replenish. Ate a salty chocolate granola bar. Then set out for the last 5 miles. All downhill. Every twist and turn and change of terrain comforted us with its familiarity. At the sight of our little red pickup truck at trail’s end, we yelped with relief. We. Were. Exhausted.  

The day wasn’t over. We had an hour drive to pick up our car at the starting trailhead. Then we mustered a final drop of energy for ice cream by Donner Lake: Mountain Mint Chip for me; Truckee Trails flavour for my partner (that’s a vanilla with peanut brittle and chocolate flakes). This is ice cream’s calling. To nourish body and soul.

Yes, we agreed that we felt pretty darn proud of ourselves for our 28-mile (46km) hike. And, we agreed that we would have been very happy (equally happy?) with the hike-as-planned; plus, we would have avoided a decent amount of agita.

Still, in these early days of reflecting on the hike, I’m glad for the experience. With each of these conversations between Apocalyptica and I-Got-This, IGT grows stronger and surer of herself; Apocalyptica more willing to step aside. Apocalyptica will never quiet completely. If she did, I’d miss her dramatic flourish in my life. But I sure do appreciate her growing accord with IGT. Together they prepare me for our ever-uncertain future.

habits · rest · running · self care · training

Navigating the Tricky Balance Between Effort and Ease

I’m feeling wobbly. I’m not quite managing the balance between effort and ease. Could be that I’m finally allowing myself to feel the full weariness of the pandemic, now that we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel (a tunnel that emerges into an as-yet unknown future). Could be that I’ve been gorging myself on a lot of inputs, between the multiple Non-Violent Communication and Internal Family Systems trainings I’m attending, the practice groups I belong to, plus writing coaching clients, and my own workshop development and writing, plus some deep dive personal development work.  That psychic tiredness may be spilling over into physical tiredness, too. But I keep trying to push my way through the depletion into a higher energy state. This tendency is most obvious in my physical activities.

Here’s an example from a few days ago. I woke up in a hole. The voice in my head who likes to tell me I’m not enough was on a tear. Vivienne (that’s the voice’s name and yes, I give the voices in my head names) hadn’t actually taken up much air time recently. I’d almost forgotten how ferocious she can get. I headed out on a run, with the idea of appeasing her. When she’s on a bender, she wants me to sweat first, then get to some tasks. From the first step of my run, I was dragging. About 45 minutes in, I arrived at a short, steep dirt hill, where I sometimes do repeats. I thought, “No, no, no.” Vivienne said, “Oh yes.” I tried to negotiate, “Okay, but just three.” Vivienne said, “Do the full five.” Five is my usual. I did them. Vivienne’s concession in our semi-détente was to allow me to skip the plyometric jumps I do at the end of runs. Mainly, because I’d almost whiffed a jump on my last run (from tiredness). The hill repeats inside of an 8.5-mile run were enough to satisfy Vivienne’s performance standards for me that day. Almost … there was still the Peloton ride.  

The post-run ride is a new routine I’ve developed since acquiring the Peloton in December; big help reducing how stiff and sore my legs are after a run. You know that feeling when you get up from your desk chair and your legs feel cramped up and six inches shorter? I don’t get that feeling nearly as much since I started the new routine.

Vivienne and I both agreed that I should not skip the ride, my protection against the creaky feeling. But … I couldn’t muster the minimum 10-minutes I usually ride post-run. I opted for a 5-minute cool-down ride. More, I did not even start at the minimum (yet elevated) resistance level recommended. Vivienne was unimpressed by my output (output is an actualnumber on the Peloton bike). Our truce was cracking. I was trying to convince her that hey-you-got-on-the-bike-and-that’s-what-counts.   

After all, a couple months ago I wrote here about the importance of counting the 5-minute Peloton rides, because they are essential to our recovery. This day, my breezy confidence about their worthiness was put to the test. When my ride ended, all the statistics shot up on the right side of the screen, as they always do. This was not a day I wanted to see them. But, before I could swipe them away without looking, I saw it. The badge. Congratulations on 100 rides, Mina. As if to say, “Put your money where your mouth is (or more precisely where your pen was two months ago on this blog)! Not only do the 5-minute rides count. You hit your first big milestone on one.”

Other riders on Peloton organize themselves in advance to make sure they do a milestone ride live, on the hopes of a shout-out from the instructor. Still others plan around hitting a milestone live and on their birthday. But me, I don’t even know the milestone is coming, because I’m not keeping track. And when it does, it lands on the least significant ride I’ve done to date (in terms of effort). It sure felt like the universe was having a laugh, as if to say, “Hi Mina, this is The Karmic Coincidence Squad, remember when you said the 5-minute rides count? Indeed, let the ride be counted!”

Back in April, I wrote that our 5-minute rides are as important as the longer, grittier rides. Perhaps more so. Because they are a gift to ourselves. So, my gift to myself with this 5-minutes was ease. Offering grace to my legs and spirit, on a day I needed some. That is milestone worthy.

But maybe the universe was also telling me to take a closer look at how I’d gotten so far out of balance that a 5-minute ride was maximally taxing. Why am I so physically tired? I haven’t been doing significantly more than usual. In theory, I’ve been running shorter distances and making up the miles with between 10-20 minutes on the Peloton, after my runs. But am I actually running less than I would? And is the effort on the bike equivalent to the effort of running an extra mile or two? Plus, I should note the pre-Pilates spins that I’ve added in, too (which are meant to replace the casual bike ride to and from the studio in pre-pandemic times). Also, often those spinning minutes are intervals, even high intensity intervals. Maybe all those 10-20-minute tag-alongs are wearing me down?

I wrote that last sentence the next day after the milestone. As I watched the words unfurl on the page, the reality settled into my body. I’ve had 5 days now to process the message. A short spin may reduce soreness, but it does not, unfortunately, reduce tiredness. My tag-along spins may be contributing to my depletion. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest. But sometimes we just need rest. It’s time to re-evaluate my routine, it might have lost its balance.

A small bird balanced between two flower stalks, holding on with its toes. I love that one of the flowers is blown out and missing its petals and the other still has its petals–that felt right for illustrating the balance between effort and ease. KT on Unsplash

The fulcrum between effort and ease is constantly changing. Navigating a course through those uncertain waters is a dynamic, evolving practice. Hitting that milestone as I slid off the bike in a state of wet-noodledom after 5-minutes woke me up to that fact. Again.

In the past 5 days, in addition to taking it extra easy on my rest day, I scaled back on the intervals and opted for a couple of slower, steadier rides over the rainy long weekend. After my run two days ago, I spent the time I would have been spinning, stretching instead. And this morning, I hit a personal best on my ride. That felt like the universe offering me a quick reward to reinforce the message.

Recalibrate often. More ease can enable more effort.

Now the trick is to apply that to my whole life.

habits · mindfulness · self care

The Art of Flouranguishing: How Time and Space Help Me Feel Better

Flouranguishing: the state of simultaneously flourishing and languishing (see also: being human)

Recently a number of my friends circulated an article about the blah many of us currently feel as COVID drags on. The author named the sensation as languishing. Even as we get vaccinated, so much still seems risky or is outright closed off to us. We aren’t quite depressed, but we aren’t quite happy. We are in the doldrums. Sigh. Some days I languish more than others. Yesterday, for example, halfway through breakfast, out of the blue, I was afflicted with a deep sense of oh-what’s-the-point. As the day progressed, I started to perk up, but I could still feel the layer of languish in the background.

Because, generally, despite all during this pandemic, I feel like I’m flourishing (about which I feel some guilt and self-consciousness and even shame—because, how dare I flourish during these dark times, doesn’t that just indicate I’m an entitled, selfish so-and-so?).

The pandemic’s Zoomification of our world made it possible for me to start training toward a certification in Non-Violent Communication (maybe … I’m not 100% committed to the certification process yet, as I write this the sign-up page for the next phase is open in my browser).. NVC then led me to some Internal Family Systems training. I have discovered new ways of working and being. I’m exhilarated every time I uncover yet more ways in which NVC and IFS connect into and inform the work I was already doing (workshops on emotional intelligence, among other things). Athena Casey recently interviewed me for The Intolerance Podcast, which gave me a great chance to synthesize this understanding for myself. Talking with her got me excited all over again about this path I’m on.

Except … for the days when I wonder why I thought it was a good idea to add in a whole different discipline at well into my fifties; and further wonder whether all this curiosity can actually lead where I want it to lead, or whether I’m just an eternal dilettante, destined to pedal as hard as I can, but never go anywhere, a stationary bike I can’t get off. Uh oh. Languishing again.

Then, I perk up. Again. A friend recently mentioned that when we are low about the future, it is helpful to simply change the time horizon. That is certainly true for me. When I look forward a year or further, I can see where I’d like to be, but not how to get there. That’s a languisher, for sure. But when I shorten the time horizon to, say, the next two days, I’m looking at a 2.5-day NVC workshop on gratitude and I know it’s going to be fantastic and I’m going to love it. That’s a flourisher.

Back and forth. Again.

Oh, and that’s not all. There has been other flourishing, too. In response to the languishing article, another friend sent a piece about flourishing during the pandemic, which pointed out a bunch of ways we might discover new richness in our lives these past months. One was connecting with friends and family in a different rhythm. Well, that’s happened for me, too. Pre-pandemic, I was in regular communication with my mother via text, but we virtually never talked on the phone. I’m a phone-o-phobic, so I’ve never been good about calling. Now? –we are having long Zoom confabs twice a month. Sometimes my two brothers join, one of my sisters-in-law and some nieces and nephews. We’ll have New York, Calgary, London (Ontario) and the other London (UK) all together. I’m also zooming with friends in other cities and countries, with whom I was only sketchily in touch before. An IRL friend recently asked me why I was still doing friend-zooms. Why would I stop? I’ve made space for them in my life. Why would I want to diminish the joys of being more in touch with geographically distant friends?

Because, it turns out we can use space, just as we used time, to alchemize some flourish out of languish. Here’s a Zen story:

A student of Zen came to their teacher and asked her how they could learn to feel less frustrated and angry and sad and disappointed. They wanted to know how to calm their pervasive anxiety and sometime depression. The Zen teacher asked the student to bring her a teaspoon of salt. When the student came back, the teacher presented the student with a beautiful, clear glass of water and asked them to mix the salt into the water and drink.

“Pthaugh. Yuck,” the student said, spitting out the salty water. “How is that going to help me?”

The teacher then invited the student to get another teaspoon of salt and meet her down at the lake. At the lakeshore, the teacher asked the student to mix the spoonful of salt into the lake, then fill their glass with the lake water and drink it (this is the land of Zen myth, the lakes are unpolluted, pure and potable).

“Aah. Delicious,” the student said. “But … ??”

“Your mind is a glass of water. Now, make it a lake.” 

I already mentioned how we can change time to our advantage. Well, it turns out we can fiddle with space, too. Gratitude, for example, is a huge space maker. For me, if I can make my mind a lake, I make room to access the flourish-nutrients available just from noticing what is going well and being grateful. I’ve stayed healthy, so far. I have continued to run and mountain bike and ski and spin and Pilates and, and … The spring cherry blossoms were fat and fabulous this year. My partner and I celebrated 27 years together.    

Flouranguishing is the art of being present to our humanness. We are rarely all one thing. And we are certainly not a duality either. We do not languish OR flourish. We are rarely (if ever) experiencing one single emotion, one unique condition of being. We live in a soup of simultaneous states. How we use time and space determines which ingredients dominate.

Here’s the constant that I’m trying to work with right now. I have the power to choose what flavours I focus on in the soup. Languishing may feel like it is imposed on me from the outside, due to circumstances beyond my control (the pandemic, the inherent uncertainty of the future). Yet, I can still make the choice to focus my attention on what’s flourishing. As hard as it may seem at times, I want to be present with what is good, right now. To be grateful, even and especially for the smallest things. To engage with life. None of this is to say that I’m pushing the languish away, or compartmentalizing. No. I recognize and even honour the languish. At the same time, I set the intention to notice the flourish.

Running this morning, my body was so tired. I heard out the part of me who was exasperated with my exhaustion. In fact, there was a pretty extended discussion between the various voices in my head about whether I should cut my run short. But then I picked my eyes up off the pavement and noticed what a beautiful morning it was, how good the air felt on my skin and remembered that the only measure of success that mattered today on my run was pleasure. So, when the option to abridge my route came up, I ran right past. I wanted to stay with the trees in all their fresh green. And, when I made that choice, my body suddenly felt more ease, the run more fluid.

Another day, the choice to shorten my run will be the one that resonates for my body and grants ease. My work is to listen for when a decision is about languishing and when about flourishing. With time and space at my disposal, I have powerful tools to support my intention to savor the flavour of flourish.