As some of you know, I was on a personal retreat the month of January. I took this time to deepen my own connection to my body and mind, through the practice of meditation, Alexander Technique based movement explorations, walks in nature, reading, writing and drawing. I am so grateful to have had this time alone to self reflect and to digest the fullness of this life with all of its wonders and complexities, which include great joy and great sorrow. I am excited to share with my students, through our work together, some of the insights I have gained from my own practice and study. But what have I honestly gained, and what has been the purpose of this retreat time? What is the point of mindfulness based practices, if they do not serve change us for the better? It may be that the difference lies in our intention. Is our intention in taking time away to check in or to check out?
If I gain something by slowing down, taking a break from the busyness of my life, but then loose this sense of calm and well being as I re-enter the larger world that includes work, family, community, and the ongoing upheavals and events of the world, then really my retreat has been more of a time of checking out and disconnecting from my heart and mind, rather than one of checking in. But, what if I do I experience a shift -- this feeling of letting go of some of the attitudes and ways of being that have kept me spinning in a cycle of "dis-Ease" or "dis-Contentment", how do I keep practicing outside of retreat?
This question is one posed regularly by my students: How do I link my practice to my life? But, I believe there is an even deeper question that comes from such work on oneself; How do I keep my heart and mind open and not start shutting down when life presents its challenges?
The answers becomes stored within the treasure box of the self-awareness that is created during time spent observing one's thoughts, without distraction, be it sitting in stillness on a meditation cushion, in nature upon a rock, or in a movement practice such as the Alexander Technique. I know from my own practice that when I relax enough to experience the energy of my mind and learn to make space for myself to feel what I feel, my body naturally relaxes. When I stop fighting the energy of my thoughts that include many emotions and sensations, my body relaxes and begins to come into alignment, naturally. This experience is truly a wonderful thing.
When my mind and body are relaxed, my heart naturally opens, and "softens". In this place of ease, there is so much possibility for growth to happen. Instead of resisting or rejecting my experiences, I move into a place of wonderment; my attitude becomes one of "let's see what will happen", rather than one of my personal agenda that contains a lot of hope and fear of "what will happen...". This is not a lazy, giving-up, "who cares" kind of attitude. Instead, it is one that comes from of great sense of being centered and aligned--a relaxed readiness, poised for anything that "can" happen and "will" happen. I kinesthetically feel this as a powerful realignment of the bones and muscles in my body.
I cannot and do not separate my practice of meditation and my practice of the Alexander Technique. They are both practices of aligning the body and mind. Both are practices that teach us to notice how powerful our thoughts are and how our thinking effects how we feel and how we function. Both practices ask us to wake up, to pay more attention, to notice the subtle energy of our thoughts and how our thoughts determine how we act, how we behave, how we interact with our world. When we are tight in our mind, it will show up as a tightness in our body. An inflexible mind will result in an inflexible body. I like to tell my students that what we want to aim for is a lengthened state of being, rather than one of contraction. Length before strength. But so often we only want strength. We push ourselves in so many ways, rarely questioning what is going on in our minds and the effect it is having on our bodies.
So what to do? How do we integrate the sense of spaciousness and well-being that we often experience while practicing meditation or in a session of the Alexander Technique ? How? By learning to practice what I call, “Pausing and Checking in”. In "pausing", I mean to literally stop doing whatever it is we are engaged in, if just for a moment, but long enough to create a little gap in our thinking. Then, "checking in"--meaning, taking a look inside and asking, "what is going on in my mind at this very moment? What is going on in my body this very moment? Am I breathing? Am I relaxed or tight? Am I thinking a negative thought about someone or something?".
When we pause like this, we are really practicing--linking our outer experience with our inner experience, while engaged in the activities of our lives. In those moments we are training ourselves to become more self-aware. When our self awareness grows, we begin to own our experience and with ownership comes the power to choose how we respond. I dare to suggest here, that the response that doesn't produce a negative effect on our well-being or another's, but allows us to relax, if just for a moment, is always the best response. Isn't this the point of practicing any body-mind discipline?
It may be that as a result of this last retreat, I am beginning to understand a bit more about myself and my habits. How astonishing it is that even after years of study and practice, I still fall prey to my habits of pushing myself in trying to get things done, or an attitude of “getting it over with” so I can get to the fun things, resisting the hard messy stuff of my life. But, one is never "done" so to speak, there is always more to do, so that kind of attitude causes an ongoing sense of tension, sometimes very subtle, but enough to keep me disturbed, rather than relaxed and joyful. Still, something seems to be working.
Through my efforts and my longing to "wake up" to the fullness of life, rather than remain in the habit of shutting down or checking out, so to speak, I am beginning to see that something in me is changing, some part of my practice is working. I am beginning to relax and enjoy my life. Not take it all so seriously, especially when I fail, so that I fall into some state of despair, but rather to see the potential in myself to be in a sane relationship with other people and with what so often appears as a very confusing world. How wonderful is that!
So hear are a few words of wisdom. But please, don't just take my word, test it for yourself and see if it isn't true:
No matter where you are and what you are doing, you can practice the art of pausing and checking in. Not just a teeny, tiny pause, but a pause long enough to cause you to come back to your body for a moment, to feel what you are feeling and to notice what your are thinking. If you do nothing but notice that you are breathing and standing on this earth and that in this very moment you do not have to do or change anything about yourself or something or someone, you will training yourself to relax. In learning the habit of relaxing completely in our minds and thus in our bodies, we gradually become free of the habit of thinking that there is always a problem that needs to be solved, that something needs fixing. We can learn to approach everything we do and everyone we meet with an attitude of patience, compassion, curiosity, and understanding.
When we learn to connect to the space and the ease within our body and our mind, we become what is referred to in Buddhism as "empty". In this "empty" space, we might experience in the core of our being the sense that we are fundamentally okay. That rather than feeling so overwhelmed by our lives that we need to contract, instead we find that there is more and more room to expand and include more of its richness. In time, through the practice of carrying our more quiet or solitary practices into the "practice of living" we discover that it is much more natural to allow every experience we encounter to touch us. That as human beings we are blessed with the ability to become self aware. That we have the ability to take hold of life and the great opportunity it is providing to us to wake up and connect deeply with one another. Then whatever we encounter on this path of LIFE with all of its whirlpool of experience, doesn't throw us off balance, because we have become as vast as the sky in body and mind, and whatever weather comes our way, it is just fine.
With so much love,