Wholeheartedness practice — and a book for you

Last week, I wrote about wholeheartedness, a word that truly seemed to pick me, rather than the other way around, for 2012. On New Year’s Day, my last morning at Kripalu, having accepted my word, I decided that I would simply allow myself to live into it.

Moment by moment, I would try to do the loving thing, whatever that might be. Instead of second guessing myself, worrying about what might happen next, or trying to come off a certain way, I would set my foot down firmly on the side of love over fear. And so, at the risk of being the one who loves more, I sat down and wrote a note to a friend, just to say, “you are important to me.” At the risk of being silly, I emailed my husband to tell him I love him, as much when we’re apart as when we’re together. At the risk of seeming mushy, I let my son Henry know how much it meant to me that he was willing to spend the New Year’s weekend eating brown rice and doing yoga with his mom, instead of hanging out with his friends.

Back at home, I made dinner for the family, lit the candles, held my kids’ hands as we said grace together, and, at the risk of appearing vulnerable, allowed my full heart to overflow. The next morning, Henry and Steve left early for the airport and Henry’s flight back to Minnesota, and I went hiking, arriving at the top of Pack Monadnock in time to watch the sun come up. Standing there alone on the top of a wind-whipped mountain at dawn, overcome by a sense of awe at the vastness and beauty of this world, I also realized that I felt more connected to myself than I have in a long while, a little more at ease in my skin and a little more accepting of the raw intensity of my own emotions.

“Wholehearted,” it seemed, wasn’t really a resolution I had to keep. In fact, it felt more like a choice, one I could make moment to moment, a way of inhabiting my life that feels akin to faith. Faith that life is already good, faith that I already have what I need, faith that I’m enough as I am, faith that things are just fine as they are, and faith that, no matter what the circumstance and even when I don’t have a clue what to do, the loving thing is always my best bet. What a relief. And what a revelation. I kind of thought I’d just invented a whole new concept: Wholeheartedness!

I went home and had breakfast with my son Jack, and then I sat down to write a blog about Wholeheartedness. Within a few hours of posting it, as I read through the thoughtful, generous comments on this site and on Facebook, I learned, of course, that there is already an entire Wholehearted Living movement afoot — and that I’m just one more latecomer to the wholehearted conversation.

No matter. I am happy to be here, thrilled to jump in and learn more, to share what I discover, and to encourage you, too, in the words of Wholeheartedness pioneer Brene Brown, to “let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.”

I have just finished reading Brene’s wonderful book, “The Gifts of Imperfection” and can’t recommend it highly enough. My own copy is full of folded pages and underlined passages.

A passage about courage particularly resonates with me. The root of “courage” is cor, Latin for “heart.” And in one of its earliest forms the word “courage” meant something very different than it does today. Courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling one’s whole heart.” This, I realize, is what is required of all writers. It’s how I want to live. It’s how I want to be in relationship with the people I love. And, well, speaking and writing honestly about who we really are and what we’re really feeling is scary stuff. “Ordinary courage,” Brene suggests, “is about putting our vulnerability on the line.”

Brene’s TED talk on vulnerability and worthiness was one of the top ten TED talks of 2011. Pour yourself a cup of tea, treat yourself to a twenty-minute break, and give it your wholehearted attention. And make sure to visit her terrific blog, Ordinary Courage, where, as it turns out, she writes this week about the word that found her for 2012.

Elisabeth Lesser’s book “Broken Open” is a wholehearted manual for living through difficult times. Given to me by a dear friend two years ago, when I was going through a difficult time of my own, it has remained my go-to book when I need to be reminded that every challenge I face makes me stronger, that suffering enlarges my heart, that a “whole” life includes both light and dark, joy and sorrow, emptiness and fullness. “So often,” Lesser writes, we “tune out the call of the soul. Perhaps we fear what the soul would have to say about choices we have made, habits we have formed, and decisions we are avoiding. Perhaps if we quieted down and asked the soul for direction, we would be moved to make a big change. Maybe that wild river of energy, with its longing for joy and freedom, would capsize our more prudent plans, our ambitions, our very survival. Why should we trust something as indeterminate as a soul? And so we shut down.”

As I struggle to write a book I feel uncertain about, agree to speaking engagements that make my knees shake despite being months away, and wonder what, exactly, my nearly grown children still need from me and how to give it to them, I remind myself that nothing really needs to be as complicated as I make it. I don’t have to change who I am, I simply have to be who I am. I can tune in to the call of my soul. I can live wholeheartedly. I can embrace the gift of imperfection. I can do the loving thing and trust that love really is enough.

I am seriously thinking about creating a Wholehearted Playlist; when I do, I’ll share it. Meanwhile, here’s the song I’ve played a couple of times every single day since January 1, just to remind me of who I really am – and of how a really great song can set the tone for an entire day. Have a listen to Girish’s “Diamonds in the Sun,” definitely my song for 2012.

02 Diamonds In the Sun

What piece of music says “wholehearted” to you? Leave a comment here – or, better yet, a suggestion for the Wholehearted Playlist — and you may win a copy of Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection.” I would love to share her work with all of you, but since I can’t do that, I’ll choose two names at random after midnight on January 16 to receive the books.

Here’s to singing our song in this new year, wholeheartedly!

Wholeheartedness

,“Wholeheartedness.” It’s a mouthful. It’s also the word that has been ricocheting around in my thoughts for a week. The word I keep coming back to when I imagine who I want to be and how I want to live. The word that is surely the antidote for the devouring self-doubt that’s lately been haunting my days and keeping me awake at night. What I suffer with in the darkness is this: My best efforts aren’t enough. I don’t have what it takes to be the mother my two sons need, the wife my husband desires, the friend my own friends deserve, the writer I want to be, the woman I still hope to become.

And in moments of light, when I can quiet the voice in my head long enough to listen to what my soul is trying to tell me, I hear this: It is okay to stumble. You are allowed to fail. Doubt your doubts. (Because in fact you are okay just as you are.) Know that you are worthy of your joy and strong enough to survive your pain. Wholeheartedness is what you’re here for.

I know that’s all true. It’s just that lately, I feel depleted, half-hearted, out of ideas and out of confidence. Not even quite up to the job of being me.

I packed quickly to go to Kripalu for the weekend; there wouldn’t be time for much besides the yoga workshop Henry and I were doing together, but I stopped by my bookshelf on the way out the door and threw a couple of books into my bag anyway, almost at random. And then I kissed Steve and Jack good-bye, climbed into the car with Henry and, for the first time ever, our family split up for New Year’s Eve.

Kripalu turned out to be a good place to usher in 2012. Many hours of yoga with my beloved, first-ever yoga teacher, Rolf Gates. A walk by the lake, particularly tasty kale for dinner, a long silent meditation at midnight, time to reflect on the year past and the one to come, deep sleep, early rising.

I loved the sense of belonging that washes over me as soon as I set foot through the door of Kripalu. I loved being in the very room this weekend that my month-long teacher training was held in last winter; the memories were fresh in my mind, the faces of my classmates easy to conjure. I loved not having to think about what to wear, or what to cook, or what to do at midnight, or how many glasses of champagne I should have. I loved having time in solitude and I loved meeting, at long last, my dear on-line friend Pamela, whose gorgeously written blog Walking on My Hands is one of the few I read religiously. And I especially loved it that my twenty-two year old son was so open and willing to sign on for the ride, to give yoga and meditation a try, to experience firsthand this place that’s come to mean so much to me, and even to spend a weekend as my room mate. I know he did it for me, and his presence at my side was a gift. Henry may be a beginner on the mat, but he is a yogi in spirit.

(My husband Steve was happy to be home alone on New Year’s eve, which is what he prefers anyway, and I’m sure Jack was quite relieved I wasn’t around to tell him to “make good choices” or offer up some other motherly platitudes as he headed out the door to spend the night with his friends.)

Very early yesterday morning, I sat down with one of the books I’d brought along, an odd little volume that’s been sitting, unread, on my shelf for a long time. A brief, unlikely meditation on unencumbered living, “Journeys of Simplicity” is essentially a collection of lists about traveling light: what Thoreau took to Walden Pond, what an 85 year old hermit needed to survive, what an anonymous Celtic woman prayed for a hundred years ago.

My book fell open to page 39, “Raymond Carver’s errand list.” According to Carver’s partner and companion, poet Tess Gallagher, he always lived according to what she calls Carver’s law. It was his practice, she says, “not to save up things for some longed-for future, but to use up the best that was in him each day and to trust that more would come.”

Even as he was dying of cancer at age fifty, Carver continued to write and plan and hope. Just after his death, she found this to-do list in his pocket:

Eggs
peanut butter
hot choc

Australia?

Antarctica??

Hope. Wholeheartedness. Ordinariness. How beautifully these three qualities intertwine in our best, most essential expressions of our humanity. To live is to hope. To live wholeheartedly is to trust that there is always more to come, to believe in the rightness of things as they are, to drink hot chocolate and dream of far-off continents even as you confront the loss of everything you love. It was not lost on me that someone else’s final, heartfelt errand list was the very first thing I laid eyes on as the first day of this new year dawned. The message from the universe seemed pretty clear: live fully, live here, live now. Wholeheartedly.

After two days of meditation and challenging yoga practice I was tired, a little sore, and more than a little raw when our last session began. As we moved through our final series of poses, I could feel the tears gathering behind my eyes, ready to spill. “You know,” Rolf suggested, as we eased down into child pose, resting foreheads to mats, coming into stillness, “it is okay to be vulnerable. In fact a willingness to feel our feelings completely, to show our vulnerability, to acknowledge our own tenderness and confusion, is really what living wholeheartedly is all about. To be wholehearted is to be vulnerable.”

And then, at that moment, a pair of knowing hands pressed down upon my back, smoothed along my spine, and rested there for a long, full minute. An assist in child pose, yes. But also, I’m pretty sure, some cosmic, loving gesture made on my behalf, just to make sure that the mail really was getting delivered: “wholeheartedness.”

The tears I’d been fighting off all weekend came then, tears of surrender and grace and relief. I didn’t have to make a new year’s resolution I couldn’t keep, or choose a word to try to live up to. The word I needed found me, hovered for a while, and landed. What better time than right now, the dawn of this new year, to give up my own unnecessary suffering, suffering that is all about believing I need to be someone other than who I am?

And so, gently and with great love, I say to myself – and to you, too – as we step into 2012: “Live wholeheartedly. Know that your vulnerability means that you’re alive. Remember who you really are. Use up the best that’s in you each day, and trust that it’s enough.”

Yesterday, on a gray, colorless January 1, this rose was a singular spot of color. Someone had placed it on an altar in the woods, and there it lay – exposed, vulnerable to the elements, yet, bravely, pinkly, wholeheartedly being itself, a rose in winter. May we, too, bloom with wholeheartedness in this new year.

Do you have a word that is your touchstone? Does the idea of “wholeheartedness” resonate with you? I would love to know!

Courage

Toward the end of my month of yoga teacher training at Kripalu last spring, each person in my class was handed a sheet of paper and a pen and asked to write the words “What I want to tell you is. . .”

The assignment, then, was to write a letter, a letter from the radiant, wide-open, yoga-saturated, heart-full self of that moment to some beleaguered, tired and doubting future self who might one day be in need of a little bucking up.

These letters, we were assured, would arrive in our mailboxes at the right time.

There were so many wild and wonderful and out-of-the- box experiences crammed into those thirty intense days of teacher training that I didn’t even remember writing a letter to myself. When a hand-addressed envelope arrived in my mailbox a week ago, I didn’t recognize the writing, which was much lovelier than my typical, hasty, printing-cursive hybrid. It seemed odd that the return address was my own. I sat down outside and read words that I had no memory of putting to paper. It felt as if I’d suddenly heard from my own best friend from long ago, a soul mate whose memory I cherish but who I haven’t seen or even thought about for a long time. To get a letter from her, out of the blue, was an unexpected gift. To realize that this distant, nearly forgotten person seemed to know exactly how I’d been feeling lately, and could say just what I needed to hear was like having an unspoken prayer answered.

“When it’s a choice between love and fear,” my wiser self told my struggling self, “choose love.” Tears rolled down my cheeks. Sometimes, when things are really hard and scary and not the way I want them to be at all, choosing love over fear seems crazy and impossible. But of course, love really is the only good choice. It’s just that choosing it can sometimes require so much more courage than I think I have.

In two days, both of my sons will head back to school. At our house right now, the bedrooms look like they’ve been ransacked, full of clothes and twisted bedding and backpacks and shoes and notebooks. (Both boys claim that what’s going on up there is a “deep clean”; to me it looks more like a deep shuffle.) The TV is tuned to the U.S. Open. The kitchen has been turned into Poster Rolling Central — Jack is working for his dad, earning money by stuffing hundreds of posters into mailing tubes. Steve is affixing labels. Henry is deleting two thousand songs from his iPod. The washing machine is running nonstop. The food is getting eaten as fast as I can cook it. As I sit here typing on the porch, I can hear the three guys laughing in the other room, commenting on the tennis, enjoying this last full day of summer vacation. Tonight we’ll go out for our ritual meal at Chili’s (democracy prevails on this front; alas, the vote for Chili’s is always 3 to 1) and to see the new Steve Carrell movie. It’s all good.

Except for the moments in the past week that have been awful. The ones that have pushed me to the outer limits of my abilities as a parent. There have been some of those, too. If you’ve ever shared your life with teenagers, you can easily supply your own details. And you probably also know that giving an adolescent the space he/she needs in order to grow up is as necessary as it is risky. Kids make mistakes, and our job as parents is to step back and allow them to fall, and then to make sure, too, that they actually learn what it’s like to hit the ground.

“I feel completely lost,” my son Jack said to me the other afternoon. I knew what he meant. The truth was, I was feeling pretty lost myself. But then I suddenly realized that I did have something to offer him. “You know,” I said, “you don’t have to figure everything out now. All you need to do is make the next good choice for this moment. You can certainly do that.” And then I left him there to figure it out. I put on my sneakers and went out for a run.

Choosing fear would have kept me in my chair, talking, trying to repair the damage and make things right for him. Choosing love means allowing him to own the struggle that rightfully belongs to him. It means having faith that this, too, shall pass.

“Parenting requires courage,” my friend Bruce wrote in a profoundly affecting essay this week. “Courage to set limits and bear anger; courage to let go and tolerate fear that our kids may come to harm; courage to trust that we and our children are enough.”

That pretty much says everything I want to hold on to during these final days of summer. I could pray for all sorts of things as my children make their way out into the world, but I doubt that even my most fervent appeals for their safety, health, and well-being would do a single bit of good. Those pleas are born of fear, of my own sense of helplessness in the face of dangers and environments and situations that aren’t mine to control. And so, I pray instead for the only thing I can really hope for: courage. Because courage, of course, is love in the face of fear. Somehow, after a month of yoga and meditation, a soft, vulnerable part of me knew that very well. Back in the world, faced with problems I can’t solve and children I can’t protect, I forgot.

Put two parents and two nearly grown young men in a house together at the end of a long summer, and it’s probably inevitable that everyone involved will do or say something that they will later regret. On this peaceful, companionable Sunday morning, I can now cut us all that much slack. The good news is: choosing love over fear brings us back to one another. And as soon as we stop feeling afraid of the dark, we are free to enjoy the simple pleasures of a few moments of light. As Bruce writes, “To fully feel fear, and then manage it, quell it, contextualize it, rise above it . . . now we’re talking courage.”

Yes.

A small gift from the sea

It’s a long way — in both miles and mindset — from the silent morning sadhana at Kripalu to my parents’ house in Florida, where my family convenes each March for our sons’ spring break.  By the time I arrived last Saturday night, fresh from my month of yoga immersion, Steve and Jack were already here and in full vacation mode — tennis, hot tub, read, swim, more tennis.  Henry’s plane landed an hour after mine, and then, for a couple of perfect, too-short days, we were all here, making meals, reading our books, playing Scrabble, hanging out with my mom and dad, and catching up in person for the first time since early February.

As usual, we found ourselves crowded into a booth at Chili’s.  Henry ordered a (legal) Margarita; the kids (I still call them that), in deference to me, agreed to vegetarian nachos; and we began to wax nostalgic, recalling the days when the annual visit with the grandparents also included Steve’s folks, as well as stops at every mom-and-pop variety store (in search of the newest packs of baseball cards), shell collecting at the beach, Little Rascals video marathons, mini-golf, and Peanut Buster Parfaits at the DQ.  The memories gave rise to lots of laughs, and I said something about how great it felt, how special it was, to have us all gathered here together. The boys reminded me that I say that exact same thing every single time we are together.  I suppose I do.  These days, when the four of us actually land in the same place at the same time it does feel like an occasion — always too short, always bittersweet, always special.

Monday we drove Jack across the state to meet up with his school tennis team for a bit of pre-season training, and this morning we dropped Henry off at the airport at 6:30 am for his flight back to college.  It was still dark when we pulled up to the curb, the remnant half of the fattest, closest moon on record lingering in the sky.  I watched my older son push through the revolving door and disappear into the bright terminal and felt a similar revolving effect in my own stomach, as the easy togetherness of these last few days was suddenly displaced by a wave of sadness.  It still gets me, just how alone alone feels every time we say good-bye to our sons.

With one more day here before our own flight home, Steve and I drove down the empty highway and up and over the long bridge to Sanibel, where we used to spend at least part of each winter vacation when our boys were little.  It’s been years since we’ve been back, but as we walked along the familiar stretch of beach and watched a new generation of young sand-castle-builders hard at work, every step seemed to give rise to a memory.

I’ve just spent a month practicing being fully present, and yet strolling along the water’s edge this morning I seemed utterly incapable of simply being in the moment.  Sanderlings scurried along at our feet.  The sun rose higher in the sky, the water was perfect, the beach filling with families and sunbathers and shell collectors, all intent on milking their varied pleasures from the day.

And I found myself fighting back tears, trying way too hard to savor a lovely walk with my husband while, at the same time, overcome with a swirl of emotions — missing my sons, missing the life we used to lead together, missing their vanished childhoods and our own younger, more innocent parenting selves.  How clearly I remember every bathing suit they ever owned; the big, cheap beach towels with hoods in the corners that could completely envelop a small, shivering boy; the bright, indestructible toys we stored at my mom’s house and hauled out year after year; the small, irresistible  plastic shark Jack once “borrowed” from another little kid and failed to return, and his tearful confession at the end of the day when his guilty conscience got the better of him; the smell of suntan lotion slathered onto a small bony back; the taste of gritty cheese crackers and warm iced tea; the scrim of sand in the rental car; the bags of prized shells ripening and stinking in the back seat as we headed back down the causeway, windows open wide. . . .

Steve and I walked side by side, mostly in silence, for a mile or so, waves lapping at our feet, and then we turned around and made our way back.  I stooped and picked up a pale gray piece of a shell, broken, unidentifiable, but worn smooth as satin to the touch.  Somehow it seemed like the right one to slip into my pocket at the end of this less-than-wonderful morning, a battered fragment, far from perfect, yet weathered and beautiful in its own right.

There is an abbreviation known to everyone at Kripalu:  BRFWA.  It stands for Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.  In yoga class, this is a fine way to move into and out of poses, slowly and with awareness and compassion.  I think it is probably a pretty effective strategy for negotiating the inevitable ups and downs of everyday life as well.  I’ve been worried about how I can possibly incorporate all the learning of the last month back into my “real” life, how I can assimilate some of the changes I cultivated in class and turn them into new ways of being, even when I’m not on a yoga mat.  It was so easy to stay calm and centered while ensconced in “the bubble” of Kripalu, where all I had to do was show up and be myself in a room full of like-minded, equally dedicated souls.  But it’s so much more challenging to bring my “yoga self” back home and layer her onto my “mom self,” that self who seems at times to be comprised of equal parts of nostalgia for what’s over, worry about what might yet come to be, and yearning for the physical presence of grown children whose lives have (quite rightly) carried them away from home.

Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.  I wish I’d remembered these simple words at the beach this morning.  They might have given me a little more room to simply experience all my swirling feelings, without so much recrimination and self-judgment.  I might have allowed the sweet memories to wash through me rather than wishing for what can’t be.  I might have  allowed my tears to fall and then I might have taken a few deep breaths and allowed the sea air to dry my cheeks.  I might have held my husband’s hand and shared my feelings with him, and  allowed him to comfort me a little, instead of trudging along in silence as I did, convinced that I should somehow be doing a “better” job of walking on the beach.

So. Transformation doesn’t happen overnight after all, or even in a month.  And good-byes are always hard.  In the meantime, though, I will remind myself:  Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.

 

Teacher Training

“Love is not far away; it is as close as your heart.  You can find it there without walking a single step.” — Swami Kripalu

I wasn’t really sure what I hoped to learn during a month-long, 200-hour yoga teacher training at the Kripalu Center, nor was I sure, when I left home just four weeks ago, whether my fifty-two year old body was up to the challenges ahead.  Three to eight hours of yoga a day sounded like a lot.  Having gotten through four years of college without a room mate, I was about to bunk with five complete strangers in a small room — would I ever get a good night’s sleep?  I’d been warned by a recent graduate that the program was “intense,”  and I worried about what that might mean.  “Intense” as in physically demanding? I asked her.  “Intense” as in emotionally wrenching?  “Intense” because morning sadhana would begin at 6:30 am every single day, follwed by hours of lecture and posture clinics, another yoga class at 4:15, and a program that continued right through till 9 at night?

I noticed that my friend wasn’t really answering any of those questions to my satisfaction; her advice consisted of things like:  dress in layers for class, have a notebook for anatomy, bring flip flops for the shower, don’t make any plans for the so-called “day off,” as you’ll need that time to study and do laundry and catch up on the reading.  I wrote all of this down on a piece of paper, in the innocent hope that with the right packing list and a few words of wisdom from one who’d survived the course, I would be prepared.

Less than five minutes after my friend and I had parted on that winter afternoon that now feels like a lifetime ago, my cell phone rang.  “Just remember this,” she said when I answered, “it’s all about love.”

It will take a while, I think, for me to fully understand what the last month has meant, how this full immersion into a 200-hour certification program was in fact only superficially about learning the proper alignment for Warrior I pose and much more about what it means to bring one’s self into alignment — both on and off the yoga mat.  Of course, aligning the breath with the movement, or the knee with the ankle, is the easy part.  What the last month has taught me is that my real practice — of life, of yoga, of being human  — comes down to commitment.  It seems that growing up, even at my age, is all about making the commitment, again and again and again, to bring my outer persona into alignment with my inner truth, my words into alignment with my deeds, my thoughts into alignment with my actions, my deepest values into alignment with my smallest choices, my heart into alignment with my mind, until what I do and how I live is a reflection of who I truly am.  I’m beginning to think that what I’ve just experienced was in fact a profoundly transformational course in how to live more skillfully, very well disguised as a first-rate yoga teacher training.

It also happened to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for sixty-three randomly self-selected people of all ages and sizes and backgrounds to live and work and sleep and eat together every day for a month.  As a group, and individually, we had to make a decision to trust the process, and then, under the guidance of our two very amazing teachers, we  began to open up our hearts to one another, to open them just as wide as they would go.  The only thing we had to lose, it turned out, was our sense of separateness, our well-defended images of who we already were.  And what we had to gain, simply by being fully present, was a glimpse of our own true selves: lovable, vulnerable, imperfect, human.

There were many amazing moments.  Two days after a graduation ceremony that is already fading in my memory into a blur of tears, music, candlelight, ringing bells, rice and rose petals, whispered words of appreciation and encouragement from my classmates, an orange smear of  blessed oil placed reverently upon my forehead and a certificate of completion pressed into my hands, I remember one moment of the month above all others.

It was the second night, a candle-lit ceremony in which we students were to be presented with our own mala beads and then guided through our first extended exercise in meditation.  Our teacher placed the string of carved rosewood beads into my open palm and looked into my eyes as he said the Sanskrit words “Om Namo Bhagavade Vasudevayah,” which translates loosely into “thy will be done.”  Something deep inside me simply cracked open under that unwavering, unguarded, utterly loving gaze.  I looked back at him, my own eyes full of tears, and knew suddenly exactly what it was that I had come here to learn:  to be able to look into the eyes of another human being with such compassion, such acceptance, such unconditional tenderness and devotion.  I closed my fingers around the smooth strand of beads.  My education had begun.