[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”14″ align=”left”]Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty, and then for three years he was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself. … Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone and today … I am within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that One Solitary Life. — James C. Hefley[/mk_blockquote]
I was 13 years old, sitting in Radio City Music Hall watching the Christmas Spectacular, when I first heard these words. They were read by a deep-voiced announcer during the show’s Living Nativity – complete with sheep, goats and camels. I wasn’t very religious at the time, though I did believe there was a God that made this world and all of us in it. I was a little lost, trying to find my place in a new world, having moved from my childhood home in Houston to New Canaan, CT just a few months prior to our New York City holiday adventure. Despite my young age and dazzled state at the spectacle unfolding before me, these words touched me deeply and stuck with me as few have since.
It was 22 years later when I next heard them. This time I was sitting in a pew at my new church’s Christmas Pageant. While this particular living nativity lacked camels, it did have sheep and goats. I had very recently felt drawn to explore my faith within a structured setting, but was still quite new to the whole “church thing.” Interestingly, I was again a little lost – this time trying to figure out who I was and what I was here for other than nursing babies and keeping house (or trying to). Again, despite the lovely scene unfolding before me, what touched my heart most profoundly were these words. As soon as the narrator began reading, I knew I’d heard them before. And I knew they held great meaning for me.
12 years later, just a few weeks ago in fact, without warning, echoes of these words started to bubble around in my head. I searched the internet endlessly trying to find the quote. Without knowing who wrote them or even how exactly the passage began or ended, this took some doing. But – finally – I found them again. My whoop of success when they popped up on my computer screen drew my husband and kids to my office. As I read them aloud, tears sprung to my eyes and goosebumps popped up on my skin. These are powerful words indeed.
“He had no credentials but himself.”
Whether you are Christian or not, whether you practice religion or just try your best to live a good life, the story told by these words can inspire you to stretch and grow into the person you were created to be. Even for a non-Christian, imagining that one man, who lived a rather small life in a very small town, could still be touching the world over 2000 years later because he was strong enough and brave enough and true enough to Just Be Himself is awe inspiring. His message – “In all that you do, love your God and love one another.” – is still with us today because he never once wavered from being fully, wholly, completely the man that he was created to be.
By being purely himself, he gave the world a gift we’re still receiving. While, they may be stars to his sun, I can think of others who have shined the lights of their selves remarkably brightly. Mahatma Ghandi. Mother Theresa. Maya Angelou. I’m sure you can add to the list. In fact, I’d love to know who springs to your mind. In other words, it is not impossible for someone just like you or me to make a huge difference in this world Just By Being Yourself.
If you’re anything like me, it can be something of a challenge to figure out who you are and what you’re here for. In fact, these are the questions asked by all seekers. And even those who have been blessed with answers will continue to ask – as asking these questions is truly the only way to ensure that you will continue to stretch into the person it is possible for you to be. Seekers (yes, if you’ve gotten this far into this essay, you are a seeker) find answers to these questions in many places and through many activities. Prayer. Meditation. Inspirational reading. Journaling. Poetry. Yoga. Activities that require us to set aside time to turn within, to listen to the nudges, pulls and even yearnings of our spirit.
After all, if we’re not listening, we can’t respond.
It is when we respond to our deepest yearnings – religious folks would say these are our callings – that we begin to live the lives we were meant to live. What if you were able to find work that utilized your natural gifts and talents? What if you were somehow able to find a way to apply these talents not only to make a good living for yourself but to the benefit of others? What if you made time in your life to pursue the things that make your heart sing? What if you were able to share these things with others? What if, somehow, by doing what you love and what you’re good at, you were able to meet one of the world’s needs?
I’ll answer these questions for you: You would be giving the world a tremendous gift – the gift of you. A fringe benefit is that this is a gift that you receive too. You will never be as contented and fulfilled, you will never be as happy, and you will never feel less lost as when you allow who you truly are to dictate how you live and what you do.
In this season of giving, remember that the very best gift you can give is the gift of You – your talents, your passions, your time, and your love. While you may feel too small, too remote, too insignificant to possibly make a difference, this is simply not true. Like the other bright lights that have come before you, your light is shining on the lives of everyone around you – those you know and love, those you just know and those you haven’t met yet.
Seek on and shine brightly.
For those of us who celebrate Christmas, December can feel like a race to the finish line. If we’re not careful, all the days leading up to the “Big Day” can run together in a blur of preparations, obligations and celebrations. I imagine this is what a race around a track must feel like – putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible while your surroundings (the railing of the track, shouting crowds in a stand, the officials table) fade from your focus as you speed past them. My brother, a competitive runner, used to tell me that he didn’t hear me cheering or see his friends waving frantically as he zipped by. All he was aware of – indeed all he could remember of the race – was his stride and staring at the runner in front of him who he was determined to pass.
To allow ourselves to fall into this mindset is a shame, for when we do so, we miss out on the moments of our life. Any time of anticipation – be it a birthday, a vacation, a move, the last day of school – carries a heightened risk for this to happen. A “finish line” can be a very distracting lure for our attention – especially one as glittery as Christmas Day. But missing out on December because we’re so focused on Christmas would be a pity, for as much as there is to get done, there is even more to be savored during these fast-paced weeks.
Enjoying each moment along the way isn’t always easy. Especially when there is as much to enjoy and as much to do as there is in December. I realized the other day that my time on my yoga mat actually gives me the chance to practice this. On this particular day, before I’d finished three sun salutations, I caught myself “planning ahead.” I realized I was considering which postures I could skip in order to get to my rest and onto my day (and my “To Do” list) faster. I was so distracted by the finish line of my practice that I wasn’t even feeling the movements and breaths that usually feel so good to me. I certainly wasn’t reaping any of yoga’s mental and spiritual benefits. Really, in that state, I might as well not have even been on my mat.
I actually stopped moving (right in the middle of a sun salutation!), stood still at the top of my mat, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. In that moment, my choice was clear. To go any further in such a state was a complete waste of time and energy. It was doing for doing’s sake. I needed to get it together or to pack it in. In my next breath, I’d not only made my choice to continue to move and breathe through my practice, but I’d chosen to move through December differently too – choosing either to give my all to each activity or choosing to skip it.
I wound up having a really special practice that morning. While I didn’t perform any amazing physical feats (my hamstrings weren’t especially loose nor my backbends especially bendy), I did manage to create some flexibility in the hardest “muscle” there is to stretch – my mind. By willfully returning my focus over and over again to each and every breath and each and every movement I took that morning, I was able to change my state of mind.
Without taking any shortcuts, I finished my practice and still had plenty of time to navigate the rest of my day. Better yet, the rest of my day didn’t feel like a race. Rather, it felt like my practice. I was able to enjoy doing each of the many things I had to do because I was giving each task – even the most mundane – my full attention. As I climbed into bed that night I knew I’d stumbled upon a gift that could ensure that I’d fully enjoy this hectic, harried, but oh-so-happy time of year rather than allowing it to blur past me as I speed toward the finish line.
While it’s not easy, the choice is mine – and yours – to make!
In the midst of shopping list writing, reservation making, card mailing, errand running, menu planning, party outfit deciding, house decorating, calendar sorting and cookie baking last weekend, I was given the gift of perspective. Because my son took part in a special program at our church called A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (a service of music and selected scripture designed to share the true meaning of Christmas), I found myself rather exhausted and entirely pleased to be sitting still in our pew rather than in our car dashing around town on Sunday evening.
As I listened to the readings and the beautifully performed carols that evening, a sense of clarity settled upon me. All of the “doing” – the making, the running, the planning, the mailing, the deciding, the decorating, the baking – that had, moments before, felt overwhelming, settled into their proper place. I felt a little like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch on Christmas morning as he looked down upon the Whos in Whoville singing in town square:
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”14″ align=”left”]And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?[/mk_blockquote]
“All of that doing is not the point at all,” I thought as I sat in my pew. “This is the point.” All the rest is trappings, ritual and decoration meant to help me better notice, more keenly remember and more joyfully celebrate Christmas.
The gift of perspective that I received that evening was not limited to the holiday hubbub surrounding me. As I unrolled my mat on Monday morning and began to move, I realized that I sometimes get distracted by the trappings of my yoga practice as well. The lure of a new posture, the tantalizing sense of progress in a challenging pose, the determination to complete a full practice even on busy days are no less glittery and exciting as the lights, trees, cookies and gifts of Christmas. But – as exciting as these are – they are not the point at all. As I bent and breathed that morning, I thought, like the Grinch, “What if yoga, perhaps, means a little bit more?”
Because I know that it does mean more. It is much more than its rich and rewarding physical gifts that feel so very good. Yoga doesn’t wait until you can slip your leg behind your head or fold yourself into a neat knot to deliver its most transformative gifts. The physical work of moving on a yoga mat is simply a way for us to practice yoga’s much more profound gifts – focus, awareness and perspective; surrender and acceptance; hope and faith; a belief in our own possibility mixed with an abiding contentment with ourselves and our lives; and a deep sense of connectedness to the world around us. All of these gifts are ours to receive whether we’re stiff or flexible, strong or weak, inexperienced or seasoned practitioners. These gifts – not achieving all the crazy things we do on our mats – are why we do all the crazy things we do on our mats.
This sense of perspective has stayed with me all week on and off my mat. As I’ve moved through my days, I’ve noticed other glittery trappings that sometimes obscure my view of the what’s really important. Angst I might feel over the quality of the meal my family is sharing rather than a feeling of gratitude that we’re together around the table. A cramped feeling when I glance at my full calendar rather than a sense of joy at the fullness of my life. A harried feeling at the sheer volume of envelopes I need to address rather than a sense of thankfulness at the number of clients with whom I am blessed to be able to share yoga.
The tantalizing trappings of our lives are not to be sneezed at! The excitement you feel as you walk – all dressed up – into a holiday party. The empowered feeling of finding your way into a yoga posture you never thought you would be able to do. The pleasure of eating a crisp sugar cookie. All of these make a day a little special and a little out of the ordinary. Enjoy them! But I invite you also to take a moment (or two!) to shift your perspective to the meaning behind these wonderful trappings. When you do so, I suspect you’ll find you’ll enjoy them even more.
Last Saturday night, as we were going to bed, my husband and I were talking through our Sunday “To Do” list. It was a list of epic proportion. Honestly, it could easily have kept us busy until Wednesday. As I hemmed and hawed about the wisdom of sitting in the pew at church the next morning rather than making progress on our list, my husband shook his head. “I really think we should go to church tomorrow. I want to properly say ‘thanks’ for all the good things that have happened to us in the last few days.”
And I’m the “religious” one in our family!
It didn’t take more than that simple statement to reveal that I was in the powerful clutches of a social epidemic that is sweeping our nation: Busy-ness. I don’t know when this epidemic started. Some say it goes all the way back to our hard-working, Puritan roots. Others say it is a ripple effect of the cell phone and smart phone, which make it possible for you to reach anyone, anywhere, 24-7. I’m not sure it matters where and when it began. But, especially during this extra-busy time of the year, it is critically important to recognize two things – first, that you’ve been stricken and, second, that succumbing to the epidemic is a choice.
To quote Hannah Montana, “That’s right. I went there.” Your busy-ness is a choice. So is mine. We are choosing to do all of the things that are making our hearts race, that are squeezing the life out of our days, that are consuming minutes and hours that we intended to devote to activities we love and to things that really matter.
What we call being busy, Buddhist monk, Sogyal Rinpoche, calls “active laziness.” He goes on to define active laziness as the filling of our lives with unessential tasks – busy work, as it were. This type of work makes us feel full of responsibilities. Only he calls them “irresponsibilities” because they keep us “too busy” with less important things to focus on the things that require more of us – developing long-term strategies, working toward goals, investing in relationships, taking care of ourselves.
What’s to be done? In other words, is there a cure?
Yes. Absolutely. It is possible to feel less busy – indeed, to be less busy. Just as succumbing to busy-ness is a choice, so is recovery. I’m not going to lie to you. Depending on how busy you are, recovery can take some doing. It requires a mix of reflection, discipline, faith, self-awareness and will power. You may also need to be willing to lie just a tiny bit.
First, ask yourself a few questions: “What would I really like to do if I had time?” “What am I doing that is sucking me dry?” “What am I doing (or not doing) that restores my zest for life?” If you find yourself – right this second – staring blankly at your computer or smart phone screen without an answer to any of these questions, you may need to get a little more dramatic. Flash forward to your deathbed. Ask yourself what you most regret not doing today. Then ask yourself what you most regret doing. Hopefully, you now have a notion of what matters to you, what doesn’t, and how you are currently allocating your time.
Next, you need to carve out time in your days to just be. This time will serve a variety of purposes. You will be giving yourself the space to think. You will also be giving yourself space not to think – to be quiet, to focus inward, to listen. Even when it feels like you are doing nothing, during this time you will be doing the incredibly important work of self-care (physical, mental and spiritual) that will sustain you in everything else you do all day long. You need to treat this time as an uber-important appointment or meeting, otherwise, if you’re like me, you risk not showing up.
What you do during these “appointments” with yourself is up to you. I have friends who run, who pray, who knit, who walk, who write in journals, who meditate. I practice yoga. When I speak to my friends about how they feel and behave after their “appointments,” it’s not that different from the way I feel: quieter, more centered, more in touch with themselves – their state of mind, their emotional climate, their desires, their fears.
I encourage you, as you’re choosing the nature of this time, to be cognizant that, no matter the activity, a spiritual intention helps tremendously. And to remember that, though it can be very helpful, you don’t need to be religious to be a spiritual person. You can start by shifting your perspective away from yourself. You can work with your attitude. You can practice gratitude. You can focus on your connectedness to everything and everyone around you. You can visualize the kind of person you deeply yearn to be.
We’ve covered the need for reflection, discipline, faith, self-awareness and will power. What about the willingness to lie – just a teeny, tiny bit? Well, let’s just say that I’ve said (on more than one occasion), when responding to a request from a client or an announced meeting or even an invitation from a friend, “I’m so sorry, I can’t do that then. I have an appointment.” To date, I’ve never been asked what that appointment was … and I’m quite glad of that. Some people just wouldn’t understand how very important my yoga practice is to helping me choose (again and again) well-ness over busy-ness.
You can do it, too. Repeat after me, “I can’t. I have an appointment …”