[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us. – Boris Pasternak[/mk_blockquote]
If asked, I’d probably automatically say I’d never been a big fan of surprises. And, if by surprises you were talking about surprise parties or surprise tests or even surprise visitors, my knee-jerk response would be accurate. I don’t like to feel caught off-guard or unprepared. When this happens, it’s pretty hard for me to get over the stress of the moment to “go with the flow.” I function much better when I receive an invitation or a syllabus so that I feel prepared. Even a last minute call to say you’re on your way gives me the time to quickly whip myself and the house into presentable shape.
That said, in the last several weeks, I’ve discovered that not all surprises leave you feeling off kilter or tripped up or scrambling. Some surprises leave you astonished, bowled over and overwhelmed with joy or love or even pride. These surprises crack open the shell of what we think we know – about our loved ones and ourselves. They leave us dazzled by the possibility hiding in each moment.
It was no surprise that our daughter was in the high school musical. After all, we’d been driving her to and from rehearsals for months. She’d been humming, whistling and even singing the songs from the Sound of Music until we knew the melodies as well as she did. We’d shopped for character shoes and listened as she described her costume. We’d heard her reviews of the show, her fellow actors and even her own performance.
All that aside, as we sat in the theater on her opening night, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. And to say we were surprised would be the understatement of the year. When she walked onto the stage with her three fellow nuns, we were so busy figuring out who was who (nuns in full habits are remarkably camouflaged, by the way), that we didn’t even realize that it was her singing for the first few notes of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” My husband elbowed me and gave me an astonished look as her high, sweet, full voice rang from the stage. My mom was squeezing me on the shoulder, tears running down her face proof that mine were hereditary. When the four nuns launched into song together – each in full voice, each holding true to her own part as the others sang around her, each taking turns singing solos and duets – I was rapt.
I had absolutely no idea my child could sing like that. None. In the best possible way, I was completely and utterly surprised. I was awed, proud and awash in love. I was left reeling. If she could do this – seemingly (at least to me) out of the clear blue – what else was she capable of? Suddenly the child I know so well was standing in the spotlight and I was thrilled to discover that I had a great deal left to learn about her. Even today, weeks later, that surprise has left its mark. I find myself watching her with keen eyes, wondering what she’s got up her sleeve rather than assuming I already know. It turns out I am a huge fan of this kind of surprise.
I ran into another surprise in the yoga teacher training program that I run. I was taking my students into a posture we hadn’t yet worked on together. I had utter confidence that each of them was ready to try the pose. Each had developed the needed strength and flexibility. More importantly, each had developed proficiency in previous postures that teach the necessary skills for this one. And, one by one, they popped into the posture.
Until, one student gave me a look that said, “I don’t think so.” I said, “You can do it.” She said, “I don’t think so.” I said, “I know so.” As she set up, every inch of her body language was screaming, “No way!” As she was perched there, I calmly explained how we knew already that she could do it – she could do this easily, she’d already learned to that, she’d mastered this one which required more strength and that one which required more flexibility. She looked back at me and said, “You’re crazy, I can’t do it.” and then hopped into the posture. She actually shrieked!
My student astonished herself. Her surprise was complete and total. I can safely say that it was one of the happiest moments of the entire program – not just for her but for all of us. Watching someone break through the barriers of her own self-belief to reach new heights is inspiring and exciting. Not only was I thrilled for her, but my own memories of surprising myself rushed back. The time I reached down in Triangle Pose and felt my toe. The time I accidentally lifted into headstand in the middle of the room when I was showing a friend how to set up. The time a friend said, “You’re totally strong enough for that,” and after arguing with her, I found out that I was.
Surprising yourself, yields many of the same gifts as being surprised by someone else. It can leave you awed. It can shatter the complacency that settles over you when you assume you know what you can and can’t do. It can leave you awash in joy and pride. It can leave you wondering what else is possible. In other words, it leaves you with clear eyes and an open heart as you consider your own potential.
Surprises like these also leave us open to the surprises hiding in the moments of our days – especially if we keep an eye out for them. As Henri Nouwen writes,
Each day holds a surprise. But only if we can expect it, can we see, hear or feel it when it comes to us. Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.
A spring snow storm. A quiet evening of togetherness in the living room after a bicker-filled family dinner. A card in the mailbox. Crocuses peeking up in the yard after a suddenly warm day. Surprises like these are easy to receive. But they also leave us more open to and accepting of sad or troubling news. Less than hoped for lab results. A bad grade. The loss of a job. Tough surprises like this can be tinged with hope and optimism when we’ve embraced the possibility and potential of the always surprising nature of life.
Go ahead, let the people in your life surprise you – in fact, expect them to surprise you. Then go a little further and surprise yourself. Perhaps the biggest surprise will be that you will fall in love with surprises.
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[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” – popular expression[/mk_blockquote]
We’ve all felt this way. For me, the first time I remember feeling this way was in elementary school. My friend, Sally S., had the coolest stuff. All the Barbie gear you could imagine, loads of stuffed animals and a bean bag chair in her room! She also had two gorgeous big sisters who let us look at their makeup and jewelry. They even let us play with their hot rollers! (Remember, this was Texas in the ‘70s.) She also lived in one of the big new houses in the back of our development. Her bedroom was huge, but we weren’t confined there because there was a separate playroom. Best yet, she even had two sets of stairs!
But Sally liked to be at my house as much as I liked to be at hers. I may not have had as much stuff, she said, but mine was new while hers was all hand-me-downs from her sisters. She loved being with my family, where she could feel like the oldest for once. She loved babying my little sister and teasing my younger brother. She didn’t seem to give a wink that my bedroom was smaller than hers – the secrets, whispering and giggling were just as good no matter where we were. And she adored lazing with me in the hammock in our backyard. Plus, we could ride our bikes to the local pool from my house, which her mom would never let her do from hers!
Looking at my life through her eyes made me feel pretty lucky. For a little while. But the lesson didn’t stick for a decade or two (or three …). There was the girl in high school who seemed to have it all, from the towering stilettos and skin tight jeans that my mother would never allow to the gorgeous boyfriend. There was the girl in college who seemed to have her whole life planned out – including an amazing, summer internship at a record label – by the end of freshman year. There was my colleague at a rival company who had already been promoted to director. There were the lucky moms at the playground in Brooklyn whose babies were already crawling. There were the young families at our kids’ nursery school who drove swanky new cars and were re-doing recently re-done houses.
You get the picture. We are very easily distracted by others – their stuff, their skills, their appearances and their good fortune. By comparison, our focus on our own well-being is often slippery and fickle. But, it turns out that it is our focus on our own well-being that is the secret to happiness.
Though I hope I would have, I’ll never know if or when I would have reached this understanding through the simple process of growing up. For me, this bit of wisdom was one of the first that I received from moving and breathing on my yoga mat. You see, when you show up to your first yoga class as uncoordinated, as inflexible and as hopelessly spastic as I did, you learn very quickly to keep your eyes on your own mat. If I’d spent too much time looking around at my more proficient, more experienced and more flexible neighbors, I am sure I would have felt dejected enough that I may never have returned to class.
For some reason, though, I didn’t do this. Perhaps I was too busy trying not to fall over. Perhaps the movements my teacher was asking of me were so difficult that I couldn’t risk any distraction. Perhaps I was simply too tired to shift my eyeballs to what was happening next to me. Whatever the reason, it was a blessing. I kept showing up. I continued to focus on my own experience. And, best yet, I continued to be excited by the changes I saw and felt in my own practice.
This went on for years. It never occurred to me to consider what my practice might look like to another. In the back of my mind, I suppose I was still a gangly, tight person doing her best to keep up with the rest of the class. But one day a woman approached me in the parking lot after class. She said she just wanted me to know that it was inspiring to practice next to me every week. I was teaching her what a yoga practice could look like – focused, smooth and strong. I think I actually looked over my shoulder to make sure she was talking to me. I smiled at the compliment, but my response had little to do with what my practice looked like. I vividly remember saying, “It’s amazing how this practice can change your life.”
And that is exactly what I could have missed if I’d spent my energy wistfully looking around the room at my yoga neighbors. That is exactly what I could have missed if I’d spent my time focusing on all the postures I couldn’t do rather than relishing the ones I could. That is exactly what I could have missed if I’d allowed myself to be distracted from my own experience – physical, mental and spiritual – on my mat. I would have missed out on the million ways my yoga practice was changing my body, my mind and the way I was experiencing my life.
That conversation in the parking lot had the same impact on me as my conversation with my old friend, Sally. I felt very lucky to be me. Only, this time, rather than this being a perspective shift, I was surprised to discover that I’d been feeling pretty lucky to be me for quite some time. I discovered that keeping my eyes on my own mat had not just given me a healthy, vibrant, life-giving yoga practice. It had taught me that the grass is pretty darn green on “my side of the fence” off my mat as well.
The next time you notice yourself wanting something you don’t have, take a long, hard look at all you do have. The next time you catch yourself yearning for the proverbial grass on the other side of the fence – grass that seems somehow greener, sweeter, and lusher – draw your attention back to the grass all around you. If it’s hard for you to see your own grass through clear eyes, take a moment to see your grass through your neighbor’s eyes. When you do, I suspect you will feel a wave of gratitude and contentment as you re-discover the blessings that fill your life – um, yard.
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Image credit: “Cattle eating grass through barbed wire fence” by James Rickwood – Flickr: P*ssed again!. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cattle_eating_grass_through_barbed_wire_fence.jpg#/media/File:Cattle_eating_grass_through_barbed_wire_fence.jpg
As I write, our community is reeling from the tragic loss of a young person. The loss of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare, so it’s not surprising that the news has parents in our area holding their children a little tighter. I’m sure I wasn’t alone when I deliberately gathered my brood around the dinner table with every intention of emphasizing that, no matter how desperate and dark things may seem, there is nothing (NOTHING!) so bad that it could make me love them any less. Nothing that won’t heal with time. Nothing that could ever justify choosing to end their precious existences.
I didn’t even have the chance to get going, however. Thanks to iPhones and social media, my children had not only heard the sad news, but had had time to chat with peers and reflect on their own. While none of us will ever know what was going on in that child’s life, my kids still needed to talk through what had happened. After a somber, “What do you know?” and “Is this true?” discussion, I was surprised when things took a philosophical turn. My son said, “You know, I learned in AP Biology that the chances of any of us even existing are so low that it’s basically a miracle.” He went on to explain that so many tiny things have to be exactly right, so many improbable coincidences have to occur, and so many devastating possibilities must be avoided just in conception that the fact that each of us were born is nearly impossible.
He then pointed, in turn, at himself and each of his sisters, and said, “I am a miracle. You are a miracle. You are a miracle.” This would have been touching enough, but he went on to ask, “We don’t want to mess with a miracle, right?”
While I couldn’t agree more with his understanding of the miraculous nature of each of us, I had no idea that he and I shared this perspective. While he, through some small miracle of its own, gained his perspective from studying Biology, I gained mine from studying yoga. Though our “classrooms” were different, for both of us it is the physical wonder of our existence that feels miraculous. The fact that our wonderful bodies (that walk and talk, run and swim, climb and bungee jump and take yoga postures and …) somehow evolved from single-celled organisms is more than enough to give us pause.
As I developed more and more awareness of my physical self while practicing yoga on my mat – how it worked, how it supported itself, how each part is connected to and is affected by all other parts – I began to view my body as a bit of a miracle. (Although perhaps one that would be found in the scratch and dent section of the miracle warehouse.) Each time I ran into a posture that hurt, I took the opportunity to dig into my growing collection of anatomy books to figure out what was going on. Each time I finally mastered a new posture, I marveled at all the bits and pieces that had come together to contribute to my success – bones that had to line up, muscles that had to learn to fire, balance that had to be learned or re-learned. The more I learned about my body, the more certain I became that these wonderful creations and all they do are, indeed, miraculous.
In addition to our bodies, there is the impossible fact of our minds. Science cannot understand, let alone replicate the delicate wiring and chemistry of the human mind. When you stop to think about it, our astounding capacity for learning, and the remarkable fact that we think and reflect and feel is a staggering reality. Yoga is more than a physical practice. As we move and breathe on our mats, we are learning to develop awareness of and some control over our minds. We begin to notice the effects of our feelings. We begin to notice the wild wanderings of our thoughts. And, as this noticing takes root, we begin to realize that if we can observe the workings of our minds, we must be something greater than our fleeting thoughts and feelings.
Whether you believe that you are specially created and charged by a God-given spirit, or whether you believe you are here through an impossible-to-recreate series of chemical, physical and evolutionary coincidences, or whether your belief is a mix of the two, one thing is sure: it is miraculous that you are here – living, loving and making a difference. You are a miracle. Your body is a wonder – treat it as such. Nurture it. Challenge it. Watch it stretch and change. Your mind is a marvel – treat it as such. Feed it. Take care of it. Watch yourself learn and develop new skills and talents. Pay attention each and every day as you become the person you can be.
In short, treasure your life. Treat yourself as the miracle that you are. And, on the days you don’t feel very miraculous, turn to one of the miracles living alongside you (whether in your house, or down the street, or next to you in your pew, or in a counselor’s office in town) for support. Just as you would never deny that to someone else, they will be there for you. And, with time, you will once again be able to see the miracle that is this life that you’ve been given to live.
By now, I’ve attended dozens of information sessions for college applicants. The messages are all so similar (study abroad, concrete plans to have your child employed upon graduation, housing options, financial aid, and so on) that the copious notes I took during the first several sessions have shrunk to a cryptic shorthand that might as well say, “See notes from previous institution.” So I was surprised at our second to last stop in our long college search to find myself captivated by the message being delivered by yet another dean of yet another university theater program.
When asked how many students had applied for how many spots, the dean paused before stating baldly that close to 1000 kids had applied for 20 spots. This wasn’t what caught my attention, however. These audacious statistics are mirrored at many of the schools my son has applied to. It was what the dean said next that set his message apart from any other I’d heard.
“It doesn’t matter what school you go to,” he said. (How’s that for a sales pitch?) “What matters is what you do at the school you go to. What matters is your drive, your passion, the initiative you take, how completely you throw yourself into everything you do during the next four years. But I want to talk about what matters right this second. You must trust this process. Trust that you will end up at a school that is right for you. Trust this so completely that when you walk back into the audition room, you can just be exactly who you are. Because that’s really all we want to see – you. So take a deep breath, clear your head of statistics and chances and competition and any preconceived notions that you must get into X, Y or Z school in order to be lead a successful life. Just give your all to whatever you have prepared for us. Let us see you doing what you love. Have fun and good luck.”
This remarkably reasonable and pragmatic message was refreshing to hear in the midst of a remarkably nutty process with staggeringly unreasonable odds. And, as I watched my son stride confidently into the audition room when his name was called, I realized that the dean’s message for the applicants to his theater program was good life advice for me and you.
The point he ended with is a good place to begin. The best thing any of us can do at any given moment is to be ourselves – talents and quirks, strengths and weaknesses, interests and disinterests. It all combines to make us who we are. It is our unique take on things that sets our contributions apart from anything anyone else could do. We need to do the hard work of getting prepared, sure. But mostly, if we give our all to whatever it is that we’re doing and enjoy doing it as much as possible, our experiences in life will be fulfilling.
It takes focus and energy to give our all to our experiences. To do so, we need to trust life – “the process” in the dean’s words. We need to trust that we will end up where we need to be – in fact, that we are already where we need to be right this second. Life has a way of plunking us down in exactly the right spot. Life has a way of always giving us the chance to do good stuff, to shine, to stretch and grow, to give back. If we trust this, we can let go of our need to control our futures – or even our present. This control is an illusion anyway – a frustrating and exhausting one, at that. Releasing our need for control by trusting the process of life allows us to focus on pouring our all into whatever life has put on our plate in any given moment.
Each time we step on our yoga mats, we have the chance to practice both being ourselves and relinquishing control. Whether we practice in a group class, with a friend or on our own, the best practices we will ever have are when we honor our own bodies – when we respond to our body’s need for challenge or for respite, when we celebrate our strengths and respect our weaknesses, when we are focused fully on our own experience breath by breath, rather than being distracted by what someone else is doing or by some preconceived idea of what our own experience should be.
While we move and breathe on our yoga mats, we also have the chance to practice letting go of control. This is clearly easy to do in a group class when we are expected to set aside our own agenda and follow our teacher’s cues. But we can relinquish control even when practicing on our own. Again, it’s staying in tune with our bodies, and honoring them while we practice that is the key. (See how critical it is to be ourselves?) We may have hoped for a vigorous practice, only to find we’re fatigued before we really get going. Letting go of control allows us to sink into a slower paced, more restorative practice that will nurture and energize us for the rest of our day. We may arrive on our mat worried about a nagging pain or injury only to find that we don’t feel pain. Letting go of control allows us to bravely seize the moment and challenge ourselves a little bit.
Our yoga mats, then, are like little laboratories where we can safely practice being ourselves and relinquishing control. Regular practice gives us a sense of comfort and courage when we do the same off our mats and in our lives. Then, even when we are in a high anxiety situation like an audition or a job interview or when we’re simply trying something new, we are able to “default” into this mode. We are better able to follow the dean’s advice. When we’re not worried about what will happen next, we can give our all to whatever we’re doing with faith that this is exactly where we’re meant to be right now. We can simply be who we are, do what we need to do and have some fun while we do it.
This is the best gift we can give – to ourselves and to the world.