When you’re a one-year-old puppy, you’re thankful for everything. And I do mean everything.
Every morning when I go downstairs to let them out, my puppies greet me as if having a mom is the greatest gift in the history of the world. Breakfast? Same deal. The menu never changes, but they behave as if they have never been served finer food. We walk much the same route each day, yet they act as if every bush, fence and street corner is a fascinating new discovery. They love their bedraggled toys passionately – even the ones that have lost their squeakies. They moan with pleasure when they curl up in the kitchen chairs. To be allowed into the living room to lay in front of the fire is nothing short of sheer joy even though they do it almost nightly.
I think it’s gratitude like this (well, maybe a little less bouncy and slobbery) that is the whole point of Thanksgiving. Though they might be among the blessings you count, the thanksgiving that we give each November isn’t for a pile of new presents, or a new job or a new car. It’s for the abundance that fills our lives every single day. It’s for the bounty we too rarely notice, let alone take a moment to give thanks for.
Thankfully, the gratitude we cultivate on Thanksgiving is available to us all year long. As those of us who practice yoga know, gratitude is just as much a habit or practice as unrolling a yoga mat is. Each day as we move and breathe on our mats, we learn to appreciate the little things. Interestingly, it’s the challenging days that teach us the most about gratitude. On a day when we feel uncoordinated, tight, weak, or tired we still feel good for having practiced. Yoga doesn’t seem to care if we’re at the top of our game. It delivers its benefits no matter what. In the afterglow of our practice, we learn to celebrate that we have a mat to unroll. We learn to rejoice in the fact that our body can stretch and bend as much as it does. We learn to revel in the knowledge that we’re always able to learn and to change – even on the hardest days.
Practice enough yoga and I guarantee you’ll catch yourself having little grateful moments off your mat as well. Here are a few of my recent favorites:
As I count my blessings this Thanksgiving Day, I feel blessed and rich beyond measure. While my riches have nothing in common with the treasures from my childhood fairy tales, and my blessings may not look very special to anyone else, they are mine and I am profoundly grateful. Among the blessings I’m counting today is the opportunity to share a few of the gifts of this amazing practice (and my significantly less amazing life) with you.
My husband is a lawyer for a gigantic insurance company. (I hope we can still be friends.) One of the things he does is attend mediations. This is when opposing counsel from both sides of a case come together to try to find a way to settle the case without going to court. There is an arc to these mediations. It is important to remember that often months (sometimes even years) have gone by while the two sides build their cases. Subpoenas have been sent. Documents have been reviewed. Witnesses have been deposed. Nastygrams have flown from desktop to desktop. And then, finally, the point of no return is reached – they either settle or go to court.
So a mediation is scheduled. The first meeting – often over the course of an entire day – is usually a bit like two male peacocks flaunting their tails to one another. Each side plays a highlight reel of all their strengths for the other. My husband says the posturing can actually be humorous at times. I spoke to my husband last week at about 4:30. He’d been in one of these meetings since 8:00 that morning. When I asked him if they’d made any progress, he laughed.
“We’ve finally reached the point when I think we can start to listen to each other.”
His response made me take pause. I’d imagined hostile haggling and blatant bartering. I hadn’t, for a moment, imagined that the high powered lawyers representing huge companies would be doing something as human (even as humane) as actively listening.
It would be a mistake to assume that we all know how to listen. We don’t. Most of us aren’t actually listening when we’re engaged in a dialogue – especially one as charged as a legal mediation. What we’re usually doing is preparing to reply. We’re listening to the other with an ear only for our own story. This is not really listening. And we certainly are not hearing anything that will help us connect to the person or people with whom we are conversing.
Listening is a skill. To listen with an open mind and an open heart can be profoundly challenging. Real listening requires the intention of finding points of possible connection and the hope of bridges that could conceivably be built. As challenging as it can be, even when you are speaking to someone you disagree with, listening is always possible. Not only is it possible, it is an enormously powerful gift. When I was in training to become a spiritual director, I was taught that listening – real, intentional, listening – was the greatest gift we can give one another. It is a precious thing to be heard. And, like most gifts given generously, this kind of listening has a way of benefitting us as much as it does the person we’re listening to.
Yoga teaches us to listen. On our mats, we learn to listen first to our bodies. Once we start to hear what our bodies are saying, we learn to respond kindly and with compassion. We learn to listen to our thoughts, too. We learn to pay attention to our habitual ways of thinking, to the tapes that play on repeat in our minds, to our fears and to our desires. As we practice, we learn to set our blinders and assumptions aside, and, perhaps for the first time in long time, we learn to listen to ourselves with a completely open and observant mind. With weeks, months and years of daily practice, it is all but guaranteed that this skill of keen listening will begin to manifest in every conversation, debate or disagreement in which we find ourselves.
Let’s get back to the mediation story I began with. The next meeting or series of meetings in a mediation are all about listening. According to my husband, his job is exactly as I described above. He listens for points of possible connection. He listens with the hope of building a bridge to compromise. He listens with the hope of finding enough places where the two sides can agree that he can construct a compromise that benefits – at least in part – all parties. He says if either side chooses not to do the hard work of listening, a settlement will simply not possible. It “takes two to tango” in a productive mediation, apparently.
The fact that corporate lawyers (a breed not necessarily renowned for their humanity and compassion, at least while they’re in their suit and ties) are employing this skill, indicates the importance and power of us regular folks becoming real listeners. Imagine your life if you felt truly heard. Imagine the world if we not only heard what others were saying, but could also sense and even understand the feelings, hopes and fears behind their words. This is possible when you really listen.
Listening keeps us connected to one another – even to those with whom we passionately disagree. Listening makes us compassionate. Most of all, listening is an act of hope and faith that can keep even the most jaded of us feeling optimistic and engaged. In short, listening can change the world.
A friend’s daughter went on a pilgrimage in Spain. The magnitude of this walk cannot be minimized. The traditional route is 500 miles long! For those of you who, like me, have trouble visualizing distances, that would be like me walking from Philadelphia where I live to Durham, NC where I went to school (a drive that takes 8 hours on a good day) and then continuing on another hundred miles almost to Charlotte. In short, it’s a very long walk.
As he told me a little about her journey, my heart skipped a beat. The thought of a young woman dedicating weeks to literally walk deeper into her faith is simply inspiring. Perhaps with a few stars in my eyes, I asked if she loved the experience. His response has been rattling around in my head ever since.
“I don’t think you really love a pilgrimage as much as get through it. For my daughter, it was about learning to take care of her blisters along the way rather than toughing it out until they become a serious issue.”
There is so much wisdom in his words. I suspect, at one time or another, we’ve all tried to tough out a little problem only to wind up with a big one.
This actually seems to be a bit of an epidemic in my house. My daughter ignored a nagging pain in her back for so long that she wound up spending most of her sophomore year crew season in physical therapy rather than in the boat with her team. My husband didn’t pay attention to a vague pain that he felt in the gym only to wake up one morning with a frightening numbness down one arm. I spent months noticing an inexplicable weakness in one shoulder during my yoga practice. Rather than having it checked out, I toughed it out – literally muscling my way through my practice. In doing so, I created an imbalance that finally rendered my sun salutations impossible. It took further months of acupuncture, body work and modified practice for it to heal.
The desire to “tough it out” is a natural one. None of us want to be a complainer. None of us wants to seem like a wimp. We want to be seen as strong, brave, issue-free. But, let’s get real, we all have problems. We all get a wrinkle in our sock sometimes.
The question my friend’s story raises in me is when did it become weak or embarrassing to pause to take care of ourselves? When did self-care go from being wise to being wimpy?
Practicing yoga is a way to care for ourselves inside and out. We tend to think first about the body when we talk about a yoga practice, and yoga is very good for the body. It makes us stronger. It keeps our joints moving more freely. It can help us stay lean and fit. But, as you saw in my little story above, giving priority to the physical gifts of yoga can trip us up.
Yoga teaches us a great deal beyond how to stand on one foot or touch our toes. It creates awareness. It develops focus. It demands acceptance and surrender to what is. It is stubborn and exacting in its ability to teach us to stop trying to control our reality. When we start to really receive and embrace these lessons, its physical gifts seem incidental. Yet, even when we know that (or at least even when I know that), we can lose our way. We can grip down so hard on our need to do the physical practice that, instead of caring for ourselves, we wind up hurting ourselves.
Let’s return to my example. The awareness that I developed on my yoga mat did a great job revealing that something was amiss in my body. But it was vague and a little confusing. Rather than exploring it or even seeking help, I decided my practice was more important than its gifts. I was so hell-bent on doing my daily practice that I lost sight of the fact that it is meant to heal me, to restore balance and to create a comfort in my body that allows me to live life with an open heart and a smile on my face.
But yoga was having none of that nonsense. In the end, my physical practice fell apart because of my misplaced priorities. Taking care of myself – the whole point of the practice – finally became urgent when I could no longer move around on my mat. As I began the journey back to wellness, I also began the journey of understanding (again and anew) the real depth of this practice.
I suspect my discovery was much like the one my friend’s daughter had as she walked her pilgrimage. If she didn’t have the wisdom and strength to stop and spend a few minutes caring for her feet while her blisters were small, she could jeopardize her long walk into her faith. Slowing down for a little while is sometimes a necessary part of the journey. Maybe she, like I did, learned this the hard way by prioritizing one day’s distance over the experience of the pilgrimage as a whole.
I pray that she, like I do, now knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that taking care of herself is not wimpy or weak. It leaves us ready and able for the long haul.
I like to watch the news for five or ten minutes while I get dressed in the morning. Mostly, I like to listen to the weather. I know I can get the forecast on my phone, but it’s just not the same. It’s conceivable that I have a somewhat bizarre attachment to my local meteorologist, but I digress.
This morning, as has been the case for weeks, I didn’t even get to hear the forecast. In fact, most of what I heard during those few minutes were political ads – every single one of them negative. Upon reflection, all these ads have done is left a negative image of all of the candidates – the ones being attacked and the ones doing the attacking. As far as name recognition, which is a huge reason people spend advertising dollars, these ads have done nothing with this voter but create a blur of confusion. I know I’ll be standing in the polling booth trying to remember something (anything!) about our local and state candidates and all I’m going to be able to come up with for any of them is YUCK.
There’s a lesson in here for all of us. When we throw mud at one another, we always (always) get splashed. On the other hand, when we’re good to one another – supporting, assisting, befriending, or just being kind – not only does the other person feel good, but we do too.
This is not always easy, by the way. A yoga practice can help. I could spend most of this essay describing for you how the self-awareness that you develop through a regular, mindful yoga practice is a powerful first step toward changing your behavior off the mat so that you’re living more like the person you want to be. I could spend next week’s essay talking about the somewhat mysterious way that yoga teaches us that we are all connected in this world – and if we’re all connected, we’d best build each other up rather than tear each other down. But I’m going to keep things simple instead. I’m going to focus on just one word:
The traditional greeting at the end of a yoga class, “Namaste,” is often translated as “the good or light in me bows to the same in you.” Isn’t that lovely? Imagine spending your day recognizing the good that you know is in yourself (a ready smile, a curious mind, a few talents, a kind heart) in each person you meet. Imagine looking into the eyes of each person you talk to – the clerk at the grocery store, the teller at the bank, your child’s teacher, your boss, the woman panhandling on your morning train – with the hope of somehow honoring the goodness and light you both share.
Namaste. More than a word or a greeting, “Namaste” can be a mindset. A beautifully open mindset which can free us from the small, tight, defensive and fearful feelings that come from suspecting that for someone else to be right, we must be wrong. If “their” political party wins, one of us must be wrong. If “their” religion differs from ours, one of us must be wrong. If “their” taste in take-out food or movies or television shows or board games or … is different than ours, one of us must be wrong. With “Namaste” as our guiding light, we can set aside this “us/them,” “in/out,” “right/wrong” thinking. Instead, we find ourselves looking for ways to connect, to honor and to learn.
I don’t know what a political campaign would be like if candidates were required to maintain a “Namaste” mindset. I suspect we would hear much more about what each believed, what each would like to do if elected, what legacy each would like to leave behind. I suspect watching the morning news in October and November of an election year would be much more inspiring, edifying and uplifting. I don’t know. What I do know is how transformative this mindset has been in my one small life. And I know it can be the same for each of you.
The light in me bows to the light in each of you.