Over the weekend, I read an interview of an actress. I honestly can’t even remember who it was or why she was being interviewed. In fact, all I remember is one line. She said, “My sister and I have a secret code. Any time things aren’t going great, we look at each other and wink. This reminds us to choose happiness — no matter what.”
As I was going to bed that night, I thought of what that actress had said and thought, “what makes me happy?” “A freshly made bed” popped into my head as I slid into my own. The smile that thought put on my face meant that I ended my day happy. Actually, really happy.
The next morning, I watered my plants as I do every Sunday morning. As I did, I noticed myself smiling as I carefully cared for my tiny potted succulents in my kitchen window. Each plant is different – some tall, some round, some spiky. This makes a cool silhouette when the sun shines in. Two are blooming right now. Plus they’re in these really pretty, colorful pots that I adore. I thought to myself, “This little window garden makes me happy.” And, just as it did the night before, the smile that thought put on my face made me even happier.
Noticing happiness was starting to feel like a really good idea.
Don’t laugh, but my happiness got the best of me. I decided to share that moment and a picture of my garden on Facebook. My post got a bunch of “likes” almost immediately, which led me to choose to spend a week choosing to not only notice happiness but to share it as well.
I’m so glad I did. Each day, I found myself noticing dozens of things that made me happy. I sifted through them – Eggo waffles, my yoga mat, my new ponytail holder that doesn’t slip, hiking with my dogs, most anything that sparkles, a super hot shower, getting mail – for the one I’d choose to share. Just because I was looking, my life suddenly felt flooded with things that make me happy. This made me (obviously) feel very happy.
A yoga practice teaches us about the power of perspective. I have found over the years that I have a natural tendency to remember the posture that went wrong rather than the twenty postures that went right. This is actually a documented human phenomenon. Negative thoughts or experiences stick like Velcro while positive thoughts and experiences slip away. My daily practice not only revealed this tendency to me, it has showed me that I have the choice to change it.
I can roll up my mat each day disappointed about the posture that went wrong. And, trust me, there is always one that goes wrong. Sometimes rather spectacularly. Or I can choose differently. I can focus on all the postures that went right. I can focus on how I great I feel simply because I practiced. Or, depending on what went wrong and how spectacularly, sometimes I can get a good laugh out of remembering my goof. It’s my choice.
Judith Hanson Lasater, in her book, Living Your Yoga, writes that, “when we cling to one point of view, we limit our ability to see what is before us. Enlightenment, in fact, is nothing more and nothing less than a radical change in perspective.” Changing perspective is like stepping back enough to pull loose the Velcro hold of our negative point of view. As we do, suddenly we’re able to see more. The negative thing doesn’t go away, but it shrinks in size so that we can see around it. And, in my experience, there is usually something around it that is worth a smile. Even if it’s just a small one.
This is exactly what we’re doing when we choose happiness. When we comb through out days looking for little moments that make us smile, we are deliberately, mindfully choosing to shift our perspective. In doing so, we are choosing to change our experience of our lives. This is a choice we will not regret.
Repeat after me: “I choose happiness.”
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]What does tamed mean?” [asked the little prince … and the fox replied] “It means to form bonds. If you tame me, we’ll need each other. You become forever responsible for what you have tamed.” – Antoine De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince[/mk_blockquote]
We used to joke that our dog, Pax, was ironically named. Outside, he was far from the peaceful creature that his name implied he’d be. Instead, he was a crazed beast, racing pell-mell up and down our rather heavily trafficked road at speeds that would have made me proud if I weren’t so terrified he was going to get hit by a car. For months we lived in constant fear of an unlatched gate or a door left ajar. “Stolen” freedom was like a drug for him and his run-abouts were getting progressively longer in both duration and distance.
There was absolutely no way to catch him. He was way too fast for that. Plus, whenever he saw me he would turn and run in exactly the opposite other direction. Where I’d always been his favorite person in the whole world, when he was on a run-about I was a big, flashing neon sign that screamed “PARTY’S OVER.”
We began to face the reality that Pax might need more freedom to run than our suburban location allowed. But the notion of finding him a new home was excruciating to even ponder. So we searched far and wide for another solution that would allow Pax and our family to safely (and peacefully) coexist. The day after a particularly harrowing run-about, I got a return call from a trainer. He told us that many hunters used something called an E-Collar to communicate with their field dogs and suggested we try that. Desperate, we plunked down the money. The collar was in our hands in 24 hours (thanks, Amazon Prime!) and we met with the trainer the next day.
Training Pax on the collar nearly broke my heart. Each time it would vibrate at his neck, his head and tail dropped. For weeks he refused to leave my side. All the joy he found in the open field where we were working seemed to disappear. I felt like I was “breaking” him the way cowboys break wild stallions. And I hated it. I didn’t want to change Pax. I just wanted to change his behavior.
But one day he took a few tentative steps away from my side. Each time he looked back I lavished on the praise. His head lifted, his ears perked and he wagged his tail. Best yet, he moved a little further from me. Within two weeks, he was running joyfully again! He flushed birds, he leapt over holes, he dashed in circles as fast as he could. And, miraculously, when I said, “Pax! Let’s go!” he turned on a dime a flashed to my side.
Thankfully, I hadn’t broken him at all. I had simply tamed him.
Pax on a wild run-about reminds me of my mind when I’m meditating. There are days when dragging my attention back to my breath (again and again and again) feels about as appealing as glimpsing me must have felt to my dog. “Party’s over.”
Then I had an epiphany. I realized that the point of meditating wasn’t staying focused or silent for a set amount of time, but was instead the repeated choice to draw my attention away from the wilderness of my chattering mind and toward the quiet stillness at my core. Originally, I think I was approaching meditation as a way to “break” my mind. It was a tremendous, happy relief to realize that, instead of exorcising or rejecting my mind (which, to be honest, I actually really like), I was simply trying to tame it.
To borrow from De Saint-Exupery’s explanation of taming, by meditating I am forming a bond with my mind. And in doing so, my mind is as responsible for me as I am for it. Sometimes, I choose to allow my mind its greatest joy – to be allowed to run wild. I set it free to create, to think, to wonder, to rejoice. But, as I do so, we are still connected. When I say, “Let’s go!” (by returning my awareness to my breath whether I’m running around my life or sitting quietly in meditation), my mind’s job is to return to stillness as quickly and cleanly as Pax returning to my side in the woods.
My relationship with my profoundly active intellect is much healthier because of this work. I’m able to recognize when my thoughts are running crazily away from me. I notice more quickly when I’m allowing worry to wreck an otherwise lovely moment. I’m able to stay more present to what I’m doing and what I’m experiencing. In short, because I’ve begun to tame my mind, I’m missing out on less in life and enjoying a whole lot more.
Similarly, taming Pax changed our relationship in a beautiful way. Now when Pax is running (and he is so glorious to watch when he is), not only does he remember that I am there, but he seeks to share his experience with me. He makes a point to circle back to me over and over again when we’re walking in the woods. Each time he does, he makes eye contact and gives me a huge doggy smile that says, “Isn’t this the best?!?! I love that we do this together.” And I feel exactly the same way.
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]No matter where you go, there you are.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn[/mk_blockquote]
It amazes me that it’s possible wake up one morning in Philadelphia and go to bed that night in England. But that’s exactly what we did this past weekend when we went to visit our son who is studying in London. Perhaps because it was such a short trip or perhaps because I speak the language (albeit with a far less glamorous accent), I had to keep reminding myself how very far from home I was.
And we were very far from home. London is, after all, 5,706 miles from Philadelphia as the crow flies. It is across an ocean. It is in another nation and (almost) on another continent. We were seeing exotic sights from history books and travel magazines – Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Tower Bridge. It is apparently even a season ahead of us – we left home in late winter and arrived in glorious late spring.
But, in terms of making me feel like I was far from home, all of this paled in comparison to the nature of the crowds I found myself walking amongst. Despite living in Manhattan for years, I do not believe I have ever experienced a “melting pot” as I did while touring London. Every cluster of tourists we passed seemed to be speaking a different language. I was smacked by selfie-sticks from Japan, Germany and Egypt. I was stepped on by African, Pakistani and American feet. I stood in awe in front of the Rosetta stone with people from Ireland, Russia and Portugal. I shared a car on the London Eye with a large, devout Muslim family from Turkey who were just as thrilled by the views as I was.
Clearly, I wasn’t in suburban Philadelphia anymore.
But, somehow, despite being in a foreign land surrounded by people from foreign lands, I felt at home. I flirted easily with the littlest member of the Turkish family on the Eye and his mother, in hijab and niqab (head and face veils) smiled at me easily. I managed to offer to take a photo of a family from somewhere in Eastern Europe who gratefully accepted my offer – all without exchanging a word. I was as annoyed by slow-walking families from the far east holding hands across sidewalks as I was by families from the American Midwest slowing traffic the same way in Rockefeller Center. The Beefeater giving our tour at the Tower of London made me laugh just as hard as the nearby man from Australia.
Yoga teaches us that we are all connected. As we talk to people who also practice, we discover rather quickly that our experiences are quite similar. While each of us have our own unique fears and strengths, these differences are miniscule compared to the similarities. Yoga leaves us feeling calm, energized, balanced and centered. Our practices help us take the ups and downs of life in stride. We find that hardships on our mats often are well-disguised gifts. We are, therefore, better prepared for hardships off of our mats.
In an amazing coincidence, I found myself on the Tube next to a businesswoman from Bermuda who practices Ashtanga yoga. There’s no way to explain how we wound up speaking, let alone about yoga. Like the subway in New York, the Underground in London is mostly a silent, smart-phone-induced solitary experience, but we talked for nearly a half hour. When I got off the train, I felt like I was saying goodbye to a friend. Not only does yoga teach us that we are connected, but it helps to deepen that connection.
I’ve learned over the years on my mat that we share this planet, this environment, and every single breath we take with every other creature in the world. More than that, we share the human experience. We laugh. We fear. We rejoice. We mourn. We smile and we cry. We love. We form friendships and families.
And, clearly, we travel to London. I may not have learned a new yoga posture in London, but I came home having reinforced one of yoga’s most powerful and transformative lessons. I learned that people are people, no matter where you go and no matter where they’re from. And I learned that people can connect, rather easily, no matter how we look, what language we speak or what our cultural differences.
No matter where we go, there we are … together.
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more so that we may fear less.” – Madame Marie Curie[/mk_blockquote]
There are undoubtedly things in life that I fear, but before this week I would never have said that I feared tomatoes.
We spent all day Sunday at the river watching our girls row. The regatta was running an hour behind schedule which meant there was no way on earth we would have time to go to the grocery store and make dinner. This was how we wound up stopping in for dinner at a little restaurant in town famous for its welcoming atmosphere and wide array of home-cooked Italian fare. I was so exhausted that I could hardly choose my meal. The owner suggested her ravioli and I said, “OK” without a thought.
(This is where the tomatoes come in.)
When our meals arrived, I noticed the sauce on my ravioli had whole, cooked cherry tomatoes in it. I sighed and thought, “That’s alright. I’ll just push them aside.” You see, I really can’t stand the feeling of cooked tomato skin. In addition to the texture freaking me out, I’m a little afraid the skin will stick in my throat and make me gag. (I know. I sound like a six year old child.)
As I’d been promised, the first bite was delicious. It was actually better than delicious. I sat back and looked at my meal, which was also beautiful, and thought, “Why would Paola put those damn tomatoes in the sauce?” As she is an amazing cook, there could only be one answer: because the whole tomatoes made the sauce better.
In that instant, I remembered a conversation I’d had with my good friend and yoga pal that same week. She has been healing from an injury and was struggling to bring herself to move into the posture where she got hurt. I asked her what she was feeling. She gave me an immediate one word answer: “Fear.” I said, “Is it the kind of fear that is keeping you safe or the kind of fear that is holding you back?” She just stared at me. When she finally responded, “I don’t have a clue!” we both knew she had some work to do getting to know her fear.
The next day, before we practiced, she thanked me for asking her about her fear. She’d actually done a lot of thinking about it. Fear, she said, had always been a powerful motivator for her. It was how she learned all the jumps, inversions and flying feats that she did as a gymnast and a cheerleader. It was odd for her to discover that this fear (which was the fear of getting hurt again) felt like a wall that she didn’t feel inspired to try to get around or over. This fear left her feeling like it might be just fine to never do that posture again.
In the kind of yoga we practice, skipping postures is a big “no no,” so I laughed and she laughed with me. Then she asked me if I would help her into the posture that was scaring her. I said, “Sure! We’ll take it slow and easy. Just see how it feels.” And that is exactly what we did. In addition to facing down her fear, she found that the posture didn’t hurt! It turns out that this particular fear was holding her back.
As I thought about our conversation, I realized two things. First, fear is never (ever!) a motivator for me. Whether fear is keeping me safe or holding me back on my yoga mat, the sensation of being afraid for me ranges from colossally heavy to absolutely paralyzing. I was suddenly jealous how my friend usually experiences fear.
Second, I realized that my fear of the tomatoes scattered across my plate was neither heavy nor paralyzing. In fact, it felt downright stupid. I have been enjoying Paola’s cuisine for fifteen years and she has never steered me wrong. My second bite of the ravioli included one of the whole cherry tomatoes.
Oh. My. Goodness.
That tomato burst in my mouth with a sweetness and tang that brought the rest of the sauce to life. It was absolutely the secret ingredient. To think I might have missed out on that because I was afraid the skin of the tomato would make me gag made me want to laugh out loud. I carefully divvied up the remaining tomatoes so that as many bites of ravioli as possible would be paired with that same sweet explosion.
In perhaps a less dramatic way, like my friend, I had faced a fear. More importantly, I figured out that I don’t want to miss out because I feel afraid any more.