How silently,
how silently
the wondrous gift is given. 

I would be silent now,
and expectant …
                that I may receive
                         the gift I need,
                                                so I may become
                                                          the gifts others need.

I have closed almost every Advent retreat I’ve led over the past ten years with this lovely poem by Ted Loder from his book, Guerrillas of Grace. I believe his hopeful words are meaningful to seekers of any faith. In this hectic, festive month, it’s a perfect invitation to slow down and be still. It is a reminder that this time of year we will be receiving as well as giving gifts. It redirects our attention toward gifts that are less tangible but more powerful than anything that could be purchased and wrapped.

His most important point, in my mind, is easy to miss. In Loder’s poem, it is presumed that to give the gifts that others need, we must first receive.

What is this gift we hope to receive? And how do we become silent enough to be able to receive it?

I’ll answer the second question first. Contemplative practices bring us into precisely the kind of silent, still state that Loder’s poem describes. There are hundreds of contemplative practices. Yoga, meditation, centering prayer, hiking, cross-stitching, baking, gardening, rock climbing, running and so on. Any activity where we fully immerse ourselves in what we’re doing can be contemplative. Your intention is the most important bit. If you enter into the activity seeking a quiet mind, choosing to spend some time “inward” and hoping to connect with a power greater than yourself, you are being contemplative.

It is important to note that though you may “do your practice” for over an hour, you may only sustain this still, silence for a few moments.

Yet, it is enough.

In these few moments, your awareness drops down beneath the chattering, whirling chaos of your thinking mind to connect to a deeper, quieter place within. Here you rest. You listen. And you receive.

Which brings us to back to our first question: what is this gift we hope to receive?

Rest. Rejuvenation. Love. Creativity. Inspiration.

And courage.

Yes, courage. It takes courage to be yourself. To follow your heart. To take a leap of faith. To make a change. To reach out to someone else. To offer the world your true self. And these are the things our time in silent stillness inspires us to do.

When we come into this silent, stillness regularly – maybe even daily – we change. We wake up. We tune in. We find ourselves stretching in new directions, trying new things, developing new interests. We find ourselves  caring deeply about things we never cared about before – the plight of the environment, the poor, the polar bears.

There is no telling how we will change. It is typical that the quiet nudge of feeling that we want our lives to feel different “somehow” is the only plan we have. But change we do. We might start volunteering with an after-school program for underserved children. We might start picking up litter once a week in our local woods. We might start dropping in to visit our elderly neighbor. We might start helping veterans create resumes.

These changes, this new awake-ness,  this new willingness to do “something” – anything! – is the gift we receive.

As we receive it, in the blink of an eye, it transforms us into (in Loder’s words) “the gifts others need.” And, as we give the gift of ourselves to the world around us, the gift of change, growth and love flows on to everyone we touch.

What you are is God’s gift to you. What you become is your gift to God.” – Hans Urs Von Balthasar

What you become is also your gift to the world around you. To those you love and to those you don’t even know. This is the very best gift you could ever give. Thank you for giving it in so many wonderful ways.

Merry Christmas to you all.

The Not-So-Pretty Backbend That I’m Coming To Love

When I first discovered country music, my children were very small – 5, 3 and 1 to be exact. This was a time (perhaps the last time) when they were learning about music from me, so my love affair with these songs that told stories became a true family affair. We were driving home from swim lessons one day listening to the country station when we heard a song we’d never heard before – Tim McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It.” Because my kids were singing along with the chorus before the song was over, I impulsively drove to Barnes & Noble to buy the CD.

That evening remains one of the sweetest in my memory. As we waited for my husband to come home, we had that song blasting through the house on repeat. All four of us (the baby giggling wildly in my arms) were dancing like crazy people in the living room as we sang along – “I like it, I love it, I want some more of it!” Ask any of us. Even today, when it comes on the radio, together or not, we all still sing along with a little more passion (and a little more southern twang) than we typically do.

Despite Tim McGraw’s catchy lyrics, liking something is not actually a prerequisite to loving it. This is something anyone who has ever celebrated a holiday with extended family has certainly experienced. Come on! Admit it. We all have “that” uncle or cousin or sibling or grandparent or (gasp!) child who has “moments” that require some deep breathing. Heck. It’s conceivable that you and I are “that” person for someone else!

Love does not require liking. Not all the time and not all aspects, at least.

My husband says he doesn’t like going to the gym in the morning, but he loves the way he feels during and after his workouts. He especially loves knowing that he is staving off the physical infirmities of aging. So if you ask him straight-up if he likes going to the gym, I think he’d say, “I don’t like it, but I love it.”

My youngest (that babe-in-arms on that long-ago night), would say almost precisely the same thing if you asked her about school. She doesn’t like the homework or taking notes or having to hold still for most of the day. But she told me just last night that she loves “learning stuff” and she really loves “knowing stuff,” so she “supposes” that, despite not liking a great deal of what is asked of her each day, she does actually love school.

I do not like backbends. They have never been easy for me. They require all of my naturally tight places to be loose. I spent years (I’m not exaggerating, literally more than a decade) getting just a little comfortable with the most basic of backbends, Wheel or Urdhva Dhanurasana. During that long struggle, one of my teachers suggested I start to work in other backbends. These can be terrifying. They ask you to reach up and drop backwards toward the wall or your heels or the floor. Let’s just say that this did not help my dislike of backbends get any better.

Except that it did.

As I persisted and tried these backbends that I disliked so much every day during my practice, my body slowly changed. My hip flexors started to open up. The range of motion in my shoulders began to increase. And then I began to notice that my back itself was more willing to bend. Today, while I still don’t necessarily like backbends, if asked, I would (almost) say that I love them. Yes, this took fifteen years to say. No, they are still not super pretty to look at. But I love (really, really love) the way they feel and the way I feel inside and out after I do them.

Look around your life. Take an extra close look at the “somethings” or “someones” that make you cringe. Can you say, “I don’t like it, but I love it.”? (I’m not sure even Tim McGraw could make that sound catchy.) If you can, each time you feel that little ripple of dislike, redirect your awareness to the love you also feel. This will make it easier to step up to the task or interaction asked of you. I suspect you may even be able to smile while you do so.

You will find that it is necessary to let things go; simply for the reason that they are heavy. So let them go, let go of them. I tie no weights to my ankles.” – C. JoyBell C.

When I was a freshman in college, my mother began a tradition that has lasted until now. Each Thanksgiving weekend she gives me a “Pre-Christmas” bag of gifts. Annually, the gifts in these bags vary. This year, I got holiday socks, candy canes, a picture frame and two festive dish towels. What never changes is that the “Pre-Christmas” bag always includes an ornament or two for our tree.

Remember, this tradition has been going on for more than thirty years, so the most basic of math calculations reveals that I have quite a staggering collection of Christmas ornaments! In fact, last year, trimming the tree became a little stressful as there were simply not enough branches to hold all of the ornaments. Because I think holiday traditions ought to make you happy rather than stressed, this year I decided to take action.

As my husband put up the tree and strung it with lights, I unwrapped each and every one of my Christmas ornaments. As always, each made me smile as I remembered what my life was like when I received it – what year I was in college, where I lived, what (and who) I loved. Many were given to me by people other than my mother – yoga students, work colleagues, dear friends I still talk to nearly every day and friends with whom I’ve long ago lost touch.

Though I was smiling as I looked lovingly at each ornament, I was also making a tough decision. My goal was to separate out at least a third of the ornaments to re-wrap and return to the bin rather than hang on the tree. Not only would this make it more fun to decorate the tree, but I suspected we’d enjoy looking at the ornaments more if there were fewer on the tree. After all, last year our tree looked pretty over-crowded and a little chaotic.

After my daughter hung up the last ornament, I stepped back to assess the results. And I smiled again. The tree looks lovely (see the picture above). I needn’t have worried that it would look sparsely decorated. In fact, my collection of treasures still looks very full. Best yet, when I walk past and pause, I can actually focus on one or two at a time – the one with the light-up fireplace that we received the first Christmas we were married, the pottery yoga pose from a beloved student, the glittery pink butterfly I couldn’t live without when I was eight years old.

In short, because I culled through my collection, this tree might be my most favorite of all time because it gives me just as much pleasure to look at as it did to decorate it.

Yoga philosophy teaches a concept called aparigraha in Sanskrit, which is often translated into English as non-possessiveness. When we practice non-possessiveness, we part ways with the old and often discover that we’ve made room for the new. It is particularly interesting that even when what we’re parting ways with is “stuff,” the “new” that we find pouring into our lives is almost never new “stuff.”

By deciding not to hang up a third of my Christmas ornaments, the “new” that came my way was a more special, richer enjoyment of the tree. I’ve had similar results when I clean out my closet. One of the best gifts of a project like that is that I can see – and therefore will wear and enjoy – the clothes I kept more often than when they were hidden in a crammed full closet.

Non-possessiveness is an idea that we can practice as we move and breathe on our yoga mats. We do so by choosing to stay in a state of mind often referred to as Beginner’s Mind. We mindfully set aside (part ways with) old ideas and assumptions of what we can and cannot do on our mats. In essence, we try to approach each posture as if we’ve never done it before. Even if we’ve never managed a headstand or have always been able to touch our toes in a forward fold, we let go of these as certainties. Instead, we choose to stay curious as we approach each posture, thinking “Will I be able to do this today?”

With the fresh, curious eyes of aparigraha, we see changes in our practice every day. Sometimes the changes are happy (“I did it!”) and sometimes they are frustrating (“Why didn’t that work today?”). Both kinds of changes are gifts simply because they are changes. Changes on our mats mean that we’re changing. The fact that we’re changing is a good sign that we’re alive and well. Which is something to celebrate!

Take a moment today to look around your life. What are you holding onto? What are you grasping so tightly that there is no room in your hands or heart to receive the new? Take a breath and ask yourself if you can let go. And, if by letting go, you might be making space for new experiences or understandings or ideas to flow your way.

“Take time to be quiet.” – Zig Ziglar

Annually, the short days and long nights of this time of year hit me hard. While I’m almost always up before the sun, it’s a blow to have it still be pitch black as I roll up my yoga mat after my morning practice. Something about the natural rhythms of my body changes with the added darkness. While most of the year I’m awake before my alarm goes off, lately I’m being jolted awake from a dead sleep by its loud ringing.

Even more challenging for me are the nights. Mentally I feel myself curling up and dreaming about climbing into bed once it’s dark. And when it’s getting dark at 4:30 or 5:00, that makes for a very short day. In short, this time of year makes me wish I were at least part bear. If I were, my instinct to hibernate would make a little more sense!

That said, there is something to be said for slowing down. For resting. And for being quiet. While I may be struggling to keep my eyes open many late afternoons, something is going on deep within me. Dreams are incubating in the darkness. Ideas are gestating and taking root. Pieces of plans are quietly coming together.

The tone and pace of this time of year and the way I respond to it – body, mind and spirit – brings to mind the quiet act of contemplation. When we practice contemplation, it can look like we are not doing anything. What can be easy to miss is how intentional we are being about doing very little or nothing at all. We are breathing mindfully. We are re-focusing our awareness (over and over sometimes) on the present moment. We are learning to pay attention to the nuances of even the tiniest experience – how it feels to sit on the floor, to press our palms together, to bow our head.

We practice contemplation knowing that we will feel rested and restored when we stand up to rejoin the day. But there is more (much more!) going on than that. When we take time to be quiet, things shift within us at a very deep level. Our need to control softens and we become more receptive to what is. In the quiet, we slow down. We become more mindful about our actions and much less reactive. As we step off the treadmill of our days, even for just a few minutes at a time, we feel more available to entertain new ideas or more willing to part ways with old ones.

We may not see the fruits of these shifts for weeks or months. In truth, we may not even be able to sense them coming. But as we get more and more comfortable with quiet and stillness, this does not matter. We trust that what feels like rest is creating change as effective (or even more effective) as the change created by activity and motion. The change that comes from stillness is change that will last. It is change that will carry us in directions we might never have considered as we were spinning wildly through our days. It is change that comes from our souls.

Contemplative practices are slowly catching on in our hectic world. They have many names. Yoga, itself is a contemplative practice. In the end, all of yoga’s movement is designed to help us learn to hold still – inside and out. Even as we’re moving our body on our mat, we are training our mind to still itself, to focus rather than to wander willy-nilly after each fleeting thought. At the end of our practice while lying in savasana or sitting in meditation, we are still, both mentally and physically. It is in this stillness that, on a good day, we catch a glimpse of our spirit.

Yoga, however is far from the only such practice. You can barely read the paper or open a magazine without confronting the benefits of meditation. It is now being recommended by doctors and therapists as a way to heal almost any kind of ailment imaginable. Churches in my town are offering intentional mindfulness practices such as centering prayer and spiritual direction. My daughter’s crew coach is teaching her rowers a practice she calls “mind-clearing” that sounds an awful lot like the inner work that I do on my mat each day.

Have no fear, though. You don’t have to look for a meditation teacher or join a church (or a crew team) or buy a yoga class card in order to dip your toe in the contemplative pool. People find rich, quiet moments hiking, rock climbing and running. Or knitting, cooking and gardening. My husband finds it fly fishing. The key is to settle in to what you’re doing wholly. To still the mind so that what you are doing is all that you’re doing. When you notice that your mind has wandered off into plan-making or daydreaming or remembering, simply take a deep breath and refocus on whatever it is that you’re doing. Do this, and you’re practicing quiet contemplation.

Over the years, my yoga practice has created changes in me that I never could have imagined, let alone figured out how to achieve. I’ve come to fully trust the quiet time I spend on my yoga mat to yield much more than better yoga postures. Similarly, I am beginning to trust this time of year to be rich not only for its rest and rejuvenation. I trust that as the light returns to the days and my energy picks up again, ideas and dreams will unfurl in my life thanks to the nurturing they received in this slow, quiet, darkness.