“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
There is a shop in my town that has always confused me a little bit. It’s called Painting With A Twist. It seemed like a place where I could go to do a grown-up version of the paint-by-number books that consumed so many hours of my childhood. The difference is that, rather than numbered segments of a drawing of horse or a flower or a lighthouse telling you what color to apply to the page, here a teacher shows you what to do.
Honestly, when it first opened years ago, I couldn’t imagine that it would last. That is, I couldn’t imagine it until I went last night.
It turns out I haven’t left my childhood “artist” behind after all. (No, I’m not bragging at the end result. You can see my painting above and it’s certainly not brag-worthy.) We worked on our paintings for over two hours and the time went by in an instant. I was so completely engaged in the process of mixing and applying colors to the canvas in front of me that I kind of forgot that I was at a women’s alumni event that I’d been a little nervous to attend. In fact, when we took a break to blow dry our paintings, the casual chit chat that is never easy for me was a breeze as we laughed and commented on our works of art!
Yes, the evening yielded a notably comfortable cocktail-party-ish experience. Yes, the evening also provided an experience of falling into what is commonly called “the zone,” a highly desirable, fulfilling and calming state of mind that is, in part, one of the gifts of my yoga practice. Each of these could be something worth talking about, but I also had a bit of an epiphany last night.
As I happily chatted with the women in line for the blow dryer I couldn’t help noticing how varied our paintings were. Yes, they were all of the same red bridge across a pond. But they were all so different! We were all given precisely the same supplies – three paint brushes, two paper towels and a paper plate filled with the same little splotches of paints in all the primary colors (plus black and white), and a blank canvas propped on a paint-splattered easel. We were all following the exact same instructions given by the same teacher. Yet none of us painted the same thing. Not by a long shot.
I realized right then and there that I was receiving a glimpse of something usually kept hidden deep within. I was seeing tangible evidence of that bit of each of us that makes us distinctly who we are. The way we interpreted our teacher’s instructions, the way we naturally applied blobs of paint, the way we settled on our own shade of green or lavender was not evidence of our skill or talent. Truly, the teacher’s instructions were so easy to follow that all twelve of us created decent renditions of that red bridge.
Instead, I believe that our diverse, unique and deeply individual expressions of our teacher’s instructions revealed the fingerprints of our spirits within us.
British author and theologian C.S. Lewis once said, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” Yes, the body I am so lucky to have, the body that carries me through each day, the body that drove the car and walked down the sidewalk into Painting With A Twist, the body that has almost no training in fine art, painted a painting last night. So did the bodies of the eleven women with me. But if that’s all that were involved, each of our paintings would have been replicas of our teacher’s.
And they were decidedly not.
The paintings we painted last night were guided as much by our spirits or souls as they were by our teacher or bodies. That is why the each looked so different. From the arc of the bridge itself, to the time of day the painting captured, to the shrubs on the banks of the water, each of our paintings created a special “twist” on the image we were reproducing. We put this same special “twist” into everything we do – the classes we teach, the reports we write, the gardens we plan, the homes we design. We also put our own “twist” on we are everything we are – friends, employees, community leaders, sons, sisters, parents, spouses.
My body walked out of Painting With A Twist last night carrying a painting. My spirit left enriched and inspired to seek glimpses of special “twists” in my friends, family and students. I left yearning to witness and support the spiritual beings around me as they have their human experiences that we call living a life.
So today I invite you to do whatever you do with a your own special “twist!”
“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” – Helen Keller
Applying to college.
Deciding to change careers.
Planting a garden.
Climbing a mountain.
Moving forward after a medical diagnosis.
Having a baby.
Playing in a tennis tournament.
These are but a few of the countless “moments” in life where we must rely on hope and optimism. Yet these qualities are often mistaken as fanciful or “soft.” In fact, more than once I’ve been told to stop being a “Pollyanna” as I seek a silver lining or the gift within a challenge.
What these folks weren’t aware of as they teased me is that optimism can take hard work and that hope requires courage. No one I know has blithely made any of the above choices. You simply do not get up a mountain or win a tournament on a wing and a prayer. Each of these “moments” (and a million others like them) involves some research, some planning, some baby steps which may not be super pleasant, some determined training, some investment of time or finances, some logistics and strategizing.
Yet I believe that the likelihood of the success of all of that hard work increases exponentially with the right attitude. Hope and optimism, then (to borrow from Helen Keller), are integral to achievement.
How does this work? The Dalai Lama explains:
“One very important factor for sustaining hope is to have an optimistic attitude. Optimism doesn’t mean that you are blind to the reality of the situation. It means that you remain motivated to seek a solution to whatever problems arise. Optimism involves looking at a situation not only in relation to problems that arise, but also seeking out some benefit – looking at it in terms of its potential positive outcome.”
In other words, no matter what you’re navigating in life – and no matter whether you’re still in the early stages or headed toward the finish line – a little hope and optimism do a great deal to sustain you. The energy yielded by a healthy dose of optimism can make you more keenly observant, more curious, more open to possibilities and more creative as you assess your situation. Hope and optimism can help you stay motivated as you devise and follow your plan. The confidence that you will be able to find a solution can help you stay flexible and willing to shift gears as many times as needed.
Hope and optimism, then, can really be quite practical.
Unrolling a yoga mat each day is a powerful way to practice developing – and trusting – hope and optimism. Each day that you come to your mat you hope to feel good. You are optimistic that your abilities will develop. You are confident in your potential. You must have this hope, optimism and confidence or all of the days that you do not feel good, or that you do not successfully maintain your focus for the whole of your practice or that you watch a challenging posture backslide will feel devastating. The reality is (at least in my experience) that the days where you witness real growth and change are quite few in comparison to the “other” days.
If you have not spent the time and energy not only practicing yoga, but practicing the determined cultivation and maintenance of a positive attitude, you will simply stop practicing. Trust me. It is your optimism that motivates you to show up. It is your hope that can drive you to study and to try new ways (sometimes hundreds of new ways) of doing something. It is your confidence in both your own potential and the power of the practice that gives you a stubborn, courageous stick-to-it-ive-ness that will absolutely (eventually) lead to each of your achievements.
As you and I know, the lessons and skills we learn from our yoga practice rarely stay on the mat. Instead, we carry them with us back out into our lives. So when it’s time for you to decide to go back to school, or to apply for a job, or to start a family, or to transform your backyard into the most perfectly beautiful, symmetrical, lush organic garden that you can imagine, you will find that all of your practice has set you up for success. The addition of hope to the “elbow grease” of planning, studying and problem solving is a shockingly powerful combination.
Even the infinitely practical and well-trained former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said that “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” I believe that you, my friend, can be an optimistic and hopeful force to reckoned with.
Feelings get a bad rap. They really do.
Here are some of my least favorite expressions:
“Man, you’re bent out of shape.”
They even wrote a song about it: “Big girls don’t cry.” (And girls aren’t the only target, because, as you know, it’s often said that “Real men don’t cry” either.)
And I ask you, why, when you’re so happy that your joy is actually leaking out of you in huge smiles or even little dances, are you labeled “child-like?” Aren’t grown-ups allowed to get that happy?
For a long time I even thought yoga was teaching me that feelings are bad. Or that feelings are somehow “other” than who I am or want to be.
I misunderstood that, just because we’re cautioned over and over again to wait for the waves of feeling to subside before we choose to act, our ancient yoga teachers are not saying that our feelings are not real or valid. They are just cautioning us that a time of great feeling (good or bad) is not always the best time to make big decisions.
St. Ignatius (whose teachings about living “your best life” are eerily similar to yoga’s) preaches the same thing, by the way. He calls it the discernment of spirits. He says that moments (especially long “moments,” because they can go on and on and on sometimes) when feelings are running high are not the right moment for discerning your next step. You need to wait for the waves or the dust or whatever your chosen metaphor is to settle before you can hope to have the clarity to make the decision or choice which will draw you closer to God.
What can be easy to miss is that, unlike the pop music and modern slang referenced above, neither yoga nor Ignatius is saying that having feelings is a sign of weakness or somehow makes you a lesser human being. On the contrary, the reason these wise, wise teachers spent so much time describing and explaining how to live with feelings is that they are real and powerful and a giant part of what makes us alive.
I have a yoga friend (who posts on Instagram under the name Mysorecalledlife), who just the other day wrote, “You are allowed to feel all the things. Even especially the messy, complicated, unwelcome, uncomfortable ones. ❤” This is a big, important truth. To not allow yourself to feel your feelings is damaging. It is soul killing. Therapists call it “bottling up” your emotions and, if you do it regularly, it can seriously impact your physical, mental and emotional health.
You gotta feel that stuff. You need to sit down and cry when you feel sad. Stomp your feet when you’re angry or frustrated or whatever. You need to lace up your sneakers and run as fast and far as possible when you’re feeling crazy. Or clean the heck out of your house. Or, as a friend does, pull out your chain saw and prune every tree and bush in sight. You need to curl up into a little ball when you’re frightened. You need to dance when you feel so happy that you can’t not dance. You need to unroll your yoga mat and move and breathe.
Only when you’ve felt whatever you’re feeling will you be able to get back in touch with the you beneath (perhaps within) your feelings. Once you’re back in touch with him or her, then you can begin to discern whether your feelings require action. Whether you need to make a plan or do some research or talk to an expert. Sometimes when you reconnect with this deeper self you realize that you already know what you need to do.
When you give yourself the space – and as much time as you need – to feel, you are setting yourself up to make the wise, measured, mindful, thoughtful choices that you want to make. I suppose you could say that it’s only when you give yourself the time and space to feel that you’re able to act like a “big girl” or a “real man.” And, sometimes, that involves some tears.
“We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.” – Thich Nhat Hahn
The woods in springtime hold treasure for me the same way beaches do. I walk them, serenaded by the babbling creek rather than rolling waves, at the same careful pace – gazing mostly down and stopping with surprising frequency to lovingly inspect a “find.” Because my woodland discoveries are alive – in fact, just stretching into their new lives – I gather my treasure in photos on my phone rather than in sandy pockets and bedraggled plastic bags.
This spring has yielded a surprisingly rich trove – a type of spotted yellow lily I’d never noticed before growing at the base of several trees, many wild herbs and an entire swath of delicate Trillium that was really hard to find only five years ago. Yet, I have found myself kneeling down over and over again to smile at a very familiar sight – the fiddlehead.
Something about the tightly coiled fronds of baby ferns (which grow like mad along the creek) pulls me in day after day. The beginning of a children’s book is percolating in my mind. It tells the story of a perplexed baby fern who simply cannot fit in. It is impossible for her to hold the “fiddlehead” shape so popular amongst her peers. The other baby ferns along the creek tease her mercilessly for not blending in – her long, straight stem waving in the breeze. While I haven’t worked out the entire plot, I know how the story ends. In no time, the crowd realizes that her unconventional appearance is the height of fern fashion. In fact, the taller the better! I suppose it’s a bit like the story of the ugly duckling.
When I told my husband about my fascination with fiddleheads, he said, “They’re exactly like you!” (No, he wasn’t referring to the fact that my height makes me stick out of nearly every crowd.) It’s that there was absolutely no way I ever could have predicted the course of my life. Two degrees in the economics of third world development were not “supposed” to lead me to work in corporate communications and marketing at a publishing house. That decade of experience certainly wasn’t “meant to” lead to my current work teaching yoga and philosophy (with a healthy amount of anatomy thrown in).
My current reality would never have cropped up on the list of possibilities being considered by any of my younger “selves.” Yet here I am.
My life experience has made me much more patient and curious about the paths my own children are walking. The wild and surprising twists and turns of my path make it impossible for me to imagine that anyone can precisely plan their own journey. The key (in my humble opinion) seems to be to follow the pulls of your heart – what interests you, what you’re good at, what you love – and to seize whatever opportunities life hands you as you do. And to never, ever ignore the (sometimes) invisible possibilities of each moment.
My yoga practice over the years has bolstered my certainty in the uncertainty of life. There is simply no way to plan your progress through the postures. There is no way to know when tight muscles will (ever!) loosen. There is clearly no way to predict injury or illness. There is no way to foresee if you’ll ever master an elusive pose until you do. (You can trust me on that. Time and again I have found myself in a posture I swore – often publicly – would never be a possibility for me.) Yoga teaches us to show up and give it 100% – over and over again. The journey on a yoga mat is a tiny metaphor for the surprising, possibility filled journey that life has in store for you.
Like the fiddlehead, we all start out in one shape and then stretch and grow into others. Unlike the fiddlehead, for us, the possibilities are endless – limited only by our own dreams and desires.
So, be you with all your heart. Stand tall even if the rest of the crowd is curled into adorable little spirals. Make crazy choices if they feel right to you. Commit 100% to whatever you’re doing now. Give it your all, but stay open to the glimmer of all the possibilities of this life – even (especially) the ones so farfetched that they seem impossible.