Authenticity: authenticity is a concept in psychology and philosophy. It is the degree to which an individual’s actions are congruent with their beliefs and desires, despite external pressures. … The call of authenticity resonates with the famous instruction of the Oracle of Delphi, “Know thyself.” But authenticity extends this message – “Don’t merely know thyself, be thyself.” – Wikipedia

As a long-time mother (I suppose I’m telling you I’m old, or at least that my kids are), I know a thing or two about triggers. These are the issues that fly through the “Mommy network” as swiftly as the dreaded roto-virus that can wipe out an entire elementary school grade in two days flat.

Triggers come in all shapes and sizes:

You get the idea.

In my experience, the more of these “upsets” that you’ve watched fly around your local Mommy network, the easier it is to pick and choose which ones you’re going to allow to trigger you. Some are pretty easy to tune out. Others? Less so.

One that has currently (and ferociously) captured my attention is the “epidemic” of anxiety and depression among young people. Experts point in all directions as they attempt to explain what is going on.

On and on the list goes

That said, one possible cause that stands out to me is the all-consuming nature of social media. First of all, I’d like to make a confession. I enjoy a little scroll through social media two or three times a day. It’s a nice way to fill pauses in my day that are too short to get much accomplished. It’s also a nice thing to do when my brain feels like mush and I need to veg for a moment. I will say, though, that I do not honestly think that what I see and read on social media has much impact on me beyond a smile or a laugh. I’m simply not that invested.

Yet I know this is not always the case, especially for people younger than I am. There is a risk involved in spending time on social media. One of my friends says it causes “Miss-a-phobia” for her child – the fear of missing out. Another told me of the bizarrely high expectations her daughter had for her 16th birthday party. After she got over her shock over what her daughter wanted, she was able to deduce that her daughter’s ideas came not from real friends or real parties she had attended, but from girls she “followed” on social media.

Even more insidious, I believe, is the swath of smiles and snapshots of lives that look perfect. I’ve read (literally) dozens of articles about the impact this has on our young people – a low sense of self-worth, a feeling of not measuring up, increased anxiety and even depression. More troubling is that I know probably a dozen young people who have expressed feelings like this to me.

Young people these days (there, do I sound enough like a grandma?) are super-saturated by the notion that “everyone” but them is living a perfect, shiny, glamorous life. It turns out that it does take some wisdom, experience and even practice to see through the veneer of social media. They assume a level of authenticity that is simply not there.

Take the picture at the top of this essay as an example. It is a selfie I took before my husband and I left our daughter for her sophomore year of college. I posted it on Facebook that same night. Is it fake? Does it lack authenticity?

At first glance, no. We were doing what I said we were doing. I took the picture moments before we drove away, leaving our girl in the city for her second year of college. Clearly, we’ve been working all afternoon. None of us look our polished-up best. And I didn’t use a filter or doctor the photo in any way before I posted it. The caption I wrote, though, was a little misleading. “Sophomore year has begun at last!” That exclamation point validates our smiles. It reinforces the idea that this was a super happy moment for the three of us.

When I looked at the photo again the next morning I realized that it lacked in authenticity. There was a whole story that it didn’t capture and I think it’s this story that gets to the heart of the risk involved with social media. In an effort to capture the full story of the moment, here is what I wrote as a caption for the photo that morning when I used it in posts for Yoga Thoughts and my studio, Yoga With Spirit:

Three smiles. All look real. But only one is genuine – after all, she’s headed back to school to learn and grow and live among her wonderful friends. Two are bittersweet – beyond happy for her, yet aching over saying “see you later” to our sweet girl. This is a nice reminder to take the time to try to see beneath the surface of all the “smiles” you run into today.

This second caption made my post almost painfully authentic. In fact, writing it brought back my good-bye tears from the night before that didn’t show in the selfie. I feel like it was fully honest – good-byes are hard and messy and not pretty for me.

This gets to the intention of the post, which is often the missing link for users of social media who end up feeling anxious, depressed or otherwise jaded when they turn it off. I did not have a malicious intention at all in my first post. If you’d asked me as I posted it, I think I would have told you I intended to share a milestone. But, looking back, I think I chose my words so I wouldn’t come across as “a bummer.” And (Heads up! This is the most important and elusive point I have to make this morning!) I also think:

I chose my words to make myself feel better about the sad moment that I’d just experienced.

Rather than authentically representing the way I was feeling about saying good-bye to my daughter, I chose to put a positive spin on things as well as to include a perky exclamation point.  All in an effort to make myself feel a little happier.

My morning-after post, on the other hand, came from a truer and more authentic place. While I’ll never know, my hope and intention in sharing it was that maybe it could assure another mother somewhere “out there” that she is not alone in having extremely mixed feelings as she watches her kids grow up and move on. Even though, by spreading their wings, her children are fulfilling her greatest hopes and dreams for them, it still hurts.

When you’re scrolling through social media, it’s a good idea to always, always, always take a second to ask yourself what you think the writer’s intention is. Do a little mental and emotional authenticity test of each post you read. It’s safe to say you can tell in your gut when something’s real and honest and true, and when it’s not. Again, my first post was not fake. It was real. Everything it said happened. But it did not accurately represent my feelings and experience of the moment I shared.

In addition to searching for authenticity while you’re on social media, strive for it while you post. Spend a moment or two to dig into your own intentions as you write the captions for your images. When you do, not only will you know yourself better, but you’ll be more true to who you are. I’ll do the same. We can dream big and hope that your authenticity and mine could inspire others to follow suit.

There I was pulling into the most familiar parking lot of all – the grocery store. I was confidently heading down my favorite row, aiming toward an empty spot, when a car closer to the store pulled out. Suddenly a well-laid plan (car angled appropriately, speed under control, hazards checked for …) totally fell apart, smashed to bits by a tidal wave of indecision.

Should I just park in the spot I first chose?
Should I head toward the closer spot?
Maybe someone old or sick or pregnant needs the closer spot?
Which spot is closer to the cart return?
Am I really that lazy?
Is it going to rain in the next hour?
If so, is the closer spot really close enough to make a difference?
Didn’t my kids once tell me that somehow distance didn’t really affect how wet you got when caught in a rain storm?

As I know this has happened to you at least once in your life, do I even need to describe the mess I wound up making of that parking job? I was so crooked, it took three tries to get the car straightened out. And while trying to get straight, I faked out another driver who assumed I was leaving and was angling for my spot. Lord only knows how his parking job went after I messed with him.

Indecision simply never goes well. This reality has plagued humankind for a long, long time. In fact, wise words uttered sometime between 63 and 43 BC by Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman statesmen, orator and lawyer sum up my own little parking lot debacle,

“More is lost by indecision than the wrong decision …”

I’m 100% sure that where I parked did not matter very much at all. But my indecision wound up mattering kind of a lot. If I’d just chosen a spot and parked the car without the mental gymnastics caused by my indecision, that minute of my life would have gone so smoothly that I’d have no recollection of it. Indecision made much more of a mess of things than choosing the wrong spot ever could have (even if it had rained).

Nothing in my life has taught me more about the perils of overthinking things than my yoga practice. And yoga has been very convincing in making its case. Indecision on my yoga mat always results failure.

Sometimes that failure is fairly tiny. For instance, when I’m indecisive something as simple as stepping into position for my wide-legged forward folds (Prasarita Padottanasana) becomes a production. I start to fidget, inching my feet around on my mat to get into the “perfect” position. As I do, I get off count with my breath, which means I fidget some more waiting for my next exhale to arrive. Somehow, every single time I fidget to “perfect” my stance (yes, sadly this has happened many times), my stance feels wrong once I get into the forward fold. Which, as I’m sure you guessed, only results in more fidgeting.

I cannot remember a time when I haven’t decided afterwards (too late to be any good to the posture I fidgeted away) that I would have been better off to just fold forward however my feet originally landed. As I discovered in the parking lot, overthinking creates more of a mess than misaligned feet ever could have made.

Sometimes the failure from indecision on my yoga mat results in an epic “fail.” Take for instance the relatively simple act of jumping your feet back from a forward fold into high- or low-plank. Indecision here can be more catastrophic than some fidgeting. When I allow my mind to start to spin, any number of outcomes are possible. I could end up on my knees. Or with one foot back while the other remains between my hands. Or (worst case scenario) I can land in a belly-flop on the mat.

Luckily, after all these years, I have developed a pretty decent sense of humor about these “fails.” More often than not, I laugh at myself and try again. But, no matter how comical, the lesson remains: over-thinking and indecision can make a mess of even the simplest things.

Whether you’re choosing a new laptop or a prom dress, signing up for classes or to volunteer at the polls, or deciding to stay in your job or take the leap to change careers, you’ve got to commit. If you sense a wave of indecision coming at you, take a deep breath. You might be inclined to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen if I choose wrong?” The answer to that question is almost always pretty simple: you’ll have to go through the process of changing your mind. Sure, that might be a pain in the neck, but chances are, either way everything will work out just fine.

However, the really important question to ask yourself in a moment of indecision is “What is my indecision costing me?” The answer to that question is always:

Any chance at all of success.

Repetitive actions, in the world of spirituality, yield a meditative, open state of being. Think about walking a labyrinth, gazing at a mandala, the beautiful sand art created by Tibetan monks or praying with prayer beads. Think about moving through yoga’s sun salutations. All of these are movements designed to help us shift gears within ourselves.

There is something about relatively simple, repetitive yet mindful movements done over and over again that helps to fully engage the wandering mind in an experience. It is when the mind and body are working together that we can best access that third aspect of who we are – our spirit. In today’s distracted, multi-tasking, addicted-to-stimulation world, managing to get all three of these elements – body, mind and spirit – engaged and cooperating can feel almost like being in an “altered state.”

Whatever you do – whether you’re an athlete, an artist, a writer, a lawn-mower or a truck driver, I suspect you have been in “the zone.” “The zone” is that timeless, peaceful state of being where what you’re doing almost seems to be doing itself. When you pop out of “the zone,” it can feel quite jarring. I imagine what happens within is like a bike chain slipping. One minute you’re zipping along, the next there is a clanging sound and you’ve been yanked to a stop.

When you pop out of “the zone,” the inner “gears” that have slipped are the focus of your mind and the physical actions of your body. The jarring “clang” that you sense is the moment they diverge into separate activities. Sadly, this dis-integrated state of affairs is “normal” for most of us.

“The zone” is like a teaser or movie trailer for meditation. In meditation, we drop even deeper into our focus by reconnecting to a dimension of ourselves from which the world often distracts us – our spirit. While connecting with your spirit can be a religious experience, it is not only reserved for those who practice a faith.

Connecting with your spirit is often described as connecting with your heart. When we do so, we gain some space from and clarity about our emotions so that we are no longer at the mercy of their ups and downs. We reestablish certainty in our deeply seated beliefs, our morals and our sense of ethics. We develop confidence in the nudges of our conscience. We learn to discern our gut instincts from our knee-jerk impulses. In doing so, we begin to recognize another source of wisdom than our intellect. This is the wisdom we were born with rather than the one we gained through a lifetime of experience and study.

The moments when we’re in this integrated state are the moments when we glimpse what it would be like to live as the people we hope and aspire to be.

I recognize that all of us here are fully engaged in hectic, worldly lives. In other words, we are not hermits in a mountain-top ashram or monastery. Sure, we can set aside some time every day to meditate in whatever way that suits us – unrolling a yoga mat, pulling out a meditation cushion, sitting down with a rosary or taking a long walk in the woods. But that’s only 1/24th (or so) of our day. Is that enough to help us stretch toward our hopes for ourselves?

Yes. It is enough. But if you’re yearning for more, I have an idea.

What if you could take advantage of all of the repetitive activities that pepper your days to practice slipping into a centered, focused, meditative state of being? Folding laundry, washing dishes, watering your plants, chopping vegetables for a salad, vacuuming the house, weeding your garden, making your bed, feeding the dogs. Truly, the list is endless and unique for each of us. Any activity fits the bill so long as it doesn’t require too much of your intellect. (A new or complicated task can subtly tip your inner balance toward your mind and away from your body and heart.)

Whatever task you’ve chosen, the key is to do it with tenderness and even love. This sweet, soft approach unlocks the heart so that you will be fully engaged in whatever you’re doing no matter how simple or repetitive.

Go ahead and give it a try today. At the very least, whatever repetitive task you choose (yes, even emptying the dishwasher AGAIN) will seem less onerous. But it’s possible that you will give yourself more time in that elusive, integrated state that humankind has craved since the beginning of time.

Rituals: sets of actions or words performed in a regular way, often as part of a religious ceremony; rituals are also any acts done regularly, usually without thinking about it. – Cambridge English Dictionary

As I’ve learned more and more about my religion in particular and spirituality in general, I have discovered both the beauty and the “slippery slope” of rituals. I was not raised in a church with obvious ritual. When I married my husband and began to go to weddings and funerals with his family, the prescribed movements, sacred objects and symbols of his church that were clearly familiar to everyone around me left me feeling confused, uncomfortable and more than a little lost.

Therefore, when we decided to join a church, no one was more surprised than I that the church that felt most like home to both of us included many of the same ritual movements, gestures and symbols that had once left me feeling lost. As I explored and practiced with the ritual of our new church, I discovered that it was designed to invite me deeper into the service by asking me to engage with the liturgy and to play an active role in worship. In other words, my intention when I rousted my family from bed early on a weekend morning was to celebrate and worship God. The ritual involved in the worship service acted as a beautiful invitation for us all to draw even closer to that intention.

As my family and I went through the motions of the service – kneeling in prayer or at the communion rail, standing to sing or to pray together with the rest of the congregation, sitting to hear the readings and the sermon –  it felt like we were worshipping. The ritual movements and activities helped us to stay engaged in the celebration. As the ritual became more familiar to us, it actually served to automatically shift us into a spiritual state of mind. Ritual, then, supported our intention to spend an hour thinking about and praising God.

The “slippery slope” of ritual is when it slips in to take the place of its original intention.

This idea is perhaps easier to grapple with in a somewhat earthier context – yoga. Yoga, you see, is also a ritual. Especially the kind of yoga I practice and teach (ashtanga) in which you move through a set series of postures. These postures are very good for the body. They promote strength, flexibility and health. They are also good for the “you” inside your body. Moving through them is a powerful way to reduce stress and anxiety. They also increase mental aptitude by developing higher levels of focus and concentration. Yet moving through these postures and receiving their gifts is not the intention of yoga. The intention is to help us become still. In this stillness we will get to know ourselves better, we will deepen our understanding that we are part of the whole of creation around us, and we will draw closer to the Divine, however we understand it.

Getting caught up in the postures – becoming fixated on some finish line such as learning a new posture or mastering an old one or finally being able to do them all – is a slope on which most yogis will eventually slip. When this happens, we (and I include myself in this “we”) drift away from the real reason for our practice. We allow the ritual itself to become our intention.

The good news is that yoga has included a “safety belt” or two. First, and most obviously, is the breath. Many of the most elusive or challenging postures are simply not possible to pull off without a keen focus on breathing. Yoga utilizes the breath to open tight muscles and to inspire smooth, strong efficient movements that could be dangerous or even impossible if done while holding the breath. (Think about lifting into headstand or standing on one foot for extended periods of time.)

But this same breath that allows us to become more physically adept is also the gateway to the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of the practice. When we focus on our breath, our state of mind automatically settles. (You can actually witness this happening in your opening breaths before you even begin to move.) Our emotions smooth and still. Our hearts open. We can better sense our deepest self – our conscience, our instincts, our spirit. The breath is relentless in its pull beyond the physical, which is the true goal of yoga.

Second, the joy and fulfillment we receive from the practice of yoga postures will eventually fade when we allow the postures themselves to become the reason we’re practicing. After all, we are going to have sore days. We’re going to be stiff. We’re going to be tired. We may even get injured or sick. Our practices on those days are not going to feel good. On a day like that, we’re certainly not going to master a new feat of flexibility or strength. And if we’re on our mat only for our body, that will be a disappointing day. If that day becomes a week, we may just choose to skip our practice entirely. Yoga loses its staying power as a regular gift that we give ourselves when it is all about the postures.

The same is true for worship. When the kneeling and standing and singing become the point, I suspect it won’t be long before Sunday mornings begin to feel flat and stale and you stop setting your alarm clock to go to church. This truth extends to all rituals in your life – your morning reflection time, your weekly long run or bike ride or Sunday family dinners. Having the right journal is way less important than your willingness to stay open and focused as you meditate. Lucky socks or shorts do much less than your drive and determination to help you go the distance. And, clearly, the people around the table, not freshly ironed napkins or gourmet food, make the meal memorable.

Yes, rituals can help. When they serve as an invitation to draw closer to your true intention they are powerful indeed. So embrace them! But do so mindfully as they can be a little slippery. When your ritual becomes your goal, it won’t be long before the gifts of whatever you’re doing fade away.